There’s nothing more tiring than living a city that never stays the same. It’s not just the streetscapes, the buildings and the monuments that get discarded and replaced with newer shinier versions — people get sucked in and thrown away at just the same rate. Some people arrive in Beijing because they have to; others because they had a dream one night, packed a suitcase and booked a flight the next day. No one really comes to Beijing because it’s in their life plan. They’re here by mistake: A series of events unfolded, some people made some recommendations, a friend sent an email, and bugger me, here you are. How the hell did that happen?
One’s first year in Beijing doesn’t count on any seasoned expat’s calendar. Your first year is the equivalent of being on your learners license – you’re nowhere near ready for a cross-country road trip, but you can drive your crappy Datsun from point A to point B and that’s all that counts. Your first year in Beijing is either the best year of your life, or the start of an abusive relationship. And you will change. You’re either going to be one of those annoying people who insist on doing everything the locals do, or you’re going to be one of those equally obnoxious people who hate everything about this backward-arsed city and love to tell people how they can’t wait to leave. It’s inevitable — don’t even try to fight it. You will be one these people.
I fell somewhere in-between, with a strong inclination towards the latter. I couldn’t speak the language and I stood out like a hooker in the Paris-end of town: My blonde hair and white skin seemed to be an affront to everything that is holy and good in this town. It became obvious to me that I was not meant to be here.
I hid behind my husband’s back everywhere we went, hoping no one would talk to me. My darling other half was born in China and thanks to his forward-thinking parents was raised in Australia speaking Chinese at home. Sure, this meant he had the vocabulary of a ten year old, stunted from years away from his Chinese peers, but I envied him nonetheless. What he lacked in advanced vocabulary, I made up for with my outstanding charades skills. I got so sick of smiling at everyone in an effort to convey myself. “Do you need water?” Smile. “Get out of my way!” Smile. “Where are you from?” Smile. “Look at what that white girl is wearing.” Smile.
Behind all of these smiles lay total and complete embarrassment. As a writer and a talker with a penchant for pointless and lengthy conversation, my sudden muteness was a shock to my ego. I was no longer the wisecracking smart-arse at the dinner table — I was the wife of my husband. Silent, obliging, always nodding.
There are two routes one can take when in such a predicament: You can study Chinese, pull your socks up and fight through it, or you can be crushed by isolation and helplessness, forced into house arrest. Never one to pick the easy way out, I took option B and chose to sit inside our apartment and cry.
I wanted to kill every single foreigner who told me they had picked up Mandarin in six months. You know who you are, you smarmy bastards. I still hold a grudge against these language-proficient overachievers. There I was with my flash cards and the Chinese dictionary my mother-in-law “borrowed” from the library, trying desperately and failing miserably to learn the most basic verbs, while they were out discussing Chinese politics and picking up starry-eyed locals desperate for a foreign lay.
Years filled with both half-hearted and dedicated attempts at learning Chinese have brought me to where I am now: A few steps farther than where I was when I first arrived. If you imagine mastery of Mandarin to be a Monopoly board, I’m currently sitting pretty at the first Railway Station, four blocks from the gaudy “Go!” square.
But I’m somewhere. I can tell people my job is keeping me very busy with total and complete competence. I can catch a cab home after three jugs of margarita (which is an achievement in any language). Importantly, I can swear at people. I’m yet to pick up all of the colourful language that punctuates the Chinese vocabulary, but I do pretty well at telling people they’re a “stupid son of a turtle.” Don’t ask; just accept that that’s an offensive thing to say here.
Eventually, either through osmosis or an actual desire to learn, I have a base of Chinese from which to draw. It has saved me. My abusive relationship with Beijing has turned into a tentative love affair.
My ego was shattered and rebuilt, slowly and painfully. And it’s still a work in process. When I step off the plane at Melbourne airport I feel a newfound admiration for all of those immigrants who are relocating into a foreign language in a foreign country. They are truly brave and deserve far more respect than the specks of political correctness that are thrown their way. They are starting from scratch, with no one to help them, no communal language and no culture to confide in. They are truly mute.
I don’t mean to compare myself with their struggle, but I certainly sympathise. My days of being frustrated with Melbourne’s Chinese restaurant waitresses are over.
But I still can’t compete with those Beijing University, Mandarin-studying, multi-lingual wankers.