Sunday, March 3, 2013

Similar and Dissimilar: Life in Beijing

Six weeks. 

Through days of inadequate sleep and conversations based on my use of charades, I've blinked and six weeks have passed by. 

Six weeks. 

It's hard to believe. My mind feels like a library bursting at the shelves with unorganized facts, cultural tidbits and some basic Mandarin. I cannot presently synthesize all of it and I am reminded of my uniqueness here. My newness. My 'whiteness' in this city called Beijing.

The city is both similar and dissimilar to the ways of life back home. Altering my presuppositions, some of the things I imagined unattainable or hard to come by are within easy reach or the everyday norms of my days. 

For instance, we have met two American couples that live in our complex. We take our dogs on play dates at least once a week and bond over the ease of English conversation and understanding of the unspoken. There is also a grocery market that I walk to which carries Western products. I have nearly all the ingredients I need for a lasagna for instance, though I cannot seem to find ricotta cheese for the life of me. And to transform a common misconception, there are so many non-Asian restaurants here, I could eat at a different one every week for a year and still not come close to repeating one. Similar to life in the states, shopping options abound, coffee shops and Starbucks are nearby for comfort, and we seem to have found a beautiful church home. 

If I close my eyes for just a moment, I believe that life here isn't too different. Maybe just a little different. And then the naive equation of two entirely unique countries flees as quick as the crazy drivers here. 

Because there are moments and experiences that are entirely foreign to my Georgia, Massachusetts, and Tennessee ways of life. I've lived in small towns, on the beach and in two major cities. None of them parallel life here, where cultural differences strike upon me like a Chinese tanggu drum.

These paramount difference I love, abhor or have not reached a conclusion for yet. Some differences are of minute size while others impact every single one of my days. 

Who likes lists? In this season of my life where the learning curve remains steep, I cling to them like a bff. So here is a list of what is different for me with life in Beijing: 

  • I no longer drive a car. I miss the freedom that those times provided. Instead, we have a 'driver.' His name is Mr. Lian. I love his smile. I also love that I have no idea what he is saying to me and vice-versa, yet we have entire conversations as if the other fully comprehended. It is quite entertaining. He gives me a big nod and smile when I speak my newest Mandarin word of the day. I'm pretty sure I'm slaughtering its pronunciation, but he makes me feel good for trying. 
  • How do I say this one without grossing you out? I'm not really sure that it can be done. To be blunt, people spit all the time. Everywhere and anywhere. And they are very engaged and work hard at their spitting. And while I'm on it, don't be surprised to see parents holding their toddler up in their arms for a public restroom moment. 
  • I no longer work an 8 am to 6+ pm gig anymore in corporate America. I work from home on a project basis for several different people and companies. And I love it. The hours are flexible as long as deadlines are met. And let's be honest. I can work in my sweats with no makeup and do what I love. Win, win and win.
  • I am frequently stared at by locals. Nate too. There is certainly a prevalent expat community here, but I suppose the ratio isn't enough to spread us around. We're foreigners. We're different. And I can't go out without being unapologetically looked upon. I've heard you get used to it. But I still get the heebie jeebies. 
  • I take two gym classes that are led strictly in Mandarin. Y'all should see me trying to keep up with the Pilates class, straining my neck to look at the instructor in order to follow. 
  • Have I mentioned I witnessed an all-women's sword fighting class at the gym? I so desperately wanted to go join them. I held myself back because y'all know a Southern girl with a sword who doesn't understand Mandarin would surely end up going the wrong way at some point. And well...that would be bad. 
  • We get two English channels on our tv. T-w-o.
  • I blame their pictographic and ideographic-based language, but the Chinese here do not seem to bond with linear thinking or movement. They don't know what personal space is. They don't stand well in lines. They don't mind stopping smack dab in the middle of their walking, totally unaware that you may be behind them. You are pushed over with no apology. It is their norm. And it's okay to get used to that. 
  • Golf and karoake are big here. 
  • My number of spoken languages pales in comparison to those here. Most all of the educated Chinese I come across are fluent in a minimum of three languages. That's fine: I speak Southern, ten minutes of Spanish, read a couple of other languages and know about 15 words in Mandarin. I'm totally on par right? (Not)
  • Taxi drivers, which we depend upon two days a week, could care less about driving you anywhere. I've learned to go ahead and get in their car before they have a chance to tell me no. 
  • You can have restaurant food and your groceries delivered. It is the oddest thing.

So life is different half way across the world. Its moments of beauty are captivating, while its context for humility and feelings of insecurity demand to be embraced, accepted and appreciated.  They must be to survive abundantly and joyfully. So I am here, with my man, called by our God for this present season to life in Beijing. And despite the chopstick mishaps, peking duck overload and smog, I wouldn't trade it.


Kelly, Justin, Jack, and Baby Crosby said...

Love this! The thing about lines and personal space... it drives Justin crazy! And here, where most of the people in our town are Asian, it drives me crazy too. But I guess it gets stuff done... Ha.

And Justin has almost the same exact kind of driver (except his is from Hertz.) Love your stories. So similar.

Anyway, package should arrive any day now (who knows?!) Enjoy!

Melinda Garman said...

I loved the heart of this so much.

And, on the subject of the sword: stick to using your Bible and GET THE HECK OUT OF THE WAY. ;)

Angie said...

Hi Shelly!

It was SO great to see your sweet comment on my blog. I was just thinking yesterday how much I miss our little blog community the way it used to be. You inspire me to want to start writing from the heart again. :)

What great memories you are making there! I so wish I could somehow get you some ricotta cheese! I'm still trying to wrap my mind around a lot of what you shared. I cannot imagine life without my personal space and well, the spitting thing would definitely take some time to get used to. I'm trying to imagine your cute little self coming home and adding these traits to your personality. I bet Mr. Lian thinks you are adorable! You aren't missing too much on t.v. :)

Keep sharing, my sweet blogging friend. Take good care.
Angie in Michigan

Gerene said...

Hello Shelly, since meeting Nate I have been enjoying reading your blog! You write so beautiful and I wanted you to know this, it touch me in so many ways! April 2nd the The bible which was made into a 5 2 hours mini series ( just awesome) come out in blue rays or DVD! I would love it send it to you both! Just let me know, Nate has my email address! Take care and hugs!

KMac said...

Laughed out loud: I speak Southern, ten minutes of Spanish, read a couple of other languages and know about 15 words in Mandarin. I'm totally on par right? (Not)

I'm catching up on a few blog posts and SO love to "hear" your voice and your thoughts. Miss you so much friend.