When we moved here, I had big plans for the kids. They would learn to speak Chinese, eat Chinese and appreciate all things Chinese. I had no idea there would be so many pizza joints within a one-mile radius of our very un-Chinese house in the heart of Shunyi. Going native isn’t as easy as I imagined it would be.
I may have boarded a plane and left home, but I haven’t really escaped the United States. If I want to, I can always find American news, movies or music here. I can usually find an English speaker in a pinch. And I’m seldom far from a recognizable store, like McDonald’s or Starbucks. There are days when I appreciate the fact that my cable news includes CNN, and I’ve been known to order more than
my share of bagels and cream cheese at Mrs. Shanen’s. I love seeing recognizable brands from home in Jenny Lou’s. But sometimes I wonder: Did I really travel this far so I could stay home?
This is our fourth overseas assignment, and the first where I don’t speak the language very well. In every other country in which we’ve lived, I’ve been able to break out of my American bubble simply because I could talk to the locals. I befriended my local shopkeeper’s family in Armenia, joining them for dinner in the tiny house behind their store. I went out with Russian friends in Moscow, reminiscing about our grad school days together. But here, I can’t break the barrier that separates me from the locals, because try as I might, I still can’t get far in conversation.
I was sitting in a restaurant recently with my kids. At the next table was a Chinese family: mom, dad, and two young sons. The younger of the two had three balloons in his hand, and when he saw my kids eyeing them, he handed over two of his balloons to my two youngest. I wanted to thank him for his generosity. I wanted to tell his mother how impressed I was. I wanted to say something, anything, to show that I appreciated his gesture. So I said "Xie xie." And my kids said "Xie xie." And we were pretty much done.
When it’s time to leave Beijing, I don’t want my kids telling me they’ll miss the local pizza place. I want them to miss China. But to miss it, they have to really get into it, and sometimes that seems tricky out here in Shunyi, where everyone speaks English and half of the cars have diplomatic plates.
So I do what I can. We take the kids to Chinese restaurants, despite the fact that they complain bitterly about the dearth of mozzarella cheese. We practice our Chinese on guards and waiters and shopkeepers, even though they all seem to speak English. We visit Chinese parks, travel through Chinese hutongs and read Chinese children’s stories – in translation, of course.
In all we do, we compare it to the culture we left behind, the one that shadows us everywhere we move across the globe. We can’t help it. I suppose that’s okay, too. After all, I’m raising an American family – no escaping that. So maybe it’s enough if we just scratch the surface of this place. Maybe it’s enough if we venture out into China on some days, but stay in America on others. Maybe the glimpses of China that my kids get simply because they live here will ultimately be enough for them to understand that people, like pizza, are pretty much the same around the world.
Though I have to say, the pepperoni here just isn’t quite right.
Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer and mother of four who has lived in Bejing for three years. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.