Hi Michael, I read this with our conversation this past weekend in mind about some issues you’ve encountered while living here so I hope this comment doesn’t seem apropos of nothing, given that the post is about the difficulties of adjusting to life here.
As someone who is also a diasporic Asian living in Changsha with an academic background in China and Chinese, I’ve experienced a lot of what you mentioned during my time here, like people slowing down to speak with me or viewing me as a clueless foreigner, even though most of my coursework in college dealt with modern Chinese history and culture. Additionally, because I am of Chinese descent, a few people have actually shamed me for not speaking Chinese fluently and that my current efforts to improve weren’t good enough. I say this because I think that I have some idea as to where your frustration is coming from and I don’t want to invalidate that in any way.
I just wanted to suggest that you might be overanalyzing a lot of interactions that you’ve been having with other Chinese people during the past few months. When Chinese people speak slowly to me or try to communicate using their limited English, I think of it as a favor. Even though I’m comfortable speaking Chinese, it is invariably easier for me to speak English because it’s my native language. When Chinese people speak English to me, even though their English may not be great, I appreciate it because they’re risking embarrassing themselves to make the conversation easier for me. If they really were fearful of losing face, as you say, wouldn’t they not speak to you at all? I guess I just find it hard to believe that a math or Chinese teacher would intentionally make a conversation uncomfortable for both themselves and you over their insecurities about a subject they probably haven’t taken since their first year of college.
In terms of limited conversation topics surrounding your foreignness, I totally get what you mean — my best Chinese comes out of my mouth when I’m explaining how I’m a Chinese-American, when my family moved to China, and what it’s like to live in the U.S. just because I’ve had those conversations so many times. I’ve never considered it as someone denying my personhood, but just as colleagues and cab drivers and other strangers making small-talk about the first thing they know about me. While, as you said, China once thought of itself as the center of the world, that position is very much being held currently by the United States. American celebrities, lifestyles, and school systems are popular topics of conversation here already as a result of decades of cultural imperialism. I really understand the fascination with America directed towards me as a product of that, rather than simply a refusal to get to know me personally. And after those initial conversations happen, people do tend to ask questions about what I hope to do after this year and as a career, what I do in my free time, and how I feel about living here.
习惯 does mean to get used to, but I think it’s also helpful to consider its meaning as a noun, as it can mean a habit or routine. I agree that you probably can’t acclimate fully or completely, as you detail in your definition of 了, to a new country in a few months. But I think you definitely can form a routine that fulfills you that acknowledges your social and professional position here as a foreigner, a student of Chinese and of China, and a part of the community at your school. I really hope that things start looking up in the coming months and that something I said may have helped. Even if you doubt the veracity of my characterizations, it might help to think more optimistically for your own mental health as you round out your time here.