Contributed by Grant Goettel. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
A little while ago, I went with James and Sally to an authentic Chinese restaurant here in Belgrade. It was owned by Chinese immigrants, and the majority of their customers were also Chinese. As their apprentice Chinese speaker that took Chinese in high school and now college, they wanted to take me and show me the restaurant.
It was the first real Chinese meal I have had since I went to China for three weeks at the end of my sophomore year of high school, but the firsts didn’t stop there. It was also the first time during this trip to Serbia that I felt comfortable speaking in a language other than English, even for something basic like asking where the bathroom was. Normally, I will just helplessly say “toilet?” and hope the waiter or waitress is good with showing directions using their hands. Here, though, I could actually have a conversation with the owner, ask where the restroom was, and understand her answer. I could ask for a drink and order my food without just pointing at the menu. This little interaction both made me feel at home, but at the same time, made me realize just how foreign Belgrade still is.
With only two months here, no formal language classes and minimal historical/cultural lessons until I got here, I came in with almost a totally blank slate. At times, that has led me to explore for myself what Belgrade has to offer, and have more authentic experiences, but sometimes, it has made me feel very much an outsider here. My Serbian skills have not really evolved past basic survival phrases, but enough people speak at least some English that it has not been much of a problem, and after enough time here it became comfortable. It wasn’t until I actually felt comfortable again in a foreign language that I appreciated the barrier that still exists.
At the same time, this dinner also made me feel more at home in Belgrade. I saw an “off the beaten path” part of Belgrade, a totally different place from anywhere else in Belgrade. With a developing Chinese population, and after the Chinese president Xi Jinping made a historic visit to Serbia earlier in the summer, it is a growing part of Belgrade. One of the bridges across the Danube River is known simply as “the Chinese bridge” after being built by the Chinese. With an increasing number of Europeans and Americans visiting or living in Serbia as well, Belgrade is becoming more and more diverse, as my ability to get around using basically only English and Chinese has shown.