11 September 2011

same old new

Adjusting to a new place is always a dance between the good and the bad. It’s about discovering how much you really like this, only to get slapped in the face by how much you hate that. Back and forth. Happy and hating. The main issue being that everything is different. All of it.

Take language. In a new place you can lose the ability to represent who you are via the spoken word. You find your voice lacks nuance and rhythm, and the things that come out of your mouth will never be confused with the perfect songs of sentences you used to love to say. You are well aware that saying, “This food is good” makes you sound like a second grader, except that unlike your standard Chinese second grader, you can’t even name the vegetables on the table.

And shoes? Even though you live with 1.3 billion other people who all need shoes – and who also produce the rest of the world’s shoes – there are no shoes in your size. (Or at least no women with feet as big as yours.)

The water? Don’t drink it. If you use it to wash your vegetables – along with soap because you really don't want to know how they fertilize crops in China – then after washing your vegetables with tap water, you have to wash them again with distilled water to wash off the tap water. Yes, I said wash off the water.

As for crossing the street? The walk sign says it’s your turn but don't be fooled. China's drivers have unanimously agreed to disagree on the rules of the road. So don't put a foot past the gutter until you've done an Exorcist-esque head spin to assess the likelihood of being run down. Look for trucks, bicycles, buses. And thousands upon thousands of deathly silent electric scooters.

Make sure there isn't a delivery truck barreling down the sidewalk or a taxi short-cutting its way up the wrong side of the road. And you wouldn't naturally worry about this, but you should also look out for drivers ignoring their own red light in order to turn left and force their way through oncoming traffic –  from the far right lane.

Amidst all of the new there is one thing that survives on the idea of staying the same: Starbucks. If you buy enough coffee (or if your awkward Chinese draws enough attention while you're there) there will come a day when the folks who make your mocha will see you coming and already know your order. And when they ask if you want your usual – that drink you could find in Seoul, and then went on to order in Washington, D.C., and now drink right here in Chengdu – it makes things feel a little bit normal. The no shoes and the don’t drink the water and the sounding like a second grader all take a back seat to the fact that this place is becoming your home. And you like it.

At least until you have to cross the street.

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