Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Identity Crisis

Happy July 4th to those who are celebrating Independence Day in the US. I feel very American today, despite the lack of celebrations out where we are. But I will admit to a momentary crisis of identity a few weeks ago in Shanghai.

I was staying at the Hilton, where the guests were a mix of Chinese business people and tourists who seemed unfamiliar with the language and the culture in Shanghai. Everyone on staff went out of their way to speak English with perfect diction to anyone who didn’t look Chinese. I passed that filter (it doesn’t always work that way, but that’s another post). Still, I felt lucky to be able to understand the conversations in both languages.

My crisis occurred at dinner. As I still had some work to do that evening, I opted for a quick “international” buffet at the hotel. And that’s where I got some strange looks. As I placed a few pieces of sushi on my plate, a family from the US walked by. “Can you believe they eat this stuff?” they asked, probably assuming I couldn’t understand their English. “It isn’t even cooked! And it’s just sitting there, out in the open. Ew!”

Then, as I finished serving myself from the cheese board and turned away, I saw a Chinese couple wrinkling their noses at the blues. I caught a snippet of Mandarin: “Is this completely rotten? What a smell! They eat this straight?” As I walked by them, I saw them stare at the stinky cheese and crackers next to the fruit and sushi on my plate.

Now, I’ll admit that sushi and bleu cheese are a strange pairing on a dinner plate. But I couldn’t help but feel really alone. Here I was, able to understand both American English and Mandarin, but I was completely unable to identify with the people speaking either one.

3 comments:

Mom & Dad in S.B. said...

We love you in any language, Joey!

ozlady said...

I find myself explaining Australian customs to Singaporeans, and defending Singaporean habits to my family back home.

I haven't had the benefit of understanding multiple languages, but I've walked at least a few hundred metres in those shoes, if not the full mile (I know my measurements are mixed, but you know what I mean).

Loneliness is part of international travel - that's what makes sharing the experiences and finding someone who understands them so amazing.

Sounds like you are tackling Asia 'full swing' and for that I applaud you.

Cheryl said...

We think that sounds like a perfectly yummy plate of food! mmmm... cheese and sushi.

- Cheryl and Erik