Living like an oversized baby

By Christopher Ribeiro (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-03 10:41
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As a 12-year-old, I clearly remember my father taking me to our local bank and setting up a savings account for me. I recall receiving my first bankbook and my dad teaching me how to manage it. This was indeed a proud moment.

Living like an oversized baby 

I had the same sense of excitement when I was 16 and my dad brought me back to the bank to arrange a checking account. Driving to the bank, filling out the documents, speaking with the teller, these were all tasks that needed adult supervision. Now 32, I have found myself back in need of it again.

Being a foreigner in China with limited use of the spoken language, I have as much capability to manage the affairs of my daily life as a pre-pubescent boy.

I suppose this condition can't be psychologically categorized as arrested development, since I have - or at least like to believe that I have - experienced emotional and psychological development over the course of the last two decades. Perhaps this state could be categorized as regressed development or, as I like to call it, oversized foreign baby syndrome.

Symptoms generally include constant feelings of dependency, fear of unfamiliar situations and procrastination. This condition is fairly common and often results in thousands of helpless adults wandering the city almost completely incapable of completing even the most menial task without being accompanied by a "supervisor", usually a Chinese-speaking friend.

Surely every expat has a horror story to do with banking in China. The situation typically starts with a question about shopping online with your bankcard. Ten minutes of discussion ensues, after which you finally ask: "So, how about buying things online?" The reply is usually: "Oh, we haven't talked about that yet."

I had a similar encounter recently when I needed a Chinese friend to accompany me to sort out an issue with my external hard drive. We went to a market in Tianjin, where the conversation between my friend and the clerk seemed to be about the authenticity of my Samsung machine. Eventually, I said I would pay for any repairs regardless of whether it was under warranty. The conversation went south and, subsequently, months later I still have a broken and useless hard drive sitting on my desk.

Other likely scenarios include ordering water, charging a pre-pay electricity card, going to a pharmacy, getting a tune-up for a bicycle and arranging a doctor's appointment. Does anyone really want to explain to a translator what irritable bowel syndrome is? Probably not, and to add insult to injury the doctor doesn't even give you a lollipop if you've been good.

Then there's the granddaddy of all fears for the oversized foreign baby: the dreaded visit to the hair salon.

Remember coming down from the barber's chair as a youngster and shuddering with dread upon seeing your freshly coiffed bowl cut? That experience pales in comparison to the helplessness one feels when entering a Chinese hair salon, with stylists eager to get their shears into your locks and turn you into a K-pop star look-alike. An oversized foreign baby will inevitably try to explain to his or her translator in vain the nuances between "trim", "cut" and "butcher", and invariably will get flashbacks of third grade photo day once the new hairstyle is unveiled.

Apparently, no one in China has been told that the "Princeton" hairstyle is no longer vogue in the West.

So what's the solution to avoid these symptoms? For people just arriving in China, the best method is acquiescence. Even for seasoned travelers, China seems to be less intuitive than any city in, say, Europe or South America even. Relish the opportunity to make new friends and perhaps even try to learn a little survival Chinese.

For those planning longer stints, a certain degree of acceptance is still permissible. Chinese people are friendly and usually eager to help, especially as it gives them an opportunity to practice their spoken English.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid becoming an oversized foreign baby is to hit the books and learn to speak the language.

The author is an English teacher and freelance writer based in Tianjin.

For China Daily

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