by Jen H
While traveling in China, I experienced a culture and norms completely unlike my own.
|My husband Gaz and I donned our raingear and headed to Nanjing Lu, the main pedestrian thoroughfare and shopping district of Shanghai. It was big, bright, neon and modern. In fact, much of Shanghai’s architecture resembled a caricature of what someone in the 50’s thought “The Future” would look like. It was crowded, and in the sea of short, black haired Asians, we didn’t exactly fit in. We were prime targets for touts shouting, “You want Prada? Shoes, bags? Dior, Versace?” It took getting used to. Upon arrival in Asia, I tried to be nice: smiling politely and saying “No, thank you.” However, the Chinese interpreted those signals as playing hard to get. Something got lost in translation. I tried to be kind but firm. Now there is no kind, only firm. Make no eye contact. Just say “no”. Shake your head and put your hand up. It seems rude, but this is the way it must be done.
I learned this the hard way in Beijing. I was curious about a vendor selling barbequed snake, so I stopped to look. He put a shish-kebabed skinned snake on the grill for me. “Snake, snake, you try snake,” he shouted. I tried to walk away, never having indicated that I wanted one, but he kept shouting and I caved. Flustered, I paid him 15 yuan ($2) and walked away with a long white tube of meat twirled around a skewer. I figured I might as well try it. I took a bite. It was soft and slimy and boogery. It was a meat marshmallow. It promptly went into the trash, along with any concerns I had about seeming rude.
We wandered through the shopping district, taking pictures and interacting with the locals mainly with liberal usage of the word, “No.” Weary and wet, we decided to take the subway home. It was all out war in the subway station; lines did not exist. Anywhere tickets were sold looked like the New York Stock Exchange: lots of shouting and hands flying in the air. We managed to acquire tickets, and waited patiently between the two parallel yellow lines that indicated where the train doors would open. We were directly behind the black line that signaled as far forward anyone should step should they want to avoid falling onto the tracks. We were clearly first in line.
The subway train pulled up, the doors opened, 237 Chinese commuters shoved past us and somehow we were the last two people to enter the car. From my vantage point above the heads of most people there, I spotted the last empty seat. I slithered through the crowd, turned and started to sit, and suddenly felt myself get violently bucked out of the way. I turned back to face the seat, and saw a middle aged, suited businessman sitting there, nonchalantly ignoring the fact he had just borrowed a maneuver from the National Hockey League to steal my seat, literally, right out from under me.
Hell hath no fury like a soaking wet tourist. I had been pushed to my limit. I glared into the man’s brown eyes and shouted, “What the @#*! is wrong with you!!??” Now, Gaz had gotten caught in the tide of people and carried over to the other side of the car, but he heard the strains of English profanity float over the din of the crowd. He wrestled his way back to me, and seething, I recounted the event. Gaz gave him a tongue lashing as the man sat and stared straight ahead, clearly unfazed and probably unsure of what had been so upsetting. Everyone on the train car stared at the crazy travelers. Finally, we arrived at our stop, and again, we barely made it through the automatic closing doors. We’d had enough. It was time for a break.
Still annoyed from the experience of the previous day, we were happy to get out of the big city for a few hours. We took the train north of Shanghai to a canaled town dubbed, “The Venice of the East,” Suzhou. The train was packed, and Gaz and I got separate seats. It was early, I was groggy, and I felt content to stare out of the window at the rain.
I got out a new bottle of water, and for some reason, it was sealed so tightly that I couldn’t open it. I struggled, wishing that I had a wrench. The young man in the seat facing me watched and asked, in very carefully and deliberately chosen words, “May. I. Help. You?” I smiled gratefully as he cranked open the bottle top.
Later, feeling chilly, I opened my backpack to retrieve my jacket. As I pulled the zipper, some of the fabric from the jacket got caught. Really caught. The old woman next to me observed me trying to wrangle the zipper open and grabbed the pack, rather forcefully actually, to give it a try. After no success she nudged her husband from across the aisle to fix it. He grappled with it for a while before looking at me and saying something which I translated as, “Wow, you really did this good, didn’t you?” Eventually he liberated the jacket from the zipper’s teeth. “Xie xie!” I cheered gratefully. He laughed and replied, “Bu ke qi.”
These interactions got me thinking. How can a country have people that are so nice, and people that are so rude? I acknowledge the idiocy of this question, as every place in the world has nice and rude people. I then realized I had been thinking of them as mutually exclusive qualities, whereas maybe everyone in China had aspects of both. Would the kid who opened my water have cut in front of me in the ticket mob? Would the sweet old man who helped me with my jacket have hurled me out of the way on the subway? Would his lovely wife had bullied me into buying an unwanted snakecicle? I had thought I had the Chinese all figured out, and now this awareness threw me for a loop.
After getting off the train, we found a park with an open plaza where young children ran around, blowing bubbles and chasing after them. I sat, content to watch them and their joyful innocence. They got so much amusement out of popping a soap bubble between their palms. It was a sweet scene. Then, an old woman picked up her one year old grandson and squatted with him out in front of her. She held his legs up as he peed out of a slit in the bottom of his pants, right in the heart of the square. People were everywhere and nobody was fazed by this fresh puddle of human piss residing in the middle of where their kids were playing. (Turns out diapers aren’t used so much in China, but rather most young children wear pants with a bum-exposing slit down the back. They are free to pee and poo wherever their guardian sees fit.) My own bubble having been burst, I suggested we move on.
We walked to a more wooded area and sat down on a low wall surrounding some tall trees. Across from us, on the other side of some more trees, there was a group of men playing instruments and singing. They had a guitar, a keyboard, and a twangy instrument that looked like a tin can on a stick. The men were all around 60. We observed them secretly through the trees, but when Gaz broke out the camcorder, they noticed and started playing it up for us. There was one man in large glasses and a cheesy white baseball cap like you’d buy in an interstate gas station gift shop. He took particular interest in us, looking over and actually smiling. Usually they just stared blankly like we had three heads.
As darkness fell, the band dispersed. A woman in her 40’s with hair in a ponytail stopped in front of us. She said “Hello,” and we responded appropriately. Then she stood there, looming over us, looking up and wracking her brain for the right words.
“Uuuuhhhh,” she muttered. She stood there for a long time, to the point where Gaz and I felt uncomfortable and looked at each other like, “What do we do with her?” Finally she found it: “Where are you from?” “America and England,” we replied. A blank stare followed. She had worked so hard to come up with a question and obviously didn’t understand our answers. Which made me wonder if she would have understood any answer at all, leading to the question of why she asked. I appreciated the friendly effort, though. Luckily, White Hat came to the rescue. He translated our answers to Ponytail, who smiled and nodded. As we continued to speak with them, a small crowd formed. With us still seated not far from the ground and them standing above us, we felt like creatures in a zoo. There was no way out and it was a little unnerving. We tucked our backpacks under our legs, just in case.
The curious crowd asked our translator tons of questions, like where we lived now, and how we met. They were intrigued by our appearance. They requested that Gaz stand and show them how tall he was. Ponytail asked if my hair was naturally wavy (yes) and naturally blond (sort of yes). I explained that it gets lighter in the summer from the sun, and she found that fascinating.
White Hat then explained his French was better than his English, and so he and I spoke in French from then on. Translating from English to French to Chinese was a new experience! “Tell him we liked the music,” Gaz suggested. White Hat smiled, and told us they were playing old folk songs. During the Cultural Revolution nobody was allowed to perform such songs.
“Now,” White Hat explained, “we are having a Cultural Resurrection. If you want to sing, you sing. If you want to dance, you dance. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good.” He smiled. “Every Saturday everyone comes to the park to enjoy their freedom to do such things.”
I can’t express how much I enjoyed talking with White Hat. I was at the same time fascinated and appalled by what he said about the Cultural Revolution. Trying to erase an entire country’s heritage is not cultural progress. Cultural progress would be no kids pissing in the park. Regardless, I was very happy the Chinese were reveling in a resurgence of the old ways and a revival of the formerly forbidden arts. At the end of this long, full day, we dragged ourselves back to the train station. Slogging along in the dark, I realized I had really been charmed by the people in the park. They didn’t want anything from us, only to talk.
I continued to rethink my attitude toward the Chinese. I decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And if you don’t join ’em, just get over it. I was a stranger in their country. If things worked differently there, who was I to get pissed off? Did I really think that by telling off every person who pushed or scammed me, I was doing anything to further the societal enlightenment of the country as a whole? Surely not. Theirs was the oldest surviving civilization in the world. They could do whatever the heck they wanted. All I was doing was wasting my own energy being frustrated at things I couldn’t change. So instead, I changed. My outlook was different for the rest of the time I spent in Asia. I look back at China as one of my favorite trips now, and I think I’m fond of it because it was so much harder than the rest. Coming to an acceptance of our differences was difficult, but once I did that, I enjoyed my journey even that much more.