Article by Serena Runyan
I found myself in one of many of Xi’an’s small convenience stores the other night, standing in front of the canned beer section for what was longer than I needed to, to choose between several of China’s five-and-six kuai finest. I was on my way to my boyfriend’s apartment and had decided that his most recent in a series of concussions was mild enough and long enough ago that we could go wild and split one such beer while watching Battlestar Galactica.
I was in a good mood that day, and if I hadn’t been I probably wouldn’t have had the mental fortitude to voluntarily have one more human interaction than I needed to, especially in Chinese. I know; that requires maybe two words and scanning a QR code. I know.
My Chinese ability is somewhat of a sore spot for me. Every time I say something stupid or return words with a blank stare, which is often, I can hear the Chinese minor that I have written proudly on my résumé sneering. The art of social interaction is something that I’ve never really been a natural at, but finally learned to fake in America (or so I like to think). Having to restart the process in a language that taunts me is something that frustrates me daily. Feeling stupid is something I don’t particularly enjoy, and I feel stupid a lot here.
But it had been a nice sunny day (which makes any day here special), my classes had gone well and I had taken the 216 instead of the 40, which I knew was a mistake but took anyway in a fit of impatience at the bus stop. I ended up having to walk an extra kilometer, which led me past an enticing convenience store, and the inspiration struck.
I decided on a nice, warm Jiu Du. My phone didn’t die in the middle of the WeChat scan (which it has been known to do lately). The guy asked me where I was from, and how long I’d been here. I guess I conveyed that I had been here for nine months instead of saying that I came in September like I meant to, but just nodded the miscommunication away, like always. He smiled and told me to enjoy my time here. Bye-bye.
It was a simple interaction, but it left me with that “the world is a beautiful place” feeling that you get from witnessing acts of selfless kindness, sunny days with kittens or, in my case, a non-failed interaction in China. A nice one, even.
Despite some notion I have of myself as being a “city-person,” stemming from a three-year stint I had in Boston as a baby, I have lived in a loose definition of “small-town America” for most of my life, moving from the hustle and bustle of Boise, the “I drove through there on the way to somewhere else” capital of Idaho, to Walla Walla, WA (population 34,000, including a healthy flow of rich, Seattle-based wine tasters) for four years of college and an additional year of clinging to my college days.
Which is all to say that the noises, smells and sheer mass and density of humans in a city the size of Xi’an is something I’m not exactly used to, not to mention the cultural and linguistic differences and difficulties (and smog). Though I grow more and more accustomed to life here as time goes on, daily errands and interactions still wear on me sometimes. Impossibly apathetic employees, total disregard for the sanctity of lines, scooters on the sidewalk. I think that wear stems largely from my lack of fluency (in many senses of the word), but also from the often-abrasive attitude of people which you tend to find in any city. And that you also find in someone frustrated by your laowai incompetencies. And both of them together.
In this context, as I believe is the case for many people who find themselves living abroad, small actions and interactions that make up a day, and the emotions that result of them, are exaggerated and heightened. An attempt at doing an “everyday task” is either a source of frustration and discouragement or validation, even elation.
As was the case as I waltzed out of the store, Jiu Du in hand, a pep in my step, invigorated by the “hey it’s not so bad, is that a star?” night air. It was interactions like these that kept me excited to be here, that motivated me to not become complacent and bitter in the face of molasses-thick Shaanxihua, people shoving in front of me to get on an empty bus and those “I’m saying the right words but you’re looking at me like I’m insane—oh you mean this?—Yeah that’s what I’ve been saying this whole time” interactions.
Conversations with friendly taxi drivers that are 30% communication and 70% nodding, doing the thing you set out to do with minimal mafan, uneventful interactions; smiles, kind words and an ability to understand what I’m saying: all things that I have come to cherish.
The beer has been left sitting on my boyfriend’s stove, which hasn’t worked for a while now on account of the aforementioned trials and tribulations of daily life. Still warm, still ready to be indulged in. But it’s served its purpose.
Serena is an oral English teacher at NPU from Boise, ID.