One of the first things you notice when you arrive in China is that almost nobody speaks the same language as you do.
I remember I stepped off the plane in Guangzhou, excited, a little bit sleepy, and expecting my host school to be waiting with a sign that read “Master Bryan” at the arrivals gate.
Instead there was nobody. It was me, alone, and lugging my life around in a big blue pulley suitcase, considering all the disastrous things that could occur in this country, thousands of miles from home.
I was in possession of the school’s phone number, and so I decided my best course of action was to find someone with a sim card who could help me get in touch with the school. Maybe they just forgot about me.
I asked a few people if I could use their phones and they looked at me like I was a wild animal. I wandered a little bit more, somewhat confused at my newfound inability to communicate with anyone, until I stumbled across a small retail stand selling sim cards.
I used my best hand impersonations and impressions to communicate to the phone company employee what it was that I wanted. I bought the sim card and thought, “ok, now I am safe.”
But no, the sim card would not work on my phone, so I went through the same rigmarole one more time with the cashier, this time asking to use his phone. In total, this all took somewhere in the region of thirty minutes, my mind wandering from possible homelessness, to my need to smoke just one more cigarette.
In the end I was picked up, I did find a place to sleep that night, and I don’t currently live on the streets or beg for money for my meals. So.. success.
But what I mean, when I tell this story, is that landing in China, with no prior experience of the country, is highly intimidating.
I came here from Ireland, Dubai en route, and nothing that I had read or heard could have prepared me for what I would eventually encounter.
For one, it feels like the volume on everything, from TV’s to traffic to simple human voices, has been turned up times two. The effect is, at first, disorienting, especially when you slip outside to take a breath of that sweet, sweet humid air.
In any given building, it may be the case that you are the only foreigner. One highly documented foible, problem, stumbling block of living in China is the local’s apparent fascination with foreigners, especially white foreigners.
Some of my colleagues told me, in my first few weeks at the school, that white foreigners were treated like celebrities in China. I supposed that they were talking nonsense, but it wasn’t long before I was being stopped for photographs, or found young kids pointing and shouting about Wai Guo Ren.
The first few months in any country are full of the kind of childish amazement that goes hand in hand with discovery. For that initial probation period the staring eyes, the awkward exchanges with cashiers and restaurant waiters, the whispered, albeit indistinguishable, comments about race and colour can be swept under the rug at will.
When the doldrums, as one friend termed the period after which that initial fascination fades, hit, that is when you really begin to gain a sense of what it means to be an outsider in this massive country.
It’s not to say that Chinese people are not friendly to outsiders, because they certainly are a very friendly race. Perhaps it is just that years of censorship and isolationism have made the people of this country miss all that it is to feel like part of a global community.
Growing up I went to school with boys from Eastern Europe, from Asia, from America, from Africa. There was never anything particularly novel about my expatriate fellow students. They were just teenage boys, the same as me. In China, there is very little of this sort of integration.
Compounding the strange view that locals have of foreigners, is the fact that most foreigners come to China to teach English.
I had a thought recently, because of something one of the parents in my class did or said to me. I reacted cerebrally, which is always the safest way to react, and said to myself “I am not the person that your child sees everyday, I am not the teacher who you catch glimpses of each day.”
And that is true.
When I teach, I put on a persona. It is important, particularly as I teach very young children. If I were to act the same way in my social life I would soon be ostracised, or shrugged to one side and condemned for acting and speaking like a child.
For many foreigners, the relationships that you have in work can be as close as you get to establishing a friendly relationship with a local person. Many people decide to put the language, Mandarin, on the back burner, sticking closely to their expatriate social circle.
And that is fine. Different people come with different approaches to life in China. One thing I would say, however, is that remaining mute within the majority of potential conversations that occur in this country is a bad idea, particularly if you are hoping to integrate with the local people, with the local customs, or even if you are hoping only to fit in and establish a routine, rewarding life.
What I can say for my own approach is that I came with little or no approach. I was a blank slate, primed to be drawn upon. I was influenced by friends and by circumstances to go after certain things.
One friend of mine has studied Chinese for the extent of his time in China. He takes classes three times a week and he has gotten to the point where he can read some simple books. Another friend has managed to stay unattached, wandering from social group to social group, trying new things constantly, meeting new people all the time. And still another loves to travel and to play sports so he has spent his time focusing on these things.
From each of these friends I have taken some inspiration about how to integrate into the lifestyle here, while trying to stay true to myself and what I really want to do.
While I still have much to learn about life in China, the upward climb is getting a little bit easier to handle. I’m more patient in my approach, more Zen when I deal with angry taxi drivers, less prone to project my homesickness when comparing China to Ireland.
Life in any new country can be hard. In the end, and in the middle, and at the beginning, however, it is a rewarding experience, full of opportunities for self-growth, that you may not encounter if you stay at home within your familial comfort zone.