Sunday, August 26, 2012

China Version

There is a China version of everything.

At least, that is my impression after my first two days (and a week-long visit earlier in the year) here in Shenzhen, the newly fabricated city of some 10-15 million people that was a mere fishing village in 1979 when it became China's first Special Economic Zone. This massive mainland sister city to Hong Kong is where a lot of "Made in China" happens, but it is also the epitome of how modern China is made. Here there is McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks (just as frequently as they appear in a major American city), but there is also the Chinese version of McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks. Oversized pictures of chicken sandwiches at bus stops catch the eye and one's curiosity: Does it taste the same? I've yet to try.

Perhaps more interestingly is that one might expect to find a Chinese version of her or himself here. This is not necessarily to say you will meet your Chinese doppelgänger if you make a visit to The Middle Kingdom, though I would not rule it out - it's true that there are a heck of a lot of people here. But it is to say you will undoubtedly reflect on who you are, like travel out of one's home culture typically impels, and China being "the other side of the world" to which my childhood friends and I aspired to dig a hole through the Earth to reach, is a good place for a lot of tests of one's personality, imagination, and ways of living.

Of course, short-term travel to a place is quite a different experience than living and working somewhere else. Over the next nearly six months I will be living and working here. I have spent similar stints of time living and working in the Czech Republic (2002-2003), Middle and South America (2008) and East Africa (2009, see previous blog entries). At the start I know few words of Mandarin. This makes the experience even more internal and primal than in other places where verbal communication opened doors more easily. I rely on universal gestures, lots of smiling, deference, courage (to overcome my natural tendency towards shyness and avoidance of potentially embarrassing situations), and looking for similarities more than differences. I use the internet, maps, a compass or the sun to plan routes to food, toilet paper, or baseball. Yes, I have already found the Chinese version of baseball and ingratiated myself to the team. Come watch us play next weekend in Hong Kong.

To be able to join a sports team for a season of play is just one example of how an extended stay in a foreign country that includes work allows for some grounding. A sense of new life emerges as you develop daily routines, delve deeply into the work, make new friends, learn the language, and become familiar with your local community. You can start to have the thought "This is my existence. I live here. I work here. I have friends here. I find meaning here." I had this experience especially so in East Africa, and it brings a sense of triumph. The world becomes smaller, less intimidating, and etched into your psyche is the confidence that you may be able to not just survive but thrive anywhere you go.

In the end however, it is never fully true that your being completely transmutes as long as you are also from somewhere else. Where you are from, your old friends and family, and your desire for Mexican food still exist as part of you. What to do about these important considerations becomes a dynamic of your new life. I recommend avoiding a full-blown identity crisis, which can occur if you don't accept that your burrito cravings won't so soon be fulfilled, and instead to settle into the European or American or Chinese version of yourself. Who knows, you might taste just as good.