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Monday, 30 June 2014

Self-Discovery in Beijing

Written by Alec Siegel
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The lights of the approaching subway grow brighter as it nears the platform. X is wearing his favorite T-shirt: a bust of Bruce Springsteen performing on stage with his name printed across the front, and a pair of Blue jeans. The doors open slowly, and he enters the subway car, immediately spotting an open seat and sitting down. It’s a bit of a ride to the office, so X decides to use his commute to get some work done. X has only been in this town for a few months, a foreign land with a foreign people and culture. 


Where he comes from, kids wear diapers and play with Legos. In this land, kids lack siblings and mostly play with their grandparents. X pulls out a sheet of paper. On it is a written language that is one of many spoken here. It’s a strange language, one with little images in place of an alphabet. The man to X’s left is curious of this foreigner studying his language. X furiously erases a mark on his paper and nibbles on the eraser of his pencil, stuck on a particularly difficult problem. He glances up, and scans the people who occupy the car along with him. Almost all are looking at him. If not directly, their eyes dart around over him, just checking to make sure this creature with a high bridged nose and curly hair is still in his place. 


X simply can’t work out this problem on his own, so he decides reach out to the gawking natives. X looks to his left, and meets the eyes of the stranger who was studying him moments ago. “Excuse me, what is the meaning of this character?” X asks in the stranger’s native dialect. The stranger’s stern response and pursed lips don’t quite hide the excitement dancing in his black eyes. After assisting X with his work, the man asks who is he, where does he come from? They talk for a good while, right up until X arrives at his stop. He’s elated. He just utilized the skills he’s been learning in an insulated classroom for years in the real, breathing world. He made a real connection with a complete stranger who grew up speaking a different language than him, watching different TV shows, eating different things, and that is something he will never forget.



Meanwhile, Y is already at the office. He’s twirling in his chair and snacking on peanuts. He has absolutely nothing to do but Wikipedia irrelevant things like the history of the peanut, and quietly observe his co-workers as they labor away at their computers. Time passes slower than the bus did on his way to work earlier that morning. He mindlessly scrolls through the web page while listening to Bob Dylan, an artist who sings of the loneliness he’s been experiencing since he took this job. He’s always at arms length, not quite capable of communicating in a meaningful way with his co-workers, and he feels like he’s just a nuisance. 


An hour or so later, after multiple lower back spasms and the end of the Dylan album, he gets up, eager to assist someone in something, anything to save him from the monotony. His boss is at her cubicle, oblivious to Y’s current lack of activity and frustration. He approaches Joanna, hoping for a savior. She says, in her native tongue, the one that Y just butchered in asking her if she needs a hand, that she’s fine. No help is needed. Before he returns to his cubicle, he quickly glances at Joanna’s computer screen, which has an instant messaging app up over her background of cats. He sighs and sits back down. 


Y is a doer. He appreciates the laidback vibe of his workplace, but would like more structure. He’d like to have more to do than bother co-workers and study peanuts. It seems to Y that unlike back home, where work is done efficiently and effectively, companies in this place generally do things just to satisfy a higher authority. As Y’s reflecting on the lack of structure and general boredom he’s experienced thus far at his new job, X walks through the door. 



X plops his bag down on his desk, and sits down next to Eric. Eric is a native, and it’s he who was X’s first work friend. X uses that classroom learned and now real world applied language to ask Eric about his weekend. Did he catch any basketball games? How’d it go with that girl he met last week? What’s he working on today?  They chat for a while, and then X let’s Eric get back to work. The boss, a short lady with a toothy grin and a commanding aura, checks in. She gives him an idea of his work for the week, and lets him get to it. 


X enjoys his work here. He likes that he can strike up a conversation with a co-worker and practice his language skills. He likes that he was just dreaming of this place months ago and is now really here, at a company, making friends and contributions. After a while, X gets up to stretch his legs. He pulls out an apple from his bag, and walks outside for some fresh air. 


It’s Halloween, and the restaurant workers next door are out in the back carving pumpkins. Like the subway riders, they’re equally as confounded by X. They take an immediate interest, as he does to them. They laugh together. X assists them in their attempt at carving pumpkins. Where he comes from, Jack O’ Lanterns are as common as streetlights at this time of year. Here they mean nothing. After his apple and carving lessons, X heads back in. His boss walks by and says to meet her at her desk in 15 minutes; there are matters they must discuss.



Y is exasperated. After numerous attempts at either connecting with or helping others in the office, he’s left to stew in his cubicle. He briefly debates writing a book on peanuts, as he is now surely capable of doing. Y checks the time on his computer. 4:30pm, still an hour or so to go and then another hour or so until he’s back home. He tiptoes about the office, checking to see if he’s being kept track of. He decides he’s not, and he decides he’s had enough of nothing. So he takes off. He packs up his stuff, and leaves. 


The area surrounding the office is filled with places to eat, things to see and people to meet, so it’s there that he’ll spend the next few hours exploring. It’s loud outside. Cars are whizzing past from every direction. They honk like it’s a form of breathing. Y is not exactly in the mood for this. Again, this place is different. He recognizes it’s not bad, or inferior to where he comes from, but different. 


In the mood he’s in right now however, it’s bad. In fact it couldn’t be worse. People stare at him and he’s about ready to flip out at all of them. “Yes! I’m foreign!” He thinks to himself, “Yes! I look nothing like any of you!” “This isn’t the zoo, and I’m not an exhibit, so please stop!” It’s a challenge that he’s faced often since coming to this place. A challenge he’s ready to confront and conquer. He wanders for a ways, and his grumbling stomach and the aroma of a nearby restaurant draws him in. 



It’s 4:45pm, and X heads over to his boss’s desk. With soft eyes and a slight grin, she asks him how he’s doing. “You’ve been here for a few months, X, is it as you expected, are you getting along well with people, are you happy?” 


He tells her he couldn’t be happier. Everyday is a new adventure. At work he’s met so many new people, all with such different lives than his own, yet he’s achieved a connection with them all. He likes his work, but as this is a temporary situation, it’s not only about that. It’s about Eric and amateur pumpkin carvers. It’s about subway rides. It’s about the once in a lifetime opportunities he’s been presented since arriving here. She herself is an out-of–towner, and so she nods and smiles. She gets it. 


An hour or so later, he slides his laptop in his bag and says farewell to Eric and the rest. It’s getting late and all he’s eaten is that apple. So he dives into the neon signs and the street food vendors, the laughing children and the wild dogs. Time for dinner. 



Y finally found satisfaction in a bowl of hot noodle soup and fried pancakes. He’s weary from a long day of absolutely nothing, and this place was a perfect oasis. The night air is biting, but feels good. He feels different. Sure the soup helped, but it’s not just that. Looking around, he’s curious instead of furious, grateful instead of impatient. He now sees the opportunity, and not the challenge. 


En route to the bus stop, something odd happened. He thought he saw himself. He isn’t aware of any giant mirrors in this city, and it certainly wasn’t just a reflection off a storefront window. He saw someone with a pair of blue jeans and a Bruce Springsteen shirt, just like he has on, he swears. Y brushes it off, sure it was just an illusion. 


X is confused. He may be hungry, but he definitely just saw a bearded, foreign looking man dressed exactly as he is. Oh well, hunger can do that to you. He keeps walking.



Y glances at the moon as he walks. It’s actually visible tonight, and seems brighter than usual. He even spots a star. Suddenly, he feels a force as he bumps into something. This something is the man he thought he saw moments ago, the one with the same outfit. Two foreigners in a foreign land, both met with opportunities and challenges, both on a journey they’ll never forget. 



©Alec Siegel


Last modified on Tuesday, 01 July 2014