Living abroad can be humbling – empathy for foreigners, part 1 by Emily

I look in the mirror at my color-treated, dry, frizzy hair. The Chinese women’s shiny, sleek black hair swings and shimmers in the sun. I think that maybe a new conditioner will help, so I head to the corner grocery.

The small store is packed with goods in three places: on the main floor, on the stairs and in the basement. In the basement, I study rows of bottles in search of something that looks familiar. With a bottle in hand, I approach a clerk. I grab a clump of my frizziest hair, then pantomime rubbing my hair. She is expressionless. I do it again. Her eyebrows crinkle together and her lips purse. Is she irritated? Two nearby women notice us and say something to her. I am hoping that they are offering their guess on what I want. The clerk hurries over to the shelves, plucks another bottle and exchanges it for the one in my hand. I smile warmly and say xie xie. She nods and I wander off to get some more things.

At the upstairs counter several customers are gathered in front of the counter. I stand behind a woman towards the middle. From the left, a man walks into the store, grabs a drink from the cooler and walks to the counter. He leans in towards the clerk with his money, but the clerk ignores him. A person finishes and leaves the store. The woman in front of me finishes and leaves. I hastily shuffle forward and set my things on the counter but wait for the person on my right to be rung up because, in my mind, she is next. Another person approaches on my left and gently elbows in between the man with the drink and myself. This new person plops down a small loaf of bread, a package of seaweed and money. The man with the drink pokes his money even closer to the clerk. The clerks rings him up and he leaves.

The seaweed person (who also is supposed to be “after me”) pushes her stuff even more forward. A new person approaches on my right and seems to ask something because the clerk responds and that person walks away. Another person behind me must have asked for cigarettes because the clerk reaches back, takes a carton and sets it on the counter. The person on my right is rung up and leaves. All this time the clerk hasn’t even looked at us.

The seaweed person holds out a bill so I slide my items very far forward along with my money. The clerk chooses me. He scans my items and I quickly stuff them into my fabric tote bag. Another customer says something and the clerk briefly looks at me as he speaks. I don’t think he is talking to me so I take my change, quickly back out of the cluster of people behind me, thus allowing others to move in.

Grateful to have survived that, I go to the bakery next door. I love the bakery. It is a serene place, and the delicious scents soothe me. I enjoy looking at the attractively wrapped packages, sweet pastries and decorated cakes even if I don’t buy any. I am about to order a latte when a woman taps me on the arm. I turn as she points to my bag and says something in a loud voice. For a millisecond I gleefully assume that she is admiring my bag which I am quite proud of. Together Zoe and I stitched colorful, quilted bags, and I carry mine often though it is rather large in a culture where women, feet, housing and stores are all very small and petite.

Her stern face, though, tells me that she is not admiring my bag, but is perhaps upset about something inside of it. Clueless, I open my bag and she points to the conditioner bottle. She motions for me to follow and I do.

Back in the store, the upstairs clerk says something loudly and points downstairs. I don’t understand his words, but immediately I realize my offense. I was supposed to pay for the conditioner downstairs. Ever so briefly — because I am too embarrassed to look for longer — I glance towards the customers. Yes, they are all looking at me. What are they thinking – common thief or clueless foreigner? Which is worse?

For a good dose in humility, everyone should be forced to go abroad (where they don’t speak the language) and shop for hair conditioner in her friendly neighborhood store where some downstairs items are paid for downstairs and some are paid for upstairs. 🙂


6 thoughts on “Living abroad can be humbling – empathy for foreigners, part 1 by Emily

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s