Black in China: Sifting for Everyday Small Talk
Our 5 day train adventure has been in the works for months. It’s difficult to plan extended trips with others, but nothing compares to planning a trip with someone living across the world. Time zones and work schedules have to be worked around. Tons of picture messages and links of places to stay and things to see. I don’t know how many itineraries we created. All I can say is that at the end of it all I would gladly be a sponsor of Google Docs whenever they need.
Jackie flew to China and joined me during our Labor Day holiday. My first friend visit! I was so excited. I had three days off school attached to a weekend which to me is a perfect opportunity for a little outing… or in our case a big outing. The main goal was to get to Hangzhou for tea picking season. Because what else would you do if you are a tea lover like us? We decided to add the normal touristy things as well, because it’s a necessary evil.
Our trip started late. After work Friday, we packed up our bags and headed to Suzhou to catch the 11:40 train to Xi’an. With Jackie just arriving the night before and me finishing up a busy work week, we were both ready to just get on the train and sleep. I tried to find a place at the station away from all the stares so we could settle in for our two hour wait.
It worked out really well. It was nice and quiet. And then an older guy behind us said something to me in Chinese. Usually I avoid conversations with people, just because sometimes they get too close and aggressively nosey. It makes you feel like the dead bird on the playground that all the kids stand around and poke with a stick. (All my teachers out there, you know exactly what I mean.)
Over the past months, I have had plenty of instances where being black changes all the dynamics in new cultural settings. It sometimes really weighs heavy on the way I perceive, approach, and accept people while traveling. I am always searching my surroundings for the next cell phone to avoid and giggling/gasping finger pointing to glare down. Not to mention the stop-dead-in-my-face-to-stare scenario. And get your hands out of my HAIR. Honestly it makes you not want to go outside sometimes. It can really begin to change your personality.
But this older man was just casually curious, asking me something, all the while assuming I wouldn’t understand a thing he said. So I surprised him, and responded to his question. The three of us proceeded to have a long conversation about our backgrounds and families, including the required grandchildren photos.
It was so nice to have a simple conversation with someone new after months of only speaking to the same group of people. When you live somewhere where you don’t speak the language, and have a small expat community, it gets lonely outside. It’s like everyone is living their lives and all you can do is watch because the language barrier, and us v. them type exclusion, prohibits you from joining in. This was different. It gave me the same feeling I had when I first started learning Chinese and responded to the guard at my community. It gave me a piece of that everyday chit chat back in my life. Like the kind of conversation you have with the lady about her kid while waiting in the self checkout line at Walmart. It’s something that simple that makes everything felt a little more normal.
What surprised me most about this event was how easy it was for me to communicate in this new foreign language I have spent long nights learning. I finally felt like all the corny Chinese romance dramas and language apps were paying off. A couple of weeks after the trip would be my HSK 3 exam. An exam that I was still a little concerned about up until the exact moment I began talking with this man. The happiness on his face and his apparent excitement to be talking with someone from another country made all the worries of subject-verb agreement and tenses seem as minor as they actually are.
Through this experience I realized, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter whether you speak perfect English or perfect Mandarin or perfect whatever. What matters is being open to connect with people from around the world on a personal level. Going into this trip, it made me more willing to put myself out there and converse with new people, even in the midst of the frustrating interactions. It also allowed me to shift my defenses a little and realize some people approaching me may be trying to connect as well, not make a scene. It also gave me comfort that with the ability to be aware of what people are saying around me I am less vulnerable and better able to interpret the situation.