Love over China
The past two weeks I’ve been traveling, and I’ve spent a lot of that time crying. In airport bathrooms and baggage claims, in buses, in hotel rooms and lobbies, in restaurants, and back at home. My life and my Instagram can make it seem like I have a glamorous, fast-paced lifestyle of important international meetings, beautiful exotic places, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And I do have a lot of those things, and I’m very privileged to have those things. But it isn’t glamorous. It’s exhausting, and stressful, and sometimes I don’t get to eat or sleep. Sometimes I walk miles to an AirBnB, or take a 20-hour layover in an airport because I can’t afford a decent flight. But I should start at the beginning.
The beginning is that I’m extremely stressed out. I’m supposed to defend my PhD in May, which depends on a number of things. I have two articles that I have to edit and resubmit ASAP, which is stressful enough because I’m learning to navigate the world of academic publishing where professionals act like internet trolls because they’re anonymous and where “rejected” doesn’t always mean rejected. Once one of those gets accepted (it’ll be my second first-authored published paper), I can apply for a dissertation completion grant of three months, which I have to spend writing the thesis summary. I’ll have to work that out with my current funding, which won’t take me to May anyway, and try to figure out a way to stay funded during the time between submitting the thesis and getting the OK for defense. In the meantime, I’m teaching through November and haven’t had time to review my course material. I presented a poster at a conference in Corfu, Greece, the first week of October, flew back to Helsinki on the evening of the 11th and flew to Beijing on the 12th to participate in the founding of an Alumni Club for alumni of Helsinki in China, but more importantly, to have some meetings with a few professors at Beijing Normal University and to see their EEG lab. I have enough material to defend my thesis, but from a larger project perspective, I need to do another experiment using Mandarin speakers, so I’m trying to see if I can collect the data in Beijing, which would put leading an international research project on my CV (very good for postdoc options!) and would be good cred for both universities to have such cooperation. But this kind of collaboration is time consuming, complicated, a financial and ethical nightmare. So I’m dealing with all of that.
And just before I left for Greece, I found out that since my apartment building has a scheduled renovation, I have to find somewhere else to live by the end of November.
In traveling, there are always little stressful things that go wrong. Just before leaving for Greece I realized that the conference was asking for some bizarre poster dimensions and made a frantic Googling of Helsinki trying to find same-day service that wouldn’t cost my firstborn child. I realized I had no contact solution and my local pharmacies have suddenly stopped selling it, so I had to make an extra trip to the centre to buy some. I did not manage to clean out my fridge before leaving (and honestly, still haven’t, but it’s on the list for this week). But I managed to get on the plane, and a short trip later, I was facing a 20 hour layover in Gatwick.
I used to fly through Gatwick all the time when I lived in London. After once spending five hours getting from the tarmac in Heathrow to my flat in central London, I’ve preferred Gatwick. It’s small, friendly, convenient, has much faster border control than Heathrow. I even thought I might take the train into the city–some posters on the wall advertised a new, faster, more affordable train line into London. But when I got up to the desk to go through border control, the agent immediately began screaming at me, completely unprovoked. I quickly handed her my passport and my boarding pass and my landing card, and she screamed at me that I hadn’t put down a resident address in London. When I explained that I had a layover, she screamed that I didn’t have my next boarding pass. I explained that it was a transfer, and then she screamed that I needed to put the airport down as my residence in London. I apologized and said I had never done that before, I didn’t know I had to do that or what the airport’s address was, and she flashed her hand up in my face, an inch from my nose, and spit out DON’T YOU SNAP AT ME! I gave her the look that puppies must give the monsters who kick them, and I shut up. Then she screamed that I had written “United States of America” under “Nationality” and made me cross it out and write “American.”
Now let me tell you, American doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a nationality, it’s an identity that people use because either they conflate it with some nationalistic ideals (which is why I try to avoid it) or because it’s easier to say than “I’m from the United States of America” (which is why I sometimes use it). The country is called the United States of America. It’s under “U” on every alphabetical menu in existence, and that’s what it says on my passport. But I had to change it anyway, because this border agent was about to bust a vein. At this point the agent had gotten so aggressive that I thought I was going to be arrested, or that she was going to leap over the desk and actually throttle me with her bare hands! I shot helpless, pleading glances at the other agents nearby, to no avail. Finally, still screaming at me that I didn’t know what I was doing and that I had to follow directions better, she slammed my papers down one by one so hard that I had to snatch them out of the air before they scattered all over the floor. I was so shaken up by that point that I made a beeline to the nearest bathroom and just cried. I’ve never been treated so aggressively, with so much contempt, for no reason at all. It really made me think about how many people must be treated this way all the time because of the way they look or where they come from.
After that, I had no desire to interact with more people and decided to just stay in the airport, do some knitting and some reading and just try to shut out the world for a while. So I spent that time going from cafe to cafe, and finally the next morning I found my way to Corfu.
The island itself is breathtaking to fly over. It’s very small and rises out of the ocean like an oasis of green hills and sparkling beaches. The runway was so short that I thought for a moment we were going to have a water landing, and I didn’t even care. My hotel was small and cute, situated on a hill amidst an olive grove. I read later that Corfiot olives are rare and special, a variety called lianolia that are smaller and darker than other types and left to ripen on the trees rather than being beaten down or hand picked like most olives. The olive growers lay a light mesh underneath the trees so that the olives can be easily gathered once they fall. Because they are left so long on the ground, there is a problem with rotting and contamination, so they aren’t very good for large scale oil production. They are, however, extremely delicious, and were served generously at the tavernas and the hotel breakfast. They reminded me the most of kalamata olives, my favorite, but even more strongly flavored and with a chewy, fresher texture than the jarred olives we can find in the US. As someone who only started liking olives in the past few years, and still for the most part disliking them whole, I really enjoyed the Corfiot olives.
During the conference, there was some time taken up by workshops that required an extra fee, so I went to the old town by bus. It was convenient, fairly cheap and fairly reliable, and the bus stopped in the middle of town very close to the old town area. It reminded me a lot of Tallinn except that the attitude was really festive, shopkeepers with wares hanging out into the streets–fresh bread, handmade olive oil soaps, the local kumquat liqueur glowing orange in all sorts of pretty bottles, jewelry, wooden things, wool slippers, lots of flowy white textiles and more colourful scarves and bags, fancy jewelry shops, pottery and spice shops and sweets shops and little bodegas to buy fruit and sesame snacks and figs. I wound up with a tiny bottle of the kumquat liqueur, a small sky-blue clay pot filled with souvlaki spices, a few boxes of loukoumi, a treat made with sugar and honey and different flavours like rose, lime, and fig, and a handmade clay magnet with the goddess Hera painted on it. I figured I could always use some patronage from the goddess queen.
I wandered around, had some stuffed grape leaves and tea for lunch, took some photos around the old fortress, found a semi-public rock beach to take my shoes off and put my feet in the water. I watched the little rock crabs and the sailboats for a while.
And then I turned down a side street and this unassuming sign caught my eye. It was about the least exciting looking bakery in Corfu Town, so of course I had to go in. It was small and fit only about three people at a time, and it offered a modest selection of sweet and savory, cold and hot treats. The first time I went, I bought a single piece of baklava, a large square of spanakopita and a tub of custard. The spanakopita turned out to be made of hand-rolled filo dough, which I had never experienced before. Even my Greek great-aunt would use store bought filo, which is entirely understandable given that most people can’t manage to work with the store bought kind let alone rolling out those paper-thin sheets by hand!
The baklava was a religious experience, truly. It was wrapped up in little packages, the same shape as the diamonds I make, but so that the filling didn’t fall out. The nuts were spicier and ground smaller than mine, and there was a stronger honey flavour. The last day it rained all morning but I found a few hours in the afternoon to go back to town. I found the bakery again and bought more baklava to bring back to Helsinki. On a whim I also bought a piece of olive bread.
The trip back was, in a word, eventful. In another word, stressful. And yet another, frustrating. I had ordered a taxi back to the airport and arrived a little over two hours before my flight. At the check-in desk I was told that the scheduled (and cancelled) airline strike had somehow still caused problems with the tickets, so I would have to go to the ticket counter and get a new ticket. There were only about four people in the queue at that point, so I wasn’t worried. Two hours of standing later, the ticket counter had made zero progress except to process the papers of a very aggressive Greek woman who stormed up to the front of the line and demanded to be served. I felt bad for the little girl with her who was hauling a suitcase about as big as she was and who looked absolutely mortified at the whole exchange.
There were two airline workers who had come up to the side of the ticket counter with a group of people and who began working with the one woman behind the counter. Those of us in the line noticed that the two airline workers had gathered a little entourage of people who had been in the line behind us but were now crowded around the front of the desk, shooting very smug glances at us. And the identification cards were all Greek. We eventually figured out that we were all trying to get onto the same flight, but that these airline workers had decided to show some domestic favoritism. A fistfight nearly broke out at one point, and I felt more sad than anything else, not yet worried because I knew I had an entire day of traveling ahead of me and as long as I got back to Helsinki within 24 hours or so, my plans wouldn’t be affected. I do think that it makes more sense to process the foreigners first in this situation though, as we’re more likely to have complicated flight connections that would be harder to reschedule. At least no one seemed too concerned about efficiency, though they kept assuring us that we would all get on the plane.
It turned out that something extra was wrong with my ticket, so I spent a while going back and forth between the ticket desk and the check-in desk where a young blonde woman was really frantically trying to get my situation sorted out. There was a lot of shouting in Greek and at no point did anyone attempt to explain anything to me, so I just stood and watched. I managed to figure out that somehow my ticket number had gotten deleted entirely, and after another half hour of working on that, my plane was supposed to leave. I thought about just telling them to not worry about getting so anxious about it, can we take a break and then figure out an alternative flight for me? But no one even looked at me. Finally the woman threw a boarding pass at me and told me to run for it. It was ten minutes past departure.
I ran up to the tiny security station and threw my bags into the scanner. The agent on the other side threw them back to me and I ran through the one small gate, out onto the tarmac, and up to the plane as the sun was setting and I could see passengers staring out the window at me. I hoped nobody thought it was my fault the plane was delayed. This is why I don’t check bags, guys. Adventures.
I had a long layover in Athens that I spent eating cheese pies and drinking tea, and another layover in Frankfurt where I had a very large coffee and an overpriced bagel. Finally, on Tuesday evening, I got back to Helsinki. Wednesday was spent running errands and switching out clothes from my pack, realizing I had no conservative formal shoes and making an emergency trip to the thrift store. Pro tip for those with extremely small feet like me–try thrift stores that carry vintage styles! I found a very professional looking pair of black patent-leather wingtip style flats AND a pair of gorgeous dark brown leather lace-up boots, the kind that look equally stylish with pants or skirts. Since I wear dresses and skirts almost exclusively, I like my boots to be more feminine. And boots you need in Finland–I gave up on wearing flats outside about three years ago.
And then on Wednesday evening, I boarded a Finnair plane to Beijing. Luckily Helsinki is trying to style itself as a main European hub to the East, so Finnair offers direct, relatively comfortable flights to Beijing.
I’d been to Beijing before, a little less than a year and a half ago, for a symposium on education and learning. It was a great experience–I was with a group where I knew a few people and got to know the others who I still keep in touch with. Even though everyone else was Finnish, they never made me feel excluded, and actually I often felt like an integral part of the team when having to sort of interpret between them and the Chinese group. I find that language-wise, it’s easier for communication between a native and a non-native speaker than for two non-native speakers, especially two as different in phonology as Finnish and Mandarin, so my English served as a sort of blank template, devoid of accent and idiosyncrasies, that they could both bounce off of. And as is often true in business, simply being present as a foreign body makes everyone feel good about their diversity.
Last time I had some great food–hotpot and chili glass noodles (one of my favorites), fried rice and vegetables, the great light, wheaty local beer called Tsingtao. I wanted to get the most of it so I tried chicken feet, which were fine in taste but unsettlingly served cold, and jellyfish soup with cream and mushrooms, which was delicious and reminiscent of thick rice noodles. I also found both the silk street, which was, to my disappointment, actually a shopping mall where vendors court you aggressively and you’re expected to bargain equally aggressively, and the Maliandao tea street, which was, to my delight, even better than I expected. I wanted to go back this time, since I still had a good stock of jasmine and green tea, but I’m lacking in pu-erh, the dark fermented tea which has a nice earthy, full-bodied, warm taste perfect for autumn. I was debating with myself on whether to buy another yixing teapot for the pu-erh or to let my all-purpose glazed ceramic teapot suffice, since yixing clay pots should only be used for one type of tea as they soak up the tea oils into the clay and develop a seasoning over time, much like cast iron. Well, I use mine for both the green and jasmine, but I think that’s close enough, but pu-erh would really ruin the patina. It turned out that I didn’t have time for really any sightseeing except a quick hour trip to the shopping mall down the block where I bought some mochi, but since I had such an authentic lunch experience on the first day of the trip, I really didn’t mind.
When we arrived at the airport in Beijing, we were met at the gate by an official looking guy holding a sign with all our names on it. I knew one of the group in person and another by name, but we got chatting and I quickly came to like my companions. I was the only student; there were some coordinators, administrators, professors. Important people. I had only realized a few days before that the hotel was extremely far away from Beijing Normal University, where my meetings were, as the others had meetings elsewhere for the first few days. I got checked in to the hotel with some haste and anxiety, feeling disheveled and already exhausted, since it had been an overnight flight and I hadn’t gotten much sleep. I ordered a taxi, and although it was across the city, the exchange rate is good if you’re paid in euros, so it wasn’t a big deal. I had sent an email that I would be a bit late to the first meeting, but then I wasn’t able to access my email at all once at the university. I got to the meeting place half an hour late, but no one was there. A few hours later and when I finally got put in touch with the student who organized my meetings, we realized that right after I sent my email, the meeting times had been changed, and the morning had devolved into a comedy of errors (mostly played by me) after that.
I managed to get to a lunch meeting with one of the professors I had been interested in speaking to about her research group and papers. I tell people a lot how grateful I am that in Helsinki, our cognitive science lab is run by brilliant, driven, powerful women (with families!) who serve as such great role models for all of us. I was really glad to see these brilliant, driven, powerful women in professor roles in Beijing, too. We went for lunch to a local seafood place, and I had foolishly claimed I would eat anything. In my defense, before that day it had been true. It was the kind of place with baskets in tanks of live water creatures, and you look at them and pick some and they cook them up for you to eat family-style. We were chatting about cultural things, personal things, and drinking hot water with some kind of spice in it when the first dish came. It was some steamed small clams or cockles with coriander, and although I struggled a bit at first getting at them with the chopsticks, they were really delicious. It helps that using hands and slurping is considered okay table manners. Next though came what I later found out are silkworm pupae, I guess stir-fried in some kind of soy sauce. I can’t say I was pleased to see them after such a long flight and an already busy and stressful week of traveling, but I really am game for trying anything. I think the only thing before this that I definitely haven’t wanted to eat again is rabbit kidney–it has an unpleasant metallic aftertaste–and I’ve never liked cherries, although I dutifully try the fresh ones every so often.
But I’m generally an adventurous eater, so I listened to the instructions, raised my chopsticks, and bit in. The brown shell kind of crackles a bit, like the hard chewy pieces of popcorn kernel stuck to the fluffy bits. The inside texture isn’t as bad as it could be–it’s light and fluffy and very squishy, but not slimy. Kind of like very soupy mashed potatoes, and it’s even a kind of creamy light butter color. But the combination of the crunching and the squishing, and then the flavour itself which is very earthy and grassy in a way that screams THIS IS BUGS…. I couldn’t really handle the combination. I was having flashbacks to pulling smaller versions of these brown chrysalis pods out of the garden with weeds and poking them with fascination and disgust, watching their little squishy bodies wiggle slowly on the driveway. Luckily we also had dumplings, and I swallowed my pride (but not the bugs), and determined to henceforth only claim that I will try anything once.
The rest of my meetings and lab tours went well, and I got to know a couple of students over a more recognizable lunch of noodles and beef, stewed meat and vegetables, stuffed buns, some really delicious warm pickled potatoes with chili, and red bean milk tea (I’m obsessed with anything red bean). Everyone I interacted with was warm and friendly, and although communication is sometimes difficult, I found it easy to work within the atmosphere of professionalism and mutual respect.
The cultural pressure of face-saving is often described in a very negative way and as something strictly Asian, and although I know that there are many oppressive practices that come from it, I think in a modern society it’s not a pure evil. And nor is it an Asian thing. I have argued for years that the American attitude is primarily one of face-saving, that our well-known propensity to argue illogical points to the ground and berate people for believing differently is really a face-saving defense mechanism. We do it through blustering and intimidation, which is different than the way Asian cultures do it, but it’s still face-saving. It’s still a way to build a psychological wall around ourselves to keep in the power. But I think a “face-saving lite” attitude can help in intercultural project management, especially when it’s applied backwards–that is, interactions are made with the understanding that we will each try to save each other’s face. Maybe it’s not respect, exactly, that’s born out of understanding each other, but it’s a sort of respect that says “Don’t worry. You are safe with me. I won’t try to humiliate you, I want to work together.” And as I always say, a little friendliness goes a long way.
Saturday I took the opportunity to rest in the morning, the first real morning off I’d had in almost two whole weeks. The hotel (paid by the university, so a nice hotel!) provided comfy slippers and a bath robe, and I had been taking relaxing baths every night to soak away the air pollution and stress. The mini bar was stocked with complimentary water, juice and soda, and Tsingtao beers, and while I’m usually a minimalist sort of person, satisfied by very simple comforts, I definitely took advantage of the comforts of my room.
I’ve never really wished to be wealthy. I’ve wished often to be more financially secure, but that’s not the same as being wealthy. I think living abroad can seem sometimes like an extended vacation, like a privileged, snobby thing to do. And I am very privileged in that I was supported by parents to go to the university that got me a great education, allowing me to pursue higher education where I wanted. But living abroad–really living, not going on holiday–is exactly the same as living domestically only harder and more expensive. I do get to travel a lot, for my job, and I can usually only travel to conferences where every day is notated and covered by a travel grant. I can’t stay an extra week for a holiday because I can’t afford it. When I do go on holiday (current average: once in seven years…) I save up for six months or more, I stay in hostels and alternative housing options, I don’t get to go out to expensive restaurants. And on conferences, we don’t get a per diem anymore because of the university funding cuts, so I’m lucky to get my hotel and flights paid. I take cheaper hotels and awful flights like the one with a 20 hour layover in order to make the funding cover costs, and then I still have to pay for transportation and food out of my own pocket. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling! I budget for out-of-pocket food and experiences and souvenirs, because those things are important to me. And being a minimalist, and willing to be creative and flexible, I don’t mind the logistical hassle. What I mind is when people think I’m on vacation.
I found this really striking in Corfu, since my hotel was up the hill from the conference hotel. At my hotel, the bathroom light didn’t work. The cleaning staff left the terrace doors open during the day so the first morning I woke up covered in mosquito bites. It was a 20-minute hike each morning to the conference hotel, and my hotel had no beach, no restaurant, no stunning vistas from the dining terrace. It was another 20-minute hike back at night, but in the dark, because there weren’t enough street lamps. We took to walking carefully on the edge of the road, holding a phone out with the flashlight app open. I always think it’s interesting to just sit and people-watch at these resorts where they like to plan conferences. I’ve come to the conclusion that resorts are places where wealthy people can go to very expensive restaurants in their pajamas. Which isn’t a criticism; actually, I think this kind of space for the upper class is really important, where they can let their hair down and not worry about saving face. On the other hand, in these environments I find it necessary to dress up, to act more professional, I guess to try to prove that I belong there. Ironically, it’s probably seen as trying too hard. Or maybe they don’t care. I always feel a bit like I’m trespassing, and I’m always stunned at the luxury to the point where I don’t think I could even enjoy that kind of lifestyle. Sometimes it’s just too much. And maybe I’m judging people the same way others are judging me, seeing interesting photos and hearing only the good stories and thinking, wouldn’t that be nice? To get to go traveling to these places all the time? To stay in these nice hotels? How nice, her life must be perfect. I guess my point here is that for me, the cheap hotel on the hill fits my life better than the luxury resort, but occasionally I feel like I deserve a hotel room with a bath robe and a mini bar because traveling for work is flipping exhausting.
Saturday night in Beijing was a fancy event at the Finnish embassy, to kick off an Alumni Club that would unite the networking powers of the Finnish and Chinese universities. There was a bit of a snafu in the scheduling, meaning that the coordinator for our group simply forgot that I was supposed to come with them and they all left without me. It’s this kind of thing that I find most frustrating, not because other people aren’t allowed to make mistakes, but because I feel that these kinds of things happen to me more often than usual, and it’s hard to know what to do in the situation. I was in out of my league, wearing a suit, ready to go schmooze with the ambassador, all dressed up with nowhere to go and no one to contact. I finally just walked to the embassy, incensed, ready to be turned away because I had no escort, no invitation, no credentials.
But a group of Chinese students met me at the entrance and although I had also not been put on the party list, they let me in anyway. So there I am, sweaty, an hour late, walking into this event at the Embassy and putting on a handwritten nametag. I felt like a child playing dress-up and I was furious that the coordinator had put me in this position. She later found me and apologized, but it was just another needless source of anxiety and stress for me, and another reason to take advantage of that mini bar when I got back to the hotel. The event itself was fine, we were told to bring many business cards which I had made at the last moment in a fit of paranoia, but only managed to disseminate about three. I had several people of questionable professional etiquette come to me and shove business cards into my hands without waiting to find out whether we were even in related fields. It seemed a bit desperate.
At those moments, and others on these trips, I became extremely grateful that I had the experience of going through a sorority in college. My sorority took recruitment seriously, taught us how to navigate business networking etiquette and social events, how to enter and leave conversations gracefully, how to introduce people, how to remember names, how to shake hands and make a statement about yourself and make people feel great about interacting with you by finding some common ground. I had a few great (totally work-unrelated) conversations this way, and also managed to catch up with a few people I knew already. The event had a festive atmosphere, and I did feel lucky to be involved in this kind of event that is important in its existence even if the substance isn’t quite there yet. I’m finding that this is very true about international collaboration in general, that often the collaborativeness, the cooperation, the communication, the presence, is the important part, even more important than what actually gets done. And I think it’s a good thing to cooperate for the sake of cooperation. Make friends, spread the love.
We flew back Sunday morning. I was relieved when I met the rest of my group in the hotel lobby. It felt like finally, I didn’t need to be constantly on high alert, that this would be a familiar trip, that I was with people who would take the lead, that I was finally going home. The flight went well and although I had the middle seat, my partners were from my group so we got to know each other better and had some good conversations. The food on Finnair is pretty good (not as good as SAS, but at least in the same league), and they have really state-of-the-art entertainment systems so between the two flights I got to watch several recent movies.
After we landed, all I wanted was to go home, get some hugs and sleep and a meal that wasn’t served in tiny plastic containers. Since most of the passengers on that flight were Chinese, I was in a rather long line to go through passport control, and it seemed that my line was even slower than the others. When I got up to the front, the agent was a youngish looking Finnish guy. I gave him my passport, boarding pass, and residence permit and the last of my energy in the form of a friendly smile. He started with “Hi” but as soon as he saw my residence permit he switched to Finnish. I caught the first part, which was him asking me how well I spoke Finnish, but it caught me so off guard that I could only stare at him. Then he said several things very fast that I didn’t catch at all. Seeing my confused look, he smirked and said “You don’t understand any Finnish. How long have you been here?” I told him three and a half years, which is the short version of much more complicated truth, and his smirk turned to contempt. “Why don’t you speak Finnish then?”
In hindsight I always think I need to get better at standing up for myself and demanding respect. I don’t need to explain myself or my life to anyone, especially in situations like this where it’s none of his business, it has no play in my immigration paperwork. It’s not required to know Finnish to enter the Schengen territory as a foreign citizen.
But in the moment I always feel like I have to make excuses because I actually hate confrontation. So I told him I’m doing a PhD in neuroscience and therefore, I don’t really have the time to also learn Finnish. That at least shut him up and he let me pass, but it shouldn’t have been necessary. I got angrier and more upset as I passed baggage claim and had to sit down for a while and just cry again. It was so sudden, and at a moment when I really felt like all the stress of the past two weeks was finally over. I felt like I was home at last, coming back to colleagues and friends who care about me and a culture that I understand, and this border agent just swept it all out from under my feet. And for what? To show his nationalism? To make me feel bad for being in his country? For sport, in the way that abusive people enjoy seeing that mix of fear and betrayal on your face, so that they can hate you more for being weak in the face of their abuse?
And it doesn’t make me want to learn Finnish more. I still feel bad that I don’t know it well, that I don’t use it. But Finland is becoming more and more hostile to foreigners, and there remains little to no language support. I can’t take the responsibility of an entire country’s attitude to foreigners onto my shoulders, and I can’t take responsibility for not having been taught another language as a child. I didn’t make any of those decisions, and it’s not up to anyone but me to decide whether there is room in my brain and reason in my life now to learn a language. I can get by if I have to, but I don’t have to, and the more I encounter people willing to shame me because of it, the less I’m motivated to learn. I want to learn it for me, because I think it’s a beautiful and interesting, poetic language, but if I take away from my other responsibilities right now to learn it, it would be because of this shame. And I don’t want that shame attached to the learning experience.
The way we, worldwide, treat language skills is gross. In the US, the common refrain is “You’re in America, learn English!” I tentatively say that yes, it’s practical and respectful to try to learn the language of a country you live in. But there are so many reasons not to. Lack of educational resources, lack of monetary support. Being undocumented. Being a temporary resident. Not needing to–many international work environments are mainly in a shared language.
But it’s a false dichotomy, this idea that you either know a language or you don’t. People around me assume I don’t know any Finnish at all even after I’ve told them I do, if they say something and I don’t get part or all of it. But then later they’re surprised when I respond to something they’ve said. It’s insane to think that “knowing” a language means knowing every single thing, every time. We have a word for that: native fluency. And even native speakers don’t catch everything, every time. It’s ridiculous to think that to get to the point of “knowing some Finnish,” in someone’s mind, I’ll have to understand and respond correctly to a single sentence on whatever topic they like, in whatever dialect and whatever speed and style of speaking. I don’t understand anything about car mechanics in English either, but I can watch a Finnish nature documentary and keep up with what’s going on. It’s not the job of a stranger to “test” me. It’s not my job to dance for you.
I think my main point here is just that I’ve really felt a lack of basic human decency and respect lately. Maybe it’s the job– there’s a certain power in being a border agent. Especially in this US political climate, I keep coming back to that famous quote sometimes attributed to Plato but more recently from Albus Dumbledore, that those who seek power are often the least suited to wield it.
And that’s why I wanted to focus on love in this post. I know it’s been a lot of complaining and a lot of crying and there has been a lot of anxiety and loneliness and feeling overwhelmed the past few weeks. I’m the person who needs to get all of that negativity out. I need to tell the stories, I need to cry and rage and fume for a bit. I need people to tell me I’m not going crazy, that people were mean and wrong and that I didn’t do anything to deserve being treated like that.
So then I can focus on the positive things without those negative feelings poisoning my good memories. I want to remember the stuffed grape leaves I had for lunch in Corfu, and the little crabs scuttling over the rocks as I put my feet in the water, the tiny shrimp who tickled my feet like those expensive fish pedicures. I want to remember the feeling of finding the best baklava in the universe in that tiny bakery, watching the vendors chatting amiably. Watching the last bits of sunlight fade into black and the lights along the Greek coast twinkle into existence, eating olives and tzatziki alone, the pure comedy of two local kittens trying their hardest to steal my bread. The feeling of determination setting out on an adventure, the feeling of satisfaction after a long day, finding something to eat, having somewhere safe to sleep. Feeling incredibly foreign, a red-haired Westerner riding the Beijing subway with everyone else, the pride of figuring things out for myself and the different pride of being able to ask for help. Learning about the little things that make us so different and special.
And learning that people are really the same everywhere. All we can do is try, and fail, and apologize, and try again. And love.