Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two Ways Living Overseas Changed This White Girl's View of America

The melodies of sweet Celine no longer warble through our windows and gone are the days of watching tai chi as we peddle past the local parks. 

It has been ten years since my husband and I crossed the ocean with our belongings to make the US of A our home again.

For the first few months of being home, Chinese ways were strong in us. We stood much too close to the person next to us at the bank. We were overwhelmed at the choices of cookies in the grocery aisle. Our shoes came off at the front door and slippers went on.

Most of those acquired ways have rubbed off and we have forgotten much. But two things I learned living in SouthEast Asia have left a permanent mark on my soul.

1. Foreigners look different to me

It happened again in February when we found ourselves at the passport agency in Chicago trying to renew a passport in 24 hours. No, not stressful at all. Why would you think that?

As we took off our shoes and belts and sweaters and underwear at the security checkpoint, a young Asian couple lined up behind us. They had a tiny baby that we (and by we, I mean I) ogled the whole way through the line. Darling.

That passport place is a well oiled machine and every application must be ready with their ream of papers. It can be confusing. And the young couple was feeling it. And so I nudged my husband because he is still capable of forming a sentence in Chinese. I recognized the relief in their eyes. How many times had someone stepped up to my family, making the transition into another culture a bit less overwhelming.

Until you have been the foreigner and struggled to find the market and figure out the parking protocol, you can't quite understand the vulnerability. When the language and the social structure and the rules of the road are all so unfamiliar, you need help. And that need can remind you of kindergarten. Something as simple as using the restroom can be confusing. See? Kindergarten.

Foreigners no longer look threatening to me, they look familiar. 
May I be as gracious to them as others have been to me.

2. Minorities look different to me

In the United States of America, anyone of any nationality can, with copious amounts of time and effort, become a US citizen. This is not a reality in many other places and certainly not in China. Our names were quickly changed to Wei Guo Ren upon entering the country. Every where we went, we were called Outside the Country People. Not out of hatred, but out of habit. The Chinese simply saw us as outsiders. 

Our neighbors liked us but we didn't fit in. Not at the market where we were always charged higher prices for our carrots and pork, not at the bus stations where staring and giggling shadowed us every time.

We were never beat up and never harassed. But we longed for the day when we would finally belong. When the shade of our skin and the size of our noses would not be noticed any more and we would be seen as just us instead of Wei Guo Ren

Those few years of living as an outsider gave me a small peek at what a lot of our fellow Americans have grown up experiencing. There is no way that I can fully understand what the minorities in this country face. I am in no way making light of what the black community is sorting through during this time. Nor what they have lived out for the past 350 years. 

What did our Big Nose family want from our Chinese community? A place. Community. Open arms. Not friends who pretended not to notice that we were different, but friends who saw the value in our differences.

And if we would have felt discriminated against, if we would have felt wronged, I'll bet we would have appreciated our Chinese neighbors sitting down with us, over steaming bowls of the most delicious noodles you can fathom, and listening. And nodding. And asking questions. And desiring to be a part of the solution.

Could we show the African American community these same things? Could we show them that we value them by listening? What is it that they want? What do they need from the white community?

If you are not currently a minority in the country in which you live, could you go there with me for a minute? 

Have you been in a situation where you were the minority? How did that feel? Some of you who have traveled to far away places and experienced minorityhood. Maybe some of you have found yourselves in neighborhoods or church services where you were the misfit. How different would your life look if you were permanently in the minority?

Have you ever felt undervalued or ignored? Passed over for opportunity because of gender or age? Powerless? 

Could we use our own experiences and identify in a tiny way with the black community in America today? Could we?

Not to say, Yep we get you. 
But to say, We see you and we want to understand.

That is how living overseas redefined some things for me. 


  1. I wholeheartedly agree ... If we could just have a heart to heart I think so much could change. I feel like both 'sides' (ugh I hate the way that sounds) could benefit from having a one on one conversation.
    The heart behind the skin is what we ALL need to see.

    1. You are right about the heart. And I love YOUR heart! 😃