I spent the past 2.5 hours walking around Shanghai speaking Mandarin. It's incredibly obvious that I'm not a native speaker, but I managed to get lunch, a haircut, and bubble tea without embarassing myself too much.
Me: I would like a haircut! Very short. *points to a male customer who's getting a short haircut* A haircut like his, very short.
Confused barber: Like hers? *points to a female customer next to the man I'd pointed at*
Me: *points to the man again* Like his, very short, like a man's haircut.
Barber, still confused: Where are you from?
Me (after several attempts to understand the question): America!
Barber, with dawning look of understanding at my rather non-Chinese behavior: Ahhhhhhh. Maybe a little longer?
I'm learning how to get around rapidly, and my (incredibly primitive and rusty) language skills are coming back; too bad I'm only here for one more day. I don't need to push the "English" button on the subway ticket screens like I did last Saturday; I can sometimes understand what might be on a menu item ("something something duck something noodle soup"), I can take a taxi - asking if it's available, giving an address (that I've written down in Chinese beforehand - I'm not that good), paying, getting a receipt - without speaking English at all. In restaurants, I've progressed from point-at-picture-on-menu-and-smile to at least using the proper counting word ("Please get me one bowl... of that stuff! - and a glass of cold water") and I can stroll into hotels and say "Hello! I already have a room reservation, my name is..." and carry on that conversation in Chinese (how many nights I'm staying, what room number I am, how to get to that room) for the most part.
I've been here for five days. I haven't studied, haven't cracked open my "Beginner's Chinese" textbook, haven't had a teacher... just me and a phrasebook and a dictionary and head-first shamelessness. I love immersion. Best way to learn something is doing it, right? Mmm.
At the airport in Beijing, waiting for my flight to Shanghai, I saw a few non-Chinese (white American, I think, judging from their accent) passengers and had a momentary jolt of wow, foreigners! while simultaneously realizing that I was one also, and that in my normal life I deal almost entirely with people who look like that and not like me. It's been a while since I was surrounded by people who look like me. Eat like me. (Did I mention that lunch - a bowl of wonton soup - was about 80 cents?) Well... sort of. I didn't grow up here; these folks aren't like me, and this isn't home - except they are, and it is, a little bit, in weird ways.
I am Chinese, even if I'm a lot of other things at the same time. We heap food on each others' plates with chopsticks and eat pig's ear without thinking that it's weird and they cook rice properly and also fish - served whole with the head and skin on, never flipping the fish over while serving it (you lift the bones off to get to the second side of the fish, or the fish is served butterflied open in such a way that you don't have to flip it in the first place). Slurp noodles. Have decent tea. The last two foods on my list are soup dumplings (hopefully at Din Tai Fun with my aunt and cousin tonight) and rice porridge/congee/zhou/lugaw (I'll find it somewhere). And... I would like to learn how to live here more, someday. Speak the language more, understand the place more, be able to get around more. I dunno... do any other children of immigrant parents feel the same way? Like you're missing out on something you should know, like you come from multiple places and no particular place at the same time?
It's still comforting to get back to my hotel room and work through the night during the US day and talk in colloquial English with my friends and colleagues and have a familiar world I understand available through my computer. And I will be glad to return to America and be able to read street signs and get text messages and navigate stores without a second thought; my friend Becky (who's off to grad school in Monterey to study French language education this fall) described returning to the US after a year in Russia and France as being marvelously easy - a sudden lifting of the cognitive friction that makes you blink and realize that you weren't all that used to what you thought you had gotten used to after all. (I know, I'm just here for a week this time, but every time I go to Asia - whether it's days or weeks or months - the same thing happens. I'm going to get off the plane in Chicago and go "whoa, white people!" for the next few hours.)
I want to come back, and I want to stay longer. And... I need to catch up on a backlog of China trip updates in the next 12 hours; I owe everyone a Beijing report, and then I'll need to do a Shanghai update probably Saturday morning before I leave, so I don't carry a China backlog to the States with me (I already have a crazy FOSS+edu backlog). And my parents want me to call everyone we're related to in China while I'm here (sigh).
It's weird; I'm here, I'm happy, running around, excited, not-home but surrounded by vague familiarity, wanting to stay here and go back at the same time, overwhelmed but proud of what I've been accomplishing, backlogged and on top of things at the same time, scattered in many pieces across multiple timezones (James (in Raleigh) asked me last night - his afternoon - what timezone my body was in, and I replied I didn't know any more - "...the internet?") and it's just... I've been jetting from place to place for a long time and barely touching a toe down here and there, I haven't landed for a long time, been grounded, rested my weight somewhere. Only for the briefest of crash-landings when forced to by exhaustion, and then only long enough to duct-tape myself back together in a sufficient manner to take off again. But... it feels... really good. To run this hard and do this much.
Vacation. I am taking it this month. I may even lock my laptop in the trunk of my car or something like that.