I moved to China seven months ago. It has been a hard, hard transition. Much harder than I thought. I was blinded by the ease with which I had moved to the heart of Brooklyn in the past. I let it fool me into a sense of confidence that I could take on anything, start over anywhere. It really wasn’t like that coming to Guangzhou. One of the first poems I wrote upon my arrival has some lines describing my unease of how different I feel here, just while walking the streets:
Is this a dream? I jumpily thought, as one of the carts
knocked over a potted plant. Dirt irrevocably scattered.
The men whistled as I passed.
Laowai! White girl warning!
If I could shrink myself into blessed oblivion, trust me,
I would. Then, I could feel only curiosity in this narrowness.
But as is, I thread carefully: I am different.
You should think these feelings would get better over time, that you sort of just “get over it”, get on with your life and stop noticing that you’re different. In a sense, this is true. I will do my work, teach, shop, take the subway, without noticing that I haven’t seen or spoken to a single foreigner all week. In a sense, in absence of mirrors I will forget that I am not Asian myself. The first time after such a week, I will speak with a native English speaker, and I’ll stutter slightly, my mind like a car engine finally starting to rumble after being parked and abandoned for days. Chinglish becomes a state of mind, a means of survival. I also use Chinese more the longer I stay here, but still, for most of my interactions, simple English words will come to me first when expressing regret, gratitude or amusement. As for Croatian… don’t even ask. I don’t know where my mother tongue cowers back into while I’m juggling a Chinese life of an English teacher, but I definitely keep it at arm’s length. It comes out only sporadically, when once in a blue moon the Skype works smoothly and I spend my Sunday afternoon over a cup of coffee, chatting away with my family as they finish their breakfast.
This is my life now, I keep telling myself. I am a laowai, a foreigner. The Other in ways I’d never had reason to experience. Growing up in a country that is predominantly white and Croatian and checking both those boxes, I never had to worry about outward otherness in my life before. Of course there are hidden kinds of otherness that I have been well familiarized with in the past, ones peculiar to me and my quirks, but this sort is decidedly new.
On that note, let me tell you: racism is balderdash. It is all assumption and prejudice. Even positive prejudice gets old very fast, such as the prevalent opinion that I’m white and thus I must be rich and American. This said, I am well aware of how much worse my brown color-skinned friends have it. Theirs is the true plight here, as they are constantly seen and referred to as ugly, undesirable. I admire them so much for putting up with it, I honestly don’t think I could.
It’s hard for me to write about these things and not feel ungrateful. This country has given me a steady way in, a job and a pay far beyond what I could have hoped for back home; a big part of the reason I am choosing to spend a few of my best years here. But it’s a double edged sword. The first few months I would watch my colleagues on campus pack up their little rolling suitcases and take the weekend off, go see their families, friends, boyfriends and… I fantasized of a weekend trip to Croatia or even New York, imagining how refreshed I’d feel to come back to my people. The truth is, if I were able to get away every time I got that particular urge, I would never have adjusted to my Chinese life as well as I had done in absence of other options. Little by little, I was forced to figure out my life in midst of Otherness.
I learnt the little things first. Like, where to get the good ground beef (the Muslim shop – obviously!), how to pay for the bus (get a card at 7-11!) or how to communicate with guards at various gates (Google translate!) I was and still am a laowai, but a savvier one at that. I made friends, Chinese and foreign alike. Some good people and some temporary place holders until better people arrive. I am being very honest here. Closeness comes slowly, but always anchors on arrival.
My sister used to joke with me before I left that I’d be “Chinatized” after moving here. She was more spot-on than she could have even imagined at the time. Now I think of this word regularly, whenever another oddity becomes a part of my “new normal” —
I am becoming Chinatized. I am doing the hard work of cultural assimilation and every day, in little ways, I mourn and rejoice at this predicament.