This post was started in the final days of living in China, but in the midst of all the leaving and packing and thinking on other things, I forgot all about it. And I’m glad I did.
Reading it now, in my very American classroom on a dark and chilly Tuesday morning, has challenged my head and heart and daily life, because, months later, the words seem forced and empty. Fake even. I know they’re not, but since being back, what I’m discovering is that, several months ago, they were much easier to write than they are to live.
: Original Post :
“Have a good day!”
The coffee is passed between us and I rush out the door and back to work.
My “teaching” day is over. Now all that is left is a few hours of quiet lesson planning and a hot cup of mediocre coffee.
But I can’t get that small interaction out of my head.
“Have a good day!”
They’re so simple, so basic, and absolutely so common, but in that simple moment, they broke through barriers, travelled over thousands of miles of differences, and connected two strangers, a short petite Chinese woman and a six-foot four American.
“Have a good day!”
Spoken kindly, that small interaction brought a strange welcoming to my heart.
In a land where very little reminds me of “home,” where ordering large bottles of water requires assistance from someone who knows how to speak numbers one, six, and nine in mandarin, this small interaction allowed me to feel a small notion of acceptance, of not feeling so much like an outsider, and that I just might make it.
“Have a nice day!’ the lady behind the counter said with an accent that runs all the words together, putting the wrong emphAses on the wrong syllAble.
“Zài jiàn!” I responded without confidence and probably using all the wrong tones, but she smiled anyway and went back to work. So did I.
“Have a good day!”
I crossed the street with my coffee in hand and a new spark of hope in my heart. No matter how many miles we are away from home, no matter how different life, the food, the language is, one thing will remain the same. People surround us, and if nothing else, that is enough to make anyone feel at least a small sense of Home.
I wrote that story within my first few months of living in China, and in a few short days, I’ll be on a plane back to America, with friends and memories of a land I may never see again, and I can only wonder what now? What does my time in China mean for the future? What truths can I hold fast to, in the coming days and months and years?
Because, what I loved most about the above short story is the excitement of a new adventure, the wonder of a new land. It’s something I want tuck deep into my suitcase and carry across the deep and endless ocean. I want to be a Forever Foreigner.
: A Forever Foreigner :
A Forever Foreigner is someone who, no matter where they live, is endlessly curious, even when the land and the people are no longer knew. Even when they begin to call the place they live, “home.”
After living and working in China for two years, we were ready for the mountains of Montana, big blue skies, American beef, and family. We were ready for our six-week summer break. What we got though, was a bit different. When we arrived, when we talked with friends and drove through towns, we realized we were suddenly visitors, outsiders, and no longer locals – life had moved on without us, and we had grown and changed without them. Suddenly, we didn’t understand, fully, our home, and home didn’t understand us, and it was the strangest of feelings.
Then our six weeks ended and we came back to China. On one of our first outings to restock the fridge and cupboards, Josey (my wife) said, “It feels good to be back. It feels like home.”
And it was.
The guards to our complex waved us in with smiles, the local shop lady laughed and ran their fingers through our girls’ blonde curls, and we walked the streets with confidence and familiarity. We were no longer in awe of the carts full of vegetables and piles of cardboard boxes. The street dancers were normal and the street food familiar– they were part of our daily routine. We navigated the busy and crowded streets with ease, on our way to our favorite market. We engaged in simple conversations with strangers. China was no longer a foreign land. It was home – at least it felt like it was.
Then, a little girl with straight black hair and big beautiful eyes pointed and yelled, “Weiguaren!” Foreigner. Because we were.. Even though it felt like home, we were foreigners, we are guests.
At first, this yelled proclamation was frustrating, because I wanted that little girl to know I wasn’t a tourist, I lived there – China was my home! Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder if being labeled a foreigner is okay, great even, because a foreigner lives with excitement, with anticipation, and with the passion to explore new lands, new people, and new ideas.
In order to survive, foreigners must ask a lot of questions because they own very few answers. And I like that, because it’s humbling, and because often, the answers received are not what we expected. And so we learn.
Forever Foreigners want to be curious. Always. No matter where they live. They love simple stories, battle the mundane, and they love displaying their collected knick-knacks on shelves and walls for others to see and ask, “What’s the story behind that?”
: Knick Knacks, not Ikea :
Our first few weeks in China were hard because, like many new foreigners have experienced, our house was empty, and loud. The only furniture we had were the basics provided by our company– beds, dressers, a dining table, and a couch and loveseat complete with a few tables, but the walls were bare. So were the shelves and tables. So were the cabinets and cupboards. And so, like many foreigners before us, we went to Ikea, and for good reason. In one location, over the span of a few months, we were able to acquire pots and pans, rugs, a stand for our TV, lamps, towels, drill bits and screws, picture frames, a few plants, silverware, towels, school supplies, and several pillows of various sizes. Then suddenly, our house was full. And it was great.
But by the end of our first two-year contract, hardly any of that Ikea furniture (minus the plates and picture frames) existed. The personal had, overtimes, replaced the commercial.
On our trips to the surrounding villages, we brought back baskets and small stools. The small markets that sporadically tucked themselves throughout the city offered wall hangings, accent pieces, and kitchenware. The knick-knacks from travels filled our shelves and walls and decorated our kitchen. Some of our most treasured pieces came from nearby trash piles and antique markets where my wife had to engage in long negotiations for the product and its delivery. Suddenly, when anyone asked us where we got this or acquired that, the answer was no longer simple. It required a story.
And stories, meaningful stories, require time.
When meeting a Tibetan, for example, the differences of dress, food, lifestyle, and religion are easily noticed and can just as quickly be collected and stored in a box. They’re what tourist foreigners collect – stories of differences. Finding similarities, though, is much more difficult. It takes time to find and effort to collect because they demand patience; they take intentionality and a conscious effort to see another as equal – not different. It’s being relational, not stereotypical. It’s the difference between Ikea furniture and small market, handmade furniture.
Ikea can help fill a house quickly, but the knick-knacks of the people and the land that hold experiences and journeys and stories make the house a home, a blended home, and a home full of memories and humanity and laughter.
Forever Foreigners seek knick-knack stories, not Ikea stories, no matter where they live. And when they bring them home, they cherish them, protect and display them with care, and allow them to blend in with and compliment their cluttered home that is full of stories worth telling, over and over again.
: Be Laughed at :
No one likes to be the brunt of a joke, especially when we don’t know why. Anyone who’s ever lived in a foreign country knows this better than most, because they know how embarrassing and intimidating it can be to try and speak with a national in their native tongue. If they’re kind, they’ll smirk ever so slightly and probably correct pronunciation or choice of words; if they’re not so kind, they’ll outright laugh and maybe even tell a few nearby friends. But confortable with these early and continual failures is crucial to discovering a new land, learning a new language, and living beyond survival.
It’s also essential to the mind of a Forever Foreigner.
Forever Foreigners are not nearly as concerned about ego as they are about learning and discovery. Open and continual failure reminds Forever Foreigners that failure isn’t as scary as it seems, and it reminds us to get over ourselves and explore because there are worse things than being laughed at. Like staying safe.
When we’re willing to be laughed at, we’re willing to be wrong. And when we’re willing to be wrong, suddenly, the landscape of discovery opens and stretches out beyond what our limited eyes of understanding can see. If we’re willing to be wrong, we ask questions, seek help, and open ourselves to strangers and hidden blessings. Instead of being stuck in the rain, huddled beneath trees and waiting for the clouds to break, we find ourselves sitting with monks, drinking green tea, and communicating through smiles, puffs of smoke, and silly hand gestures. And we laugh, because sometimes there’s no better way to say it.
Forever Foreigners laugh because of differences, not at them. And it makes all the difference in the world.
: Then the Plane Lands :
In just four short months, the optimism and idealism of these words have been challenged and even ignored. Suddenly, being a Forever Foreigner seems like a foreign idea, and right now, I don’t really feel like I have the time for it.
“In truth,” Tim Cope writes in his memoir, “Ruslan’s news that he could guide me for just two more day was a mutually convenient way of parting with our rapport in-tact. I was already tired of trying to understand the world as it was filtered through his eyes, and I was looking forward to a new chapter” (pg 110).
Coming back to America, in many ways, was like returning to an old and difficult chapter that I’ve never really understood and have always kinda been excited to leave.
So what now?
One of the deepest memories I have of China was a day, about midway through our first year, when Josey and I both were desperately missing America. It was an early December weekend and we were aching for Pumpkin Spice Lattes, family stockings hung by chimneys, and the laughter of old friends. We even looked online and considered flying home. When that failed, we invited over two single girls who had moved to China just a few months prior. Like us, they were young foreigners and were missing home.
That night, we ordered “Burning Logs” from Netflix, sat around space heaters, and developed some of the sweetest friendships China could offer. Over the next several years, Aunty Beck and Aunt Sarah would watch our kids blow out candles, travel with us through several countries, and share Chinafied Thanksgiving meals. We would fight, walk out on movies, and spend Christmas morning sipping coffee, eating tea-rings, and opening simple gifts.
We would stay up way too late (or at least Josey would) and share stories of struggle, victory, and life. We would turn a foreign land into a sweet home. Because that’s what Forever Foreigners do. Even when they don't feel like, they pop popcorn, make a phone call, and patiently collect new knick-knacks.
Then suddenly, several Christmases later, they sing carols with some of their favorite people in the world.
And it is beautiful.
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