Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Chinese American Lost in China

Tonight I went to a CD, Trail Dust, release party at Machu Piccu owned by Zhou Fei.  Living abroad for 6 years in much much smaller communities I haven't been able to go to live shows, so it really is a treat to be able to look at a calendar of events (GoChengdoo) and have a selection of local happenings to pick and choose from.

Back in the states, I would wander Seattle, eat out, drink Earl Grey in coffee shops, attend shows, bike around Lake Washington, and every once in a while meet up with old friends and make new friends. 

Returning to a city whose weather reminds me of the dark winters of Seattle, overcast without sunshine, the life here feels somewhat familiar as I wander the city, drink lattes, eat sushi, attend shows, and bike to lakes, yet I feel like a stranger to this city person who feels somewhat familiar but who also feels like something is missing. 

I have somehow lost part of my identity.  Which part?

Back in Seattle, I felt surrounded by strangers and felt this urge to take part in my own personal social experiment where when riding the bus, I would dare myself to say hello to someone new.  Going to a party, I would take a deep breath and give myself a pep talk to start a conversation.  I was trying to see if by forcing myself to talk I could turn shyness into something new.  I was trying to see if the world was actually a place full of friendly people who all just want to make a connection with another human being. 

I have lost my American identity.  With students, I am the American teacher.  With strangers, I am Chinese.

There are two worlds, the Chinese one and the foreign face one.  I wander an in-between world of having an Asian face who can't speak Chinese yet inside know that I am just like the foreigners with non-Asian faces visiting China.  With foreigners, I am silenced by the expectation of a language barrier.  People won't even say hello unless they know Chinese and I am too afraid to say hello to break that barrier to announce to people that I am American with my accent.

In the Chinese world, people will say something to me in Chinese but if I don't understand their words, they are quickly silenced by their fear of embarrassing one of us because we are having trouble communicating.  When I see a bunch of Chinese bikers all wearing the same biking clothes, I am too afraid to approach them to say" Ni hao," even though I know that they would be friendly.

I feel caught in between two worlds.  I am Chinese who can't speak fluently.  I am American who isn't obviously outwardly American.  In a city where foreigners seem to flock together or where Chinese people want to make foreign friends, I am ignored. 

The reality though is I am the one who is imprisoning myself in my own solitude of fear unable to break through the wall and say a friendly hello in English or Chinese.  I have lost the ability to have a conversation, to reveal little bits and pieces of myself, to tell my story.  This part of me has been replaced with teacher mode, the person who can ask questions to get students to speak English.  If you're not my student, then using Mandarin I can start a typical Chinese conversation about food and where you are from, but find the conversation to dead end pretty quickly making me wary to even start the conversation.  Using English, I have lost the ability to reveal myself replaced with question after question about another culture.  If we are both Americans living in China, then I don't know what to talk about, what questions to ask. 

I feel socially awkward and lost so then I hide away in silence behind my knitting.

1 comment:

universalibrarian said...

I understand the feeling. It's not just hello that hits a cultural barrier, even smiling at people can leave one side or the other uncomfortable. Some days I get paralyzed too but then I figure might as well be as cheerful as I can for myself as nothing I do is going to make the other people more comfortable and maybe, once in a while I actually make a connection and a friend.
Anyway, know the feeling. Be brave,