Comfort in the Uncomfortable

The most difficult thing about updating this blog, besides finding making the time to write, is picking something to focus on. There is so much “new” on a daily basis for me, that I find my brain flitting in ten thousand directions when I sit down to write them down and I find it difficult to remain focused on one theme in my posts. However, I aim to be a somewhat decent writer, therefore I decided to dispose of reorganize my previous post into several new posts, which I’ll put up throughout the week. Today’s post is on being comfortable in the uncomfortable—which I consider the biggest challenge to living in a new, foreign location.

The first major trip I took without my family was during my sophomore year of college, to visit my friend Julie and her family on the Big Island of Hawaii. I still remember very clearly the feeling I had before leaving—that I wasn’t actually going to get to go. I was certain some unforeseen event would occur and I would not ever make it on my big exciting trip (me not having a state ID or driver’s license, and losing my birth certificate nearly did cause this to happen. How’s that for a self-fulfilling prophecy? I still owe my mom for bailing me out of this one. Thanks mom). There was something too fantastical about the idea of Hawaii to me. It just seemed far too good to be true and I couldn’t possibly deserve to actually have that experience.

But, I did indeed go—and I credit that experience with giving me the confidence and guts to try all my other travel experiences. From moving to New Orleans, to Chicago, to traveling Europe and now living in China, I knew I could do each of these things because of my experiences in Hawaii. So thank you to Julie and her wonderful family for that one (I credit her especially with helping me to be a traveler, not a tourist, and to be sensitive to cultural differences—and to try new things, like scrumptious sushi! Thanks Julie). The trip was phenomenal and though there were many times that I was nervous to try something new, I did it anyway and I will forever remember these life-altering experiences.

Hawaii

Especially eating that raw octopus tentacle.

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How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh? Ten tickles.

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Octopus! It was chewy.

As recently as 6 months ago, moving to another country was not something I dreamed I’d be doing any time soon. Even after getting the job, I still had that same familiar feeling I’d had before going to Hawaii—that it just wouldn’t ever happen. I feel like this must be a sort of normal response before a major life event, especially one you’ve never experienced before. And obviously, here I am in Shanghai, clearly living here, so I guess it worked! Incidentally, this same theory is also one I use to think about my dating life—which I talk about back in my first post to this blog (if you haven’t read it, check it out. It’s the one I’m most proud of).

It would certainly be easy to feel this feeling of impossibility and think the worst. After all, how many people have fears that are actually a manifestation of our fear of the unknown—i.e. ending up alone, fear of the dark, etc. Aren’t most fears linked to what we cannot control or know? There seems to be little in life that is as unknowable or controllable as moving to a new country—especially one in which you do not speak the language! Sure, I researched it a fair bit before moving, but that’s a little like reading someone’s OKC profile before going on a date—it’s never exactly the same as you imagined it would be. So it would certainly be easy to not be able to imagine what life in this new country would be like, and turn into a total Fanny Fussbudget, like one unfortunate soul I met recently.

This person has been fussy since arrival—hates the food, hates the cleanliness level of the city, feels mistrustful of taxis and any service people. They have consistently asked questions such as “and you’re sure they’re not trying to cheat you?” when signing up for a phone plan—with our Chinese liaison (no, I’m pretty sure she’s friggin’ good at her job. She’s actually awesome, since you didn’t ask). I’ve had such a hard time understanding why someone would choose to move here with this attitude. In general I have a hard time with people like this—those who are always determined to find the negative. Don’t get me wrong, I was a little freaked about some of those same things when I got here. But the beauty and joy of traveling is breaking out of that which you know and learning something new. If all you’re going to do is whine the whole time, might as well go home (seriously, please go home).

On the flip side, I feel my (inner, mental) world rapidly expanding the longer I’m here. I’m ravenous for more experiences—to learn the language, to find those things which make Shanghai and China unique, to meet locals and hear their stories, to learn about my students’ lives. I find myself wondering more and more how I can build some sort of permanent life this way—traveling and learning from people, teaching, exploring, and advocating. I envision some sort of future in which I am both highly paid and travel the world learning from people and experiencing other cultures. Recently I created my own “Bucket List” to go with my students’ project and decided I’d like to visit all 195 countries in the world. I want to see it all.

In the post formerly known as this one, I mention an episode of This American Life that featured David Sedaris. While I love Sedaris—Me Talk Pretty One Day was one of the first books that ever made me laugh out loud as an adult—I sometimes found him a little prickly (his own version of Debbie Downer) in the episode. That said, he makes some incredibly insightful points about living abroad. The one that continues to come to mind as I build my life here is as follows:

“It’s that thinking that makes me feel alive. And it makes me notice everything around me. When I become complacent like I was in the United States, you just get used to things so you don’t think about them. You think, I’ll get a cab. I’ll go to the airport. I’ll have a patty melt. You don’t think about it. Whereas now with me, the anxiety starts early on. And I’m always afraid that somebody’s going to throw me a curve ball and ask me a question like, what sign are you? Just ask me a question like that out of nowhere. And I’ll appear foolish. So it keeps me on edge. But really, that edginess has always made me feel alive.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this entire excerpt (though less so with other portions of his interview. You can check out the entire thing here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/165/americans-in-paris It’s definitely worth a listen).

Living abroad, in a place that speaks a language you are not entirely fluent in, is an anxiety-filled experience. One of my first nights here, I simply did not eat dinner because I was too anxious to venture out and even ask anyone where to get food—and I am not a typical meal skipper (I’d like to say because it’s unhealthy to skip meals but it’s because I love meals). Looking back now, even just a month later, this seems silly. Of course I know how to get food. But it is stressful and anxiety-ridden to explore and ask and fumble (or more likely for me, pantomime) your way through asking a non-English speaker for help and I remember that feeling well.

But to truly survive, and ultimately thrive (sorry, had to) in a new country—as David mentions (we’re old friends)—you have to embrace that feeling. And it is that feeling that actually reminds you that you’re alive. He has so nicely summarized why I sound so chipper and excited when I call my parents. I am happy and feeling good about being here because I feel alive. Every day is a constant challenge, a chance for something new to happen or to be discovered. While I appreciate some level of routine in my life (like getting up, showering, brushing teeth, etc.), I have never appreciated the mundane routine of monotonous life. It was that reason that lead me to realize I never wanted to work in food service—because to me, every day was too similar (I have the utmost respect for those who do though, after all it’s they who serve me those meals I like. But it’s not for me).

Honestly, I was scared before I left—and when I first arrived—that I wouldn’t be able to hack it here. I honestly had a conversation with my therapist in Chicago about how much I hate to be uncomfortable—both physically and mentally/emotionally. But the longer I’m here, the more I see how beneficial it is to be uncomfortable (mentally/emotionally at least) and how much I can grow from this experience. There are lots of unsavory aspects of life here—the tap water is undrinkable, there are shaky health standards for foods, it can frequently smell less-than-appetizing, people push and shove, and I’ve seen more poop and vomit on the sidewalks than I’d care to. Any of these aspects of life could be reason to give up, fly home, and stay within my comfort zone. But none of these things is impossible to deal with—and honestly you stop thinking about any of them much when you adjust to living here. More importantly, these minor inconveniences (if you can even call them that—minor bothers?) are far outweighed by the magic of being able to have this experience.

Each morning, I wake up in the morning excited to be here and to find out what new things will come from the day. I find the entire experience endlessly fascinating—and while I am sure that this feeling will one day come to an end, as Sedaris says later in his interview (sorry, I mean David, forgot we’re besties), I’ve got it now. When it does go away, then maybe I’ll find another adventure to take on. Everything, no matter how large or small the experience, comes back to how you approach it and your frame of mind. If you choose to narrow your window so that you can only see the poop on the sidewalk or the massive crowds, or whatever other slightly irksome detail, you’re really missing a lot. Like, uh, an entire culture and country. Imagine if people came to the US and just saw one small aspect of our country before judging us…oh the outrage!

So fill a big bowl up with that discomfort and ooze yourself on in! Now if only I can take my own damn advice and apply this to my dating life…Another post for another day 😉

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