Maria Holland

Location and Identity

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2015 at 10:41 am

I went shopping with the other Beijing EAPSI women today.  We’re going to a 4th of July party at the US embassy on Thursday, and the guys got suits made so . . . the stakes have been raised.  We actually had a decent amount of success – one time I even had to tell the shopkeeper that a dress was too big!  This had never happened to me before in China.

I bought a few dresses and some cute cards.  They had pretty scenes on them, along with “recipes”:

Travel recipe
there are a lot of things that we canlearn through
traveling to different places experience
culture and your information

Reading recipe
in today’s world,
training and learning do 
not stop when
we finish schoolthey
must nowcontinue
throughout our working lives

Shopping recipe
use a shopping list
you also need to think about what you
can afford to have

Sleep recipe:
i spread my wings and i’ll learn how to fly
wanna feel the warm breeze
sleep under a palm tree

The last one was my favorite, because it is literally some of the lyrics from “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson.

About halfway through, I started noticing my own behavior and seeing in it a mirror of the behavior I see around me.  Chinese people are beyond generous with the people in their ‘inner circle’ (family, friends, colleagues, etc.), but people on the outside of this circle are really not extended any basic courtesy.  I think in the time I’ve spent here, I’ve internalized this attitude more than I’m comfortable with.  In Chinese, it’s easier for me to be demanding, dismissive, curt.  Even five years later, it’s an easier skin to slip into than I realized.  

It’s a difficult question for me, how to find a balance between assimilation and authenticity?  If I could, I would remove any trace of an accent in my Chinese, remove any indication of my American-ness.  There’s much that I admire in Chinese culture and want to make “mine”, most especially the incredible generosity among friends.  I have enough relativism in me to know that Chinese behavior towards strangers is “rude according to Americans”, not “rude”, but . . . I’m an American.  Should my behavior be governed by identity or location?  A bit of both, no?  I don’t quite know what the test is, but I think it comes down to a comparison of values.  When it comes to food, for instance, I go with location: my gastronomical repertoire has increased markedly because I value “accepting gifts graciously” over “Americans don’t eat that”.  And in public transportation, “getting on a bus at some point this week” does outweigh my American belief in “queueing patiently”.

In dealing with shopkeepers, it’s something like “acting less obviously foreign” vs. “recognizing the people I’m interacting with as human”.  The former (besides being a hopeless cause) is simply not worth sacrificing the latter.  

So I started to make a conscious effort to look people in the eyes, smile, say ‘thank you’.  I know that it’s super American to say thank you so much, but I can’t hide my foreignness in my outward appearance, and maybe I shouldn’t try to hide some aspects of my culture any more than the color of my skin and hair or the shape of my face. 

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