Foreigner

Posted by – July 23, 2010

Tonight? Was insane and amazing. I feel like I existed on three different planets. Allow me to explain:

6pm: I arrive at Girl Power Hour, a women’s networking event I’ve heard buzz about around Seattle. I’d never actually been to one, and this event was walking distance from my house, so I decided to go. I dragged my Seattle 2.0 editor, Jen, along with me, and I knew my friend Lyndi would be there. I was also looking forward to meeting Jeanna Barrett, the social media manager for Whrrl, who I’ve been chatting with on Twitter forever — since I pinged her about Whrrl’s API back when I worked on CrowdHopp — but never met in person.

The event is unlike anything I’ve ever been to in Seattle, which has to be one of the most casual of the major metropolitan areas in the country. The girls are dressed to the nines. Everyone is wearing uber-high heels (no one in Seattle wears heels!) and sipping fancy mixed drinks (everyone in Seattle drinks beer or wine). It was like Los Angeles had transported itself to a tiny patio at a restaurant on Lake Union. It was weird. “This feels like a sorority party in LA,” says Jen (who, like me, came to Seattle after attending school in Los Angeles). I nod.

Later, we will chat with Corrie Westmoreland, the force behind GPH, and she will say, “I know it feels kind of like a sorority party in LA,” and we will feel better about having felt that way, and we will both decide that Corrie is totally awesome and a brilliant marketer and we both want to work with her stat. Jeanna — also a part of the GPH team — was every bit as kickass as I’d expected her to be, and she invited me to an uber-exclusive party at a top-secret location that I’m very excited to attend next month.

It was a lot of fun, actually, to be surrounded by people so different from those I encounter working in the tech space here in Seattle, and to meet people from — gasp! — industries other than tech. In Seattle! (There are industries other than tech in Seattle? I’d never considered the possibility.) It was refreshing to remember that the whole entire world is not the tech world. It’s easy to forget that when you work in tech in Seattle. But I certainly felt out of place there, despite the fact that no one I met could have possibly been nicer.

7:30pm: Still at GPH, I get a text from my childhood friend Clay, who winds up in Seattle every now and again as part of his work for the Coast Guard JAG. (Which is, by the way, the most awesome job ever — not only does he practice military law around the world, but he gets to spend time in Afghanistan creating and shaping the legal system of a burgeoning government.) He says he’s with some Chinese visitors at a restaurant downtown, and he’d love to see me. Jen is on her way out, and I ask her to drop me off at the address. I’m not sure what to expect. “I may be the only person there speaking English,” I tell Jen.

8:00 pm: I walk into a small Indian restaurant in Belltown. Clay and his entourage are the only people there. They all stand to greet me. They have saved me a spot at the table.

I’ve written about Clay before, and he remains one of the most phenomenal people I know. After spending eight years as my academic nemesis in elementary and middle school, he went on to attend Harvard and later live in China, becoming totally fluent in Mandarin, before attending law school and earning a spot in the intensely competitive JAG. He is at the restaurant with a delegation from the Chinese Coast Guard (called the Maritime Police in China). They’re all men. He attempts to introduce me in English, and I notice a lot of blank stares around the table. “You can just talk in Mandarin,” I tell him.

So Clay introduces me to the Chinese delegation in flawless Mandarin, and he says something that makes them laugh hysterically (I do not know what), and then he says I should tell them what I do. I’m completely flustered, having moved from the LA-style girl scene of GPH into what may as well be Beijing in the space of 10 minutes. I attempt to explain to them, in rambling English, the concept of celebrity gossip blogging. It does not go well. Then Clay tries to explain it in Mandarin. They totally don’t get it.

“Paris Hilton?” I offer.

Blank stares.

“Paris. Hilton.” I say it slowly this time.

Still blank stares.

I look at Clay. “Did I just discover the only people in the world who have never heard of Paris Hilton?”

“Maybe.” He explains to them, in Mandarin, who Paris Hilton is, and all of a sudden their eyes open wide with recognition. “No, they know her,” he says.

I am disappointed.

What I come to find, over chicken curry and rice, is that the Chinese folks can understand me — if I speak slowly and deliberately — it’s just that they have trouble responding, especially when I’m peppering them with questions like “What have you found to be the differences between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Police?” They understand English much better than they speak it. But they can’t understand me at all when I speak at hyperspeed, which is my standard setting. (”Sasha does everything very, very fast, and her mind jumps around a lot,” Clay explains to them in English, and then again in Mandarin. I decide to take this as a compliment.)

“It seems painful for you to speak so slowly,” one of them comments.

“It’s less painful than speaking in Mandarin,” I respond, slowly.

I ask them which provinces in China they’re all from, and we go around the table, and they tell me the name of the province, I attempt to repeat it, and everyone laughs. My terrible Mandarin is a fantastic icebreaker!

“Sometimes,” says the head of the delegation, “I can understand everything you say perfectly. And then sometimes I can understand nothing of it at all.”

This is fairly standard even for fluent English speakers, I think, but I don’t attempt to communicate it.

They show me their cell phones (after I ask Clay if they have “future phones”) and their social networks. Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are banned in China. “Doesn’t that make you angry?” I ask. They say they don’t mind. They say they have Chinese versions of all of these. “But doesn’t it make you angry that your government won’t let you use a part of the Internet?” They don’t seem bothered at all by this. I harp a little further on it, until Clay gives me a Sasha-please-don’t-start-an-international-incident-here look.

Clay and I begin our standard routine of arguing in public over who was the stronger student during childhood. “I worked very hard,” says Clay, “but Sasha was always the smart one.”

“Lies,” I say. The Chinese people laugh. I’ve successfully made a joke!

Actually, the entire conversation is laughable, as Clay is here taking a break from creating Afghani case law to host the Chinese Coast Guard delegation, wearing a T-shirt that says “Harvard” in Mandarin, and I am attempting to convince these people that someone actually pays me to talk shit about Paris Hilton. Our seventh-grade class rankings no longer feel representative of our comparative success.

9:30pm: The checks arrive. The owner has split up all our checks. I watch as the Chinese folks — visiting the U.S. for the first time — attempt to count out their U.S. currency. I ask them about their own currency, and we discuss the exchange rate, playing math games (at which they kick my ass), and they give me some yuan as a gift. I’ve been given six yuan total. “It’s almost one dollar!” I announce. They nod excitedly. I have successfully learned the exchange rate.

We leave the Indian restaurant. I say “Shi shi ni” (thank you) to the adorable and accommodating Indian owner (whose own English is imperfect — during dinner, I found myself having to translate his thick Indian accent into American English for Clay, who then translated into Mandarin), and the Chinese folks teach him how to say “You’re welcome” in Mandarin. Everyone grins. It is a strikingly touching multicultural moment, and one I won’t soon forget.

We walk down 2nd avenue toward their hotel, and a car drives by blasting Lady Gaga.

“Lady Gaga? Do you know her?” I ask.

“Oh yes!! Lady Gaga!”

This opens up a whole new avenue of conversation. They also know Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson. Why did I even attempt to use Paris Hilton as common ground?? Clearly Justin Bieber is now the true international superstar. We chat about Justin Bieber all the way to Pike, at which point I have to part ways with them catch a cab to Hops and Chops. It’s sad to say goodbye — I feel like we all bonded in a really precious sort of way.

10pm: Arrive at Hops and Chops, a weekly get-together for folks in the Seattle tech crowd. I am among my people at last. My people have been drinking since happy hour. They are wasted, and it’s awesome. We sit around and drunkenly gossip about tech companies and tech people. I attempt to tell them about my meeting with the delegation from the Chinese Coast Guard. Jen is there, and we also attempt to tell them about Girl Power Hour. I don’t think they quite understand or believe either story. (”The Chinese Coast Guard? And girls in high heels?”)

I get a text from Clay — “They LOVED you!!!” This makes me smile, because I loved them too.

And it was the perfect way to end the night — winding up with my best friends, people who speak my language, and getting to tell them of all the strange and foreign countries I’ve visited in the past four hours. My friend Jeff gives me a ride home and a hug goodbye. “Were you telling the truth about the Chinese delegation?” he asks. For a second, I consider taking my yuan out of my wallet to show him, but I decide against it. I just smile, tell him goodnight, and get out of the car.

  • I love love love experiencing other cultures. That's one of the things I find lacking in Phx. I would love to live in a city like NY or SF where you can experience so many cultures in just a few blocks:)

  • Merc

    rats no pix

  • agreed, orokyta. thoroughly enjoyable! thanks for sharing.

  • Orokyta

    Such a fun post to read, Sasha... As always though! :)

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