teo jigsaw piece being held up to the sky, silhoutetted

Jigsaw Moments

When I first found the dining hall next to my classroom in Peking University, I was so intimidated that I went back to my room and had bread instead. It was like entering a microcosm of the city, a rush-hour world of chopsticks and soap-smell and crowded tables where you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. A row of tags at each stall showed the dish options in a blur of Chinese characters. My mind would scramble to unpick them as the queue piled up behind me. Typically, by the time I had half made sense of the menu, the cooks would already be asking me what I wanted in their thick northern accents. They were brisk, and the queue moved quickly, and within all this my slow responses bordered on idiotic.

 

The essence of the dining hall experience was present throughout my month at the Beijing summer school. Unlike most of my peers, I passed as mainland Chinese. I spoke with an accent that indicated I was from Guangzhou, not Sydney. On the streets, people would ask my friends for photos; they would ask me for directions.

 

The plus side was how easily I could blend in. The city would just flow around me rather than stopping to stare. I could go where I wanted, order and buy what I felt like, without another Chinese-speaking person stuck to my side like a chaperone. I could talk to locals in their preferred language; at worst, they would treat me as a tourist from another part of the country. Unlike in Australia, where I was born and raised, I suddenly belonged without ever having to prove myself.

 

The down side was the shame. Those moments when people spoke to me too quickly, and I had to betray my incomprehension. When my peers asked me questions about China I should have known the answers to, but didn’t. When my eyes skimmed a block of Chinese words and I found I had to plod through, character by character, whereas I could zip through the same text in English in a heartbeat. I loved to think there was a place I could fit in like a jigsaw, but just as my upbringing and my appearance mark me as foreign in Australia, there are gaps in my knowledge that mark me as foreign in China.

 

Now, I find myself in a third place. I’m about to start a semester in Indonesia. I’ve only just arrived, but I’ve come to think that there are labels we can’t entirely escape.

 

For the longest time, I assumed my experience in Australia was normal. She was from a rural background, he could trace his Australian-ness through generations of family here. But my life was the standard, because I didn’t know anything different.

 

That’s absurd now. Depending on who’s looking, I’m the woman from the migrant family, the Australian-born Chinese, the foreigner, however many other labels a person might use to fit a name within their mental architecture.

 

So rather than depending on others to validate me, I might as well carve a space out for myself. A notebook and a pen, a seat to curl up in, a good chunk of time. A colourful street, with smells I can’t name and names I can’t spell. A circle of friends, where I can dip in and out, and otherwise just let their familiar voices wash over me like music. A house in Sydney where childhood memories emanate from every brick, with the table where I’ve had almost twenty thousand meals. These moments are easy to find – moments where I can say I ‘fit in’, whatever that means, when I’m completely at ease.

 

碎片空间

 

我第一次走进我在北大上课时的教室一旁的食堂,就感到生畏得不由得跑回房间,吃以前买的包子。食堂仿佛整个城市的缩影,一个匆忙的,充满筷子碰撞的喧嚣声和肥皂气味的世界,在拥挤的餐桌跟陌生人肩并肩坐在一起。每个窗口前都挂着一排显示菜名的标签,一连串使我眼花缭乱的汉字。我的脑子慌乱地解读着这些字,身后的队伍越排越长。通常,菜单上的菜名我才弄懂了一半,厨师就已经在用浓重的北方口音问我要吃什么。他们动作飞快,排的队也在迅速移动着,相比之下我的反应迟缓得几乎显得愚蠢。

 

在北京上暑期班的那一个月里,我在食堂的经历不断重演。不像我大多数的同学,我看起来就是大陆人。我说话的口音更像广州人,而不像从悉尼来的。在街上,路人会想跟我的朋友合影留念,而对我只是问问路。

 

好处是,我很快就适应了在北京的生活。城市的人流在我周围来来往往,而没有人对我驻足凝视。我想去哪儿就去,想吃什么就吃,不需要一个会说中文的人像个陪护人员一般跟着我到处走。我可以跟本地人用中文交谈,大不了就让他们以为我是从国内别的省市来玩的游客。不像在我土生土长的澳洲,我没费什么劲就融入了这里的环境。

 

坏处也许就是羞耻感:人们说话语速一快,我就暴露出了自己其实听得半懂不懂的实际情况时;当朋友向我问起关于中国的问题,我却回答不了时;看见一段中文,我知道如果是英语我只需要扫一眼就能读懂,却因为是中文而不得不逐字逐句慢吞吞地读才能弄明白时。这样的时刻很多。我多么希望世界上有一个地方能让我能像一块拼图一样完美地嵌入其中,但是,就像我的家教与外表让我在澳洲人眼中像个异国人,我在文化知识上的差异让我在中国也像个异乡人。

 

现在我来到了第三个地方,即将开始在印尼读一个学期的书。我初来乍到就已经发现,一个人身上有不可逃脱的标签。

 

很长时间以来,我以为我在澳洲的经历是普遍的。她来自农村,他家几代人都在澳洲生活,我的生活才是平常的,因为我小时候并不知道其他的生活是什么样的。

 

当然,现在这种思想显得挺可笑的。在不同人眼中,我时而是来自移民家庭的女人,时而是澳籍华裔,时而是外国人,我都数不清他人能用多少种标签来形容我。

 

所以,与其让他人定义我是谁,我不妨为自己创造出一个属于自己的空间。一本笔记本,一支笔,一把椅子,一些空余时间;一条丰富多彩的,充满说不出的气味与拼不出的名字的街道;一个让我可以来去自如的朋友圈子,即使在我不需要他们的时候,也有他们温暖的声音像音乐般环绕着我;悉尼的一座房子,在那里的桌边我吃过差不多两万次餐,每一块砖头都有着我童年的记忆。这些“空间”很容易就能找到,凡是让我能够完全放松的地方,就是我的归属所在。