Thursday, 1 November 2012

Always Interesting


Before I left for China, I was repeatedly tormented with and cautioned against two things: the fact that people tend to spit in public and the complete inevitability of eating dog.

Now I can vouch, to spitfinity and beyond, that the former warning was true in the most underplayed way, but I’m still hoping to have dodged that second bullet thus far. No guarantees, but that’s what makes things interesting.

Immersion in a very different culture to those you are used to is always interesting, but nowhere more so than in China. Every day (especially without Mandarin) is an adventure, and being faced with sensory overload and a desire to understand everything going on around you takes a lot of effort, interpretation, and even the occasional suspension of disbelief. Yes, I am lucky enough to be living in arguably the most cosmopolitan city in this continent-sized country, but there are certain inarguably Chinese quirks that even this modern anomaly can’t, and hopefully will never, shake.

So before I get into the literal meat of things (don’t worry – food is coming your way, promise!), I want to set the stage, if I may, by providing you with a little cheat sheet of things I’ve learned so far to prepare you for what to leave at home when, not if, you come to visit. Here goes:

Check These at Customs, or Things the Chinese Love to Hate

1.     Privacy  – There is no such thing as “privacy” in a culture that literally hangs its underwear out to dry in the streets. (And founded on a little thing called Communism, but let’s not get political). People live on top of one another, and treat public space as an extension of their ‘private’ home. This could explain the phenomenon of people wandering around in 2-part pajama suits at all times of day, like The Walking Dead in fuzzy slippers. Or how people can nap on their desks, face down into their keyboards, after lunch in the middle of a bustling office. Or why mothers look on as their babies in split pants ‘do their business’ in the middle of the pavement.

2.     Certain “Standards” of Table “Etiquette” – I mean, if the table is there, and bones from chicken _______ (noun, bird part largely considered inedible) are in your mouth, where ELSE are you supposed to spit them? And why not follow that up with a big ol’ belch and then spend a half hour picking your teeth? Sure. Not that it makes dinner a fairly unappetizing affair for the other diners or anything… Now, the one thing I do understand is slurping – I had heard that slurping noodles is acceptable behavior, and, honestly, when confronted with a never-ending-magician’s-scarf of noodle it’s almost the only way out of the situation. Face plant into your bowl to minimize the broth’s soak radius for you and your fellow slurpers (it’s only polite) and go to town.

3.     Actually, Most So-Called “Etiquette” – It’s less the aforementioned spitting that offends, and more the painstaking, minutes-long process to prepare for the spitting. There is also the nose excavation.

4.     Social Skills – This is not to say the Chinese do not have any social skills. They are one of the most respectful and conscientious cultures in the world. That being said, be prepared to be asked your age (yes, especially ladies), how much money you make, how much you paid for something, if you’re married, and why you’re not yet married. There is also no word in Mandarin for a casual "sorry", as in, "I'm sorry for almost-definitely-intentionally bumping into you when we have an entire block to ourselves". Oh, and you will be stared at.

5.     Spacial Awareness – While out dodging every other peril, don’t forget the obstacle course to work: buses plowing through pedestrian walkways on red lights, rogue motorbikes ready to mow you down on the sidewalk, someone’s ponytail literally in your mouth all the way up 31 delicious floors because of course you can fit one more person into the elevator. It’s almost a good thing to be a giantess of 5’10” here – you might be numb from the neck down, but at least you get an atmospheric layer to yourself to breathe.

6.     Logic – For a culture so praised for mathematical prowess, the Chinese seem to hate rational evidence – hearsay is taken as hard fact. If someone’s friend’s aunt’s grandmother has told them that sipping chrysanthemum tea in October will balance their qi, they will be drinking hot flower water without question. 'Medical advice' is questionable at best. (I’ve tried it and my qi felt as off-kilter as ever). Also, walking backwards does not reverse the aging process. There. I said it.

Although sometimes unpleasant, these cultural quirks are what makes living somewhere so different so interesting. It’s refreshing to be forcibly removed from the passive state of the understood everyday, from letting the familiar wash over you, into the active process of attempted understanding. It’s still shy of a month since I arrived in Shanghai, but I can confidently say I have learned more over these past few weeks than in the weeks of this past year combined.

And I can’t wait to see what’s still in store.

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