An immigrant family in Vancouver, B.C. once served my dad frozen canned orange juice mix in a dish with a spoon for dessert, not knowing that you’re supposed to mix that stuff in a pitcher of water and drink it. That’s sort of us right now (only we have it way easier than the average immigrant/refugee family).
It’s not easy to convey what it’s like to live somewhere where you don’t have a clue what’s really going on. We knew it would be this way without knowing Chinese so it’s not a surprise, but it is an interesting experience. In a big way, needing locals is a huge blessing. But without language (or even an alphabet!) you just can’t get a clue, at least not on your own. Two weeks in, it’s not the big, immediately obvious differences that are annoying… it’s the slowly rising collective impact of a billion tiny things making you dependent on everyone else.
…Like not being able to tell the difference between a package of Kleenex and a package of toilet paper, or if there even is a difference, and whether or not any of that matters when it comes to what you offer people on your dinner table. Not that it matters right at the moment, because when you picked out your furniture the table came without legs – not because the store messed up your order but because you didn’t know that you picked out a table top, that table legs are chosen separately, and that it was in black and white right in front of you on top of the table you chose.
Or, when the phone-looking-thing on the wall of your apartment by the door suddenly lights up around 9pm with a really obnoxious alarm. It’s loud, you can’t get it to stop, it can be heard in the hall, and you’re pretty sure it’s not a phone call because (a) you don’t have a phone line installed and (b) you already picked up the receiver and pressed all the buttons several times. You can say “our telephone” and “upstairs” in Chinese and you can do an entertaining impression of the noise it makes, and the security guard on duty (who can say “hi!” in English) is down four floors at the opposite end of the complex. But don’t worry – you’ll eventually be informed that the phone-thing is really just the carbon monoxide sensor and you should just crack open a window.
In Kenya and Uganda the languages are so phonetic we could at least sound everything out and ask about it. But here, it’s all traditional (unsimplified) characters that offer no hint for the uninitiated re: pronunciation. And what little Mandarin we did study before arriving was simplified Mainland characters. The majority of the things we see in grocery stores, at the sidewalk food stands, and in opaque packages are things we wouldn’t know about even if someone identified them in English. And even if we do know what something is, what do you do with 18+ inches of whole dried squid… grind it up? BBQ it? try and re-hydrate it?
This isn’t culture stress – not yet anyway. The new stuff, the not knowing, the learning, it’s still fun. Maybe in three months it won’t feel that way, but for now the annoying things are like a few mosquito bites on a summer camping trip – well worth the adventure.