Visitor: Is that our bus honking the horn?
Experienced with China Friends: (with a shrug of their shoulders) Maybe…
Visitor: (trying to crane around the luggage to see the front of bus and road) I can’t tell if it is us or someone else.
Experienced China Friends: It doesn’t really matter.
Visitor: But I just want to know why they are honking!
Me: (Experienced China Friends nodding head in agreement) There is probably no answer to that question what will satisfy you. They are just honking. Don’t worry about it. Its not worth the mental energy.
This group of visitors had asked me a lot of questions during their two plus weeks in Beijing. I applaud them for their curiosity, but I had to say “I don’t know” a frustrating number of times. I don’t know how fast the subway trains run. I don’t know why the bottom of the trees are painted white. I don’t know how much the migrant workers who build everything get paid. I don’t know how much gas costs. I don’t know why this restaurant doesn’t have that dish you like. I don’t remember what those lions mean. I don’t know why this market has so many decorative walnuts. After a few days of being unable to answer every question, I was feeling pretty discouraged. It was a bit humiliating to realize how much I don’t know. I live here, I’m studying, I try to pay attention, I should be able to answer these questions.
But this conversation about the honking horn, which came right at the end of their trip, showed me something important. My Experienced China Friends, who have been here for 10 years, don’t have all the answers either. Most Beijingers wouldn’t be able to answer all those questions. Part of living overseas, at least living in China, is learning to deal with ambiguity. Through realizing how many things I can’t answer, I realized that I have learned to be okay with not knowing things. It isn’t just why the car horns are honking (I’m pretty sure at least 90% of the time the answer is either to let you know I’m here or I felt like honking my horn). Its also what signs say, the background conversations that happen around me, how the government works, which posted signs and notices to obey and which I can ignore, how to deal politely with an unexpected situation and so many other things. The language barrier ensures that there is lots I don’t understand. Even though I can now understand the main idea of a lot of conversations, that leaves me in the dark about a lot of details. Not knowing a few key words can really hinder my understanding. I end up thinking, well I know there is not enough of something in China, but I have no idea what that something is.
I’ve learned what questions to ask and what questions to let go. I wonder a lot. A lot. And I don’t always get answers right away. That’s the benefit of being here for longer than a few weeks. You have time to let things go and figure them out later. I have my own list of topics that I often ask people about as I try to piece together what life is like for people, especially young adults, in China’s capitol. I wonder how people get and keep jobs, as it seems that a lot of young people change jobs shockingly frequently. I wonder how people meet their romantic partners and decide whom to marry. I wonder what it is like for people who are over 30 and not married. I wonder how Chinese students survive the grueling education system.
Knowing all the answers is one skill. Living with the horns honking all around you for no apparent reason and not needing to know why is another skill.
Linking up to Velvet Ashes “Ask” week.