Monthly Archives: September 2014

Inventing All Sorts of Excuses: “Cultural Differences” and Letting the Lesson – Finally – Marinate

Sunday, September 28, 2014 8:11 P.M.

Cultural Differences.

…. must be one of the most overused phrases to excuse bad behavior.

All these random things about what is so different between this foreigner and this native person are used to try and smooth over what is clearly complete nonsense.

It is always important to be mindful of the cultural differences that may factor into the decisions that people make. Yet, those factors shouldn’t prevent you from standing up for yourself when you do not like what is taking place…particularly if it already has and can become even more of an inconvenience.

This is not my first rodeo facing this sort of thing abroad…but even so, there is definitely something I am learning about myself that hasn’t really marinated until that specific thing was called attention to earlier today – by someone who doesn’t even know me at all, at that.

I tend to explain my perspective over and over again.…as though the other person doesn’t understand. But they do. I allow myself to be distracted by the fifty reasons a person might be giving for why they did something and waste my time responding to each one. I recognize the excuses but I have a habit of automatically starting to explain my side with more detail…as if the detail even matters. It takes me a while, after I’ve wasted my breath, to finally reaffirm what I already knew to myself (likely because I don’t feel like talking to the person anymore): “This person knows that they did something wrong. This person is trying to get out of getting into trouble by changing your mind.”

I do know myself and I do know this is a problem that I need to change.

Now. Not later. Right now.

It’s a lesson that I keep noticing as a problem for me AFTER THE FACT…and it’s like, “No. Shirley. Just stop doing it because you already know you’re not supposed to be doing it. Just stop. That’s all. Save your damn breath!”

I know it won’t happen again… know why? Because my first round of making that mistake abroad…was way too much culture shock and so much at once. I remember what it did to me. I remember how I internalized it. While I eventually started making heads roll hard…took way too long, way too much pent up, “how dare …blah blah blah” before I started to handle my business.

This situation right now allows me to recognize what COULD have happened if someone else hadn’t said, “…uh why are you even doing that? Why are you even a, b, and c? Why? You had that conversation for an hour? Why.” This situation allows me to recognize the problem in the fact that I wasn’t able to call myself  out. On my own.

So. Ok.

That forces me to think about it all in a different way. Truly forces me…in a way that will ensure that this lesson MARINATES.

Time to handle my business and move on…so many other things to do than to put up with this nonsense for an extensive period of time.

I don’t have the time.

Going abroad, living in a different culture and wishing to respect it should never ever mean that you disrespect yourself in the process.

I bet it might have taken me a bit longer (another decade…let’s be real) to fully realize this bad habit if I hadn’t been faced with reasons to face it while in unfamiliar surroundings. Under these circumstances, I HAVE to think about what I do automatically that might be detrimental to me within unfamiliar confines. And I HAVE to think about the thoughts that I already have in terms of problem solving that will be extremely useful to me. What you learn while surrounded by the unfamiliar can definitely be a great help when things get really familiar again.

So… I suppose this is not only about other people making excuses to me. It is also about Shirley not making anymore excuses to herself.

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哈如宾式:Big Breasts and Pizza

Friday, September 19, 2014 10:30 AM

Yes, I know… Pizza in China? A first-generation American, Ghanaian woman…eating Italian food…in China. “What a small world, ” as a friend put it to me. haha! I must say…it is certainly worth discovering how Asian restaurants choose to flavor foods that are very popular at home…

What a small world, indeed! 🙂

The family who runs this pizza place  (pic to the right) have been SO, SO warm to me the last two weeks. I love them! Their children are absolutely adorable too! The first time I talked to them, they family was excited to show me photos they’d taken of other foreigners who had come to their restaurant over the years. The husband joked with me that one of the German men really liked one of the Chinese female students and said she never knew though. “Poor guy,” is what he said. Haha! The first time that I went there, they were also so excited when they realized that I could speak Mandarin. Told me that most of the foreigners that come to their restaurant are unable to say much. (Small moments like these, you have to be proud of…it is the interactions with native Chinese that show you if your language is advancing or not. :-)!

The pizza restaurant!

The pizza restaurant!

SO…how do big breasts relate to pizza?

Well. They don’t, but they can. Haha!

I just got back from a pizza place… While I was waiting for my pizza, a Chinese woman walked by and just stared at me, observing me, while eating some sort of tofu soup thing. I glanced away but could still feel her eyes on me. She just stood there and continued to stare, so I glanced back and say “Hello!” in Chinese. Instantly,  the widest grin spread across her face. She scooped a big spoonful of this glob-like pudding stuff(She later told me it was some sort of Russian pudding) and offered it to me. I don’t share a spoon with anyone but my Mama so I politely but readily refused every single time she offered it. Haha!

My hello began a 30 minute conversation entirely in Chinese.  Throughout that 30 minute conversation, she kept giving …very extended ‘glances’ (aka blatant long stares)… at my chest. At first, I thought, “What is she looking at?” Several times, I gave quick glances at my sweater to see if I had a stain down the front of it or something….but there was nothing. As the conversation went on and she asked why I was in Harbin, why I felt Mandarin grammar was much harder than English grammar, she CONTINUED to just STARE at my chest. I began to feel a bit uncomfortable…got to a point where I was thinking, “What the hell does she keep looking at?” I always wanted to just ask her!

Then I began to just tune in to the uncomfortable feeling that I was feeling…she had been staring at my CHEST. O_O Once I accepted what she was staring at, I almost threw my arms opened wide and told her to just grab a handful and alleviate her curiosity. I remembered, in Taiwan, how women had been interested (and even asked) some of the students in my program about our chest sizes because they were not accustomed to see breasts that big… Haha!

At one point, I wondered if this woman was even going to blink. She KEPT staring at my chest for LONG periods of time. The periods of time got even longer.

Gotta love pizza in Asia... you get gloves! When this happened in Taiwan at a hamburger restaurant...I'd never been so amazed at something. Haha!

Gotta love pizza in Asia… you get gloves! When this happened in Taiwan at a hamburger restaurant…I’d never been so amazed at something. Haha!

She eventually asked me if I was female. Haha…this is not the first time I’ve been asked since I’ve been to China two months ago.  I am normally asked this when I wear jeans and a t-shirt. I told her that, “Yes, I am female.”  Haha! She asked about my hair and I told her that I cut my hair this way because I like it this way. I threw in a joke about how I can’t stand hot weather and this is the way for me to survive!

She then said my breasts were big. As my eyebrow began to rise…she signaled to my chest and made big round circle motions and told me they were very big, exaggerating her speech to indicate just how humongous she thought they were.

…and simply smiled in my face…while I stood there in silence, eyebrow all the way up my face, and STUNNED…not knowing what the hell to even say.

Well. How desperate was I to change the subject?
(…this is probably THE only time that I would call myself “黑人“ (black person) to anyone in China…because it doesn’t sit well with me when I am pointed at and called “黑人, 黑人”…BUT  I wanted to change that topic. Badly.)

So, I offered my hand to hers and started to compare skin tones. That was the only thing I could come up with. Nosey passerbys stared at us as I ended up having to convince her that I wasn’t black because I drank lots of coffee. Somewhere in there, I miscommunicated a message about the President and now she thinks I know him. More specifically…she thinks President Obama is my boyfriend.

#OliviaPope

#OliviaPope

Whatever. As long as the First Lady doesn’t hear about this. *cough*

I must admit… this exchange was entertaining. I an not going to forget this woman for a while. Before I left, I told her that I was excited to meet her. Haha! And I was! She helped me practice my speaking… If anything, she knows a lot about me. I know a lot about her too…though we spent most of the time discussing me. I promise we talked about other things aside fro my ….uh….apparently out of this world humongous set of breasts.

She was astoundingly curious about how I was American if my parents are from Ghana. I find that a lot of Chinese people believe that you are from where your parents are from so the concept of anything different is extremely strange to a good amount of them. It makes me want to talk to people about…what if  I was adopted…by a Canadian Father and a Puerto Rican Mother… how would that be thought of in people’s minds?

If anything, she learned a whole lot that night. I think I delivered a good experience to her. 🙂 She was especially impressed with my Chinese. Hell, I was too… I only used Pleco…3 times throughout our discussion. Otherwise, my ability to think fast enough to use words around a word that I may not understand in order to understand what is being said has significantly improved!

I have had many moments where I have interacted with curious Chinese people. In this case…a good amount of people in my location are used to foreigners…some are not. Haha!

As hilarious as this whole exchange is…I’m just proud of myself that I am getting out there and talking to people. Some may know that something like that is an incredibly big step for me.  It warmed my heart to have this family see me, a stranger, and after interacting with me for almost an hour tell me that I am family. It is the Chinese people that I need to be able to interact with, to understand, and to be understood by.  It is the Chinese that I need to be able to learn from in many ways that are not only essential to my career, but essential to my personal growth. 🙂

Until next time!

Grateful.

It is truly a beautiful thing to be able to be in your twenties and to travel.

You’re only obligated to yourself, you’re living out your passions and creating new ones… the world is at your feet and you’re going to learn new things about yourself in the most unsuspecting ways.

It is absolutely beautiful what I am being exposed to here… so much culture, so many people from different walks of life and mindsets. So many endless possibilities if I open myself up to them!

I’m very grateful that I can live this out while being productive in terms of my future career goals at the same time.

Life is Good!

Life is Good!

 

 

In Harbin!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 10:35 PM

二零一四年。九月。二号。 星期二
In Harbin!
在哈如宾!

I finally landed in Harbin at 7 PM earlier on tonight.

Before my flight, I was really feeling the feelings… My little brother dropped me off at the airport, helped me bring my things in, restrained me when I started asking the flight attendant how checking out two bags for free on an international flight magically changed as a rule overnight, restrained me again as I bitterly paid the extra $100.00, and wished me well when we finally parted ways.

As I walked away, I admit, I was starting to tear up and was blinking them back feverishly, saying to myself, “This is not the time. This is not the time. This is not the time.” It was even tougher when I had to speak to my Mom over the phone.

-_- 啊呀。。。

Of course, I’d unintentionally run into ways to amuse myself. I enjoyed Face booking from my phone, using every bit of time that I had left before I was going to encounter the Great Firewall of China…aka…China blocks Facebook and you must use…other…means for it to be accessible. VPN power! I made my way to the gate to wait to board my flight from IAD and couldn’t help but notice… that it felt like I was back in China! There were many Chinese people, a sprinkle of white people, and only one black person (myself).

中国式 !哈哈! Felt like home. Haha.

Well. My Gulliver’s Travels began with a 13-hour flight from IAD to Beijing, then a 2-hour flight from Beijing to Harbin. The first 13-hour flight wasn’t bad. I thought I had been permanently spoiled from the last business class treatment but apparently not. This flight was very comfortable. I kept myself very busy and FOR ONCE, I was wearing the right comfort clothes. That last bit made ALL the difference!

The ONLY thing that made me raise my eyebrow over the Beijing to Harbin flight was security… And, yes, you guessed it! It involved my clippers!!! I didn’t have enough space so I put my new clipper set in my book bag. They didn’t have a problem with it in the U.S…but in China? They opened up my brand new clipper box and pulled them out and my eyebrow went UP…

….like…I gave him the People’s Eyebrow. That’s how much attitude was in that eyebrow raise. You ALL should know by now… I was NOT going to let there be a Part 2 of Suzhou without my clippers! The first pair were $80 and the second pair were in the same range. No sir! I was ready to engage in arm-to-arm combat if I had to!

Seriously. The tone that I took … Anyway. I got my clippers…but he took my scissors that came with the clippers. That was truly a 真的吗!? “REALLY!?” moment. He just calmly responded to my questions and attempts to keep my scissors. Finally, I just shut up… he didn’t care about my struggle. Not even a little bit.

啊呀!

All that madness aside…the flights were not bad at all. For the first flight, the entire time, I

Almost done with the first one. Glad I came prepared with a second one!

Almost done with the first one. Glad I came prepared with a second one!

was journaling. So much happened in the last three weeks while I was at home… very important things that I didn’t want to lose track of. Both the good and bad had become very fond memories for me because of the realizations that I had about myself from both angles.

On the flight, several Chinese people came up to me and said that I had 漂亮 handwriting. Ha! I was flattered…but I couldn’t help but wonder if they could read what I was writing. O_O I proceeded to cover my writing for the rest of the flight…I noticed my seatmate glancing over at my writing more than once. Heck, I wrote more than twenty pages. I think the whole plane had noticed that all I had done for 13 hours was write, write, and write some more. (It was funny seeing the aisles crowded with elderly Chinese people, stretching their legs out and either ignoring or not understanding the flight attendant ladies howling that they needed to stop blocking the aisle and get back to their seats.)

When my hand was tired, I went back to read some of my old entries… and realized how much I had matured in some aspects. Just seeing those changes in myself encourages me to keep writing. Many have advised me to maintain a journal and I definitely intend to continue writing.

Ever since Taiwan, I’ve been writing a lot in my journal. When I first got it, I went a whole two years barely writing in it… going abroad has certainly given me a lot to think about and reflect on….even when I’ve come back to the U.S. for a bit. With every new challenge, with every galling and good experience, with every unexpected surprise that I never even could consider I’d ever experience personally, I’ve matured and changed in some way.

If you know me well enough, I pride myself on being mindful and being meaningful. I don’t want to just go through life…even if I’m bitching and complaining, Even that, I want to be something that I can be mindful of in the moment or reflect on later. It all matters because there hasn’t been even one time where I haven’t reflected on an action I’d taken – good or bad – that didn’t serve to inform me in some way.   I always appreciate that – even if, at times, it takes some time for me to be able to appreciate it.

So. Goodness! Right now…here I am… ready to start living a different life. This feels like Part 2… and in many ways it is exactly that. I wasn’t prepared for a lot of what went on in Suzhou. Not at all…the only preparation that I had was the ability to be perceptive, the ability to seek out perspective, and the ability to stand up for myself. Though…at the time, it felt mostly like the ability to be angry and emotionally and physically exhausted all of the time. (And, rightfully so, in my opinion).

I would be in big trouble if I was never able to recognize when I needed perspective. I appreciated the time and space that familiar surroundings provided in order for me to attain that perspective. Now I’ve got all the perspective that I can handle…and I am determined…no matter the highs and lows, to make this year a year where I come out attaining my goals to significantly improve my Chinese and to enjoy learning about Chinese culture.

Heck, I’ve added some other goals to the pot….before I ever came to China, my goals were those of someone who’d never been to China before : “I want to learn Chinese and attain an advanced level of proficiency and want to experience the diversity of China.” While those are great goals, those goals become much more meaningful when you’ve got some experience under your belt…the goals become more specific and you recognize what areas you want to specifically develop more than others…rather than just having a general idea.

Now, I want to learn about China because I want it to become like home. Before I came to China, I didn’t understand what that meant, thinking that I did. Now I do. It is this ability to be specific about my goals in terms of career advancement and my goals in terms of personal advancement that will help me to make China home and encourage me to maintain perspective no matter the challenge that I face. I am interested in seeing how I grow in terms of handling conflict under good and bad pressure that I wasn’t born and bred to understand.

Harbin is certainly different…but I have not yet seen Harbin in the daytime so I look forward to that. The night is nice with a nice cool breeze. America can keep the heatstroke. Barely got to IAD alive! So far, I’ve met my Resident Assistant (RA). He picked me up from the Harbin airport once I had landed. Franklin, is first generation Nigerian American.

On the cab ride over to On the way over, Franklin told me that there are students of different ages here…the oldest are PhD students who are here for a month crash course in language training for to conduct research in China with the Fulbright grant. He asked me if I had studied Mandarin before and that started a discussion about my success in attaining the CLS, Fulbright, and Boren Awards.

As most people are, he was shocked that I turned down a Fulbright and asked why I wanted to study in Harbin? I told him that in the long run, using my time to attain language proficiency will help me to be able to conduct my own research once I reapply for a research grant with the Fulbright. Like Mr. Craig Allen said at the CLS orientation…you cannot rely on a translator. Translators can have their own agenda and intentionally miscommunicate your message during important negotiations. Because you don’t understand how to navigate the cultural streams of China, you are not mindful of the cultural nuances in order to truly function in the environment that you’re trying to research. To what extent are you truly conducting research under those circumstances? Not by much. On top of that, you don’t have the respect of the people that you’re trying to get answers from. In some cultures, more than others…proving that you can communicate is paramount!

Now is the time, while I have no wrinkles around my eyes, to live in dorms, backpack for hours until I can’t feel my legs, hang out in bars, and just travel without out any obligation to anyone but myself…and to do it all while speaking Mandarin. There is no better time than now to learn another language…everything else will have to wait for now. J (Including my Mom’s claims that I should be married by now..like everyone else.) Haha!

Franklin asked me, “Why Harbin?” Well. Everyone goes to Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing. Everyone! There is something to be said to be a Ghanaian American woman learning to function in an area that most people do not think of when they think of China. Combined with my attentiveness to cultural sensitivity, I have the opportunity to develop solid cross cultural communication skills. Learning Mandarin is never JUST about speaking the language…you speak the language in order to inform yourself so that you can get below the surface in ways that you would never had been able to if you had a translator next to you.

As we neared the dorm building, he then told me, 现在你开始说中文。大家说中文。Me: 好的。每天我说继续斗。。。可是 真的。。。学中文太难了!

I’ve met my roommate… her English… MAN. LOL If I can speak Chinese as well as she speaks English after the first semester, I’ll be happy. Haha! I really like her though… she is dead serious about keeping to the language pledge and I appreciate that. Tonight, I’ve had nothing but conversations with her in Mandarin. She’s been patient with me and said that I was weird for knowing how to read and write significantly better than my listening and speaking. She said it is usually the other way around…not the first time I‘ve heard that one. I appreciate that she is excited to help me adjust here.

Ok. Here’s an “all in my feelings moment.”

Not that I don’t always take notice of this, but I have been realizing just how deeply people believe in me. I always say that I appreciate that but I can’t begin to say just how much. I know that I don’t talk to a lot of people too often, but I appreciate that they know – like I know – that there is a mutual appreciation between us. It is truly a beautiful thing when people believe in you and are interested in your growth. Sometimes you don’t always believe in yourself and it is good to have people remind you of what you already know of yourself: that you are resilient, that you are strong, and that you’ve got this no matter what challenge gets in your face. For someone like me, believing in myself is damn important because I had to learn the hard way that attitude is everything long before I stepped foot in China.

So, I will continue to do everything that I need to do to ensure that Shirley remains confident, resilient, and ready to get shit done. And with a newfound view of ‘failure’ in mind, I can do it! J

All I know is that I tend to learn best when I am dropped in the middle of something… the whole “sink or swim”/ “Are you choosing to survive or die on the side of the street” mindset tends to work on me.

Always trying to inflict pain on myself. Haha!

Wait.

I have to talk about one last hilarious thing. I think I’ve already got a bit of exposure to Harbin already. Hahaha!! On my flight from Beijing to Harbin, I sat next to an elderly Russian couple. The husband had, literally, no filter. He told the attendant that he didn’t want the dinner she was handing out because. He said, “you know your food is bad.” And he repeated himself to ensure that she heard him…then called her back to collect his wife’s tray. She says, “I don’t need this”, and he’s like, “What kind of food is this?” THEN when we get off of the flight, he starts scolding this Chinese man who cut in front of me… “She was there first, you need to back up.” The Chinese man ignores him… the Russian man keeps talking, even after I get my stuff. Then another Chinese man …says something messed up judging from how red his face was. The Chinese man was, literally, in the Russian man’s face, pointing his finger in his face, telling him to… who knows. Likely telling him to ‘shove it’.

I beat it like Michael Jackson. O_o It was time for me to go.