Six months into my temporary stay in Beijing, I feel like I’m becoming a little bit Chinese. Don’t panic. My hair is still blond and I haven’t changed my name, but living in China has definitely changed me.
I can eat chicken or frog and spit out the bones just like a local, and I can slurp soup with best of them.
I feel annoyed when I walk into a restaurant and there are too many other waiguoren because clearly it’s not authentic. When the waiter warns that the ma po tofu I’m about to order is a little bit spicy, I wave him off with a quick mei wenti.
When we first arrived from the US, I waited eagerly for months for our sea shipment, filled with things I was sure I’d miss. As I unpacked taco seasoning and cocoa powder and lined them up on the shelf next to the schezuan pepper corns, I felt rich with possibility.
But as I placed the Ranch dressing in the fridge next to the sesame oil, soy sauce and dark vinegar, the white bottle looked foreign next to its Asian counterparts. Those tall, dark bottles showed up one at a time and helped me build a new life; now I can’t imagine a day without them.
Pork-filled boazi have replaced waffles for breakfast, and black tea lattes are now my go-to order at Starbucks.
I’ve adopted the local preference for drinking hot water instead of cold most of the time, and I’ve stopped buying napkins because small tissues work just fine. (I’ve always got a package tucked in my purse, since not all restaurants provide them and it doubles as TP in a pinch). Dumplings and instant noodles stand in for chicken nuggets as a quick after school snack.
But it’s not just my appetite that’s changed. I prefer the subway or biking during rush hour because it’s faster. I speak survival Mandarin most days and resort to Google translate or English only when I’m feeling particularly fragile, like when my yoga teacher scolded me in front of the class because I couldn’t sit on my heels for the entire 45 minute class.
I’m not afraid to ask a stranger’s age, and I can bargain like my retirement fund depends on it. In restaurants, I call loudly for the waiter to bring the bill, even though it makes my sons cringe. (It’s not considered rude in casual restaurants).
Humans are remarkably resilient. I’m learning that adaptation is a means of survival. Just like a puffer fish expanding to ward off enemies, I’ve learned new skills that have helped me thrive here in China, like closing the gap so I don’t lose my place in line or safely crossing the street by refusing to make eye contact with the scooter that wants to run me over.
I will admit that some days I feel much more like an opossum, wishing I could curl into a ball and play dead, especially when people are staring or taking photos. Did you know that once in an elevator a Chinese lady even took a video of me? Maybe it’s gone viral, I’m not sure.
But even a chameleon can only turn so many shades. I haven’t learned to spit, and I still close the door to the stall in public restrooms. I don’t use the plastic gloves they give you when you order pizza, and sometimes I sit on the ground even if it’s dirty.
Nine times out of ten, I’ll hold the door open for the person behind me and say hello to strangers in my apartment building. I love Chinese food, but some days a good chocolate chip cookie or a burger and fries speak my language.
After all, a leopard can never change its spots, even if it learns to speak Chinese.