Life (S)kills #2
A lesson of humility I have (not) been reluctant to take
The majority of people have travelled abroad at least once in their life — cheaper airfare, Schengen and other great inventions have made it possible — but only a relative minority have worked overseas and know how difficult it can be to re-adjust and tune yourself to a completely different environment.
I have travelled for leisure and for work. I am grateful for the freedom I have enjoyed and still do. Yet, I have experienced the status of foreigner and know the many issues involved in it. Also, I feel that as an unmarried woman coming from an underdeveloped area of otherwise wealthy Europe, who has decided to travel abroad for building up a fulfilling professional career, I come as highly unrepresented. Most of the times I have embraced this condition with as much grace as possible, persuaded that it was a choice, although I was not fully aware of the pathway that led me to it and to China, where I have lived and worked for a few years.
China is not an easy place to relocate to, especially coming from Europe and not being good at keeping a poker face all the time. What’s more, you can’t ever tell you know it, because it constantly changes under your eyes. When I moved to China to start a new job and a new life, it took me three months to find an apartment I was comfortable with the idea of moving into. Of course I was being picky, but I was also going to live there for who knows how long, so I thought I had the right to be so. Besides, I found the perspective of living in one of those pigeonholes inside a huge compound called “Brilliant City” extremely gloomy. Eventually, I moved into an overpriced newly renovated apartment on the ground floor of a 1930s building, which in reality was nothing more than a garage. The kitchen was located in a small corridor at the entrance, whose ceiling was a glass roof (the only source of light in the whole place) because the corridor used to be a courtyard until a few months before. Due to the cheap and badly fixed glass, every time it rained water would leak from any corner, and when rain was big as it can get in Southern China, I would have had the privilege to admire waterfalls. In the winter and with dry weather it would still rain, as big drops of vapor condensation would form on the same glass. On top of that, because mine was the only centrally heated place in the alley, and on the street level, it soon became a happy shelter for all the homeless cockroaches of the neighbourhood. Every morning I would wake up with the smell of food frying in a grease-coated wok, wondering where could it come from — until one day I realised there was a door behind my wardrobe, connecting my apartment with the entrance of the apartments above, used as a kitchen by my neighbours. By the end of my staying there all my stuff has got moldy and I have been already threatened a few times by my “landlord” (i.e. the subletting agent) who wanted to raise the rent every now and then. Ironically, the company I worked for was one of the biggest real estate groups of South-Eastern China and had plenty of empty apartments next to my office.
We are constantly reminded that we cannot show our true feelings unless we are in a really safe environment; that is particularly true abroad, when cultural differences and a different body language might cause unpleasant and unwanted misunderstandings. A scene inside Aki Kaurismäki’s film The Other Side of Hope expresses this in a crystal-clear way: the protagonist Khaled, a Syrian asylum seeker just arrived to Helsinki, talks to his Iraqi friend Mazdak (also a refugee) who complains about all the setbacks encountered; he is suprised as Mazdak “seems happy and satisfied”, but Mazdak himself confesses his is just a mask, because “melancholy ones are the first ones they send back”, so Khaled asks “Should I pretend and smile, too?” “Yes”, his friend nods emphatically, “It will help. Just don’t smile in the street, they might think you’re crazy.”
I do not wish to make disrespectful comparisons between myself and the people who are really rejected, but I know well what the kind alienation coming from not being understood feels like, and I have seen sheer panic in the eyes of those who, like me, were simply trying to live a decent life without harming anyone, but just couldn’t adjust to an unfamiliar environment. We all belong to a minority in some way or another, still I consider myself lucky to have experienced that condition with such a sharp intensity and clarity. Being constantly reminded (by oneself in the first place) you don’t belong somewhere can have the effect of an accelerated course of humility.
Many of us behave as if we owned places, privileges or status, sometimes even people. Needless to say that being born in a certain place and not in another is no merit, but a simple matter of chance.
Living far from your country or territory is tiring; speaking or simply trying to understand a language different from your mother tongue is wearing; getting accustomed to different uses and conventions is exhausting. Things already potentially stressful like buying groceries, taking a train somewhere or doing bureaucratic paperwork become dreadful if you are new and don’t know how to navigate amongst unfamiliar customs and rules. So by the end of the day, if you are lucky enough to have a comfortable place to lay down on, you will feel completely emptied, as if during they day someone had stolen your heart, lungs and stomach. I see us and I see them, I see the discomfort and the attempts to conform. I see how this makes us better persons, and that is the only privilege I want to claim.