We woke up the next morning refreshed and with expectations of epic proportions for the day. However, it was the hordes of Chinese tourists that conveyed ‘epicness’ rather than our touristy conquests. An hour after leaving the hotel, we found ourselves taking refuge in the quiet and hallowed halls of a four-story Starbucks (星吧克), an Eastern shrine to Western prosperity. Just outside, half of the Chinese population grappled for space on a ferry for which space was limited and becoming flotsam was imminent. I had anticipated taking my mother ashore Gulangyu (鼓浪屿)，but decided that my other family members would not look fondly upon my mother and I being asphyxiated against the flimsy walls of a Chinese ferry, and so grudgingly began brainstorming a Plan B. The building with the Starbucks, as a result of it being less of a tourist attraction than Gulangyu, was devoid of life.
While wandering a building quieter than a Chinese college library, we came across a wall-sized infographic discussing the history of tea in China. As I blatantly showed off my reading skills to my mother, a man in an apron descended upon our duo from the direction of an equally dead café. To my surprise, after introducing myself to him in Chinese, he began a conversation with my mother and I in fluent English. The man, whose name I am embarrassed to have forgotten, told us that the café had opened two weeks ago, and he had just come back to China after living in Miami for five years. Currently, the café employed three people—more people than would be dining there, including my mother and I. This realization brought with it a respite for me from ordering in Chinese and an opportunity for the both of us to monopolize an entire café staff’s attention.
While eating, my mother looked out the window with a look of amusement and disbelief.
“What’s up, Mom?”
“China is surreal.”
“I get a feeling here that I haven’t felt since visiting my grandparents in Florida when I was a little girl. It’s a sense of community and openness, I believe, that can only exist in places of homogeneous ethnic background. When everyone is old and Jewish, you know how to interact with people, and there’s a sense of trust and family. In China, because the people themselves are of the same lineage, everyone interacts with there guards down— there’s one way of life. Not only that, but China itself is surreally industrially and culturally reflective of America in the 1970’s—it physically looks like Florida and the people live like they do there, too.” Kinda Twilight Zone. “It doesn’t just remind me of what a homogeneous society acts like.” The afternoon was surprisingly productive, just not in the sense I thought it would be.
We went back to school by way of the beach, where my mother and I became the subject of a group of Chinese girls’ interest. While my mother expressed surprised delight at how giddy the girls were and how much they wanted to speak with us, I was jaded. I’d been in China long enough to know that it had nothing to do with me, but the fact that I was foreign; I’d been desensitized to people being surprised at my existence.
“I used to like getting my picture taken and feeling like a celebrity but it’s kind of unsettling now. I feel bad because it’s not even like I earned the attention. I want to just be left alone. And they’re always staring at me; I have nowhere to just be. I feel like they’re judging me.”
“Hannah, it might not be a big deal for you anymore to be here, but think about what we talked about earlier. What if you’d grown up in a society where everyone acted one way and looked one way, and one day, you saw a girl wearing different clothing and looking drastically different than yourself. You happen to have some skill in a language that would allow you to speak with her, but you don’t even know where to begin—how do you interact with something you don’t understand? Each time you meet someone here, there’s a chance that you as a foreigner are a rarity to them.
You’ve grown up in America, though, where political correctness exists to allow for different ways of life, and you’re used to living with people who don’t look and act like you. While being the only one who’s different a lot of the time was at one point reason for culture shock here, you’re even used to that now. Re-orient yourself to see just how amazing what you’re doing is! In the end, just because someone wants to approach you isn’t just about you doesn’t mean interaction can’t be interesting for you, and you’re not necessarily being judged. Just humor them.”
It really isn’t about me—it’s about differences between groups of people. I am an ambassador of culture—American, and Jewish. It is in the best interest of other members of my cultures to present myself as likeable and understanding. Moreover, a Chinese person looking at me is about curiosity, not necessarily judgment. Anyways, how can you judge something accurately or even know how to approach comprehending something if your judgment system might not even account for what you’re judging?
In the end, even if I’m feeling overwhelmed and jaded by other people’s shock, I have to remember that there’s a reason for that shock: it is somewhat about me. Not only am I different, but I’m doing something extraordinary all the time. I’m voluntarily living outside my comfort zone and expanding the comfort zones of others, just by being near them. I’m the foreigner doing that. I’m the foreigner who made the choice to study abroad. Simply by being brave enough (or crazy enough) to do that, to challenge myself to live like someone else, I’m a curiosity, as an individual. I did earn the attention.
Maybe getting my picture taken isn’t so bad.