Is the Strange Familiar Yet?

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 “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would still smell as sweet.”

~William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

For whatever reason I have been thinking a lot about this Shakespeare quote the last couple of days. I feel as though it is distantly analogous of my experience here in China, but with a spin. In all fairness, I think it was entirely appropriate for the play, but what if a rose were given to people who had never before seen a rose. They might have thought it was the most amazing, beautiful thing they had ever lain eyes on. Of course the rose would be as fragrant as ever, but its name might not have been so irrelevant. Indeed, the name of the thing often embodies and reflects an identity, and even a significance.

Perhaps Romeo should have given just a little more thought to this…

So to people who have never seen a rose, their name for it might entail how rare  and special it is. Like a dragon fruit to someone who’s never seen it (i.e. me).

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So how does this apply to living in China? I’m glad you asked. 🙂

I was told recently by one of our Chinese tutors that we (the foreign teachers) are very similar to pandas. Most people aren’t actually interested in us as people, but rather as an attraction. So while I feel as though I haven’t changed on a fundamental level, and despite being given a Chinese name, the way I am perceived by those around me has changed altogether. I am mei guo ren. American. That is the novelty. No more, no less.

So many students don’t come to our weekly English Corner to speak English, but rather to see the pandas (so to say).

A rose surrounded by roses isn’t that unique, and perhaps you wouldn’t notice the singular beauty of one amidst the others. Likewise, an American surrounded by Americans might not seem all that interesting. However, when something becomes the only one of its kind, things take on a new light,

So what is in a name?

Everything. The name is a unit of meaning that we give to something. It is measurable and manageable, much like a basket. All of your associations with the things can then be placed in the figurative basket.

Mei guo ren. American: exotic, rich, hollywood, movie stars…panda.

However, the things we put in the basket, stereotypes for example, might not match up with reality.

Ultimately, this is difficult to explain. Even as I was typing, I was struggling with how take this from my brain and put it into words. But as an example, the Peace Corps volunteer and I were invited  to help students plan a Thanksgiving celebration. Upon asking them what their ideas were, their response was to have a “real American party” which included renting a local bar and having cocktails. I was momentarily stunned. What part of Thanksgiving didn’t they understand?!

Oh, right…

Setting aside my ethnocentrism I explained that Thanksgiving is a time for food, family, and football. If they simply wanted a reason to have an “American party” then another holiday would be better…like New Year’s. I think they were a bit surprised to hear what Thanksgiving actually is. In some ways it isn’t so different from their own festivals. The fundamentals are food and family. So after an hour of discussing how to get a turkey, the possibility of pumpkin carving, and where we could play American football the idea of a Fall Thanksgiving Festival emerged from the confusion.

The students are handling it all, and I am very excited to see what they come up with!

At any rate, I think we became less exotic and more real to some of the students in that moment. For example, the PC volunteer, Andre, is really passionate about cooking and offered to assist whoever is in charge of that aspect. On the other hand, I was really excited about the activities and also offered to be available if they need me.

There are some days where I feel like I don’t do my background in anthropology justice, but at the same time I am learning.

I’ll leave it there for now!

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Until next time!

~A

2 Replies to “Is the Strange Familiar Yet?”

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