I sat in a woodcarving studio in Xi’an, China with my eyes fixed on my soon to be fā zān. A fā zān is a Chinese hair pin that I would never actually wear. They are beautiful and ornamental but not for girls like me who need their hair to withstand lacrosse goals and cross-country meets. I shaped the wood with harsh sandpaper trying not to break the delicate detailing I was attempting. My fingers cramped as I worked, but I was comparing my unfinished and coarse fā zān to the smooth and beautiful fā zān model which was placed at the front of the room and eqauted to perfection to me. A middle-aged Chinese man noticed I had been aiming to make my fā zān exactly like the one on the pedestal. He spoke quietly to me, saying something in Mandarin. “Wǒ bù míngbái,” I replied to show I didn’t understand. Motioning to both fā zāns, he said, “These are not the same.” He spoke with an enthusiastic confidence that surprised me and made me wonder why he felt compelled to tell me this. Was he trying to teach me a lesson, or did he just feel sorry for my weak attempt? He struggled to find the English words, “One . . . your idea. Your idea best.” He then pulled his phone from his jean pocket and typed into his translator app, “Same in spirit” appeared on the screen he showed me. He continued, “These aren’t the same, but same in spirit.” And suddenly I understood. I had the sense that this lesson applied to the fā zān, but it also applied to a bigger picture. From the surface, that man and I were complete opposites — we are from two different countries with opposite forms of government; we speak different languages; we have different colors of skin — and yet we are the same in spirit.
On the airplane, weeks earlier, my Gap tee had never seemed so obvious, and there was no graceful way to fit my legs where they were intended. Their fast syllables far surpassed my comprehension. They ate food I had never tasted; I ate granola bars. I was overcome with trepidation for what the next six weeks would bring. It never occurred to me that I might be heading to a land of people who were the same in spirit as me. In August, as we gathered for our final meal, jokes were made left and right, some in English and some in Mandarin. I was at home with the seven others, all of whom were native Chinese speakers. This was sameness in spirit. We threw around basic phrases like “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” making fun of our collective lack of skills. We over-enunciated every sound to add to the amusing scene; we had switched roles. I, a native English speaker, spoke in Mandarin to embrace their culture, and they, native Chinese speakers, spoke in English, relating to me through the last thing I would have expected — language. My bad Mandarin competing with their bad English was the perfect display of two seemingly different peoples coming together to embrace our differences. This feeling of acceptance took me by surprise. And I was forced to look beyond the previous ways I had learned to define others.