Before I came to China to live and work I had an idea that things would be different. I’d seen Chinese movies and had met a number of Chinese people. So I was excited, yet a little bit apprehensive, about discovering this new culture.
In my previous article, I described what daily life is like for me here in Nanjing. I talked about the things I’ve grown to love and how much of my daily life has become pleasant and cherished. But what about the culture shock that everyone talks about? What about the things that irked or unnerved me when I was confronted with them for the first time? What about the unknown and unexpected experiences that would excite and delight me? What were the things that I had attempted to prepare myself for?…. and what was I just straight up unprepared for?
In this article, I’ll attempt to show you how the cultural differences I encountered here not only became part of mundane, daily Chinese life but augmented my entire experience in a real positive way.
One of the first revelations you have upon arriving in China is that you are now a foreigner. Few people speak any English and you get excited stares and finger points from kids. I personally found this pretty cool. My whole life I’d been just another guy walking the streets, now I was interesting to almost anyone who laid eyes on me.
Chinese people, I’m told, think that westerners are beautiful and handsome. They watch western movies and idolize western pop stars. But unlike Vancouver, Auckland, London or New York, Chinese cities are seemingly mono-cultured. There are very few foreigners about. This means that as a foreigner, you are novel and scarce.
This has an effect on you. All of sudden, it feels like you’re on tall stilts, easily identifiable amongst the crowd. Opportunities present themselves in odd places, people excitedly approach you to practice their English. Others suggest sharing contacts and planning a meet up for seemingly no reason. People sheepishly ask you for a group selfie with them at tourist hot spots and parks. Out of the blue, you have a kind of notoriety that you didn’t have before, and having that kind of attention can go to one’s head.
It dawned on me that I could be a window to the western world for a lot of people. My interactions with Chinese people will be representative of my country and the western world at large; a sort of walking-billboard for off-shore cultures. This gave me a sense of responsibility, that I should be better than myself and attempt to be a positive model for those with whom I interact.
Another revelation that might take you by surprise when first exploring your new surroundings is the population density. We don’t live in one or two story houses on quarter acre blocks over here. The suburbs don’t sprawl like they do at home. We live in large scale communities consisting of tall apartment buildings, sometimes thirty floors high.
With everyone living on top of each other you can imagine how busy the streets are. Local supermarkets bustle with people. Often you find yourself in a long queue at markets, and it’s not uncommon that an old guy might try to swindle his way to the front of the queue while we all pretend not to notice. The population density means that at almost any time of day you’ll find people loitering on the street, waiting, smoking, surveying.
People are always around, they feel like the glue that holds the community together and bear witness to the tedium.
At first, I grew weary of having to navigate the throng every day. But months into my time and after settling, the throng grew comforting. It felt like street corners were a safe place to be at night. It was reassuring to be just one of the anonymous thousands. And being a foreigner it felt like people saw me as having a purpose here, which ironically gave me a real sense of purpose; after all, I was a walking billboard.
There are major positives about living in this kind of population density and to the kind of economic injection it gives to residential areas. Chinese fast-food take-out joints stretch to the horizon, there’s a fruit shop every one hundred meters and satellite city districts support sprawling underground and overground flea markets. Anywhere, at any time, there is someone around to help you.
There is a marked difference in what constitutes vulgarity here in China, and I don’t think there’s anything I can say as a saving grace for this. Spitting on the street is common, parents dangle bottomless babies over gardens to pee or poop. People smoke in eateries and non-smoking areas while others turn a blind eye. Groups of drunk old men yell loudly at each over the table at restaurants while you try to enjoy a meal with your friends. Gentle pushing and shoving on public transport is common enough that even grandma does it….
It might seem like I’m describing people who care little for others, but that is as far from the truth as can be.
These social standards are just different. What seems vulgar to us, is not to them. By contrast, we have a few vulgarities in our cultures that Chinese people would struggle to reconcile. We eat with our hands, we wear shoes in the house, our obsession with cheese makes us smell funny, we wear pungent deodorant, we can be very perverse, extroverted and our modesty completely disappears after two beers. There are no major positive or negative differences between our cultures, there are only differences.
But what about the teaching culture China? You will be spending a lot of time at work after all. This was by far the biggest delight for me. At home in New Zealand, we have a strict code of conduct around teachers and their students. There’s a formality that prevents us from developing the kind of relationships that we are able to cultivate here in China.
At First Leap, we are encouraged to develop real personal relationships with the kids. We ruffle their hair and they climb up our legs, we give them giant hugs while they plant a big kiss on our cheeks, we pick them up and fly them like planes, we wipe their noses and tidy their hair.
The relationship we have these kids creates a family-like bond that cultivates both a truly positive learning environment for the kids and a truly uplifting work experience for us as teachers. When the parents see us interacting with their kids, they beam with delight and invite us to dinner. To begin with, I thought that strange. But I have managed to build good friendships with some of the parents which go beyond the profession.
So how best to prepare oneself for this shift in culture and surroundings? There are a few things I wish I had known before arriving in China. Had I been as proactive I could have saved myself from being taken aback by the things I saw and I could have shortened the adjustment time substantially.
The most obvious thing is to learn the language.There’s no better way to learn to navigate a new culture than by learning its language. Anything you can learn before hand is going to go a long way to soften the blow of those awkward interactions you will inevitably encounter. Learn numbers, learn short phrases. “Hello” “Go left” “Go right” “How much?” “Thank You”. You will not regret it.
Go with an open mind. You’re not moving across town. You’re flying halfway around the world to a new culture which has developed entirely independently from your own and you don’t get to choose what is considered normal.
Learn to be as humble as the Chinese. Strange things will occur in daily life, if you have a laisser faire attitude about it all, those things might just amuse instead of perturbing you. Accept invitations from friends and co-workers. Some of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had in China have come from the living rooms of Chinese friends and the outings I’ve had with them.
Getting to know this country is about getting to know the people.
So thanks for reading! I hope you learn to navigate this new culture quickly and with confidence! It’s a beautiful country and the people are truly unique. China is a great place to explore and its culture is a gift that keeps on giving.
Josh Tasman is a teacher at Xianlin Center, Nanjing. He has worked for First Leap for over a year and a half in both Beijing and Nanjing and hails from the south island of New Zealand. Feel free to contact him through his email firstname.lastname@example.org or read more from him at https://inourfootsteps.wordpress.com/
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