I’m waiting for the metro to arrive. It is 8:15 A.M. on a Wednesday. I’m staring at the brightly-lit ads that plaster the wall across from me. I mouth the words silently to myself, one character after another. My eyes move to the next poster. Then the next, then the next. As the train rushes in, it dawns on me. I understand.
I’m in a restaurant with my friends, au pairs from different countries — Mexico, Finland, Australia. None of them speak much Chinese, and I’m the one who has to speak to the waitress. As she brings me the check, she says, “你的中文很好. 你是大学生吗?” — Your Chinese is good. Are you a university student?
I’m wandering the aisles of a book store, aimlessly flipping the pages of various textbooks. The pair of friends an aisle over are talking to each other, and I hear familiar words I wouldn’t have known three months ago — 政治, politics; 哲学, philosophy. There are some words I don’t know, of course, there always are. But there’s still that feeling.
The feeling of inclusion (and lack thereof) has been incredibly prominent during my gap year. It genuinely surprised me to have such an emotional reaction to both feeling like I simultaneously both belong and don’t belong in China. In fact, it wasn’t even something I had considered before embarking on this trip. I was too busy worrying about whether or not I would be able to understand the public transportation system, or what to do if my phone stopped working. I never once stopped to consider — will I feel like an outsider?
The Chinese word for foreigner, 外国人 (wàiguó rén), literally translates to “outside-country person”. This is oftentimes how it feels to be in China — like someone who will never fit in. It’s not just the language. It’s the looks I get while sitting on the metro. It’s the way people passing out flyers hand them to everyone walking by except me. It’s the way a child says, “你有一个外国人的鼻子!” (“You have a foreigner nose!” Yes, this is actually a concept. Apparently it’s a good thing??)
But I’m not always on the outside looking in. Sometimes I feel like I’m right at home. Walking through Beijing with Junsong (my Chinese friend), pointing at random objects and saying their Chinese names. Getting to use Chinese slang and colloquialisms, using that traditional Beijing “arr” accent. Even getting squished to death in the metro during rush hour feels good, because it feels like inclusion. As if Beijing is saying, you belong here.
Before I started this gap year, I never thought I’d get excited over something as small as reading a menu well, or being called the affectionate term 姐姐 by little girls in the neighborhood. I am now reconsidering my previous belief that I either was an outsider or an insider. You don’t have to be just one. Being a foreigner is an inconsistent experience. This isn’t something I realized before I came here, but every day it becomes more evident. I belong here, even when I feel like I don’t.