at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: feeling at home

at-home-making in Beijing: Between Sightseeing and Familiarity

I’m in the last week of the 6 months for which I joined the “international migrant workers” and went abroad to make some money.

A week or two, longer than most people would take, or indeed have, to discover Beijing on vacation – and it very nicely drives home the point about the tension between familiarity and exoticism in at-home-making: In having been here for a longer time, and this not having been the first long time I have been in China (or even in Beijing), I feel quite at home here.

It is a feeling that is driven by a familiarity with the city and the citizens that can be a bit numbing, though.

Some people may say that this sort of numbness is rather necessary to survive and stay sane anywhere, but especially in China. If you notice too much, interesting as an exotic other can also be, you will also notice only too many things that may bother and upset you; infamous “bad China days” are the consequence.

This sort of numbness is, of course, why we tend to feel at home (or at least comfortable) where we have grown up: because we are familiar with it. We know it, we know the people, we have some friends, and even if there are things we want to complain about, they are “our” problems that we are used to.

Move to a place like Beijing, and the smog will mess with any training plans you might even consider following, the food will often be great and healthier – and other times it will make you sick and doubt not just its quality but its safety (if not its edibility).

Then again, of course there are those fantastic and exciting sights that everyone visits, or at least wants to visit. The excitement of places so special, so high up on many a list of must-sees.

Having a chance to visit them more often and more easily holds some promise – but the same accessibility can easily make them less appealing. When it doesn’t take a flight to get somewhere on a vacation that only offers a few days to see as much as possible, then the hour-long subway ride to get there and the mass of tourists is, in comparison, insufferable.

China, like many a non-‘Western’ and not more southerly country, has a lot to show even so.

So much of life happens on the roadside, in the parks, publicly, there is sure to be a lot to see. Yet again, though, when you are used to it, when it all is around you only too many a day, the fascination easily falls away.

It becomes more noticeable when there’s a middle-age woman stepping out a doorway whom you see out of the corner of your eyes, think not to be that bad looking – and then she suddenly hawks up a gob of phlegm and deposits it in the middle of the road.

And so, it goes, everywhere the same.

You are where you’ve always been, and you’re only too familiar with it even as you may not know all that much of it. Hardly a worthy way to live.

You go to a different place, and the excitement may be great, but it’s the superficial excitement of the new and extraordinary and must-see that is just touristy.
Hardly a good way to live, either.

Stay longer, and the excitement that makes only the extraordinary visible gives way to the familiarity that makes even the ordinary become invisible, having been seen only too often.
A boring way to live.

This is why I talk so much about at-home-making.

The idea of “at home” we usually have is that of being or getting somewhere, and having everything fall into place. You know you have arrived, you feel comfortable, everything is just as (you think) it should be.

Life, however, is never like that, certainly not for a longer time. And indeed, realizing that things are never going to just simply be perfect and dealing creatively and positively with that is a major aspect of living in reality, making oneself at home in life and the world – and everything – as it is.

Making oneself at home is also what it takes.

It is not a passive thing that happens (though it may certainly take its time), but an active process of learning and discovery.

This, too, is what it takes to break through the shallow excitement of the exotic and the equally-as-shallow blinders of the familiar: getting active about one’s learning, setting out to explore and discover more, be that in surroundings, in scholarly pursuits, or in simple pleasures.

Go out for a photo project, to look for certain scenes or themes.

Learn something about where you are and what it is that can be seen, and see things in order to try and learn more about them.

Go different paths from the usual and seek out the new in the known (and the known in the new).

And, the extraordinary (and extra-ordinary) shines through the veil of the merely familiar…

Another example, perhaps: Beijing Sleepers. A better example, I am still working on ;)

Looking onto dance class

The Expat Tango

Recently, the trend in writing about China seems to have become focused on the theme of exodus. Long-term expats are leaving, and telling all about the reasons. Mark Kitto – already famously? – gave one reason in the very title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese.

There is a lot to be said for his argument, and quite something against, but it’s the general theme of home I’d like to take up.

After all, somehow, even  people proposing international, nomadic, location-independent living often talk about the pleasures of living free and unencumbered by ties to any place – but all the while, the notion of “home” figures prominently in their lives.

Sure, there are some who just tick off the countries they’ve been to, the places they’ve lived, without much of any apparent care for where they find themselves. Sure, there are different things that are important to different people – and if you seriously enjoy being in the mountains, but were born and raised in flat land (such as me, here), you may want to consider moving.

It’s often less about living nomadically and being free from ties, so much as it is about the latter, though: an attempt at finding a place to call home, a place that just feels right.

Looking onto dance class

They dance – but are you a partner or an outside onlooker?

Well, a move can help with that. At least, a different context may make for a different frame of reference.
Go somewhere else, and things look different. Whereas you wouldn’t buy foods on the street where you come from, because that’s what you do only in a sterile-looking supermarket (which is boring), it’s normal and even pleasurably exotic in another country (regular digestive problems notwithstanding). It’s all (at least more easily) accepted somewhere else, and the fun and exoticism may make it more of the home you imagined sitting “at home” in a place you felt you knew only too well.

There’s quite something to the notion that you may not simply be at home somewhere, and especially where you grew up. I’m a strong proponent of the view that it’s better to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in the place of one’s origin, rather than feel comfortably at home without ever experiencing any other place (and its people and culture).

Even the average corporate expat willing to go abroad probably didn’t feel quite “at home” where s/he grew up, studied, lived, and thus has a rather less “natural” tie to any such home.

If we are not simply at home in some place, if there is no home – here, or out there – just waiting for us, though, then that applies everywhere.

So, the problem is when the exoticism and excitement about a place becomes an expectation that things should be better there quite naturally, and that, if you feel rather better there – maybe even at home – things should just go exactly your way.

To the extent that we idealize a place, we impoverish it, reducing reality to a list of shortcomings.

There’s the rub. It takes two to tango, and as the stranger, you must make yourself at home. Yet as the stranger, you may not be accepted.

Power plays between people and countries, openness or closedness of societies, racism or other notions of superiority and simple ethnocentrisms, expectations and experiences,…  all come into play – and the expat who moved somewhere because he/she loved that country/culture so much may find that the feeling is not, or not always, reciprocal. Add in that the allure of the exotic fades away and the negatives may come to outweigh the fascination, and discontent can easily be bred.

China has been one of the best, and most difficult, examples of that.

The country is big and diverse, and thus offers great fascination, and it is a place with a landscape and climate for just about everyone. The people are typically curious and hospitable, and may even follow the notion that you are somewhat Chinese as long as you (struggle to) learn the language and fit into the culture. Of course, as everywhere, cultural conventions can make for a bit of a shock – and it’s typically not those stereotypical things like dog meat, but things like the unexpected openness with which visible differences between people – which would typically be talked about only in a circumscribed way, if at all, in ‘the West’ – are discussed: tallness, supposed handsomeness, soggy midsections, big noses… And when the situation somehow changes to a disenchantment with the foreign(ers), these obvious differences single out any foreigner, and the side of China where you are always on the outside if you weren’t born here and look, speak, and think like a Chinese can quickly come to the fore.

There is, of course, also your own set of priorities. China is on the rise, and China is and remains fascinating. Having lived in one place, even if it should be a part of China diametrically opposed to where you grew up, the fascination will be replaced by familiarity, though – and that may be comfortable (if not broken by rising ‘outsiderdom’), or a reason why other aspects, such as ‘outsiderdom’, but also pollution, career opportunities, etc., become more important.

As many of the expats now leaving have noted, once you have children, rampant pollution of air and water, food scandals, insane traffic and test-based schooling, along with legal uncertainties inherent in outsider status (and in China, also the status as citizen) easily become just too much.

As those who stay have started commenting, China is and remains fascinating, has more job opportunities for those who can navigate its market and offer something that is needed.

To me, the lesson is that one needs to make him-/herself at home, anyways, anywhere, as much as one can and wants to. And one needs to make him-/herself sufficiently uncomfortable, so to speak, to not only fall into an everyday monotony, but continually learn and do something more, better. Disenchantment comes everywhere, no place – and no person – is perfect. Handling that is a big part of what life is about.

Only part of all that is up to the individual, though; social acceptance in smaller social circles, for example, but not by the general population. It takes two to tango.

City pond at outlet of reservoir lake, local swimming hole

Why Live in China?

Funny thing.

If you go by what you hear, even in the midst of the reports on China’s economic growth, it doesn’t sound like a place to be: pollution everywhere, except maybe in those places which are truly backwards, without too much in terms of medical care or other amenities; traffic that is even more lethal than the air and water – and those are not exactly safe; costs for housing or, if you want those, Western, quality products that are just about as high as in the West, but at wage levels that are much lower – and mind you, not everyone is on an expat wage.

Even the economic opportunity seems to be a mixed bag. There is said to be widespread optimism, but it’s more of the kind that you expect to handle whatever life throws at you. (Just ask students around the time of their graduation what they expect of the future.) There are more than enough manufacturing bases, but quality assurance (seemingly) doesn’t work without constant supervision. And that is a keyword for employees, anyways, it seems. People working in China tend to seem rather exasperated about the situation.

You can easily be led astray. If you give too much credence into some of that recent reporting which made it sound as if China were only waiting for Western graduates, if you think that you’ll easily change things for the better, if you need Western food and amenities and expect things to work just the way you have come to expect. There is a reason why the majority of China expats leave early.

Yet, there is something to China.

City pond at outlet of reservoir lake, local swimming hole

City pond at outlet of reservoir lake, local swimming hole

People make do, enjoy whatever they get and whatever they have – whether it’s making more money or having more time to play, or even warm sunshine in the middle of winter drawing people out of unheated habitations.

Not too many people seem to dream. Not in the way that you are led to dream in the USA, of finding ways to strike it rich, achieve great things by your own doing. (Even though English texts to learn by heart are full of such images, and so are Communist (?) / youth league (?) / school (?) slogans.) They do dream of a good life, know that there should be a place to call one’s own, a family, a car, want to find work – and they’ll simply take their chances, work hard, see what comes.

It’s a problem when that which comes are kickbacks, and people fall into wealth without quite knowing what hit them, just because of the way the system is set up. Still, there are enough people who see their lives improving through their own work, there is an education to enjoy shopping, but be thrifty at the same time – and there is ample opportunity to be thrifty. Lights at home get turned off, food is valued, repair shops are everywhere…

It certainly is a mixed bag, but a truly fascinating one, where every new day can be the same, and yet different at the same time.

Chinese Dinner Table

at home?

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.

Chinese Dinner TableChances 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.

This is not meself :-p

Being the Foreigner

I happened to virtually run into Ellis of when I had just found my way of getting to China, and she seemed to not find a way after all. Since then, as her plans worked out too, we have been comparing our impressions of (being in) China.
Recently, she posted about the way Chinese approach foreigners, and it got me to remember that I had wanted to write a bit about this issue, but hadn’t yet done so.

What issue, really?
Well, that of feeling at home in a foreign country is a little bit of it, the main part is simply that of being easily recognizable as a foreigner, and the way people react to foreigners.

In China, this is a particularly interesting issue. Both because one does stick out, and because people react in very specific ways: Comments of 老外 (“foreigner”) and in a case like mine also 外教(“foreign teacher”), sometimes accompanied by pointing and stares, are very common.
It can be quite funny with schoolchildren trying out their English, it can be quite annoying when people check out your supermarket cart wondering what the foreigner is buying.

(I must admit to having done the same thing, wondering what other foreigners or Chinese are buying…
And actually, I must admit to having become so accustomed to having Chinese faces around, I sometimes almost want to point and exclaim that this face really looks different when I suddenly see my own face reflected somewhere.
While I’m at it: I have to say that I felt more foreign and vulnerable when I was walking around Harlem.)

What can get under your skin a bit more (just check out Ellis’ post…), is the Chinese propensity for commenting on someone’s looks. Such comments, especially to a person’s face, are pretty rare in America and also in Central Europe – in Northern Europe, I hadn’t really noticed; in Southern Europe, it’s just a part of normal speech.
Well, China is a bit like Southern Europe when it comes to that, except strangely gender-equal in this respect: guys also get comments of ?? (handsome). Yesterday, just after reading Ellis’ post, I heard the first “lovely” which was ever directed at me…
Well, it can get somewhat annoying. I have become rather too good at recognizing such comments even at a distance. At the same time, I must say that I just shake them off… seems easier for a guy, and a foreign teacher mainly meeting students: I certainly don’t get the innuendo, rarely even get asked for my number.

Actually, in thinking and talking about it, I found that I can take this very easily:
I just consider it a part of customary Chinese ways of chatting (I’m not quite sure it is, but I have heard quite enough comments by Chinese, about the looks of another Chinese, to think so).

What I have more trouble getting a grip on is actually the American habit of greeting somebody by “asking” “How are you?” It is almost always used instead of “Hi,” without any interest whatsoever in the other person’s state of health. So, I know it’s also just customary, but not even giving somebody the time to say “Fine, thank you” just seems very wrong to me – and I would not want to give that answer when the truth is probably a bit more complicated.

Being the foreigner can also open up a very different perspective on immigrants to one’s own country: The often-criticized refusal to integrate into the host culture is suddenly something a person has to consider for him-/herself.

In the end, I personally mainly find that my anthropology teachers were right: They suggested that the best students of cultural anthropology are those who don’t quite feel at home in the country they are supposed to be a part of, being too aware of the artifice that goes into the supposed naturalness of any culture’s basic tenets.
(Basically, it’s like the state of “reverse culture shock” – the culture shock one can get when returning from somewhere else and noticing, for the first time maybe, that one’s own culture can seem pretty strange. But as a state of mind.)

I’d rather be the foreigner, suffer some downsides, get conscious of my own cultural baggage and decide which parts of my heritage to uphold and which to discard, and learn to fit in somewhere else to the extent to which I find it feasible and want to do it.

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