You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. -Leviticus 19:34
Frequently, out of nowhere, the sky will open up unleashing torrential rainstorms of biblical proportions upon the populace of Guangzhou (whose response is inversely proportional to the magnitude of the storm). This is the rainy season. It’s business as usual. A women sits at my table looking to escape the Noahic drama outside the glass doors; I’m in the middle of scribbling down common Chinese characters and phrases into a notebook. It’s good practice, and less reliance on my ageing cell phone is a comfort. She strikes up a conversation, and we spend the next two hours trading English for Chinese, moving from the coffee shop to a local dumpling restaurant. It’s the first meaningful human interaction I’ve had in a while in the busyness of research at the University, and I find myself deeply grateful for the chance encounter.
My research group has a close relationship with a number of Chinese researchers, and we’ve hosted a number of foreign students and postdocs during my time at the university. There have been some that I’ve developed a strong relationship with, and there are others that have been more difficult to connect with, but it’s no doubt more difficult to develop a relationship with someone when there’s a language and culture barrier to traverse. Sometimes that relationship-building is fun and engaging, such as introducing them to local food, coffee, or craft beer culture. Other times it’s more tedious, and means helping out with the more mundane aspects of life (setting up a bank account, dealing with customer service phone calls, helping them navigate the transit system, etc.)
At times, I haven’t been as patient as I should have been. At times, I find myself reluctant to reach out, to practice hospitality, and to make them feel welcome. And while recognizing the importance of boundaries and of self-care, my time in China has shown me a different side of that experience.
I’m struck with the relative privilege I’ve had as an English-speaking traveler; though I think we all can relate to times when we’ve felt like strangers or outsiders, for me it’s taken traveling to a different country and removing the comforts that a shared language affords to really grasp this. Two months has been enough time to shed the excitement that comes from experiencing a new country, to cultivate a feeling of familiarity and routine, yet not a feeling of comfort. It’s long enough to invoke that feeling of uprootedness that comes from moving to a different city. Yet add to equation the problems that come with not being able to speak read the local language, and the relative rarity of understanding of English; in China, I’m functionally deaf and mute. In all of my travels, in all of my life, I think this is the closest I’ve come to understanding what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Here, I’m creating a community from scratch, while trying to navigate a totally different culture and way of living.
Hospitality takes on a different meaning when you are the stranger. The small acts of patience and kindness I’ve received have been all the more memorable to me; the first week I was here, I felt like a child, being led around and shown the layout of the campus, where to get food and how to get to my office. People have spoken for me, fought for me, and given of their time and money for me to be here. Locals off the street have taken time to show me how to get around, and even invited me to eat with them.
I’m grateful for this experience to be a stranger in a strange land. I write this with myself in mind, so that I may preserve and remember: This is how it feels to be a stranger; remember this, and welcome the strangers in your life as a native amoung you. Don’t be busy, don’t be timid. Love the lonely, the removed, the foreign, and the isolated.
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