It has been a LONG time since I felt this out of my element. It started the second I boarded the plane. I flew Hainan Airlines which is a Chinese speaking airline. They do translate into English and provide funny little videos with English subtitles to explain everything you need to know to fly with them but I know there were times throughout the flight that I missed the message.
The flight was delayed, long, hot and uncomfortable. To be expected on a 13 hour flight half way across the world. When I arrived I was greeted by Doug the Head of CISB and his lovely wife Marie. We had a car and driver to bring us back to the residence. In my apartment I found a welcome gift with some essentials to get me started, food, towels, information and a nice freshly made bed. I was very tired so I immediately went to bed.
When I woke in the morning I began the task of unpacking and finding a place for everything. This was challenging as I did not have hangers or some other containers to put things in. I piled most of my clothes on the bed or in the closet until I could get what I needed. I remembered when I was here in May that staff who were leaving placed unwanted items by the elevators on each floor so I decided to go exploring. I rooted through boxes, looked on shelves travelling from floor to floor until I had many items I needed. I even scored one of my favourite things……a diffuser! I also found many plants to add oxygen and life to my apartment. I returned to my apt and placed all of the items on the counter because I had no way of washing them as I did not have dishcloths, soap or a towel. I found a stash of hangers so I was able to unpack all of my clothes. I knew the dishes would have to wait for another day until I had the items I needed to wash them all.
That evening Doug and Marie invited me to dinner. We went to a “Westernized” restaurant on the rooftop over looking the financial district of Beijing. We sipped Margaritas and had a beautiful meal talking and getting to know one another. I am sure by the end of the night that Doug and Marie were getting sick of all my questions. After dinner we took a cab (I like to call it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride) to the grocery store. I wandered aimlessly around the store trying to find products I wanted or needed that looked familiar. I often found things that looked like things from home but upon closer examination found they were not in fact what I thought. I often had to look for brand names or pictures to know what things were. There were some none of us could figure out. No one in the store spoke English so I had to communicate with the cashier about a bag and how much things cost my pointing and gesturing. All in all SUCCESS! Groceries bought and lessons learned.
Today was an even bigger adventure. IKEA and Carrfour! What an interesting experience IKEA was. People everywhere! Using the living rooms, bedrooms and other areas of the store like they were literally theirs. Sleeping on couches, selfies in beds and testing out the kitchen just like it was home! We were there early on Sunday morning and you could not even move. IKEA is always crazy busy no matter where you are but this is a whole new level. Carrfour is like our Walmart or Target. Again no one speaks English so there was a lot of pointing, gesturing and guessing. The most annoying thing was I got a fan that did not work when I brought it home so now my biggest issue is how am I going to return it. Pointing and gesturing to buy it is one thing but to return it is another.
Over the last few days I have thought about many things but most of all about the newcomers we have welcomed into our schools and communities. I cannot imagine how unbelievably hard it must be for them. I have the luxury of fluency in English, experience, finances, support, housing and employment. It is challenging and unnerving all of the time because I do not know the language or the culture but I have a built in safety net to help me. I have people who can translate things into Chinese for me or even call or speak to someone on my behalf. I still feel uneasy, inadequate and uncomfortable. How must our newcomer families feel when they have struggled just to get to us often bringing traumatic and harrowing experiences with them? How does the child who speaks no English feel when they are sitting in the classroom and EVERYONE around them is speaking English? How does it feel to be completely alone knowing that you only have yourself to rely on? How does it feel to have all elements of your culture buried and to be required to assimilate into another society? One thing I have discovered about myself is the bias and arrogance we as Westerners have towards other cultures. (Yes even in Canada!) We expect others to conform to our culture and to accept our ways. As a stranger in a new land there are some very different norms here that often get labelled as rude or ignorant by Western standards. This experience has already made me examine my beliefs and shift my lens to try and learn and appreciate these cultural norms but most of all to understand them.
This experience is hard, but in a good way. I still have my training wheels on and am being assisted by others on the side. I am not ready yet to take the first ride on my own but when I do I know that it will be scary, exciting, humbling and satisfying.