We were in unfamiliar territory, and yet we were home. When I was a child, my family moved to the US from Taiwan; we arrived with suitcases and a few phone numbers, and settled down as best as we could. We moved from the East to the West, but I bet new expats in Beijing won’t have much trouble identifying with our experience.
The move was a planned one, so we had expected certain things to be quite different. Like the language. For months before the move, my parents, sister, brother and I had attended classes as a family, shouting out sentences in unison, trying to master the melodic tones of this foreign tongue. As for food, my parents were positive that what passed for cuisine in this new place couldn’t possibly match the tastes of home. Fruits and vegetables wouldn’t be as fresh; fish and meat would come in unrecognizable packages.
But so much else was also different, and the list of changes we never anticipated ballooned.
It seemed kids in this new country were often permitted to run amok in supermarkets and generally cause a ruckus; freezer aisles were their personal playgrounds. Meanwhile, my parents had decided that, in the spirit of acculteration, they would try to be less strict with their children. Doing the wash was a bit of a mystery at first; back home a laundry lady took care of our clothes, but here, the task of figuring out the washers and dryers in our apartment building fell to my mother. We were bewildered when our wet, clean clothes got tossed from the washers – apparently we’d broken the unspoken rules of the laundry room. We quickly learned to stake out machines on weekend mornings and monitor our loads with vigilance.
At school, the kids in class hailed from other nations and spoke different languages at home. Still, I was a bit of a novelty, so I was often asked to say things in Chinese or show off some kung-fu moves. As for riding the subway, that was a veritable art form that my family mastered through trial and error, not to mention a bit of bravery. “Hold my hand!” my mother would warn, casting a nervous glance about to check for potential child-snatchers. Within a few months, however, we were navigating the tangle of train lines with confidence and exploring the city’s every corner. We elbowed our way, just like locals did, onto the crowded, screeching trains.
Looking back more than 20 years later, it’s funny that the place that eventually became a beloved home – New York – ever appeared so foreign in those first days. It took good humor, patience, and the help of new friends to feel comfortable, but slowly we saw ourselves as local rather than foreign. Here’s to deciphering strange new lands – with a little help from beijingkids.