If I learned to speak Mandarin perfectly, with no discernible foreign accent, if I lived the rest of my life in this city, if I my children were born here, if my grandchildren were born here, even if I dyed my hair black, got dark contacts and tried my very best to blend in as much as possible—one thing will still always remain—I’m a foreigner.
As a native of a country where we can’t readily identify foreigners, even by their color of skin or the language they speak—it’s easy for us to never really ponder what it means to be “foreign.” But here, my status as a foreigner is obvious and constant.
After nearly 4 weeks of traveling, I returned “home” a few days ago. Although I was leaving this beautiful country full of warmth and sunshine:
I was excited to be returning to this foreign land—which over the past few months begins to feel more familiar, like a place I belong. Perhaps that’s why my status once again as foreign was a little bit jarring. My first night back we went to dinner at a restaurant we frequent. Another diner moved across the restaurant to stare at us. He probably wanted to examine the foreigners’ chopstick skills. Or maybe he was just intrigued by the group of foreigners.
While at times this identity as a foreigner can be a bit overwhelming, I have to say I’ve grown in some ways to appreciate. In one of my early letters home I mentioned that living here, ‘I’m continually reminded that for each of us, this is not our home. China is no more my home than the land of (real) football and barbecue is.’
So even as I retain my foreign status, I’m thankful for the opportunities that it brings me to meet new people and build relationships. I’m thankful for the many foreign things that become familiar. And I’m thankful for the reminder that I am made for a greater home and have been given a “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”
“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.”
Yesterday I did some shopping. Shopping. Such an innocuous word that definitely does not fully convey the gravity of the task set before me. I was looking for a specific face wash, contact solution and a pillow.
Stop one was Watson’s. Picture CVS or Walgreen’s minus the medicine. I was quite pleased with the vast selection and even more excited to see they had Cetaphil (my face wash) and it was on sale on the big display! The shopping was going so well! And then I get to the register. The cashier begins to gesture at me and then a college in student in line behind us explains that to get the discount price I need a card. But I can’t figure out how to get the card. Next the manager comes out (who speaks a little English) and tries to help. With around three employees and a customer’s help I manage to get the card
Next stop, contact solution at the supermarket. Picture a store kind of like super Wal-Mart, or Super Target or Meijer. As soon as I enter the section where contact solution might be several employees eagerly greet me. Cue the game of charades as I attempt to signal what contact solution is. (I learned during training I’m not particularly good at charades in general.) After poking at my eye for a little bit I’m brought some night time eye cream, as well as some fake eyelashes. Then I see a couple American girls. They are pretty sure they don’t sell contact solution here. (And I actually did easily obtain it today at the eyeglass store with minimal charades.)
Finally, I head to bedding. Either I’ve improved at charades or the pillow is just much clearer, but once again an eager employee shows me various pillows and I find one.
What did I learn from these exchanges? Other than the obvious: I need to learn some Chinese. I thought what would have happened to the Chinese person who speaks no English at home as they wander through a store? How would I have treated them? How do I treat the stranger, the foreigner in my midst? And I was humbled by the kindness shown to this clueless foreigner. And I was convicted realizing that I often had missed opportunities to show this same hospitality and grace to others.
So, how do you treat the foreigner in your land?