Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Blooming Wallflower

Living abroad has made me afraid of foreigners. This week the Xian hostel where I am staying is full of French speaking people. I have running conversations in my head, but am unable to open my mouth.

While living in the states, I was working on my fear of talking to strangers and was working on my dislike for small talk. I practiced weekly by talking to people and forcing myself to say something rather than just people watch and just sit silent among a group of socialites. By making a conscious effort to turn into a social butterfly, I was becoming less of a wallflower.

But Africa and China have made me afraid of people.

In Africa, whenever I stayed at the Peace Corps houses, I always felt the loneliest amongst Americans. I think living in the isolation of a foreign language and a foreign community makes me more comfortable with the silence of an observing loner.

On the train I was silent. The people on the train thought I was Vietnamese and didn't know any Chinese. I discovered this when a brave man who had been staring at me the whole train ride tried to break the ice by handing me a ripped snippet of a Vietnamese newspaper. I promptly replied in my skeletal Chinese that I was American with Chinese heritage. The ice was broken. We had a nice conversation about why I don't speak Chinese better and about my family background.

In the hostel, I am silent. I have lost my ability to socialize in English. Plus right now I have a bad case of hives which makes me feel like a walking contagious disease. I am too afraid to make contact with people and scare them away with my skin condition. In Chinese though I can talk for as long as the other person is interested and patient enough to use simple Chinese. Mostly though I hide.

I am a growing wallflower who is preparing to buy a good bike and go on a 4-5 day silent retreat, biking alone the 240 miles between Xian and Xifeng in preparation for a 2 month bike tour I'd like to take next summer. I have to work on my travel and bike vocabulary. Maybe I can write a zine, A Guide to Biking in Gansu: Useful Chinese phrases included.

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