The Curious Chinese Way

Chinese people are curious.  Their curiosity isn’t subtle. It is overt and I’ve learned to love it.

This past weekend we headed to the coastal city of Beidaihe which is about a three-hour train ride from Beijing. Even though this was a short train ride, the only tickets left were in the sleeper section. This section is made up of a compartment consisting of six beds with three on each side. So you’re looking at a stack of three beds. As soon as my got on the train, the curious eyes fell upon us. In our compartment were three other people. Two middle-aged Chinese men and one middle-aged Chinese women. They had already made themselves comfortable by taking off their shoes and opening their tea thermos full of tea. They were sharing tea with each other when they noticed we had arrived. We said our hello’s and then sure enough the questions started to rattle off in Chinese.

Woman: “Where are you from?”

Me:“America. ”

Woman: ” You can speak Chinese?!”

Me:” Yes, but my pronunciation is bad.”

Woman: ” No, it’s really good!”

Woman:“Oh, you all look French!”

Woman:” Why are you in China?”

Me: ” We teach English in Beijing.”

Woman:” Really! How much money do you make?”

Woman:” How much is your apartment?”

All of these questions came within the first ten minutes of setting our bags down on our bunks. I was sitting on the bunk with the Chinese woman and Billy was sitting across from me with the middle-aged man. I  took my shoes off and crossed my legs and we all continued chatting. At this point other Chinese people from other bunks had peered their heads into our compartment. Three little Chinese boys were especially curious about Billy. They came over to our bunk and just stared at him and smiled.

While some Westerners might find this invasive, I have grown to love the natural curiosity. It’s refreshing for people to be blunt about their thoughts without withholding any information. In the West, people might whisper to each other and wonder about the whereabouts of a person, but in China the questions are direct and to the point. It isn’t considered rude by any means, it’s just how things are.

We continued talking for another thirty min or so and with each coming question, my level of speaking was challenged. However, I tried my best at some of the more difficult vocabulary and continued speaking. I don’t know what it was about this whole scene, but it was a very reflective moment for my time here in China. Our of my whole beach weekend, this train ride was my favorite part because I felt like a part of a bigger community.  I was sharing tea with the Chinese woman and laughing about how expensive house prices are in Beijing.  I knew how to answer her questions.I felt like I truly have been living in China for a long enough time to begin to truly understand the culture, the questions, the people.

I’ve read several books about China, I speak an elementary level of Chinese, I have Chinese friends and I live in a Chinese apartment but I’m still going to say that understanding China and Chinese people is very complicated. It’s almost as if the more I live here the more complicated it gets in some ways. Perhaps complicated isn’t the right word, but  I realize that every culture has many layers, especially China, and each passing day is a way to peel back a layer and discover something new.

 

 

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Back to America I go!

After eight months in China, I’m heading back home for a short bit. As I sit on my couch and drink  my Chinese tea and look at my Chinese plants,my head is swirling as to what America will feel like after being away for so long.

While I’m only returning for a short time, I think that is going to make it all the more strange. Here are some of my expectations of what America will be like.

1. The air will taste clean

I’m pretty sure I’ve adapted to a new normal here. I think one of Beijing’s most beautiful days looks something like an average day in the states at best. Having perfectly sunny days with no pollution, are few and far between so I have a feeling that everyday on the coast of North Carolina is going to seem like a brand new oxygen tank . I have this image in my head that I’m going to look like a person in a yoga class inhaling and exhaling deeply when I first arrive.

2. I will see far less elderly people

One of the reasons I love Beijing and China so much is the influence elderly people have in their children and their grand children’s lives. I see more grandparents in my apartment lobby than I do parents. It’s a wonderful sight to see grand parents toting their grandchildren around everywhere and teaching them about the ways of the world.

3. The world will seem MUCH quieter

As I’m writing this I can hear children and mothers shouting outside, men talking on their phones and motorcycles going by my apartment. Beijing is constantly noisy and there is constantly something going on one of the many charms of the city.

4. Southern Tide, Sperrys & Bowtie overload

I grew up in Texas and went to school in North Carolina so while I was in the states I was pretty accustomed to the “preppy” southern look. However, in China the style is nothing of the sort and I can’t quite put my finger on what the style is another post on that soon. It’s going to be strange and awesome  seeing men wear sear sucker suits with gin & tonics in their hands. Women will be wearing brightly colored printed dresses with cute clutches. I have a feeling my whole time in America will feel like I’m flipping the pages through a preppy catalogue.

5. There will be far fewer people using their phones

Even after living in China for eight months, i am still shocked at how much cell phone usage there is. It’s like American usage on steroids. I’m going to go ahead and say that Beijingers,I’m not saying Chinese people because Beijing is a wealthy city,between the ages of 15- 35 are never without their phones. My Chinese colleagues take pictures of absolutely everything that happens at all times. There are selfies galore and if you are out with young Chinese friends you might have to stop every few minutes to take a posed picture in front of a building.

6. I will have a sense of personal space when in public

I have gone ahead and thrown my personal space out the window while traveling on the bus and subway. I was expecting to do that prior to coming here. However, i think it’s going to be wild and thrilling to be sitting in the back seat of a nice car where i can roll down the window, stretch my legs  and feel that CLEAN air brush across my face.

7. Hugging won’t be awkward

I’m a hugger. I often hug people upon meeting them. I don’t see a lot of same-sex hugging in China. I”m really close with a couple of my Chinese colleagues and I continue to force hugs on them even when they don’t hug me back and they kind of feel like a limp noodle.

7. American sarcasm how I’ve missed you so

This one is hard to explain. The way Chinese people socialize amongst themselves in public is something very different from Western people. Many Chinese people rely on small talk in public and don’t bring up big pressing world issues, or topics where one would have a definitive opinion.Now I’m talking about the public sphere here, not when a Chinese person is in their own home.  It’s something I completely respect about Chinese culture and understand, but to be honest I’m really looking forward to being in a room where there is more than just three Americans. I”m looking forward to people telling jokes and hearing real American sarcasm although I do applaud my students for trying to understand sarcasm. I’m looking forward to people willingly express their worldly opinions in public.  Most of all, i’m looking forward to the good’ole belly aching American laughs.

These are my expectations, time will tell if I was right!