If you’re having trouble viewing the video, click here to watch Hitting the wall – 5 months in China on Youtube.
The main content is in the video above, but as always, there’s some extra stuff to talk about.
I remember growing up and at some point learning the phrase “it’s rude to stare”.
I don’t know if this saying exists in Chinese, but if it does it’s certainly not followed when I’m around. This attention can be completely intoxicating and utterly unnerving depending on my mood.
It’s great fun to catch a girl staring at me on the subway, as when I meet her gaze she will immediately look away, and then after a little while look back, at which point I smile and then she has no idea what to do next. She’ll either immediately bury her face or instead manage a half-smile in the way a deer might freeze in a car’s headlights.
It provides a start contrast to the people I’ve met here who are quite comfortable around foreigners. But they too can be impacted as there have been times when I’ve been chatting with a local, particularly women, and everyone around us will start staring, much more so that if it was just me by myself. It’s like they’ve been thrust into the spotlight by association.
But on some days it wears thin. I was hiking on a mountain last weekend by myself and it seemed like with every group I passed, someone would say “hello” and then snicker. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be patronising, but by the time I got the top I was really tired of it.
Yes, I have fair skin and blonde / red hair. No I’m not from around here. Get over it.
When I catch myself thinking like this I end up feeling really disappointed with myself, because the Chinese people that I’ve met have been so incredibly friendly and genuinely interested in where I’m from and what I’m doing here. Hospitable to a fault.
It’s just that the friendliness can wear you down after a while and it can begin to feel like they’re taking the piss. Some kid came up to me on the mountain and asked if I would have a photo with him. We took the photo but instead of being happy to have a fan, I felt drained.
If I had to deal with this all day every day, I’d no doubt go a bit nutty and put up some emotional walls like celebrities often do.
I hope I never get to that point.
5 months ago, my purpose for coming to China was to learn the language. And after 5 months I’ve made a lot of progress but I’m still a long way off what I would call conversationally fluent.
I’m also losing motivation.
It seems like my emotions fluctuate wildly week to week with every small win and defeat. One day I successfully order some train tickets, the next I forget all the words I know and can’t answer a basic question about the weather.
And it’s clear that I can’t keep a single focus on language learning as it’s just too exhausting. To keep making good progress I need to continually break the habits I fall into and throw myself into new situations and learn from experience by making lots and lots of mistakes.
Breaking habits and dealing with constant change requires and huge amount of energy and right now it’s not what I want to do. I’m certainly not going to pack my bags and call it quits, but instead switch into maintenance mode while I look for something else.
I need more stability.
Fundamentally, I’m most motivated and most happy when I’m spending a lot of time with great people, working as part of a team in a way that plays to my strengths. I haven’t been able to find a way to do this for language learning.
So I’m exploring the idea of working with one of the many startup companies that I’ve met here. Ideally this also includes using mandarin in some capacity, but even it if doesn’t, I think getting a great group of people around me will help me to keep a more consistent emotional state.
Beijing is a great place for startups, particularly in the mobile industry and it seems like every day I read another article about someone closing a round of funding, so I’m hopeful that something will come together.
Once I’ve got a stronger foundation and more emotional consistency, I can then start tackling language learning more incrementally in a way that won’t wear me out.
Or at least that’s the plan.