David and I just took our first giant leap as newlyweds—2 years living in Shanghai, China on a pretty sweet expat package. Heck yes—this is exactly the opportunity we imagined we would one day have! I would like to be writing about how fortunate we are, how this is the time to see and do all the things we talked about, how this opens up so many doors of opportunity and eye opening experiences. I want to be saying all those things, and eventually I am sure I will… but right now I am 2 weeks in to the move, and I am feeling shamefully defeated.
Maybe that feeling has to do with the fact that we intentionally took the harder, more local route and moved in to a traditional Chinese lane house instead of the expat high rise. Our beautiful home is newly renovated and we are likely the first westerners to ever live in it. It is clearly more modern than our neighbors’ homes—many of which don’t have certain luxuries that we do. The alleys I walk through to get to our home, although safe, are very dark. They lack the light from street lamp posts I’m used to guiding me home after the sun sets. A sense of security that no longer exists. There are cats everywhere! On ledges above the path I walk, and running in and out of the homes around me. My least favorite animal surrounds me. Everything about this place is pushing me out of my comfort zone. We just walked passed a woman who cut a live duck’s neck open, with household kitchen scissors, and allowed the blood to spill out as she continued a casual conversation with her friend. Just another day in my new neighborhood!
Waves of loneliness hit me throughout the day. Mostly from the major language barrier that comes between me and everyone else. Because we decided to live in a predominantly Chinese area, not a whole lot of English is spoken around here. That means I can’t have a conversation with my neighbors or manage simple tasks so easily anymore. Grabbing a fresh orange from the market is not a transaction I can make without being able to ask “how much is it” (which I can’t) then understanding their response (which I don’t), so I walk away orange-less. Grabbing a quick dinner for David and I leaves me wandering the streets, bouncing from one unknown restaurant to the next, pointing to my phone which already has a pre-translated sentence for them to read: “Can I order to-go?”. When I can’t understand their response, but it seems like a “no”, I walk away and try another. Eventually I end up at the english-speaking European cafe that I’ve eaten at almost every day.
The comfort I have found thus far, has come mostly from western establishments–like the cafe, and the coffee shop across the street that doubles as a mojito bar at night. I am however trying to immerse myself in the local culture that surrounds me, and have found the outdoors to be my gentle gateway in. Every morning I run to our nearby park and observe locals as they appreciate the beautiful green space. Some practice tai-chi alone, moving gracefully with their eyes closed, yet still so aware of their surroundings. Others gather in large groups—their movements swaying harmoniously with the trees around us. Going to the park gives me a sense of peace and connection.
And at the end of the day, in this very foreign place, what I am seeking most is a sense of peace and connection. One that can only come from meditation, acceptance, and letting go of judgement for the unfamiliar. I know its through this practice (and Mandarin lessons!) I will get to a point where I can truly say the things I know I should be saying. That this is a great opportunity, that we are so lucky, and that we are making the most out of every moment we have here. In the meantime, I am eternally grateful for David’s intermediate Mandarin skills that get us so many good meals, and his endless understanding and empathy for my culture-shock struggles. Hopefully they are struggles I will soon overcome.