Briefly tutored by a Chinese-American friend, I knew approximately two Chinese phrases before arriving in Shanghai: xiè xiè, meaning ‘thank you,’ and xiǎo mèi, which roughly means ‘little girl.’ Whenever I’d do something stupid, my friends would shake their heads at me while calling me xiǎo mèi. Somehow, it never crossed my mind that getting around in Shanghai with only these two phrases under my belt could prove to be difficult.
I found myself faltering during my first Chinese class. Unlike English, it was not enough to just know the vocabulary; now, I have to know the correct tones to say phrases in. A wrong pronunciation of a word could result in an entirely different meaning. I catch myself speaking less frequently here and becoming more conscientious of the space I take up. Today, I tried to order an iced green tea latte in a café. Funnily enough, neither the words for ‘thank you’ nor ‘little girl’ prepared me for that situation. I felt pressure from the line behind me to order quickly, but after I gave my order in English, the cashier shook her head and laughed at me while shrugging. I found myself guilty of repeating the English slowly as if that would make a difference. Surprise, it did not help. Finally, a friend brought up Google Translate on her phone and translated ‘green tea’ into Chinese. I mimed shivering to try to communicate that I wanted it cold. In the end, the barista brought out a green tea milkshake. It wasn’t what I wanted but was still delicious.
Not receiving exactly what I thought I would, but still something desirable has been a recurring theme of my time so far in Shanghai. Back in New York, I had visions of seamlessly acclimating to this city, immediately able to effortlessly order in restaurants and figure out public transportation without relying on Google Maps. In reality, being able to point to a picture in a Chinese menu and declare zhège, the Chinese word for ‘this,’ to a waiter, has been a satisfying milestone. Instead of receiving this idealistic cultural transition, I’ve received a greater potential for personal growth. There is so much I still have to learn and to uncover here.
In ‘On the Exotic,’ de Botton writes about this feeling of delight that arises from symbols that we have left the familiar and by doing so, have created new opportunities to find happiness. Finding myself immersed in the exotic, I am torn between wanting to stay here in a haze of never truly understanding what is going on, and thus never becoming disillusioned with the constant newness and strangeness of everything around me, and wanting to demystify each enigma I come across in an attempt to create a sense of home and belonging.
However, using exoticism as a way to uncover a new potential for happiness is unsustainable. In the week that I have been here, I feel like I haven’t had time to think the familiar thoughts that I’m usually sad about in the back of my mind. In the moment, feeling too focused on the new and the now is great. How can I obsess over my usual insecurities when all of my mental capabilities are super focused on just surviving and being able to get around the city? Despite the anxiety that comes along with moving to a new place, I appreciate how in the moment, my non-essential worries and past wounds have gone to my mental backburner.
The thing is, though, at some point, the exoticism and newness of Shanghai will fade. I will eventually know more than three phrases and will hopefully be able to successfully order an iced green tea latte in a local café. The route to school and to neighborhood hotspots will become second nature for me and I will no longer have to concentrate totally on immediate survival. My current fears over language barriers and new friendships will be replaced by my usual, familiar neuroses as I get used to the city. For the moment, though, I will savor the inexperienced happiness of the unfamiliar.