Tuesday, February 19, 2008

With power comes responsibility

Living in China is tough. I mean, it's not all tough, there are definite perks. For example, I'm guaranteed not to be assigned more than 16 hours of class in any given week. And I don't have to pay for my apartment or utilities. And I can buy movies for $1. But there are things that wear me down. Such as the billion+ people who yell "Foreigner!" at me everyday on the street. Or the same people who talk about me two feet away and then say "Don't worry, foreigners can't understand Chinese." Usually when I complain in my blog it's because I'm in a particularly bad mood and/or I'm culture shocking. Not so today. I just feel extra pressure from all the people talking at me/about me, I guess.

Before going to language school, I had a pretty good idea when people were talking about me. I usually could understand them. It's been happening every day since I came to China, so I'm fairly used to it. Sometimes I can shrug it off, sometimes it instantly puts me in a bad mood. I guess it's kind of annoying automatically being put in a separate group. I'm never viewed as normal. 99.99999% of the time I am viewed as a strange outsider from the moment anyone spots me. It's never assumed that maybe I'm just a normal guy who breaths air and bleeds blood. I like reading. I like nice people, tend to stay away from mean people. Things most people in the world do naturally, I do those same things. Not so in China. It's assumed that I'm filthy rich, don't understand anything going on around me, am as helpless as a newborn, and that if someone says hello to me on the bus I am then indebted to them and should teach their child English. In fact, I understand plenty of what is going on around me everyday, I can go shopping just fine on my own, thank you, I don't know you or your son and would prefer not to teach either of you English, but thanks for asking, and chopsticks aren't nearly as hard to use as the Chinese seem to think they should be.

I should try to get to the point so that you won't think I'm just feeling angry today. The point is that in the past, when I haven't been able to just shrug these things off and they have made me angry, I have always run through a list of things in my head that I would love to say. I've got a nice rant prepared about how Chinese people never act towards other Chinese the way they act towards foreigners. I was told just less than two weeks ago that Chinese people never say "can I make friends with you?" to other Chinese people. Yet since being told that, no less than 4 total strangers have come up and said that to me in Chinese. Chinese people don't yell "ni hao!" across the street at other Chinese people they don't know, but I can't go outside more than 30 seconds without someone between the ages of 2 and 90 yelling "helloooooo" at me. My list of things to say also includes things like "take a picture, it'll last longer", "I'm not a performing monkey so don't treat me like one", and many other things along those lines. Back to my point. I used to get angry and run through this list of things to say, but I never felt confident in my ability to say them. It wouldn't do to yell at someone and have them laugh at my poor grammar, right? Now I'm confident that I could say most of the things I want to say, but I have to check myself. It's one thing to have these things run through my mind, it's a totally different thing to act on it. With my newfound knowledge and power to say things coherently in Chinese comes the responsibility to actually interact in a civil manner. Before I could just convince myself that I can't say anything at all to the offender and thereby convince myself to just smile and walk away or to just ignore them completely. Now I have to accept the fact that I can say something but I shouldn't say it. The difference is actually much bigger than you would expect. Going to language school has clarified a lot of things for me, but in another way it has complicated things.

At the same time, language school has made me more thankful for the people that I have known for a long time. Happy Guy, the fruit ladies, Juice lady, the egg and flour lady, they all are used to me and we have a long history of saying hi to each other and chatting while I buy things from them. Since they all work in the same general area, they have all passed on the news that we studied Chinese during the break, so they're all anxious to chat with us even more. After going to Happy Guy's hometown for a couple of days, he's even commented on how much strangers are amazed by me. He couldn't believe how many people would stare at me, follow me around, and yell hello at me when I was in his village. I'm not strange to him, I'm just Brian. His daughter even scolded a few of their neighbors for talking about me as if I wasn't standing right next to them. They didn't believe her when she said I could understand them until I assured them that I could, then they just laughed their way inside, probably embarrassed.

So did you catch my point in all that rambling? Maybe I should sum things up. Language school has helped a lot for obvious reasons. When living in China, it's always easier when you know Chinese. However, things have also gotten more complicated. Now I have these old habits that are suddenly much more dangerous because of my improved skills. I definitely need to work on changing these old habits and replace them with more helpful ones. Finally, no amount of frustration caused by annoying strangers can compare to the thankfulness I feel for the people who treat me like a normal person. Being treated like a normal person in a place where the vast majority of people treat you like something else entirely is something that cannot be described.


jennifer ensor said...

I am so proud of you Brian. You are doing such a great job over there. Sounds like it is very hard some of the time, but I am glad you handle it well. Watching those videos of HG's family stressed me out for you. You really would stick out like a sore thumb. Lub you the way you are!


Deanne said...

Hi Brian!

It's Deanne, Guy's cousin. We are now in Hong Kong, and while HKG and the mainland are very different, we are still experiencing many of the things you talk about. Oh, how I want to say something to the ladies that touch my children, rub their faces, point at them, take their picture (without asking)or scold me openly for "mistake" I make with my children. Let's not forget the outright starting...blatant gawking. It surely does get old. Ugh.

We will add you to our nightly talks to the Father as we can really sympathize with your struggles.

Hey, on a unrelated note, we are planning a trip to the mainland in the future and one thing we must see are the terracotta warriors, and of course, the Wall. Are you anywhere near there? We'd love a tour guide!

Donna said...

Keep up the good work, Brian!! I know you can control your speaking if you just control those thoughts!! I guess we all have trouble with that. Glad you got your packages from Gmother and Vail. Spring is coming here and the yellow daffodills are blooming every where. We'll be in spring clothes before long. Gmother and I will be traveling to Denison and Houston over my spring break. We'll leave March 7 and should return by March 13. Happy Birthday to you, me,Suzannah, Beth Anne, Katey and Lisa in March!!


Aunt Donna