Well, it’s been about two weeks since I landed in Changsha, and in general, I’ve liked China pretty well. Sure, the internet censorship is frustrating, the hard beds take some getting used to, and the painfully spicy food makes you dread mealtimes sometimes…but at the end of the day, those things aren’t so bad. Certainly a shock to the newcomer, but not unbearable. It’s easily evened out by the awe of the Chinese characters everywhere, the dragon arch in front of my apartment complex, and the general joy of being back in a city with public transportation.
All that’s fine and dandy until stage 2 of culture shock starts to hit. The reality that I’ve really moved here has set in; I finally finished unpacking my belongings and my apartment feels a little more like home. The magic and awe of the Chinese characters has worn off and it’s frustrating to be completely clueless about how to read and write -to have no way to read bus routes, menus, etc. I’ve begun to notice that going to the grocery store is at least a 3-4 (sometimes even 5) hour ordeal and almost always leaves me feeling frustrated and incompetent. The joy of being in a city is dampened by the realization that the buses shut down at 9 or 10pm (even on weekends), followed by the panic that I don’t know how to tell a taxi driver where my apartment is located.
In my psych classes at college, we learned about egocentrism and the imaginary audience that plagues the teenage years. It’s not imaginary here. Every time I step out of my apartment, people turn and stare at me. Kids point and ask their mothers questions about me on the bus. Random people in the supermarket ask how much money I make, what I do, and where I’m from. Every move I make is monitored and watched; I’m the representation of my culture. Sometimes that feels like a lot of responsibility.
That said, China is still a great experience and I’m not regretting a thing (except for maybe the whole ‘preschool’ part of the deal). Since nobody really speaks English, it’s forcing me to get on the ball about really buckling down and studying Chinese or look like an incompetent American. Since I don’t want to resort to McDonald’s for every meal on every weekend, I might actually have to learn to cook (and get over my fear of speaking to my fellow Changsharén). If I want to buy something, I’m going to have to learn to negotiate for the price I want to pay.
It’s not going to happen in a day, but it might happen in a year.