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(2010-06-07 22:31:20)



China... the other side of the world... emperors... dynasties... the great wall... the place where you end up if you dig a deep enough hole... delivery boys on bicycles with your sweet and sour chicken in a little white box.  There are many images that fill your mind and tickle your imagination when you hear the word “China.”  What is this place really like?  I’ll do my best to explain my experience of this vast country and its people.

I’ll begin this post with two notes that I wrote three years ago about my experience in China:

I am in China right now, and it blows my mind.  This place is incredible!  It took everything I expected to the extreme.  I knew the cities were big... but they're bigger than just big!  I knew there'd be a lot of construction... but there's more than just a lot of construction!  The big cities are unimaginably large and full of lights and signs and people.  Random people approach me just to talk to me; everything about this experience is new to me.  I love being here.

The traffic here is crazy.  Lanes mean nothing to these people — a two lane road can have three or four cars driving next to each other.  Lanes will just appear out of nowhere and sometimes disappear.  It's just fine if you want to drive on the left side of the road too.  Pedestrians will just wade out into traffic all the time, dodging cars and barely escaping death while not caring at all.  One of my favorite things about China is the snack vendors that come out at night.  They fill up the street with their little stands and sell all sorts of meats and drinks and any little thing that you could or probably couldn't imagine.  Walking up and down the road, buying snacks is a great China experience.

While many things about China have changed since I came here in 2007, most of the things I observed in these two notes have remained constant.

The only American driving experience that compares to this is New York City.  Lots of weaving, generally slower driving because of the chaos, and excessive use of the horn.  People honking at me or flashing their brights at me still drives me totally crazy.  People also drive at night without their headlights on to save money, which also bothers me.  I’ve gotten used to the driving here, though, so I’m no longer afraid to walk into a busy road and I don’t wet my pants every time I take a taxi.

My theory is that in the US, the road system, driving laws, and cars all developed slowly and at the same time.  This allowed the roads and rules to remain organized.  In China, however, a million cars just fell out of the sky one day, and suddenly a system of roads had to be built and driving laws had to be created.  The result was too many cars driving however they pleased with roads and laws trying to catch up (but I’m just some guy.  What do I know?).

The food here is incredible.  The best meals here are also the cheapest: street food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are quite delicious, and though the Chinese always tell me that they’re terribly unhealthy, they seems healthy enough to me.  The food at most big, fancy restaurants or cafés is overpriced and insipid, so I stay away from them.  I can get a delicious wrap with egg, meat, and veggies for about 50¢ or a banana smoothie for 75¢.

Two big differences between food here and food in the US is what animals and what parts of animals are considered to be food.  In the US, when we think of meat, we’ve got beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or fish.  Lamb and duck are a bit adventurous and anything beyond that is avoided.  In China, people eat everything!  EVERYTHING!  At the supermarket, you can find turtles, frogs, donkey, various types of bird meat (but no turkey), snakes, sea cucumbers.  Going to the supermarket is kind of like going to the zoo for me; I like to look at all the animals.

In the US, we cut out the bones and cook the biggest chunks of meat, throwing the rest away.  In China, they eat... EVERYTHING!  The head, including eyes and brain, the liver, the heart, a fish’s air bladder (What’s that?  Who knows?), the feet, the cartilage on the bones, the marrow in the bones.  The bones are left in the meat and the shells are left on the shrimp making it almost impossible for me to eat, but Chinese people just toss it in their mouth and a couple seconds later, they spit out the shell or bones — incredible.

In my previous adventure in China, I exhausted most of my wild desires for weird foods.  I ate live shrimp, donkey, snake, turtle shell, cow genitalia (they wouldn’t tell me what it was before I tried some), gelled pig and duck blood, fried scorpions, boiled pig brain, dog, and probably other crazy stuff that I can’t think of now.  However, there was one final frontier that I refused to explore in 2007, and I finally took the plunge last week: I ate a duck head.  It’s a difficult process of taking apart all the bones of the skull and eating every bit of meat you can find.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with the taste and it was so difficult that I doubt I’ll order one again.

The Chinese also have a very different view of personal space than Americans.  As Americans, we like people to keep their distance when walking with us or talking to us.  When walking with a Chinese person, you should be surprised if your arm brushes up against theirs.  If talking to a person, you will have to get used to people being a little closer than you might be comfortable with.  When on a bus or train, forget about personal space — it doesn’t exist.  Pushing and shoving are commonplace and expected of you.  Don’t be scared; there are more than a billion who are used to it, and you can get used to it too.

Do you like yelling?  You’ll be in good company in China.  People love yelling here.  Face-to-face conversations look like shouting matches, patrons and employees alike yell as loud as they can across restaurants and shops, and don’t even get me started with phone calls.  They don’t even need the phone — they could just yell and the other person might hear them on the other side of the city.  This bit of life here amuses me but sometimes startles me when I hear a shrill cry behind me and irritates me when some guy parks himself right next to me for a cellphone conversation.

The Chinese are very proud of their language and culture.  A few phrases you’ll hear a million times if you come here are “5000 years of history and culture,” “the most difficult language in the world,” and “55 minority groups.”  I have a little beef with these things, but I won’t go into it here.  The Chinese separate the people of the world into two groups: Chinese and foreigners.  I am not “an American” nearly as much as I am “a foreigner.”  Even in the US, I’ve had Chinese people call me a foreigner (but aren’t they the foreigners?  Oh well...).  Learning Chinese language or culture is greatly appreciated by the Chinese, and they love to teach you or tell you about them.

One crazy thing about China is that everyone is Chinese.  I mean EVERYONE is Chinese.  Besides the foreign teachers at my school, I could go a month without seeing a single non-Chinese person.  The only blondes are bleached, Nobody has brown hair.  There aren’t any white or black people.  EVERYBODY is Chinese.  This also means that 99 percent of the restaurants are Chinese and the foreign restaurants tend to be slanted towards Chinese tastes.  One thing that I miss about the US is the ethnic and culinary diversity.

A related thing that amazes me here is the number of doppelgängers that I see.  In the US, there are about 300 million people spread out over the country.  People in the US are all different colors of skin and hair.  In China there are 1.3 billion people all clustered by the East coast.  All of them have similar skin tones and the same color hair.  Do the math.  I’m telling you that some people I pass on the street look so similar to people I know that it’s scary.

The uniformity of entertainment and tastes here rocks my world as well.  I good sign of this is instant messaging.  In the US, I know people that use yahoo, hotmail, AIM, skype, and other programs to communicate.  In China, people use QQ.  Period.  EVERYONE uses QQ.  It weirds me out when i think about it.  As for music, pop or hip-hop is EVERYONE’s favorite genre.  I know some Chinese people that prefer rock, and I like that, but rock is not popular in China.  Obviously, there are exceptions the stereotypes that I am so uncouthly flinging in every direction, but the uniformity here is much greater than that in the US.

Philosophically, I see the worldview of this place as predominantly modern.  The modern worldview and I don’t get along well in many respects, so sometimes it grates on me here.  I’m more comfortable with many aspects of postmodernism, which is now spreading in the US to replace modernism.  In China, modernism is now in full force in the middle-aged and young generations, while the older generation still seems to think according to... whatever came before modernism (I actually have no idea what I’m talking about).  Postmodernism will spread here eventually — humans always react against the status quo — just like postmodernism will eventually be replaced by something else in the US.

The Chinese display all of the virtues of modernism (most of which I lack).  The first and most obvious is the hard-working nature of the Chinese.  The students here are unbelievable when they have a test coming up; they spend all of their free time in the library or in an open classroom with a pile of books next to them, silently studying.  People here value math and science to an incredible degree and because of this, students here learn much more advanced math and science than students in the US (besides math and science majors, of course).  Any student here could rock me so hard on a math test (maybe even when I was at my math prime in high school).

To conclude this parade of baseless stereotypes: I love living here.  I like making friends with the people here, learning from them and hopefully teaching them a little too.  Eating the cheap food and walking out into busy traffic are great, but my favorite thing is the constant contact with other people.  In America, I feel like an island: alone in my house or alone in my car.  In China, there people all around.  This gives a sense of community and warmth that is less common in the US.  There are more faces to smile and more voices to say friendly words here, and I like that.


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