They call us aliens.
Yes, it’s true. On our permanent work visa that allows us to live here as a pseudo Chinese for a year, it states very clearly “Alien!”
For all intents and purposes, I often feel like I have indeed been plucked from my former life, whisked past Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and plonked down on another planet, far off in the galaxy.
(Cue: mini 3-wheeler truck rolling past with a pink umbrella spouting from the engine.)
12 months in, here I am! I’m sitting here looking at that bloody Pagoda! All seven concrete tiers of the ridiculously ancient, mystical monument towers over me from every angle, a constant reminder, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”
It will always be symbolic of my time here in China…it’s the first thing I saw when I arrived and if I stand outside in the very same spot (it was raining like it is today) I can easily take myself back to that moment in time…. the pit in my stomach that felt like it was so heavy it might actually bring me to my knees.
Where are we, what have we done?
The smiles hiding the sheer angst bubbling under the surface….the tears ready to spill without warning.
It’s an intense feeling of utter alienation from everything and everyone swirling around us in a fog of foreignness. The loneliness engulfs you like a thick blanket…..(oh wait, was that smog?!)
I’d lived in Hong Kong for four years, but this was an acute (and surprising) case of culture shock.
I thought I had prepared myself, well….but in hindsight nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of crotchless pants, earnest street spitting and footpaths that double as roads!
I jest…but in reality, my inability to crack a smile for the first few weeks was a pretty poignant sign, I was in a place far flung from any my imagination had dared to go.
I will never forget the day we drove through town, all sitting in the back seat, peering out the window as we wove in and out of bedlam traffic, speeding past a world of wild, unchartered territory.
Amongst the mayhem, I saw a western-looking woman walking her toddler dressed in a princess costume….all I wanted to do was wind down my window and throw my business card through the crowds at her…shouting: “Hey, I’m here!” Sheer desperation for a fellow expat in a sea of foreign faces!
12 months in and hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing!
I have found my expat tribe, all plonked on the planet of Xi’an from every corner of the earth (a regular sanity check); not to mention some fascinating locals, who’re teaching me a thing or two about the phenomenon that is China.
I no longer notice the intense staring at the “Laowai” with the blonde hair and strange facial features, who towers above most locals. (Yes, that’s me, I am officially tall at five feet 3.)
My small person doesn’t try to wrap herself in my dress, hiding from the zealous strangers desperate to snap a picture of her pale skin and blonde locks. For the most part, she tolerates the constant clicking and we have mastered the ability to shut out the crowds slowly (but surely) closing in on us, if we dare to stop in one place for too long. (The mantra is “Keep moving!”)
We know enough Chinese to mutter “Enough, thanks, she’s tired” if we need to. Sometimes we even play up to the farce that is being ‘papped’ and pose with all our might in fits of giggles. Hollywood, so close but so far.
We know to keep to the side of the footpath and always have one ear listening out for the distant beeps of cars/bikes/Tuk Tuks creeping up behind us…..
Now, when I am in any other city that doesn’t ‘beep,’ it seems eerily quiet.
We are also proudly adept at crossing the road… no longer finding ourselves stranded on one side, waiting for an eternity until all cars are seemingly absent. (This will never happen.)
We know that no matter how good we think we’ve ordered something in our best Chinese, it will almost always be misinterpreted. And that’s ok.
If we are lost (in translation), we can somehow muddle through enough Chinese to get to where we want to go without enduring a mild panic attack. (That said, a phone battery dying whilst out of the bubble is still a small catastrophe!)
The sobering reality has dawned on me, I will forever be learning Chinese. I will never master the Chinese language in one year, let alone two or possibly even ten. It is a life-long education. (Currently, I spend a lot of the time guessing what people are saying from the one Chinese word I manage to get…my life is a world of charades.)
A ride from A to B no longer induces heart palpitations or needs to be taken with wide eyes firmly shut. We can appreciate the scenery before us.
I am now used to random people attempting to enter my house with a loud “Nihao” or appearing on my balcony at any time of the day or night, often with a sneaky peek at the Laowai in the gold fish bowl.
The noise of loud, rumbling fire crackers cascading through the morning air is now heard without so much as a raised eyebrow; as is the tune ‘It’s a Small World’ signalling the road cleaners are out in force to spray away the desert dust.
Those mysterious drones overhead I was convinced were spying on me are just kites…..(no, really)!
Skim milk is an anomaly. Ask for it to practice your Chinese, but you will mostly be met with a smiling ‘Mei You!’ (Have not.) Speaking of dairy, yoghurt is a drink. Period. Must use straw at all times.
The internet or lack of STILL exasperates me to the point of turning me into a crazy woman on the verge of becoming seriously unhinged, as does the constant turning on of a VPN to have access to anything remotely useful, but I figure it’s not forever, and I breathe!
I’m acutely aware that everything I do, say, eat, has an alternative meaning to it in China. Tradition runs deep and is not to be messed with, like ever. If I am sick I have either worn too little or too much in the way of clothing. I will be offered coke with ginger to fix my ailment and if this fails, next stop is an IV drip, in hospital.
Umbrellas are the accessory du jour, come rain, hail or shine. There is an umbrella for each season…. and never the twain shall meet.
In fact a “sun umbrella” is made of reflective material to ward off the heat. White skin is king and the sun must be avoided at any cost! Even though I display clear signs of
tanned sun damaged, Aussie skin, I am somehow hailed as the fair-maiden with desirable silky white skin.
Note: No matter how hot it is, taking your shirt off (if you’re a man) is a no no! Rolling it up just underneath your arm pits is an accepted fashion statement. (Six pack not required!)
The ubiquitous ‘squat toilet’ no longer sends me into state of mild panic….running for home. I can take it on with an “I am woman, hear me roar!” attitude…(who am I kidding)!
There is nothing fast about Xi’an. It is the complete (end of the earth) opposite to Hong Kong’s 24 hour frenetic city on steroids pace. It’s a long (noisy) wait for most things.
A sense of humour isn’t a recommendation, it’s a prerequisite.
So to this day, every day I am entrenched in a steep learning curve; a journey through the fascinating motherland that is China — an unparalleled universe that thankfully accepts aliens like us, in all our foreign glory!
Like ET, I often want to phone home.
But…we survived! A new country, a new culture, a freezing winter, heavy pollution, a scorching summer, a new school, a new job, a new hotel, a new life. One hell of an adventure.
I’m glad this is not ‘my forever.’
But I’m happy it’s for now.
12 months in….. this is China
Proud to share this post with Seychelle Mama’s #MyExpatFamily