“我不是非洲人！” “I am not African!”
Instead of thinking it in English, it came out aloud and in Chinese. The bus guard asking Peoni (Lauren’s boss) about my nationality stopped in his tracks and looked at me. Embarrassed, I quickly covered my mouth and tried to apologize, but the damage had been done. The atmosphere quickly changed as my outburst led to a huge commotion at the front of the bus. “You can speak Chinese?” “Where are you from?” “Did you braid your hair yourself?” I briskly found myself engulfed in questions that everyone wanted to ask but no one knew where to start. The irony of it all is that my correction led to my acceptance. When a seat opened, an elderly couple invited me to sit next to them and immediately began to tell me about the history and traditions of the city. The guard, who was already very friendly, talked about his English language skills or lack thereof. My outburst had broken the wall of otherness and in that moment, as well as others like it, I felt at home in Beijing.
Every time I come to Asia I am received by stares. No matter how familiar I am with the country or culture to everyone else, I am a stranger. Better yet, I am a foreigner. Most of the time when I am watched or secretly photographed I just pretend I am a celebrity. However, there are times when I wish the feeling of otherness would end. Otherness is hard to explain to those who have never felt it before. The simplest way to describe it is like starting a new job. You may know the work and how to complete your tasks but you must also learn to adjust to the work culture. It’s the feeling where it seems like all the other employees have known each other for a long time and even though you are physically present, socially you are very much out of the group. Otherness makes you feel very aware of yourself, your actions, and how others perceive you. In these conditions, you just never really feel at home.
However, I am learning to remedy my feelings of otherness. I am learning to embrace my diversity by embracing myself. ‘Embracing myself’ does not mean keeping to myself, it means having the courage to accept who I am and act normal (or at least act as normal as I can in acting normal). The issue with otherness, especially among foreigners, is the tendency to isolate yourself from others. (Particularly in my case, since I enjoy a balance of socializing and “Dorronda-time”.) Instead of eating out, you take everything to go. Instead of eating at a local restaurant, you go to a chain like KFC. Instead of taking the subway and being around people, you prefer a taxi. You naturally separate yourself because you feel uncomfortable and that is disadvantageous for everyone involved. Isolation does not stop the looks and it doesn’t teach the community to accept you for you.
I’ve learned that taking the time to be present and teach people about myself saves me a lot of grief. The locals get to satisfy their curiosity while I get to engage in talks about politics and cultural differences. However, the greatest benefit is that we both learn from the interaction. Not only do I learn more about the nuances of Beijing but the people that I talk to break the barrier for others around me. For example, next to our hotel is a Roast Duck place. One day I grabbed dinner from the 阿姨 who was selling smaller portions in front of the restaurant. After placing my order and answering her questions, another middle-aged woman joined us. Before the woman could even ask questions, the 阿姨 started to praise my Chinese and how I ordered duck when some foreigners don’t. She explained to this lady that I was from the East Coast and just gushed about me. I tried to explain that I wasn’t that great but the conversation showed me that when you break the wall of otherness, you no longer have to tackle bias and otherness alone. In showing the 阿姨 who I was, she, in turn, spread who I was to others and the stares didn’t feel as isolating and objectifying anymore. Sometimes, I am so well-known that I am not even stared at anymore.
So, I overcome otherness with breakfast at a nearby stall or saying “hello” back to those brave souls who greet me on the street. I wave at little kids and dote on puppies. I take the subway where I read books or listen to music (bobbing a little when my favorite song comes on.) When I’m feeling particularly good, I answer questions when people ask about me to their friends. (I’m sure it freaks them out, but I’ve had great interactions that way.) Instead of feeling like I an “other”, I accept my otherness to remind myself and Beijingers that we are not that different. There are still days when I don’t want to engage. There are still days when I believe telling someone I’m not African disgraces my ancestors. There are still days when I don’t want to be photographed. However, those moments are a part of embracing myself and my diversity as well.
High of the week: Making new friends at work and in the community.
Delta of the week: Let’s take on a more positive outlook. Let’s quickly overcome “otherness”.