Reiland: Stranger in a strange land


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BEIJING — Earlier this week, I was on my way to dinner walking through an alley when I heard a faint gasp. Somewhat startled and curious I looked over my shoulder and I saw a young Chinese girl with a woman, presumably her mother, beside her.

The younger girl stared at me and pointed, simultaneously grabbing onto the older woman. She shouted something to the woman and me in Chinese, which I later found out was, “American, American.”

Her curious eyes locked with mine as she continued to try to get my attention.

“Hello, hello, hello,” she said as the woman chuckled.

I smiled politely and laughed it off, but at the end of the evening, it left me a little unsettled. I kept trying to wrap my head around the child’s reaction to seeing me walking down the same street she probably walked down every day. We were both in Beijing, we were both girls, and I couldn’t say this for sure, but we were probably both hungry because it was dinnertime.

So why was she so surprised? And the answer took me back to the moment I stepped off the plane in the capital city — my feelings of uncertainty, frustration, and serious jet lag.

I was a minority for the first time in my life, and it was confusing.

I wasn’t in Mundelein or Iowa City. I didn’t know any Mandarin upon my arrival — I do know a little bit now — and I didn’t understand the government or the culture. I only knew what I learned in history classes or what I searched on the Internet before I arrived.

I’ve never experienced being the odd one out. The number of people who didn’t speak any English surprised me, but I was equally as surprised by the number of people who spoke better English than I did. I was told before I came to China that more people speak English here than they do in the United States.

I didn’t really take population into account when I thought about it. Now that I take a second to compare the two, it makes a little more sense.

So it’s sort of a puzzling, indescribable feeling being different. I’m different from many of the people I work with, different from the people I live near, and different from the people I walk beside down the street. Back home, I never even thought these kinds of things because I just didn’t have to. And I didn’t really let it cross my mind until I encountered the little girl who stared at me with a look of amazement.

Was I supposed to feel like a movie star because she was so interested in who I was and what I looked like? Or was I an extraterrestrial being from another planet to her?

I’d like to think because I grew up in the Chicago suburbs that I was surrounded by a variety of different people with different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities. I was lucky enough to visit Europe and Mexico when I was in high school, and so I felt fairly well versed in new, different cultures. And my two years as a student at the University of Iowa introduced me to students and faculty from all over the world.

So why was this any different?

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to answer that question. I’m not the only American here in China, here in Beijing, here at China Daily. I won’t be the last 20-year-old brown hair, brown eyed, 5-2 American who is stared at in the subway or gets her picture taken by a stranger.

The world is really large, and there are a lot of different people all over it. Everyone is very different.

And I think that’s a good enough answer for me.

Daily Iowan staffer Jordyn Reiland is spending the summer interning for the China Daily in Beijing. Look for her weekly columns each Friday in the DI.

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