Living in China requires a certain amount of patience. One must have the patience to boil any and all water they ingest; to serve all of one’s elders at mealtimes; to remove ones shoes before entering any living space; to let one’s clothes dry in the sun. On my part, these day-to-day trials don’t present much of a challenge, rather I have had to learn (and am still learning) to exercise patience for myself, Chinese people, and my fellow Dragons.
Mandarin is said to be one of the hardest languages to learn. Not only is it tonal, it also includes thousands of characters, and a multitude of dialects and accents. Having been a straight-A student in high school, and a massive perfectionist who thrived in a classroom environment, learning Mandarin, especially in an experiential context, has proven to be quite daunting at times. I have caught myself more than once retreating to the comfort of my room to study characters and stroke orders rather than actually interacting with Chinese locals. I’ve found in recent days that, given the room and resolve to do so, speaking Mandarin to locals is possible, even for me — the ultimate beginner! I’ve learned that I must have the patience to flub and trip over words, to ask people to repeat themselves, and sometimes still not understand what is being said in order to improve my language and interpersonal skills.
On the flip side, I’ve also had to reckon with patience when interacting with Chinese people, especially as a black person, and the only one in our group. The day before our orientation at Princeton, I grabbed coffee with a family friend, a tall black man who spent a portion of his summer in China & whose Mandarin skill far exceeds my own, and his parting words to me were “Good luck; it’s going to be hard.” In our first week here in China, his words have absolutely rang true. I’ve had people gawk and stare, point at me, and even take my photo without permission despite my protestations. These occurrences happen a few times per day, and are incredibly objectifying and dehumanizing, especially because I don’t yet have the language skills to defend myself. I initially felt that who I was as a person–my thoughts, aspirations, personality and character–were being rendered null, and the darkness of my skin and the kink of my hair had come to the forefront, becoming the talk of the town (and probably WeChat.) Even though we are travelling around a lot as a group, I’ve noticed a special breed of attention being doled out for me, as people reorient themselves to get a better shot of the hei ren (black person) or grab their closest acquaintance to point me out within our group. This has resulted in an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and alienation not only from China, but from my fellow Dragons. However, talking to Ling, our Chinese instructor, has helped me reframe my perspective and lessen (albeit not extinguish) the blow of each unwarranted photo. She told me to try and separate the bad habit from the culture, and not to conflate individual people’s rudeness with the spirit of China as a whole. Although this is much easier said than done, I’ve been able to take on this way of thinking bit by bit, day by day. Even now as I sit on a bus typing this, I sit with the knowledge that three people took my photo as our group was getting onto the bus. A week ago this knowledge would have sent me into a tailspin of anxiety and isolation wherein I would avoid contact with any Chinese person for at least a few hours, yet now I sit here having made small talk with a woman and her toddler son sitting across the aisle from me. That’s progress right?
Because of our group’s diversity in nature, this first week has also yielded conversations about privilege, race, cultural appropriation, and ideology in which I have found that my patience is being tried. As individuals with varying degrees of privilege associated with wealth, status and race interacting with each other and China, our differing perceptions of the world around us due to said privilege have come to light. I’ve noticed a prevalent sense of entitlement within some group members as they approach Chinese culture due to having always operated at privileged level. I have had to explain and re-explain concepts that are very familiar to me, being black and a first-gen American, surrounding these subjects. Of course, I am happy to do so for the sake of mutual learning, although I have found that my efforts so far have been futile because these conversations that, in my mind, have been had for the sake of learning have turned into discussions wherein people have become closed off to recognizing their ignorance and realizing the ease with which they are able to navigate the world in comparison to others. In the next days and weeks, I know I will have to exercise patience to maintain a harmonious living environment, but this too comes with the expectation of growth from my fellow Dragons.