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.