I never understood what it meant to be a “foreigner.” Pronounce it with me. “Foreigner.” Like a rapid gush of air, it forces itself in between the two front teeth and suction cups the lower lip to the inner gum.
“Foreigner,” a word already describing a distance between you and me, the foundation of a barrier already dividing the“us” from “them.”
“Foreigner.” It strikes the air like a loaded gun, labels falling like bullets. It is a sharp word, a still word, a word shadowed by fragments of gnawing loneliness, the uncomfortability of isolation, a trepidation of the unknown.
And yet, it also denotes an overwhelming sense of desire, a tint of adventure, and the belief that there is something more, something better out…there. It is the official award given to folks courageous enough to cross oceans and borders, for the word is a passport in and of itself.
I never traveled anywhere where my language wasn’t a luxury, an easily accessible item. I always found ways to communicate with people, whether it was sticking to English-speaking classrooms in Costa Rica, or nodding my head in solidarity and understanding at my Spanish-speaking dining table, or working in an international business environment in India.
There were always folks who spoke my language to whom I could express my loneliness to, share the experience of isolation with, and navigate the exciting unknown.
Personally, I love exploring new cultures. It’s kind of my thing. Throwing my backpack over my shoulder, stepping into a new environment, and embracing the wonders, secrets, and beauty of a different culture is kinda what I do.
I am not scared of being alone. I embrace it as a part of life, perceive it as the ineluctable sacrifice of the global adventurer and as a prerequisite to discovering a new family.
I roll my hands into fists, thrust them majestically into the air, and grunt, “GRRRRRR,” in preparation. World awaits me, and I await its beauty!
But China was a whole ‘nother beast. China was… well, China. I remember walking back from the grocery store on one of my last days in the United States and seeing a thick, tattered book with the title, “CHINA” laying face up on the corner of an intersection. I bent down, brushed off the leaves that had gathered on the front cover, and secured it under my arm.
At the time, I was debating as to whether I should follow through with my study abroad experience and actually commit to spending four months in a “foreign” land. There, I said it. “Foreign.” My family was against it, my brain told me that if I went I wouldn’t graduate on time, and my nonexistent language skills were a slight deterrent in a country where hundreds of millions of people only spoke Mandarin Chinese. No big deal, right?
But in that moment when I reached down to pick up the old, wrinkled book from the quiet sidewalk, I knew that it was laying there for a reason. The fact that I had chosen this street, out of all of the other ones I could have taken home, meant that there was something greater nudging me to go. Someone had sent me a sign.
This was it. China was waiting.
Before I left, I considered learning some Mandarin, just so that I could get a head start on my Chinese classes and figure out how to say, “Noodles. Eat. Please.Thank You.” and “Bathroom? That way? Cool. Thanks.” It never happened. (It’s like one of those things were you’re all like, “Oh yeah! I totally will spend my spare time learning a language!” and then never really get around to it.)
Instead, in order to prepare myself, I read numerous accounts of folks who had lived in China (in English, of course), picked up some cultural know-how’s on the meanings of “guanxi,” the color yellow, and how not to buy a clock for someone’s birthday.
I bought bright red pants to demonstrate my excitement to integrate into the culture. And then a big, chunky, hey-there-I’m-a-five-pound-camera-hanging-around-your-neck Sony Alpha 3000 just to capture as much as I possibly could (in retrospect, maybe carrying a GoPro or just having an Iphone would have been easier to carry and slightly less conspicuous.)
My goal in going to China was to truly understand what the country was like from the people’s perspective. All I had heard were things like, “China is stealing all of our jobs!” or “Man, that China pollution, doe…” accompanied with the sad shaking of heads.
But I believed that there was more to China than what the voices and stories in the media were telling me. There had to be more. It was a country that housed more than one-fifth of humanity with a 2,000 year history for crying out loud. I had to go, I had to see it, I had to live it.
And so, on February 18th, the day after my 21st birthday, I dipped it to Beijing, the capital city of China, to begin a four month adventure as a foreigner, b-girl, and intercultural ambassador. Here’s my story.