Living half of my life in the U.S. and half of my life in China, I thought I had mastered the different formalities, mannerisms, and cultures of each country. Little did I know, spending time in China would change me in a way that I could never have imagined.
As I walked through the streets of Soho on a rainy day in April, I recalled my first experiences of coming back to America. Both Beijing and New York are unlike any other city in the world, but they also share similarities. Locals move fast on their daily commutes, becoming impatient when a stranger walks too slowly in front of them. In Beijing, one person would simply walk in front of another person without signaling in any sort of way, and there is generally less respect for personal space. Likewise, in New York City, people don’t really say “sorry” or “excuse me” when they accidentally bump into someone.
Having vacationed in the U.S. before returning there for college, I had already noticed certain cultural differences about myself:
1. I didn’t line up. Like the time my plane touched down, and I jumped out of my seat before anyone else and raced to the front of the line. People looked at me like I was crazy, but I was just doing what any other Beijinger would have done.
2. I was no longer special. Or at least, not as special. In China, being bilingual (especially in English) is a big deal. But in America, a country of immigrants, many people speak a second language – even if they might not be fluent in it. I’m still “special” because I’ve done more traveling and lived in more countries than the average 20-year-old, but the distinction becomes more of a qualitative cultural knowledge, not so much an immediately quantitative language face-off.
3. I was truly bicultural. Although I said I was no longer special, that doesn’t mean that living in China and going to an international school hasn’t changed me. I still have knowledge of two worlds; I know what it’s like to walk in a North American mall surrounded by Abercrombie and Hollister stores as much as I know what it’s like to walk in an ancient hutong and purchase Plastered 8 t-shirts. I know what it’s like to go into a club at age 19 in the US and not drink any alcohol because I am underage, and also what it’s like to party it up in Sanlitun – provided I don’t go home too late.
4. The world is my backyard. One of the things about third culture kids is that our friends don’t all live in a cozy little town where everyone knows everyone else and no one ever moves away. My best friends and I don’t see each other all the time. We live in New York City, Berkeley, Chicago, and Ohio. Skype is our world, and texting and calling each other has made it easier to bridge the distance. A friend, who was of mixed Chinese-American heritage, once told me that she was still making the transition from having multicultural and Asian friends to having exclusively Caucasian friends.
Given I am very lucky that both New York and Beijing, the two cities I live in are surprisingly similar, I still deal with cultural differences to a greater degree. It is often easy for me to know what to say in front of Chinese people and expats. I know the language and culture of both East and West, but changing from the customs of China to America and vice versa is not as easy as it sounds. Of course I often like to reflect the culture shock I continuously go through both ways, there are times when I have to think about whether to lineup or if I am standing on the right side of the escalator, but traveling back and forth more often between the U.S. and China, I am slowly bridging the gap between the two places I call home.
My cultural instincts now turn on and off like a light switch, although at times rusty, I am becoming more efficient. Just the other day I reminded myself to be less courteous to people lining up for the bus. Still in my North American state of mind I was simply lining up for the bus, and realized that everyone who had come after me was already edging their way towards the front of the bus to get on.
Living a third culture life will never be easy, there is never one answer for how to act in public or what is really culturally acceptable. It is a process of constant change between culture norm A and culture norm B, but we learn to live with it as one of life’s little amusements.
“Life Beyond Beijing” is a series of posts that chronicles a former international school student’s experiences in college. They’re written by Elizabeth Wu, a returning beijingkids summer intern. A former student of BWYA and CISB, she just completed her freshman year of journalism and will be returning to The New School in New York City this fall.
Photo via 7th.List from Pinterest