I’ve been in Hangzhou for 3 full days now, and while most of my time has been spent in excitement and wonder over the newness of everything around me, I should tell you that it’s not all rainbows yet. Homesickness hits me at random, short-lived intervals- mostly when I’m home, and it’s dark, and I’m a little tired- but I’ve also been experiencing an emotion that I didn’t anticipate: guilt.
It started by feeling just a little bit too out of place, though I tried hard at first to be the Confident Traveler, the type of person I’ve admired (and maybe hated a little) at airports with ropy Tevas no matter the weather, who always looks great in a bandana, who forever totes that same Kelty pack with 64 patches of various origins. I’ll openly acknowledge that I wasn’t ready to spend any significant time abroad when I was an undergrad the way many of my friends were, but I thought that at 27, I finally had the confidence. But I’m now coming to terms with the understanding that confidence like that takes work. At least for me.
This will sound obvious, but the language barrier is a big deal. A really big deal. I’ve never been so humbled by my monolingual tongue. Before I came, I knew Hangzhou was a city that housed a lot of foreigners, and from that I drew the conclusion that most Chinese residents spoke English in addition to Mandarin. With planning lessons, drafting packing lists, finding the right paperwork and taking the right blood tests, and generally making sure my lives in St. Paul and in Minnetonka were put on hold, I neglected to learn any Chinese. I literally knew one word in Mandarin when I touched down in Shanghai: “lao shi,” which means “teacher.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a country where people don’t speak English, but it is the first time I’ve been alone and had no knowledge of the native language. In Germany, I knew enough to feel comfortable; in Guatemala, my Peace Corps friends spoke for me; in Mexico, Matt handled all Spanish-only transactions and I knew enough numbers and greetings to get by. In retrospect, I can’t believe I didn’t think that being alone in China without knowing Mandarin would be a hurdle.
Maybe that’s why it took me a day or two to realize why I was nervous about going to a restaurant or out to buy the umbrella I forgot to pack. And even when I first articulated the word to myself- Guilt? Really?- I questioned it. But then I knew. My ignorance of the language puts an expectation, a burden on the person I’m ordering from, trying to pay, or thank, or agree with. And I hate knowing that I’m the stereotypical American tourist in those moments. I wish I could say, “But you should know that I follow your news! I defend you to Americans! I learn about your holidays! I’m teaching at one of your schools!” But that’s the just the point, isn’t it? I can’t say those things.
I’ve had some good conversations via video chat with my family and with Matt that have helped me to navigate this feeling and to understand how to feel more comfortable. I’m putting some real time into learning simple phrases, which makes going out less intimidating. I spent an hour this morning finding a restaurant to have lunch at, copying down the pinyin to order from their menu, and then practicing some restaurant-y phrases. I’m happy to report that I was able to order this amazing lunch of stir-fried mushrooms and kale from a serious woman at a restaurant called Fengdu.
I had to include my Kindle in this picture, because it’s what I was reading while I was eating, and though I knew enough rudimentary phrases to get food, I had absolutely no idea what the serious woman was asking me when she pointed at it while visiting my table. And instead of apologizing over and over again for my lack of Chinese, which has been my habit, I decided to answer her in English about what I thought she might be wondering. No kidding, we had a 2 or 3 minute conversation about Kindles (I think) in which neither one of us knew or really cared what the other was saying. And if you were watching our body language, you’d never know.
I felt pretty happy leaving Fengdu. And I guarantee I’ll be back.
Then, on my way home, I saw this store-front display, which also gave me some perspective on the whole language thing:
So none of us are perfect. So we’re all still learning. So what. 🙂