I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the challenges of being a foreign female in China. Nothing I wrote was particularly original— I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends trying to carve out a life and career abroad. Our struggle is born from our desire to be accepted as equals, or close to equal— for natives to recognize that we “get” them, that we understand their culture and value it and may actually relate to it more naturally than we relate to our own culture back home. We want them to believe that our love for their country has nothing to do with its level of economic development, with money, with KTVs or KFCs or no-tipping-necessary one-of-a-kind service. Our love reaches deeper than that— it stretches down to a country’s bare bones, to its strengths and to its weaknesses. We want every storefront teller to look beyond our pale expression and just know— know that we are one of them. It’s kind of a foolish expectation, now that I think about it. Last night, walking home from the subway station in a glow of Mid-Autumn Festival lights with a bundle of moon cakes cradled in my arms, I made the following high-spirited resolutions:
1) Let go of pride.
I am easily offended when someone speaks with me in Chinese gone adagio. I’m also a bit put-out when I overhear someone assert, “Oh, the foreigner won’t understand…”. But my desire to have others magically grasp my current knowledge of Chinese and speak to me accordingly is way, way, way too great of an expectation. Given the thousands of foreigners visiting China who can’t speak the language, it’s not surprising that natives let words roll off their tongue a bit more slowly at the sight of straw-colored hair. Any frustration created from the situation stems from my pride and nothing else.
2) Recognize that one cannot have the best of both worlds.
As I mentioned in the last post, it’s quite nice to receive compliments for one’s foreign looks after a long day at work. Then again, it is the same blinded appreciation for one’s outer appearance that can sometimes make it difficult to prove one’s inner value— at least within a short time. Yet again, my expectations are far, far too great. Do I really expect to be admired for my external appearance and treated as an equal? For Chinese who rarely lay eyes on fair skinned beings with freckles and long eyelashes and multi-colored irises, it’s not surprising that they take a few moments to consider foreigners’ appearances before actually comprehending the words they say. In a nutshell: Getting to know anyone takes time and it is somewhat childish to feel frustrated if others don’t immediately know your life story within minutes of meeting you.
3) Don’t judge others.
If there’s anything I’ve learned lately, it’s that those who judge others will also worry ceaselessly about being judged. I’ve been so insistent upon adhering to Chinese cultural cues in order to please everyone around me that I labor over every action I take, every word I choose to speak. One of my friends finally shook some sense into me, asking how long I planned to live with this kind of attitude. “It’s simply exhausting,” he said, “If you live your life constantly worrying about what others think of you, I guarantee you won’t live past 40…”. He has a point. Well, the other side of not being judged is to never judge others. Whenever I do act out of line (whether by nature of my American blood or mere carelessness), my sole hope lies in the understanding and forgiveness of those around me. Therefore, I too must be willing to understand and forgive others, to avoid judging and just laugh when others step out of line— it’s what I’d wish upon myself in their shoes.
4) Lighten up.
China is a breath of fresh air— no, seriously. A light-hearted innocence shines through expressions here. Children run unrestrained in a blur of giggles while their parents follow arm in arm under a flickering glow of street lamps. Life is simple: Buy fresh produce at the morning market, cook up a quick dish to bring to work, buckle down in the office until evening, ride the subway home to enjoy a savory meal with the family, then plop a few grapes or slurp down three pieces of watermelon before hitting the sack. That’s life anywhere, really. Day in and day out. It can escape us if we merely go through the motions, or can enrich us with its simple and subtle brilliance.