Yesterday I was talking to my husband over lunch about how returning to China after a few weeks away made me realise how hard I’m finding it to relax here. While we were on holiday I relaxed a lot, despite jetlag and lots of people interaction. I had access to clear air, sunshine, grass under my feet, sitting outside in a private backyard to read a book, playing a piano and singing, going for a walk where my appearance is unremarkable… Lots of relaxation actvities that aren’t available to me here.
I went for a walk a few days ago, remembering how being outside and going for walks had relaxed me when we were travelling. This time it didn’t work, and I felt frustrated. Part of the frustration was how quickly my legs started aching, but it was more about how the nature of the walk itself was not relaxing for me. I had to navigate walkways that were cracked, blocked to shoulder height with tree branches, ended abruptly, or were taken up by cars. And then there was the little girl who stared at me, pulled on her mum’s skirt and pointed at me, whispering smiled excitement as I walked past. I want to be kind and generous about incidents like this. They are innocent, but so frequent that they wear on me. I prefer to be anonymous, and that is never an option here.
Thankfully, this is the place where I say “but”!
But, I then said, grocery shopping this morning was actually quite relaxing.
On the surface this didn’t make sense. I definitely stand out in a small local Chinese greengrocer. I had to walk along the same sorts of non-simple footpaths. What was so different?
To be fair, it definitely helped that it was a sunny morning, the air was clean, and I’d woken up early but refreshed. Factors we can’t control always contribute to an experience! I suspect that just going for a walk that morning would have been more life-giving and less stressful than the previous walk. But there was more to it. The actual grocery shopping was nice. So I decided to deconstruct what made it nice.
1) I knew where the store was, and I knew what to expect there.
That seems like a small thing, but after too many months of transition, that in itself is such a wonderful and relaxing thing! I have had so very little familiarity in the past eight months. Especially after three weeks in my husband’s passport country, in places he knows, with his family, where almost every place, errand, and interaction was something new for me to navigate, familiarity is so relaxing! So when I decided to make 炒面 (chǎo miàn, fried noodles) for lunch, I knew several places I could go, when they opened, and what I could get there. I chose to go to this particular market for particular reasons. Having the knowledge and freedom to do that gives me peace!
2) I had a specific purpose
I went to the store wanting a particular list of groceries in order to make a particular dish. And I knew they also made their own (huge!) 馒头 (mán tóu, steamed buns) so I wanted to get some of those too. I was a woman on a mission! Albeit a very small mission (buy noodles and vegetables, cook a lunch big enough to leave leftovers). But having purpose, even a small purpose, for one morning, is so big for me right now. I feel aimless a lot of the time. The purposes/missions I have in front of me at the moment are big, nebulous things, with no clear end results coming any time in the near future. I have trouble working out who I am and what I do in an everyday sense. But that falls away when I have a little mission – even a simple grocery shopping trip.
3) I knew what to do
Again, this may sound simple, but I still remember how bewildered I was the first time I tried to buy things in a Chinese grocery store. While there is a general checkout at the front, most stores have several sections in which items must be purchased separately. There is a logic to these sections, but they are rarely (if ever) marked, and flow into each other, or into sections of buy-at-the-register stuff. It can get complicated – maybe I should write about it another time! But for the purpose of this story – I knew what to do. I knew to pay for the noodles and mán tóu in one location, and when I was pointed to the bean shoots in a cabinet up the back I wasn’t surprised to be asked to pay for them there. There was no additional stress of trying to learn a counter-intuitive system.
3) Shared interactions as a foreigner
I don’t like standing out as a stranger, but I don’t mind so much when it happens less randomly. If I’m interacting with someone for a separate reason, and they remark on my foreign-ness and command of Mandarin, that doesn’t irritate me. Most of the time, I enjoy these little interactions. The person is not encroaching on my existence, they are sharing it for the moment that we are involved in a task together.
So, on this particular day, it started while I was choosing fresh made noodles and mán tóu from behind a counter. I asked for what I wanted (and tripped up by knowing the words meaning thin and thick but not flat!) The older man serving me waited until I had made my selections, and then commented on my foreign-ness while bagging and weighing my purchases. He said I spoke better 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà – one of the words for Mandarin Chinese) than a lot of Chinese people. He later joked at a serving girl about it. He also asked where I was from. And that was it – just a couple of simple questions while we were conducting a transaction. An acknowledgement of my (obvious) foreign-ness, and appreciation of my ability to communicate. Later I had the same conversation (though truncated for a shorter transaction) while buying bean shoots from a different man at a different counter.
4) Being ignored
The only people to comment on (or even seem to notice) my foreign-ness were those I had to talk with in order to do something. I’m sure everyone else did actually notice me, but there was no staring and no commenting (at least nothing obvious). I felt free to wander and think. When I couldn’t find the bean shoots, I asked the woman who was clearly in charge (the store had only just opened; a bunch of staff were stocking shelves with fresh vegetables, and she was answering questions and generally managing things). She explained where they were and didn’t take any further notice of me. (For the recond, they were in a refrigerated glass cupboard with the tofu and various pickled things, hidden under a tray of bagged soy milk. I stopped feeling bad about not having found them on my own!)
5) No sensory overload
Lately I’ve done most of my shopping at a large supermarket near us. It’s very convenient because it has everything in one place, but it opens later in the morning and it’s quite an assault on my sense. Bright fluorescent lights, huge shelves, lots of people milling about, and lots of noise. This place was different. The produce was well lit, but the rest of the room was fairly dim. There were jets of cooling mist over most of the vegetables. Although there were a lot of staff, and a few customers, there wasn’t a lot of talking – and it wasn’t an echo-ey space anyway. Wandering this small store – darker, quieter, simpler – I felt the difference. I didn’t feel the same sense of pressure. I could breathe. No, it didn’t have everything, but it had everything I needed for this particular errand.
So – there it is. My relaxing grocery shopping trip.
There was clarity, and not confusion. I knew where to go, what to do, and I had a simple purpose I could accomplish. There was interaction, and acknowledgement, but nothing overwhelming.
I succeeded in being a local member of my community, for a few minutes on a sunny Monday morning. Time to celebrate a small success!