Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Fitting In

Coming “home” this time is different from other times. I am not appalled by the stores, or offended by the abundance. I am not sickened by the waste, or nauseated by the obesity of our population.

Most of my feelings have turned inward. My thoughts are rapidly moving in different directions all the time. I wake up at night, fully awake, with some new observation that I missed while I was making it earlier that day!

My 3rd day back, I went to the outlet malls. Zoe was down to 2 t-shirts, a sweatshirt, and 2 pairs of pants. Not good for a little girls playing on a muddy Oregon farm!
I spent the first 30 minutes digging through clearance piles at Gymboree, thrilled by the prices, thinking how much fun it was to be doing shopping at a familiar place again… and WHOMP, overload. I could HEAR everyone talking. I could UNDERSTAND everyone. I had been in my private zone. The place I spend nearly every day of my life while in China.

The Zone is the place of sanity. It is a bubble in which the non-mandarin speaking foreigner finds peace. While in the zone, an English word spoken within 200 yards can have a jarring, and tongue numbing effect. There have been times, when approached by a foreigner on the streets of China, and asked a question, I just stand there, blankly staring at them, trying to formulate an intelligent answer, and being totally hung up on the fact that they just SPOKE TO ME.

When I got whomped at Gymboree, I felt panicky. All those VOICES! All those CONVERSATIONS! If I ever got cool enough to have a movie made of my life, at that moment, it would be like one of those superhero movies. You know, the moment the hero, in his superhero infancy, begins to realize that he has a special power? Like Superman’s senses going on overdrive as he tries to focus his hearing on filtering out a single cry for help among the chaotic buzz of the city.

So I stood there, my arms draped with size 4 and 5 little girls clothing. Distracted from the racks of unbeatable deals by all these people, wondering what I was going to do. Pretend I was Russian? Maybe if people thought I was Russian they wouldn’t talk to me. No, dumb idea. Start jabbering away in a mix of my 50 Chinese words, mix in some made up ones and try to pass myself off as Asian? Obviously, an even dumber idea.

I start self talking. “You ARE American Hallie. And it is pretty obvious. You are whiter than white, wearing mom pants and shopping at an outlet mall. Plus, you are drinking Starbucks.” Besides, I realize, no one cares if you understand them. They are all assuming you DO.

So I gather my mangled emotions and scattered thought together. I wait in a civilized, courteous line like I have not done in a year. I pay with crisp green bliss, and I climb in our borrowed minivan and drive home on a smooth, organized highway. I stop at Target on the way home to pick up some shampoo, and successfully resist the urge to blurt out my whole life story to the cashier who asks me how my day was going. But that is another story.


jessilynncook said...

WOW - That's really all I have to say.

Venture With Purpose said...

I feel for you. I always heard of culture shock, but it wasn't until I spent a little time in Japan and a year in Guam that I realized you could get "shocked" by your own culture. It's nice to have you here though and meet the face behind the stories;)

mama said...

You are of the privileged...who have experienced another culture intimately...and can see our "mamerica" with new eyes. So glad to have you are loved!

Tim McLaughlin said...

You keep writing like this, Hallie--about such moments, with such transparency and without self-consciousness, as articulately as you do here--you'll have a memoir of these years that will make wonderful reading. As in, publishable.

For now, just keep writing your heart, and I'll keep reading....

halz said...

Thanks Tim!
I am saving all blogs, at least so my children can have them one day, if nothing else. You are an encouragement to me.