Life as a foreigner in a foreign land can be truly wonderful, full of adventure, awe, surprises, delight, and inspiration. It can also be incredibly confounding. Like playing a guessing game where every question is rhetorical and you'll never get a clear "yes" or "no."
When talking to people I find myself questioning whether the message I received was the one which was intended to be communicated. Did that "yes, maybe" mean yes, maybe, or did it actually mean "HELLS NO!"? What, exactly, did he intend to signify when he sucked air though the side of his teeth and paused after I asked a question? Did that laugh and sideways glance mean, "Oh boy, you're funny" or was it more of a, "Oh my GOD, this is so uncomfortable! Doesn't that barbaric foreigner know she just stepped on a minefield of taboos there?"
I'm sure that this is true wherever expats might find themselves, but I feel that this sense of bewilderment is especially strong as a foreigner living in Asia. Especially when you are fresh off the boat, and don't yet have a feel for the rhythms of language in your new country. Quite often hilarity (or, in my case, bat-shit-crazy hormone-soaked, tear-streaked tragedy) ensues.
Like last year. Around this time, actually. I was both newly arrived and newly pregnant, hormonal and homesick. A bad combination. Craving a taste of home and armed with a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, I planned to comfort myself by revisiting tastes of my childhood. All I needed was a carton of milk.
Off I trundled, to the grocery store. Inspecting all the different varieties of milk available to me, but unable to read the labels, I resorted to a decision-making process that has served me well in the past: choose the one with the prettiest package. Ooooooh, this one has happy cows on a mountain pasture! Its just like Switzerland! This one is the milk for me!
Returning home, and ready to indulge my pregnancy cravings, I poured the milk into the pot thinking, hmmm...it's a little thick. But that's okay. I'm sure it's just because the cows who made it were extra happy. Or perhaps its Jersey milk. Happy-mountain-cow extra-thick Jersey milk. Delicious.
Upon tasting, however, I realized just how wrong I was. The soup was sour and completely inedible. For my milk was actually yoghurt. Down the drain went the soup, along with my dreams.
What I lost in food-based mood stabilizers, I gained in perspective: I now feel just a little closer to understanding what it must be like to be illiterate.