As I write this piece in my local coffee shop in Foshan, China – Guangdong Province, I find that I am reflective. There has been so much that has happened in the time since I traversed over the Atlantic from the United States to China.
When people ask how my experience has been here, it’s hard for me to put it into words. Do I talk about the food? For example, my first experience eating chicken feet! Or should I talk about the stares and random people pulling on my braids ( as many Chinese-natives have never encountered a black person before)? Truthfully, there’s a plethora of things that come to mind. But the idea that I’m sharing here is what it means to embrace being a foreigner!
For many Americans, we never truly experience this phenomena. Most Americans only experience international travel from the comfort of a plush resort or spacious Airbnb, usually with a group of American friends. We travel to well-known landmarks where the locals will no doubt gather to make their daily wage and where we can take amazing Instagram pictures. We enjoy these travels all while experiencing the comfort of speaking our native tongue. There is no judgment in this way of travel as it is surely a result of economic privilege as the world tends to cater to us, and in turn, we demand it! Yet one must wonder… what occurs when we wander onto the less traveled path?
When I decided to move to China, I knew that it would be far different than my other experiences abroad. I read up on being black in China and anything else I could find about expat life here. But honestly, you never truly understand something until you experience it firsthand!
The first issue I experienced was the staring; although it wasn’t “an issue” at all at first. I was in this euphoric state that I now realize is a part of culture shock; everything was new and exciting, including the constant attention I received from Chinese people’s fascination with my hair and skin color. The next issue was my body’s reaction to the food. It literally took a month for me to stop using the restroom after every meal that I ate; I persisted through the frequent runs because I genuinely enjoy Chinese food. Another issue that caught me by surprise was my body’s reaction to the mosquitos biting me. I was getting huge welts on my leg that would take a week to disappear and would leave marks. And the most obvious issue…the language! My English thinking brain could not make out a single word. Every word sounded like gibberish and what initially seemed blissful and new was turning sour quickly.
When I initially arrived, I had at least 3-4 instances in which I resolved to go back to the U.S. or even another country. I left a phone in a cab, only for the cab driver to abscond with it. The following day, it took me 4 hours to find a cell phone store that was only a mere 10-minute walk from the metro station…mainly due to not being able to find anyone that could speak English. The lack of familiarity at times has proven more than I wanted to bear.
I’ve realized with time that I am more American than I thought. These little quirky habits that I didn’t know I possessed now serve almost like a radar to help me pick up other Americans here almost instantaneously. It’s in the way that we carry ourselves, the way we smile, certain mannerisms…the last thing I recognize is the utterance of that familiar accent of American English that makes me feel completely at home. But the most important thing about realizing that you are a foreigner is that to get to that realization, one must dive into the unfamiliar…and in those depths a new world is discovered.
When you allow yourself to embrace the unknown, along with its ups and downs, you find that you can survive in various realms. What seems strange becomes familiar and you begin to blend with your new surroundings a bit more. The ability to be open is the reason that I meet foreigners here that are completely fluent in 普通话– Mandarin after 3 years vs. those that have been here for 10 years and can only say 你好 – hello. It’s the ability to not only step out of your comfort zone but eventually to thrive in it! You begin to not only understand where you come from better but the world and various people that it contains. These experiences that I have had thus far have given me insight into the people that come to the country I call home every day and the challenges that they face. But I also realize how their experience gives them a perspective beyond the bubble in which so many people exist.
So I encourage people to explore a bit more in your travels. Don’t be afraid to travel alone. Don’t be afraid to see where the locals in your host country frequent. If you bring a friend and your host country doesn’t speak English, challenge you and your friend to not use your phones and not communicate in your native tongue!
Embrace the world beyond your bubble and find out what you will discover!
My experiences during my travels and life abroad in China have forced me out of my comfort zone but have also unveiled a passion for language and culture that I didn’t know existed. These passions have pushed me to start a platform (Talks with Tae) that will help others to discover various languages, cultures, and experiences from all around the world.
Until Next time,