There is definitely some sort of internal pride, an ego boost that you get as a foreigner when you’re in a country where you can more or less successfully navigate the language barrier. Of course no matter how fluent you are, there are always frustrating and/or awkward moments. But still, it should be a good feeling to know enough of a language to get around. I experienced that in Mexico for sure when I was like, yeah I’m not from here but I can speak your language (more or less haha). In China lots of my American classmates get surprised gasps, gaping mouths or wide-eyed looks when they fluently order their 鸡蛋拉面 or barter at the weekend markets.
Somewhere deeply rooted in my ego is this selfishness and envy that has really become apparent lately. See, I’ve been working just as hard at learning the language as my classmates but I never get those awestruck stares or compliments or special attention when I order food or hop in a cab. With confusion and curiosity at best I get asked “Where are you from?” and at worst I get scoffed at with disdain and completely ignored because why can’t I speak clearly enough or push through enough people to get service? I look just like everyone else but I don’t act like everyone else and I certainly can’t speak like everyone else. That is so weird to many people here.
Moments like these continually and to a somewhat concerning degree frustrate me. On one hand, it’s refreshing to blend in with the crowds and avoid stares or “hellos” on the street. I can go where I want and do what I want with generally little attention or disturbance. On the other hand, people generally have no tolerance or patience when I stumble over words trying to buy something, when I pronounce a word wrong or make a mistake ordering food. People commonly ask if I’m Korean which is tempting to reply “yes” to in order to spare trying to explain myself in Chinese. I still haven’t figured out a good way to really get across that I was born in China but adopted as a baby so am now fully American. It’s different than 美籍华人 (Chinese American) because when I say that I always get asked where in China my family is from. Sometimes I just say “Jiangxi” and move on with my day.
It’s okay and it’s daily a completely grounding and humbling experience to be this misunderstood. It’s also very frustrating and draining. It makes me reflect on that pridefulness and selfishness inside me that says “I want to be praised for knowing the Chinese that I do” or “I want to be given the lenience, patience, attention and respect that other Americans are given.” This is not to say that I haven’t met Chinese people who treat me with kindness and respect, because I most definitely have. And I am not at all saying that other foreigners have it easy in China because they certainly do not. However, difficulties in the way they may be perceived are very different than those I experience even though our cultural background may actually be very similar.
I remind myself every day who I am and what is important in life. And that it’s definitely not me and my self-image. It’s hard to be away from those who love you and understand you. But it’s also times like this where you can really discover what parts of your identity you may cling to that aren’t that important. Like how you are perceived by random people. Sometimes we spend so much of our lives wondering where we fit in or how we want to look to the world that we neglect a lot of more important things going on around us. Like in China, there are so many people who are invisible and neglected in society, by their own people, in a much harsher and crueler way than I am or ever will be. For example, migrant workers, who move to cities for work but are rejected by employers or landlords as they seek jobs and apartments, because of their hukou and social and economic status.
As I’m writing this, I think I’m speaking to myself more than anyone else. But if you also find yourself in a season where you feel misunderstood and underappreciated or frustrated with the way others perceive you, think about some of these reflections! Know your value and worth and look past it to see what other things you may be unintentionally blinding yourself to as you spend your time thinking about yourself.