Where am I? What's happening?

Trip Start Jul 03, 2006
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Trip End Aug 21, 2006


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Friday, August 11, 2006

It has been brought to my attention that some of you are quite astounded by some of the things you have been reading about China on my pod. It seems that some of the things I am reporting are being perceived as very bizarre by some of you Western types. Well let me assure you that no one is more astounded by life in China than yours truly. Bizarre is exactly how I would describe a lot of the things that have happened to me since I've been here. Of course, that's because I am also a Western type. To the Chinese, it's all very, very normal.

For example, Chinese people don't think it's at all bizarre to point out or stare at people's physical characteristics. My teacher began one of my oral exams by telling me that I looked particularly pretty that day. Last week she started out my oral exam by pointing out (as if I hadn't noticed) that my face was breaking out. I was absolutely exhausted from cramming the night before, and her comment almost made me cry. Strangely, she didn't mean anything by it. Outer appearance is something to be discussed openly and unabashedly around these parts. For example, when I show my roommate pictures of any kind, she comments on my weight in each one, telling me whether I look skinnier or heavier than the picture before. One of our Chinese roommates is a little "big-boned," and all of his friends address him, to his face, as "Pang Ge." (Fat Brother) Out in public, strangers notice my weird hair, eyes, and skin and call out "Lao Wai!" (Old Foreigner) You can imagine how many people I've wanted to punch for saying this. It is no use. There are too many of them.

Being stared at and pointed at in public is something I decided early on that I had just better accept. Being told in class that I have zits, on the other hand, was not something I could not accept, so I decided to talk to my teacher about it. She explained to me that commenting on someone's physical appearance is how the Chinese express that they care. What's considered rude is not staring and not commenting if someone looks tired, is breaking out, is gaining weight, or is clearly from another hemisphere. Looking and commenting expresses their interest in you. It's how they show that they are not ignoring you, which is a much worse offense in Chinese culture. My teacher's explanation didn't make me feel any better about my zits, but at least I realized that she was just trying to show her concern rather than humiliate me in front of my peers.

Whether intended or not, public humiliation is only the beginning of the list of bizarre cultural differences one has to adjust to in China. Everyday strange things happen and I just have to shake my head and laugh. For example, I found it particularly bizarre last Friday morning when I was taking an exam, straining to remember how to read and write hundreds of new Chinese characters, and people were lighting off firecrackers right outside our classroom. It was 8:30 in the morning! On a weekday. My teacher did not seem phased.

Westerners expect that public bathrooms will have toilet paper and soap, but that's a bizarre concept to the Chinese. Chinese bathrooms are BYOTP. And that's not just because the bathrooms have run out of toilet paper and soap. They've never had toilet paper and soap. But don't worry, the adjustment to carrying your own tissues and hand sanitizer with you is a quick one. All it takes is one time of being caught (after a spicy meal) in a squatter toilet with no amenities and you'll never again forget to bring your own TP.

(Note to travelers: McDonald's bathrooms always have toilet paper and soap. This is the first time in my life that I can say I love McDonald's with a straight face and mean it.)

Continuing on, shower curtains are bizarre in Chinese culture. Most bathrooms don't have them. Our bathroom does have one, but my roommate doesn't like to use it. Every time she showers, the entire bathroom (toilet, sink, walls, mirror, ceiling) is sopping wet afterwards. Same goes for all of the other students' bathrooms after their roommates shower.

The list of differences between Chinese and Western culture goes on. I couldn't possibly list them all. While some of the things downright made me mad sometimes (especially when sleep deprived, as most students in China are,) it's no good to complain about them all the time. So when I find myself at wit's end, I take a deep breath and remember that age-old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans." Then I go and find a Chinese person with some physical idiosynchrasy and point and stare at them until I feel better.

(Note: In the photo section of this entry, you will see that, despite certain difficulties, I actually am enjoying a lot of my time over here. These times include, but are not limited to, cooking class, playing basketball, admiring the scenery near West Lake, and hanging out with wonderful people, both Chinese and American, that I have met.)
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Comments

mhdozier
mhdozier on

Envious
Ingrid! I'm so jealous of your time in China and your focus on learning Chinese. I know how hard it is to remember all the new characters, and I applaud your effort (and certain success.) It took me a minute to realize that jiaozi is shuijiao, said the Beijing way. Amanda and I love making shuijiao! It's so much fun! Hope to see you someday again.
Love,
Mark

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