Friday, February 10, 2012

Reptiles Overseas

Stranger in a Strange Land

My friend who is overseas confided a reptilian moment, which I thought everyone on the blog would enjoy. It epitomizes a stranger in a strange land mentality that we all get when we are away from familiar or comfortable surroundings.


I should start by saying that I have had years of cross-cultural living training, have spent several years of my life living outside of my own culture, am the daughter of immigrants, and am a certified "Cross-Cultural Mediator"  (in other words, I took a week long seminar on the subject and did some role-plays)....That said, I will now resort to whining like the five year old I've felt like for the past week.  For the past 5 months I have been living in a culture vastly different from middleclass American suburbia and have been placed in many situations that have simply continually triggered what my friend Brooke calls my reptilian brain.  I asked her if I could submit this rant with the disclaimer that the thoughts or opinions expressed in the following paragraphs do not express the views of the more "evolved" segments of my being.

People here go crazy when they see Asian people.  Not being Asian myself I didn't notice this until the first time I was walking with a Korean friend of mine and her two young children.  Adults and children alike were running in front of us folding their hands in mock bowing, speaking non-sense Asian sounding words while stretching their eyes apart, and running after us shouting "Jackie Chan!"  My friend held her head up high and ignored the cacophony of racism as I looked around in confusion and offered the only defense my years as a waitress had taught me.  I greeted them kindly in their own language and asked how their families were.  This caused them much shock and they ran away laughing.  “Yay, victory for the good guys, killing them with kindness!”  I thought as we walked on our way.

About three months later I was walking on my own street with my Chinese-American friend, and a group of children ran behind us doing the same type of things, and this time I snapped.  I turned and started screaming at the kids told them they were unkind and they should go away...sadly, reptilian anger doesn't do well when speaking your shaky third language and the boys laughed and would have heightened their mockery if my neighbors hadn't intervened and shamed them away.  
My corner is a bastion of reptilian behavior.  A man sell snails outside my bedroom window by day (makes for a pleasant smell...), at night he chains his table to the wall and it becomes the hang out for 20 something young men who have nothing better to do than sit on the table and yell and each other and try to talk to everyone walking by.  Fights break out about every two hours, one boy will be escorted away by three of his friends, and then they'll quiet down.  Ironically, while these men make comments every time I walk by, one evening when a strange man was trying to follow me home, the men saw I was concerned, asked me if I was alright, I said I was fine, but then they strategically positioned themselves so that by the time the strange man could get around them I was in my door.  It's like, “these are our foreign women and only we can harass them.”  After five months we're now pretty cordial.

So, last Friday, the normally bustling narrow streets are virtually deserted as shops closed and people hurried home for special Friday lunch.  My roommate and I were walking to a neighbor's house to enjoy her Friday feast when a group of little girls walked by, must have been eight or nine years old, when one of them suddenly ran up to me and put her hands on my mouth and started to poke at my face.  I slapped the little girl's hand away and turned to run after her, I had no clue what I planned on doing, but thankfully my roommate grabbed my arm and said, “dude,” which is really all it took to calm me down to my right mind (“dude” really is a magic word),and realize it was just a little kid and I was a grown adult and beating up children is wrong.
In order to become a resident of this country you have to go to an office behind the police station and wait in line to submit your paperwork to this man.  I arrived at 8:30 in the morning, and was the 32nd in line.  I tried to smile at a few people and talk to them, but no one seemed interested in socializing.  I spent about an hour walking back and forth on a line on the ground.  Around ten I finally was at a spot where I could lean on the wall.  At noon it was finally my turn.  The short angry mean man who chain smoked asked me what I wanted, this question threw me off a bit since I was standing in the same line as everyone else, why would I want anything different (I might also add at this point, that I was the only white person in the room, other than that I can't imagine why he would ask me this question I didn't hear him ask anyone else).  The French I've been speaking my whole life suddenly faltered and I found myself unable to explain myself, so I just handed him my file, he glanced at it and told me to come back at 3 o'clock and then called in the person after me.  I felt the anger rise in me, so I quickly turned and ran, and continued running, crossing the major street without looking, and for about 5 minutes sprinted down the sidewalk in my high heels and Editor pants.  I came to my senses and realized I looked ridiculous sat on a bench and calmed down.  I went back at three and a little after four submitted my paperwork to the chain smoking angry little man who should have a sitcom based on his life. 

I'm not an angry person.  Most people would probably describe me as light-hearted and happy.  I like to laugh, I don't take life or myself to seriously, I eat healthy and exercise, I have strong faith, and a solid group of close friends and family.  I have a great life.  Living in a foreign culture can do things to your brain that life in your home culture cannot.  Culture stress can be paralyzing or can lead you to behave in ways you never thought you would.  I'm certainly getting to know a whole new side of myself, and it's very disconcerting, but also invigorating, coming to the end of what you can stand and realizing stores of strength you never knew you had and you think, “Wow, I might really accomplish something.”  And then the next instant you're chasing an eight year old girl down the street shouting profanities.

c. 2012

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