April 8, 2018

Meeting Farlang

When I wrote my last post, I had been in Hong Kong shy of one yeare. An now, it's been 19 months since I last posted.

It's not that I've forgotten, I've thought often of this blog; nor is it for lack of content to write about. I think it's more of a general settling in, a lack of newness, and a slight clinging to the mediocrity I've now found.

Since the last post, I discovered the origins of "farlang" and have had the opportunity to visit many places, including all but one of the cities that have inspired the blog. Rome is the one holdout, but I'll be back on her streets in a month. (The DC blog is a regrettable one that ranks right up there with my  dismal twitter feed. I can only hope the internet has forgotten).

The return to meaningful places is what has inspired me to get back to this blog and to get comfy with sharing stories, beyond well-filtered vignettes of my life on Instagram.

The day I started this blog was oddly familiar to the setting in which I'm now writing: parked on a beige sofa next to a window in my apartment, catching late afternoon sun and dreaming about the summer. Only then, I was a senior in college in Fargo, very much ready to graduate and live out my hopelessly idealistic dream of a life, while trying not to reply too quickly to my crush on BBM (that's blackberry messenger for those folks over 40 and younger than 25).

I had been reading a travel magazine that day and there was an article about a couple who had been backpacking in SE Asia. The article described a sushi restaurant that served up a "farlang roll"  with peanut butter, honey and bananas to foreigners in the area. Thus, the farlang lady was born.

It's funny now, nearly every time I go to the Hong Kong airport, I feel as though I meet that couple who wrote the story: they're slightly sunburned, wearing baggy elephant pants, a backpack and likely carrying a rattan bag. I've totally been that couple, as have most expats in Asia. I just haven't been in a magazine.

Since 2010, I've been a laowai, gaijin, and my current status gweilo -- all meaning a foreigner. Last June was the first time I became farlang. It was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, my good friend invited me to her hometown and I was privileged to experience homestyle Thai hospitality. It was in the fruit market, where I dared to toss watermelons and bought exotic rambutan and Thai mangoes, that I heard that word "farang" tap me on the shoulder.

The locals in northern Thailand say it "farang" -- without an "l" -- which seems legit enough. I've learned over time that English spelling of non-English words is a subjective thing. It could even be that the magazine, and therefore I, have been spelling it wrong the whole time.

When I was on the plane to Hangzhou last weekend, I thought about whether we have developed too much of a blase attitude about traversing the planet. In the last three weeks, I've covered 25,000 miles (more or less), seen cherry blossoms on two continents, shoveled snow off of the driveway, and been burned from a sun-drenched beach.

It's no wonder why my digestion is out of whack and I'm sleeping as though it's going out of style this weekend.

Being comfortable as a foreigner in a new place is a great privilege and takes practice. While standing outside of my old apartment building in Hangzhou, I was overcome with a feeling of wanting to give 2010-me a big, comforting hug. Seeing my old building  brought on visceral pangs of loneliness, of which I didn't feel elsewhere in the city.

In 2010 I was far from comfortable with owning my foreigner status -- I was downright terrified. But things get easier with practice, as they have in Hong Kong. I'm no longer fussed with the daily grind, but I have a great appreciation for the effort it took to figure out groceries, bills, transportation and medical care. Let alone build meaningful relationships.

At this point, I've been farlang so long that I'm never really a foreigner in spirit anywhere, but yet I'm also a little bit foreigner everywhere. Stay tuned for more stories of that ever-evolving journey.