Going Bananas

BEIJING, China—I never would have expected that the seemingly simple act of buying bananas would make me want to burst into tears. At the age of seven, I proclaimed them my favorite fruit; now they’re a staple of my diet. So as I spend my summer half way across the world, I expected to continue eating bananas.

One afternoon, I went to the nearby Happiness Market. When I got to the fruit section, I did what any person accustomed to grocery shopping for a household of one would do—I broke off the desired number of bananas from a larger stalk and proceeded with my shopping. The abrupt snap of the bananas’ necks breaking rang out through the fruit section; trouble was coming. After a month in Beijing, I mistakenly assumed that I was starting to adjust to China’s striking cultural differences. I could squat over non-Western toilets like a pro, and a hint of blue in a sky that normally brimmed grey with pollution was enough to give me pause, but nothing had prepared me for the ensuing reproach.

“Bu bai, bu bai!” The stalk I had put aside was thrust in my face and I looked up to an irate fruit vendor who seemed to loom over me, despite her petite stature. “Bu bai!” she repeated, inflecting the two-syllable imperative with more disdain than I had thought possible. I waved my hands in what I thought was a universal gesture for “no, thanks,” but she continued to push the bananas at me. This was only met with another repetition of “Bu bai!” This inane exchange continued for a few more beats and then ended with me slinking away, banana-less and trailed by the largest stink eye I’ve ever received.

As anyone who spends a long period of time in a foreign country will tell you, experiences akin to my attempted banana purchase are a dime a dozen. Overcoming cultural differences is difficult enough without the added pressure of communicating in a non-native language, not to mention a tonal language like Chinese. My summer in Beijing has certainly not been an exception; on a weekly basis, I encounter moments where I, to quote a popular Chinese expression, “shou bu liao!” (can’t bear it). Aside from my banana experience, I’ve mispronounced numbers at crucial moments, initiated a business meeting between my computer and a mug of steaming Chinese soymilk, and (literally) fallen into trouble with a squat toilet that has made me avoid a particular pair of shoes.

Sometimes, it’s all too easy to dwell on the negative aspects of living in China. This is when I remind myself that in addition to the aforementioned mishaps, I’ve climbed mountains overlooking the Shaolin Temple, developed an (incomplete) understanding of Chinese soap operas, and, most importantly, crossed Beijing’s terrifying streets without incident. As for the banana lady, I eventually found a friendly neighborhood fruit store—the only thing they criticize me for there is my pronunciation.