Even if locals know that I am not Chinese, they tend to rattle off in the language anyway. I can’t always make out what they’re saying, but some things stand out.
“Wo keyi bang ni yi xia.” – I can help you.
It’s not always easy to receive help, especially when you’re an adult who has a lot of things to do on your own and is used to being the help-giver.
Different people have different reasons for feeling uncomfortable about receiving help. There are those who don’t want to be a burden on others. There are those who prefer to do things themselves so that they’re done a particular way. And then there are those who don’t like to feel helpless.
I tend to fall in the last category. It doesn’t necessarily stem from a desire to know everything off the bat (though that doesn’t sound like a bad idea), but from not wanting to feel stupid. And let’s face it, moving away from home and living in a place with completely different codes for doing things is a good way to feel like an idiot.
Things that come to you so naturally in your own country now take twice the effort. Sometimes it’s simply because people do things differently in each country. And the Chinese do a lot of things very differently than we may be used to. But then of course – here it comes again – there is the language barrier.
While we probably have many good days being foreigners in an exotic place, there are the occasional curveballs as well. Such as those days when, no matter how much help may be available to you, and how nicely a stranger has said to you: “wo keyi bang ni yi xia,” you just don’t feel like going with the flow and instead feel like the stupidest person ever to walk the earth.
One such day came to me soon after my first year here. That particular day’s “I-hate-being-in-China-and-I-hate-stepping-out-of-my-comfort-zone” moment came courtesy of the realization that, despite having lived here over twelve months (at the time), I did not know how to write or read my home address.
Yes, by then I had already spent over half a year learning over a hundred Chinese characters. But unfortunately, none of the following appeared in my address: good, morning, how, are, you, please, come, to, my, house, tomorrow, at, nine, o’clock, thanks.
So instead, I was reduced to feeling less capable than a six-year-old. At least they are able to hold their own in a conversation and certainly know their own address! I was left staring uncomprehendingly at the guy filling out delivery forms in IKEA, wanting to scream, “I’m really not stupid, you know,” a sentiment which I’ve had for the last 13 years I’ve been learning a new language.
At times like this, even my slightly-better verbal Mandarin skills fly out the window and I get all tongue-tied and unable to utter a word. Which is just as well, because the tears threaten to fall as soon as I open my mouth.
I find myself sending off a text with another string of characters I’ve (sadly) learned by heart: can, you, please, help, me?
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.