Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Apple-stained mug

Last night, I cried and cried until my cells exerted all their reserves. It was caused by a meaningless comment my mom made on the phone about how my uncle called to tell her I was making my grandma work like a maid.

I flipped.

Not because it was absolutely untrue. What he did was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Did he expect them to fly over here and beat me? I haven't lived under their roof in almost three years. Two weeks worth of unverbalized angst spewed out of me. I aggressively brushed my teeth and slammed the toilet stalls. And then, when my grandmother was out of earshot, I cried into my bed.

I've always said I enjoy the menial tasks I'm given at work. My enjoyment, however, doesn't stem from the job itself, but in the temporary contact I have with the culture I am most familiar with. I'm not even referring to something as simple as the "West." Having visited Beijing intermittently since I was seven or eight, it's not the city that makes me feel isolated. No, this recent bout of loneliness comes mostly from my ignorance of the culture. Sure, I might know the significance of national symbols and other odds and ends about China, but how I am to conduct myself and receive others is as alien to me as the nape of my neck. For someone used to direct communication, I am living in a city of vague proclamations. It is like a cornucopia of passive-aggressives all vying for the job of top mute. (The round-a-bout way people speak can be likened to the hutongs that ubiquitously populate the city.) Furthermore, Mandarin is my second-language. It is a language of much complexity, certainly made more complicated by its euphemistic nature. So here is my dilemma: I am a 20-year-old child-idiot in a foreign city, speaking in a foreign tongue, where the discussion of sensitive subjects is taboo, and etiquette is everything.

I discussed this with my grandma over breakfast this morning. She says perhaps I call MArt as often as I do because we share a common language. And she's right. Only she's not talking about linguistic structure, but the conditions of social integration. I might feel different in Canada as much as I do here, but in Canada, there is at least a niche for alternative expression. But so far, I have not encountered as many options here. (To be sure, I have not really searched.) Even so, maybe this is what immigrants feel after setting foot on a new continent: that assimilation is a necessity rather than a choice.

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