Despair on the other side of the world
In my last article, I glossed over some common things that might irritate the average expat. Staring, traffic, kids relieving themselves in public, etcetera. Those make up irritations that affect me on a regular basis. The long term issues, however, have different sources. They stem from a desire to belong, a desire to figure out why I’m here and what it is I want to do.
I feel like I don’t fit in here. The strongest sense of this came from the fact that, when I arrived, all but two of the foreign teachers were part of a couple. Some had Chinese girlfriends, some had American girlfriends, but all had some significant other. The other sense of not fitting in came from experience. Almost everyone here had been here for a year or longer, and the others had been to multiple countries before coming to China.
That said, nobody treats me like I don’t belong here. I’m always invited to expat gatherings, whether they be at someone’s apartment or a bar down the street. I can ask anyone if they’re free for lunch, and they usually are. People are always happy to see me, to chat about whatever. This contributes to my confusion, because feel accepted and foreign at the same time.
I know where this comes from; depression compounded by a lack of self-confidence. It’s something I’ve worked on, something I’ve continued to work on. if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t know how clearly these feelings present themselves, but they’re definitely there at the end of the day, when I’m in my apartment late at night playing around on my computer.
Now, let’s multiply those feelings of loneliness for a moment. I’m the only foreign teacher, and the only male, at my school’s branch. One thing that I’ve noticed since I got here is that it is very common for Chinese women to touch each other. Hugging, playing with hair, holding hands, sometimes sitting on another’s lap. Something I was warned not to do by another foreign teacher was to touch the female Chinese teachers, because it would be misinterpreted as romantic interest. So far as I can tell, this is a pretty hard and fast rule. There are a couple of teachers that I’ve made a friendly bond with, that I hug from time to time, but even in Western culture, I think that this is a boundary that’s not easily crossed without things getting messy.
Beyond that, there’s a very simple barrier in culture and language. When I’m in a planning grove, I can usually be found at my desk, typing up a storm on my laptop while music plays through my earbuds. Often enough, though, some passing comment by a Chinese teacher will send a chorus of laughter through the room, followed up by more rapid banter in Chinese. Occasionally I catch a word or two, but rarely enough to figure out what the topic of the conversation is. So, in that moment, as well as the situations described above, I feel left out. Disconnected. Isolated. Lonely. What is there to do about it? Sometimes I’ll ask, but usually that feels awkward, because whatever was said has to be translated, if possible, and explained, which takes time and ruins the moment.
I don’t mention this to complain, only to express my feelings. My head teacher has done a lot to make me feel accepted and part of the group. I have friends among the Chinese teachers. One thing that I’ve read about is teachers gossiping about a foreign teacher in front of them in Chinese, and not explaining it when asked about it. To my knowledge, this doesn’t happen; I think the Chinese teachers here are polite enough not to do that, and aware enough to know that they might not get away with it, because I have a pretty good sense of when I’m being talked about.
The last thing that bothers me isn’t really related to culture shock; it’s just job satisfaction. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m doing, and I feel that I’m good at doing it, and I also feel I’m continuing to improve with every class I teach. But, it can be a big time commitment when it comes to becoming better and better.
However, since that has nothing to do with culture shock, I’ll save the details for another article.