“Oh, look! A foreign child!” a lady says to her three year old daughter as I push the stroller into the grocery store, “What should we say to the foreign child?”
“You should say ‘Nihao'” I reply, “we speak Chinese, too” I bluntly inform her in Mandarin, effectively ending the conversation.
Ugh! What is wrong with me?! That was rude. Why did I leave the apartment today? If I can’t say anything nice to the public I should stay home. However, instead of continuing to beat myself up, I choose to give myself some grace. I’ve been here for eight years. And I’m still treated like I just got here. And, I’m snippy because I’m jetlagged and I’m adjusting because I did just get here. Wait. What?
What am I currently adjusting to? Well, a lot. Thanks for asking. Please don’t take this as complaining. Let me explain. My culture of origin and the culture I’ve found myself living in for most of the past decade are 180 degrees different. The painful process of switching between the two cultures feels like falling into a black hole and finding myself stuck in a wormhole (Interstellar reference, anyone? Anyone? *crickets chirp*)
Every summer, we have the privilege of returning to Texas for 5-7 weeks. As soon as we hit the ground running, I get to deal with jetlagged kids and try to stop reeling from sharing the same cubic foot of space with a toddler on an airplane for 14 hours straight and figure out how to interact with the world going on around me.
And it sure doesn’t help when I’m processing all of this and someone says, “You grew up here. What’s the big deal?”
Well, the big deal is when I arrive in China every August, I have to modify my American self in order to continue my meager existence from one day to the next (and possibly, by October, feel like I’m able to live well). If I don’t make these adjustments, I’m pretty sure my head will explode, leaving frustrated foreigner brain juice on the white concrete walls of my apartment. Disgusting? I know. And it would be super hard to scrub off. That’s why I go through the trouble to prevent dying from an extreme angst overdose triggered by culture confusion.
I tweak the way I shop, cook, eat, talk, act and think just to get by. Then, after I’ve finally got my “expat in China” self figured out, I get on a plane and cross the world to land in a place where, even though familiar to me, requires many changes. These alterations don’t magically happen overnight because my stubborn brain doesn’t switch gears that fast. Once again, I adjust the way I shop, cook, eat, talk act and think just to get by.
Somewhere in the midst of the insanity, I start to wonder: why can’t I just be myself no matter where I am? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer consisting of more questions. Well, who am I, anyway? Am I a phony who pretends too much so I won’t stick out? Or am I a chameleon, gifted at taking on the appropriate color of my surroundings? I hope to be a chameleon. Changing colors doesn’t make me a phony, it’s what I do to survive and hopefully, in time, progress to the “thriving” category.
If that means I fine-tune the way I laugh in China to fit in with cultural norms and grunt and make funny “ah! ah! ah!” sounds during conversation, or I throw in Spanish phrases and an occasional four-letter word and no one bats an eye because that’s what I do in Texas, so be it.
I know I make the mistake too often of comparing the two places when I’m feeling confused or overwhelmed and that certainly doesn’t help those around me. This is the hardest part of the whole ordeal no matter where I am. At some point I need to stop asking “Why?” and decide to live with it.
“It’s not like this in _____!!! Why can’t this place make sense??” I yell at anyone who will listen.
Why do Chinese people voraciously continue buying cars and crowding the neighborhood? Why is everything broken when I arrive back to my apartment after a long summer? Why is it so freaking hot outside and inside? Why do people spit on the sidewalk? Why can’t they stand in line? Why are they staring at me? Why won’t they leave my kids alone? Why are imported chips and salsa so expensive that they’re traded on the gold market?
Why do people in Texas insist on saying “excuse me” when they actually mean “excuse you”? Why are Americans obsessed with T-shirts? Why is the sushi here covered with so much sauce and why is there cream cheese in it and why do I care? Why are organic vegetables so expensive and why do people buy them? Why do people dress like slobs when they go to Wal-Mart? Why are we expected to tip waiters 20%? Why, why, why, why?!
Stop with the questions already! And, I really don’t need answers! A week or so after landing, things start to seem bearable and less confusing. After two weeks, the whys dwindle and after three weeks I’m almost there. All I know is God didn’t make us robots with a “home culture” on and off switch. He made us complicated in ways we’ll probably never understand and that adds fun and interest to the adventure. So as I go through the bewildering adjustment, I’m going to relax a little and enjoy the ride as I tell myself I’ll get used to life here and it will be fine. And, usually that’s true. Except for the chips and salsa thing. Seriously, why?
How long do you find it takes you to adjust from one culture to another? What helps you?