When I was young, and foolish, I left the United States for a year and lived in Israel before travelling for two months in Europe. Naturally, I was struck by how weird everything was. “Why did they do things that way? That’s not the way I learned to do things. This is wrong, my way is right!” These were a few of the thoughts that knocked about my mostly empty head. I had much to overcome and, through the patience of many, I was able to improve the way Israelis and Europeans did things. Wait, that’s not right, I was able to adjust my perspective and appreciate the differences in the various cultures and people that I interacted with.
Now that I’m older (still foolish) and living in China, I sometimes yearn for the simple differences between Europe and the USA. There are plenty of differences in Beijing from my hometown where the population has been on the brink of 19,000 since I was in elementary school – even with all the migratory hippies in the park in the summertime. Even excursions to San Francisco’s China Town failed to adequately prepare me for the vast cultural divide that exists between my home culture and the host culture.
The key has been perspective, mainly my own. Though I may leave a lasting impression on someone as to what constitutes an “American” (hopefully a positive one) I know that no single person I interact with represents a “typical” Chinese person or all-encompassing point of view. Equally important, no matter how long the line is at the grocery store and how many employees are hanging around not at registers, I had better bring a book or my iPod to keep myself occupied while waiting in line for 15 minutes to buy groceries. It may be frustrating at times, but that doesn’t make it wrong or strange, just different. It’s also a great time to leave an impression on the next person in line.