Put yourself in the shoes of the rich and the poor; diseased and healthy; smart and dumb, knowledgeable and ignorant; gay and straight–do anything contrary to your lived-in reality and you’ll have willingly subjected yourself, admirably in that case, to an exercise in empathy. Notice the missing conjunction: or. Context and perspective are only possible when accompanied by a parallel yardstick, one that may even run perpendicular at certain intersections.
Citizen and immigrant are not two sides of the same coin, though our political environment on both sides tries to make us believe it. On the right, the separating line is a legal one, simply that of legal and illegal. On the left, the legal distinction isn’t a relevant one, because morality takes precedent; these are human beings, and by now I’m sure you’ve heard the latest slogan to come out of leftwing advocacy groups: No human being is illegal. I don’t agree with that sentiment, which is a dangerous thing to admit nowadays, because, while our laws aren’t perfect and can be quite cruel under certain circumstances, like those regarding immigration, the fact remains that our entire society depends upon adherence to these laws–this we call the rule of law–and to every other law that keeps this experiment in coexistence from explosive combustion. We have a process in place to amend, repeal or create new laws reflective of popular opinion, but that process is necessarily cumbersome–certainly burdensome for those trapped in the legislation–because it demands the deliberation of consequences, coupled with the consideration of those who stand to benefit or lose. The process is cruel in the same way that it’s cruel to put people in line when they are in desperate need of a heart transplant. But it’s the best we’ve got.
The leap from illegal to legal status, while significant in its lessening of uncertainty from that boisterous sun flare we call a president, changes little else in the person’s life. Receiving the protection of a green card or naturalization documents doesn’t teach one the language of the host country, whether that language is official or not; doesn’t show one resources for further assistance; doesn’t demonstrate or explain social differences in behavior or meaning in speech. Failure to address those shortcomings can make a legal immigrant as detached from his/her country as a citizen who has also failed to pick up on those requirements of belonging. Citizen and immigrant alike can feel like “the other” if they are both subject to the same anxieties, though each might give the source of those anxieties a different name.
Lacking Chinese is the source of those anxieties for me. I’m reminded of the periodical links that get shared around Facebook of racist white people telling someone to learn English. I’m frightened that will happen to me, and part of me wants to thank every Chinese person I come across for not subjecting me to such vile abuse. Social cues can only take you so far, and while I consider myself fluent in reading social situations, the fact remains that I’m always aware of the length of the line in a restaurant, or the ATM, or the store. I know that once I get to the front, I will mumble some Chinese and fumble all the courage I gathered to even attempt pronouncing those words, and I will become distinctly aware of the people standing behind me. I will frequently change my order to something less complicated, to something I know how to pronounce–and to something I didn’t really want–because of the confused look on the cashier, or the unresponsive ATM that for whatever reason won’t let me do anything other than check my balance.
I can get by pretty well in China. I have the apps for transactions: WeChat and Alipay, China’s answers to Google Wallet or Apple Pay. I have Didi, China’s answer to Uber. I have Mobike to unlock a public bicycle, which functions via Bluetooth and charges me via Alipay. I have Pleco, my translation app that functions behind China’s firewall. I know how to withdraw cash, how to deposit funds in my metro card. I have Ctrip to buy plane and train tickets, Taobao to buy everything else. I can get what I need, and much more than the bare necessities, and yet I don’t want to stay for another year because I don’t speak the language. I’ll remind you that I’ve navigated through China mostly through pointing and hand-waving. Those gestures, along with the technological backup, have sufficiently carried me through every interaction with human and machine. But the feeling of separation persists.
Life in China would be very easy for me, thinking purely from the point of necessity. My salary and living arrangements would more than adequately sustain me, and my apps would keep my days humming along. Life in the US has me unemployed or living in the modern equivalent of indentured servitude, massively indebted to an institution of higher learning, should I pursue that venue. I would lose the freedom of living alone and I would substitute the anxiety that comes from standing in line in China for the anxiety that comes from an unstable or inexistent financial situation.
Still, I choose to return. I am very much a social creature, mostly with those I want to be social with, but I am still much better equipped to handle myself socially because I understand the language. While I’m substituting uncertainties in Chinese, regarding the conversations or text of the Chinese, for uncertainties in English, I can at least understand those uncertainties, which for me is infinitely more comfortable. When you can establish stratas of anxiety, suddenly all anxiety is not unanimously bad. Some are better than others, others worse by comparison. I don’t pretend to have established a definitive categorization of sources or situations that lead to anxiety, neither do I look forward to discovering more of those nightmarish instances, but I can definitely conclude that uncertainty in a mastered language is undoubtedly preferable to minor confusion in a foreign language.
If I’m walking around in a store I’d like to know the price of items. If I’m in the supermarket, I’d like to know the specials. If I’m in the restaurant, I’d like to know the drink options. These are all incredibly small things I didn’t realize were as important as they are, because being unable to know the answer to those questions contributes to an almost daily discomfort that always makes you feel separated. Now, the effect doesn’t leave me in a constant state of depression, or anxiety-ridden to the point of ineptitude, but it is noticeable and tolling in its minute way. I cope, but I’d rather not have to, which won’t be possible until I can say more than “Hello, my name is Bruno.” All of this is to say that, given the choice between having financial security and housing in China and having no financial security and housing with my parents in the US, I choose the latter. I think that’s funny, in a peculiar way, and if ever I find somebody’s decision baffling, I’m better equipped now to put myself in their shoes.