By WorldTeach China volunteer, Wing-Yee Lau, 2015-2016
“Ni xi guan le ma?” Are you adjusted to life here yet?
People would often ask me this question when I told them that I’m American. After living in Changsha for several months, I still struggled to produce a concrete answer.
Moving to China to teach English was a lot more difficult than I expected. I chose China because I had a Chinese background—my family was from Hong Kong and I had taken two years of Mandarin in college. Little did I know that it wasn’t enough.
I didn’t realize that my perspective of Chinese people was limited to the overseas Chinese population. I knew that many Chinese immigrated to other countries during my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. In fact, I thought it was a normal path to take, since all the Chinese people I knew were in America. During my childhood summers, I often visited relatives in Hong Kong. I saw many overseas Chinese kids like me—flocking to return to their parents’ homeland from America, England, Australia, etc. Hey, they’re just like me! How exciting! I would think. I didn’t have many Chinese-American friends who were from Hong Kong, so it felt comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one who grew up abroad.
Then I arrived in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, and my Chinese world crumbled. Before, I had lived in the shadows of my relatives’ gossip of the mainland—the overwhelming amount of people, the chaos of modernization, the aloofness of strangers. I had seen brief glimpses during my visits to mainland relatives when I was younger, but to experience it on my own was a whole other story.
I thought all of China communicated in Mandarin, the standard Chinese dialect, but within my first week of teaching, I found out that each province was vastly different. Even though it is common practice to educate students in Mandarin, the local dialects in each province are still strong–some of which do not resemble Mandarin at all. I was accustomed to speaking Cantonese, the local dialect in Hong Kong, with my parents, so of course, I couldn’t understand what the locals were saying to me since they spoke a mixture of Changsha dialect and Mandarin. Some people gave me puzzled looks, wondering where I was from since I looked Chinese, but had an Americanized Cantonese accent when I spoke. It was very tiring to explain to strangers over and over again that I was a huayi, a foreigner with Chinese ancestry.
Some people would nod, understanding my situation, though to my surprise, many others would not seem to comprehend the idea. Huayi? Overseas Chinese? There is no such thing! You are Chinese! It seemed to me that they balked at the idea that Chinese immigrants were less Chinese culturally simply because they lived abroad. I found their perspective weird and limited. Why is it so difficult to imagine people moving to another country?
I found the answer in the form of question. “Why don’t you teach in Guangdong?” one of my Chinese co-workers asked me. Guangdong is the province nearest to Hong Kong and people speak Cantonese there; it was also home to my family before my grandparents decided to move to Hong Kong. I was a bit angry when she asked me, though I knew her question was out of good will. Why did you come to an unfamiliar place where you don’t know anyone and don’t know the language? To her, and to many locals I met, going to a foreign country was scary. The unknown was horribly terrifying and must be avoided at all cost. It would be better to stay in a place where you were comfortable and knew people. For me, however, it was an adventure and a chance to expand my mind. I wanted ask her, “Why not?” Of course it will be scary, but in the end it will be okay.
It will be okay. That was my mantra when I set out to prove her wrong…but in the end, I found out that she was right to an extent. I hung out mainly with my American friends because it was difficult to make friends otherwise. Teaching abroad and studying abroad were different. I wasn’t in a college-like environment with people around my age and lots of free time to boot. I was busy teaching and though I remained on good terms with my local Chinese colleagues, they were busy taking care of their families. I also never stopped struggling to communicate with people due to my huayi status and the unfamiliarity of Changsha accents. My physical advantage of looking Chinese was also my disadvantage when I spoke. I was able to fly under the radar when I took a stroll whereas my non-Asian friends were stared at when they walked along the street. But I was never able receive the same “oh, she’s a foreigner” acknowledgement when I spoke with Chinese locals. The process of explaining was tiring and cemented one thought in my mind—You are not from here. It was a very cruel and sorrowful thought. I would often replay the scene with my co-worker over and over in my head and wonder if I should have picked a more familiar part of China after all.
I eventually realized that there was a part of me that refused to accept the hostility stage of adjustment. It will happen for a few weeks, maybe even a month, and then it will be over, I thought to myself. I didn’t realize that way of thinking would put pressure on myself and drag out my struggle for a longer period of time. After my first few months, I thought I had adjusted, but I still found myself feeling down. “What’s wrong with me?” I would ask myself and try to shake myself into “okay” mode. I would go out to have dinner with my American co-workers; I would journal at a nearby coffee shop; I would go shopping downtown. I filled my days with activities so that I wouldn’t feel down. Sometimes I even spent my day in stillness (aka sleep and Netflix). In the end, time became my cure.
Adjusting to a new environment is not an easy feat. Reading cultural adjustment articles and being told that “it’s hard” does not encompass the weariness and gut-wrenching loneliness one endures when abroad. But it passes. The wave, the storm cannot stay forever. This may be difficult to believe when you’re feeling miserable in the moment, but if you just sit still and let time pass by, you will realize in that period of silence, that everything will be okay.
This is why, despite my conflicting feelings, I tell people, “Wo xi guan le.”
Yes. I am adjusted to life here.
Wing-Yee is a recently returned WorldTeach volunteer, having spent the 2015-2016 school year teaching middle school English in Changsha, Hunan, China.