Skip to main content

I usually put lettuce on my sandwich at Subway. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see if Subway tasted different in China. But when I got to the front of the line, I realized I didn’t know how to say “lettuce” in Chinese. I could only stab at the glass panel between me and lettuce, saying something like, “I want the green vegetable”. This situation was amplified several times when I started at Tiantan hospital and on my first day, realized that I did now know nearly enough Chinese to work in a research hospital. As I tried to describe my project by waving my hands around and stringing together the simple phrases that I knew, I realized that I was only getting blank stares.

Two weeks later, I no longer feel like a headless fly—an expression in Chinese used to describe the feeling of being completely and utterly lost.

Being Chinese but not being able to function as a Chinese person could has made this an interesting two weeks. Even though I had lived abroad for the past 12 years—and by all but appearance, had become a foreigner—I was expected to know the social protocol and have the same level of communication skills as any other person on the street. Initially, this was a barrier in communicating with people at work, especially as it became evident that the best way to find mentors and develop friendships with other students was to blend in as much as possible in speaking and in interactions. With a dictionary app and a few recommended dramas on Youku, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube, I was determined to do just that.

Two weeks later, I no longer feel like a headless fly—an expression in Chinese used to describe the feeling of being completely and utterly lost. After many back-and-forth discussions about my project with several students and mentors, I’ve finally settled on analyzing the stroke patient rehabilitation data from the hospital’s database. In most ways, I am still behind the other students, most of whom are residents at the hospital. I’m still trying to understand statistical methods, complicated medical conditions, and even some basic principles of clinical research. But it’s the little victories that make me feel like I’ve inched forward since yesterday. For example, seeing understanding in someone’s expression when I proposed a solution to a question about study design. My original plans and expectations had gone completely sideways, though I’ve somehow arrived at a point where the work is more intense, productive and informative than I had expected.

Some social norms are still strange to me. For example, people are very blunt and put much less importance on politeness and surface-level niceties than North Americans. But there is also a stronger sense of community, whether it’s at work, at the apartment complex where I live, or even at the supermarket. There’s an air of familiarity between people, even ones who don’t know each other, that I did not expect. It’s odd that after leaving here many years ago to become a foreigner, I’ve returned here, only to remain a foreigner.