The thing about foreign countries seems to always be, well, that they are foreign, strange – or, once you are able to switch to a point of view that does not have you yourself at its center, that you are the foreigner, the stranger there.
This is the well-clichéd problem behind many issues: from culture shock to society’s acceptance of outsiders (or lack thereof), from the instant mojo of the new hire from far-away great countries to the aura of leprosy that sometimes seems to surround the stranger.
So, what does it take to feel at home; does it make any sense for me to be writing a blog entitled “at home in China”? (I realize one issue with the latter is that I haven’t been the most prolific writer; it’s my unmade new year’s resolution to write regularly.)
Let’s get to two quotidian, and at the same time central, issues first: language and food.
Chances are, when you go to a foreign country, you are and feel like an adult, but you are also rather like a small child. After all, you can’t talk yet. Even having studied the language, you talk differently, in ways that are not quite conventional and probably don’t (immediately) understand all that much. In China, in particular, there are different regional variations of the Chinese language, and even more dialects. Of course, one can still live comfortably in many places, knowing just the basics – if that. Thinking of deeper issues, however, the importance of language returns with a vengeance.
In my case, being here as German teacher, there is way too much contact with languages I already know, and far too little need to go beyond the bare essentials of Chinese. I am working on it, and noticing more and more just how appropriate the Chinese way of learning (which seems to be one of the main impediments to foreign language studies in China) is to the study of the Chinese language. There is a very strong need to sit down and practice writing, review and practice by reciting, go on – and review, then repeat…
The other major issue one encounters more than once-a-day is, of course, food. There is no coming home in a different place if it is not accompanied (or, more likely, preceded) by a liking for the food. In a place like China, this can be particularly striking.
Much non-Chinese food is hard to come by outside of the bigger cities in China, and when it can be found, it’s very expensive in comparison to normal food.
Tastes are also, of course, noticeably different; Chinese sweets are oftentimes decidedly not-sweet to the European palate, meats on the market are oftentimes so fresh, they could still run (or fly, or jump, or swim) away, and people actually like to see that meat is not grown in a vat – so, of course there are bones (and fish heads, and chicken feet).
Meat is also a more-expensive ingredient, and therefore oftentimes used as more of a spice, cut very small, in as many dishes as possible. The importance is best illustrated by the variety of fake meat dishes one often finds around Buddhist temples. No meat in them, but at least the taste of it – surely, you wouldn’t want to do without that, would you?
Then, there is the issue of the rather peculiar tastes and things one may encounter. Hunan’s chile pepper-laden dishes are not a problem for me, they are a reason I’m here; but, of course, not everyone would concur. At the beginning of my time here, I was decidedly not fond of chou doufu (“stinky tofu”). To the uninitiated, it’s a great dieting method: sniff, and you don’t feel hungry anymore. Except, I recently noticed my mouth watering upon a waft of freshly frying chou doufu…
Lastly (at least for now), there is the matter of conditions and orientations: Speaking as an ecologist and anthropologist, this is particularly fun for it is, in a way, a matter of environment and adaptation; the bread and butter of my disciplines.
As for environment/conditions: living in China makes it obvious that China is, in most respects, still a developing country. Most of the time, the accusations which are leveled at the country don’t play much of a role. Youtube and Facebook are blocked, but basically all news sites can be accessed; you have a one-party government, but usually what counts is that the situation is stable. Still, it is cold now, and of course there is no heating, basically no insulation to the houses; electricity sometimes gives out, and so on…
Not least, the country’s opening has not been far enough back for foreigners to have become a truly normal sight. Thus, and also given that further socio-cultural aspects make for a society that manages to be rather closed and over-accommodating at the same time, one is not usually integrated too well.
Still, it is possible to work with cultural competence, and be made to feel very well at home. The language, of course, is a major influence in this regard.
Personal orientations, in the end, play at least as much of a role as the host societies’ openness: Some (many, actually) expats apparently come to China for the adventure, feel quite at home in the bars, and think they have experienced China; some (maybe) want to be accepted and treated as absolute equals, without any cross looks and comments about the “laowai.”
My personal attitude, maybe due to personal factors, definitely also a side-effect of my professional training, is that there needs to be a second socialization into a host culture, and that – as long as it is open enough for that – it is always possible to reach a point where one is culturally competent enough to be a functioning member of that society. So far, I’m definitely just at the point of being able to take (most) things as they are, go on, and feel at home notwithstanding the downsides and paradoxa there are.