This week, I’d like to reflect on a somewhat shameful/embarrassing (gān gà) personal realization that struck me during the work week.
I will sheepishly admit that as a first-time traveler, I kept expecting that Eat, Pray, Love self-discovery moment to wash over me during the first couple weeks of my visit, and I looked for it in what I thought were all the typical places: religious temples, crowded street markets, my spicy noodle bowl. I did end up finding that moment; and, in a way, it did involve noodles . . . but only tangentially.
Far less astounding than some sort of literary protagonist’s grand apotheosis, my moment occurred during lunch as I sat slurping noodles with eggplant (thanks, ayī!). In-between bites, Peony casually remarked about a lecture she was watching, which discussed privilege in America – rather, a lecture about privilege held in an American university. Noodles in hand, I pulled up a seat beside her desk and we watched together. The lecturer abstractly considered the concept of privilege, and students from various walks of life were given the floor to share their opinions. When the lecture concluded, Peony nodded her head and sat quietly for a couple moments. I was still loudly slurping noodles. Peony then turned to me and said, “I consider myself very privileged. Even though I am a woman with cerebral palsy, I have a supportive family, I was able to learn English, and I have a job and can find other work if I need to. I’m very lucky.”
Just like that! After a brief moment of self-reflection, Peony identified and articulated the privileges she saw in herself and in the opportunities she’d been given.
Meanwhile, I had just dropped eggplant onto my shoe. At that moment, I felt very similar to the shoe now covered in food droppings.
I can’t describe the feeling of a mental rubber-band snapping, but imagine I can – and it did. Snap!
Why was I looking for that great moment of personal clarity when it had been staring me in the face the whole time? Literally staring. People in my residential area aren’t used to seeing foreigners, so they tend to stare. Dorronda and I often feel a celebrity effect. But that’s just it! I am a foreigner in Beijing! I have been given the opportunity to travel abroad as part of my legal education. I have established a relationship with and work for an amazing organization for disability rights and gender equality; I have made great friends with people who will also be part of a great human rights network; and I am experiencing life on the other side of the world.
With that in mind, I realized I needed to make a more figurative effort to meet people halfway. My physical journey halfway around the world was a symbol of the mental journey I should be making every day when I interact with others. It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of making cultural judgments based on your worldview – but I’m here to learn a new worldview! In this way, I learn from my coworkers every day. They meet me more than halfway. Each person is so friendly, and so willing to share parts of their lives and culture with me. Almost every day, a different co-worker offers a new kind of tea or a tasty snack, or coaches me in much-needed vocabulary. I am overwhelmed by their kindness, and their easy acceptance of someone who holds her chopsticks poorly and has a tough time keeping up in conversations.
Meeting people halfway is exactly the kind of attitude we try to inspire in the public at OPO. People with disabilities are no different than other “able-bodied” people, but our societies often treat people with disabilities as if they’re worlds apart. We advocate for empathy and understanding, support and inclusivity. To be a good advocate, I need to foster these own attributes in myself. I am grateful for the opportunity to advocate for others while others are helping me learn to better myself.
So how did I meet people halfway this week? Well, for starters, I posed for pictures with locals at Tiananmen Square (people made a line to get a picture with the foreigners). I greeted chaos and overcame (almost) the adrenaline of the crosswalk, and I tasted (and enjoyed) an edible tree ear fungus. I will continue to try new things and step outside my comfort zone (or the comfort zone of my taste buds), because there’s a whole other half of the world to explore!
Here’s some of that other half:
Sadly, there are no Great Wall calves or Nike ads to report just yet. The calves slept through an alarm and will try again later this month.