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.


Iva Ticic

Iva Ticic

Iva Ticic is an internationally published bilingual poet who lived in Brooklyn for three years before returning to her homeland of Croatia. She received her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Her book of poems, Alice in Greenpoint, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2015. Currently, she lives and teaches in Guangzhou, China.

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