Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been reflecting upon my experience in Beijing. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, but I’m grateful for what I’m getting. Being in Hong Kong has reinforced many of these thoughts.
There are places in Beijing where you can have a very “American’ experience living in suburbs with traditional neighborhoods surrounded by English speakers and stores that cater to westerners. This works out great for a lot of families that are stationed in Beijing. Although we’re not living in a Hutong (traditional Chinese courtyard neighborhood), our experience has been one where we feel very foreign. In general, people don’t speak English. Even if they understand it, they are hesitant about speaking it. I can completely relate, because I don’t want to speak the little bit of Chinese I know in fear that the other party may assume that I know how to speak Chinese and start barraging me with a river of words I start drowning in. This has happened so many times. It usually ends up with me giving a blank stare for a few seconds, then “I can’t speak Chinese very well. I’m an American.” If they give me the blank stare back, now I usually say, “I’m Korean.” That usually prompts a head nod, and I’m relegated to my proper place as a foreigner.
In general, it’s rare to have an experience as an adult where you feel so helpless. Perhaps, it might be likened to being in an accident where you need to learn to walk again or use your hand again. You’re used to being able to do some things very well, then to have it all taken away is a frustrating and humbling experience. And to be able to climb back out so slowly is also humbling. But, I’m finding that, this is what I wanted, and I am realizing that it’s probably the most valuable experience I’m getting from this time in China. Many foreigners are experiencing similar trials. I think that is why it is so easy to strike up conversation and become close friends so quickly here. For the first time in a long time, we feel like we desperately need other people’s help. Our ability to eat, get around, and just about do anything depends on it.
There are a few things I’m pretty sure I’ll be bringing home, and I hope it is lasting. 1. An appreciation for foreigners in our country. Oh, how desperately we want to know natives of this country that can teach us and affirm to us that we’re doing things right. America is probably a country that is quite unaccommodating to foreigners. Hopefully, our experience will ring out in our minds when we see a foreigner struggling to figure out how things are done in our country. Hopefully, we will take time to guide them and befriend them. 2. Friendships based on need and service – I am sure we will consider how we can forge more intimate friendships with our existing friends, and place ourselves in places where we are made to depend on others and where we can be of service to those in need. It’s nice in some ways to be in a place where you feel you don’t need anyone else’s help, but we’re finding that feeling dependent on others and others on you is also very fulfilling.
In my few days in Hong Kong, I have yet to run into someone that doesn’t speak some amount of English. It’s a place that is probably much more comfortable and fun than Beijing in terms of amenities for foreigners. But, fun doesn’t always have the same rewards and refining edge as an experience of humility.