Without sounding too much like I’ve “found myself”, I would say I’ve gained a few new perspectives on things while living in Beijing. Things like road safety ( doesn’t exist ), food hygiene ( dubious ), personal space ( very small ), public toilets ( a urinal in the ground, never have I had so much sympathy for womankind ). So far my greatest “new perspective” has been to do with international/exchange students.
I remember in Whitworth Park and other halls in Manchester we’d joke about the “mystery Asian” that came as standard with every flat. They kept to themselves, didn’t engage you in much ( or any ) conversation, and only seemed to have other Chinese/Asian friends. They were the other, a strange existence that you’d only see a slice of when they needed to leave their room for the rice cooker. You didn’t know much about them, and probably couldn’t pronounce their name. I remember finding it funny that they came all the way to the UK only to go to Asian supermarkets to buy what they would normally eat at home. I’d wonder why they didn’t make more of an effort to get to know us locals ( local to UK, but I’m hoping Manchester will accept me as a local soon ), why they seemed so seclusive.
Now that I’m in China I have become the Mystery Asian ( or Mystery Brit). I spent the first few days here roaming campus with hungry eyes looking for some other foreigner that I could speak to and understand and that could make me feel human again. It was like a game of spot the Westerner, just someone to bond with over the disorientation, miscommunication.
No wonder that they stick to themselves. Making friends when your language skills are shoddy can be difficult. Even small exchanges can be quite exhausting. Being in a foreign language environment and not understanding what’s going on is a bit like drowning, only it can last considerably longer.
No wonder the Chinese in the UK go to Asian supermarkets. I can barely read anything in the supermarkets, so I have to guess what everything is, and a lot of the snacks etc aren’t the same at all. And even if I could buy ingredients, I wouldn’t have the foggiest about constructing a meal from it ( incidentally, I have nowhere to cook, just a kettle in my room ).
Finding an English brand or a slightly western style supermarket or a FLIPPING IMPORT SHOP is like Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and Dragon Boat Festival all rolled into one. I found Pimms, Cadbury’s hot chocolate and Twinings the other day and I probably let out a squeak of delight. There’s an IKEA ( there’s actually two ) in Beijing, the land of milk and meatballs which welcomed me like an old friend. Swedish flat-pack furniture and
horse meatballs have never been such a familiar comfort ( and it’s pretty comforting in the UK ).
As much as it’s nice to find home comforts abroad and meet people who speak English and come from all over the world, I’m not going to neglect China proper. It won’t help my Chinese, for starters, and if I’m going to become more Chinese I’m going to have to move away from the things I’m used to. It’s exciting and uncomfortable. I just understand better why people stick to what they know and find others who walk and talk in the same way. I empathise much more with students that I’ve seen around Manchester. They’re just people like me, who often feel lost in an unfamiliar culture.
And while there are difficult things, it’s mostly hot pot, KTV and camping on the Great Wall. The adventure goes on. In the meantime, please be kind to your Mystery Asian.