My first few weeks here were challenging. Besides my apartment and my place of work, there was nothing else I knew. While you can get on with speaking English in the bigger cities, almost no one speaks English in a small town. Because of this, things I had taken for granted back home were monumental tasks here.
Finding food was a risk filled adventure. I didn’t have a kitchen, so I ate out every meal. All the menus were in Chinese. The restaurants that did have English tended to be much pricier, so it was a ‘point-and-hope-for-the-best’ kind of situation. This led to a few disasters (a soup with pig entrails, a horribly salty pork dish with way too much fat and some sort of meatloaf thing that had a vaguely rotting taste and smell). Almost immediately, I started gravitating to the restaurants that had pictures on their menus.
Buying basic things like toothpaste and shaving cream was also a trying experience. The only ways to find something were to look for it through the whole store (too long, and I hate shopping) or try and mime it to a person working at the store. While the miming worked most of the time, it’s frustrating having to continuously do it, not to mention embarassing when you’re trying to find toilet paper. In addition, some things are just not appropriate. Try miming condoms to an ultra-shy 7-11 clerk!
Trying to figure my way around town was trying as well. While I did enjoy wandering around town, I’d sometimes get frustrated, and couldn’t find an English map anywhere.
By themselves these things aren’t much but put together with a lot of other minor irritations, I had a pretty rough go in the first few weeks. Reflecting back on it now, I realize that it was because my whole sense of independence was gone. I had to rely on everyone else to do things for me, and that left me feeling like a baby. In the west we tend to take pride in our individual achievements, but here I couldn’t even get directions or find a bathroom easily. I had to rely heavily on others, so I felt frustrated at my inability to do even the simplest of things.
Another thing that started getting to me was the lack of other westerners. It’s all well and good to talk about wanting to meet new people and see a different culture, but when one is completely isolated, one starts really missing familiar things. Something as simple as speaking English. Oh sure, I did that a lot at work, but I started missing casual conversations. Talking about movies, music, girls. Making pop culture references about how much Justin Beiber sucks. Just having a conversation with someone who gets it.
I realized then that my language had become my best friend, and I really missed it.
This was the first time in my life that I was completely without a support structure. I had no idea how important that was. This understanding only came because of the experience…there was no way I could have predicted or prepared for it. It was one of those “you don’t miss it till it’s gone” situations. I’m sure this all sounds like common sense, but you really can’t know what it’s really like unless you go through it.
Thankfully all these frustrations were balanced with my excitement of being here. I managed to keep an optimistic view, and saw each challenge as a learning opportunity. Finally after a while I got into a routine. I’d found a few places to eat, stocked up on TP and acquired a mental map of my surrounding area. I also met other foreigners who were going through the same thing. We trashed Justin Beiber together. It took me about 6 months, but I was finally comfortable and (to some degree) independent again.