Community makes you, you make your community

What happened when I attended an all Mandarin-speaking event (and didn’t understand a word)

Imagine this:

You’re on stage.

You’re blinded by lights.

You hear people, but you can’t see them.

People are yelling at you, but you have no idea what they’re saying.

You get pushed.

You get pulled.

You get flowers.

And applause.

Wait…what?

Is this a nightmare or a dream?

Just smile, stand to the side, and wait.

Now turn back the clock three hours.

I’m not usually a flower-person, but these shall do.

I walk into the dressing room. I see three women, and evidence of about 20-plus others who have their second dresses, flats, makeup and curling irons and hair brushes sprawled out across the dressing room counter under the hot lights. It smells of hairspray and burnt light bulbs. I guess the others have already finished getting ready and headed into the reception area to take photos. I find an empty spot along the mirrors, put down my things, hang up my jacket, and switch from flats to heels. I go into the washroom for one final look before joining the others.

When I look in the mirror, I look at my full cheeks, my dark complexion, my big brown eyes, and black hair with warm brown highlights. I see the face of someone I’ve known all my life, yet in that moment, I felt like I didn’t know at all. At this same moment, there is a woman to my right doing the same thing. She’s in her 50s, sporting an up-do and a dress with sequins and sensible heels. She looks at me and says something in Mandarin while gesturing to the zipper on the back of her dress. The words that came out of her mouth were foreign to me, but I understood the universal gesture of “can you help me zip up my dress?” I obliged, and as I did, I said “your dress is very pretty” (in English, that is). She didn’t say anything, she just smiled and nodded and went back to adjusting her look.

Walking into the pre-awards reception, I immediately realize I am severely underdressed. I was wearing a three-quarter length sleeved royal blue lace dress at knee-length. The women around me dawned floor-length gowns with matching shawls, shoes, and cute clutches with bling on them. I was in a sea of beautiful fish while I resembled your everyday chicken of the sea (that’s tuna, by the way). The women, ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-fifties, were speaking Mandarin…and only Mandarin. I was prepared for the normal run-of-the-mill networking reception, which I go to about two to three times a month and usually see at least a handful of people I know. But nope, not one single person, in a sea of about 80 people. I didn’t know a soul, and I didn’t know the language.

I accepted I wasn’t going to be making some new friends or connections that evening, but I decided I would still follow the crowd and do what everyone else was doing — taking photos. First I took some selfies, posted an Instagram stories video to show I was there, trying to be part of the action. The “Aunties” were swarming at the photo wall where the official event photographer and lights were. They all seemed to know each other, posing in each others photos, taking turns taking group and solo photos along the branded backdrop. Clearly they had met before.

I decided it was time to take photos as well. There wasn’t much of a ‘line’ to take photos per se; it was more like a cluster of women playing double dutch. Going in and out of photos with different pairings and groups and whoever wanted to jump in, would just do it.

I was never good at double dutch.

It took about 15 minutes of standing around and watching this never-ending dance until I finally got to take photos of my own. I probably didn’t have to wait that long, but I really didn’t know how to jump in there in between the Aunties jumping in ahead of me, bringing in their friends and taking photos with multiple poses. I was even handed a few phones to take photos, but was never offered to have my photo taken. My frustration and annoyance at having to wait so long led me to think negatively about the lack of respect, lack of protocol, lack of patience, lack of…lack of my own understanding, compassion and empathy. While I was getting upset at the situation I found myself in, I realized that I was the one who was on the outside. I didn’t fit in with the culture, couldn’t speak the language, hell, I didn’t even get the dress code right.

Other things that happened over the course of the night: I missed a cue to head backstage; I didn’t know how to pose/gesture/shout out some Mandarin saying in sync with the rest of the group; Any conversations I did have fell short when the women asked me if I used WeChat (I don’t). I felt like such a loner, and so segregated from what was happening. In situations where I would normally network and make small talk, I didn’t know how to, except for complimenting them on their dresses and offering to take photos for them by smiling and gesturing to their phones.

The one thing that I could always count on in any situation, and I firmly believe is one of my greatest strengths, is my ability to communicate — and I couldn’t even do that. I felt so helpless, isolated; I felt like a foreigner in my own home town, amongst my own people. I couldn’t make sense of the world I was in, and I couldn’t connect with anyone in the way that I normally would.

As all these things happened, the Aunties could tell I was clueless and had no idea what was going on (maybe it was the blank stares that gave me away). Some tried to explain to me in English what to do, made sure I was standing in the right order, and pushed me to the front of the group photo so I wouldn’t get lost in the sea of bouquets and up do’s.

My unease melted away as I experienced the kindness of the Aunties.

When it came to receiving our awards, I remember very distinctly, being on stage waiting for the rest of the ladies to be recognized alongside me when I heard a loud “I LOVE YOU, MOM!” come from a 20-something year-old man’s voice in the crowd.

In that moment, I was reminded that the ladies alongside me were mothers, like my Mom. They work hard to provide for their families, are lively, multidimensional people, and have passions and interests like I do. Many of the women I met being recognized were entrepreneurs, having started from the ground up, building their businesses and networks, and ultimately, their own network of independent, business, community, and family-oriented women. Although we had different stories and even spoke different native languages, to the core, we were the same — living, breathing, community-minded women who have made a difference in our communities in some way.

Community comes in many shapes and forms, and supports many different people. Sometimes communities are based on geography, sometimes based on age, ethnicity, or similar interests and goals. What makes communities grow and thrive though, are the people. No matter where you are in the world, or what you do, you can be part of a community, or build your own. You make your community, your community makes you. And, despite being part of different communities, we are more alike than we are different.

*Featured photo courtesy of United Global Chinese Woman Association of Canada

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