Some thoughts on culture shock

We’ve ended our China chapter. For now.

Being back in the States, one of the first questions we’re asked is: are you having any culture shock?

The answer is yes, of course. But what that really means for us is difficult to put into words.

Yes, we are shocked by the new foods we can eat, by the wonderful clean air we can breathe, by the new language we’re speaking day to day (not new for us, but the first time for our kids). We use forks instead of chopsticks again, we use seat belts in cars, carseats, we drink from the tap, we can walk on sidewalks. We don’t greet neighbors with more than a look, and don’t ask intruding questions about money, rent, family and children.

But is all this the shocking part? Any time we switch geographic locations, we also switch the customs around us as a matter of course. These are more like switching conventionalities than experiencing anything truly shocking. As in, "Oh, you brush your teeth with your left hand? How strange." But not really.

Expressing the truly shocking part of our new life in USA is more difficult. Leave it to Leo’s five year old wisdom to put it succinctly, as he did tonight: "Dad, in America I feel crazy."

It’s been over three months back here, and we’re all going a little crazy. Even Rosie, who can’t quite seem to decide where her Chinese ayi is hiding from her.

Adding up the sum total of conventionalities we’ve switched doesn’t really amount to the degree of crazy we’re all dealing with, each in their own way. For Leo, school in English is just a little crazy- he doesn’t quite know how to situate himself in an English speaking classroom with all kinds of new freedoms. As much as he loves it, he already has the discipline report record to show for it. Liz does great in her new job, but she’s not quite yet ‘settled’ in the new routine. It’s going to take months.

And me, now mostly home with the kids with no ayi to tag team with, I too have a new set of conventions to follow that have restructured my daily life. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a duplicate reality chugging along whenever my back is turned, the one that I ‘really’ belong in but has proceeded quite unaltered without me there. Nanjing still sees the same sun rise and set every day, and the place I called my community for five years still goes about its daily routine.. without me. I realize how much of myself I actually left when getting on the plane, and won’t in any way be able to claim back in my new life. This feeling stays in my background of every day, and it’s enough to make me a little crazy. At least for awhile.

So we’re shocked, no question about it, but it’s more of a low voltage current that pervades every moment of our days. It’s not enough charge to set off any sparks- I mean, how hard can it be to use a fork and knife and eat bread instead of rice and use credit cards again and so on- but when our family quiets down for a fleeting moment, we all can see the same questioning look in each other’s eyes. "Really? America?"



Out at the playground yesterday, a woman who I had borrowed a tissue from to wipe my daughter’s runny little nose, looked at my two children playing, and sadly said, "My 2nd child would have been about your son’s age by now." Her sweet 7-year-old daughter was playing with Rosie and Leo, and there were a few other kids digging in the sand with them. It was a beautiful sunny crisp autumn day, and as I was a bit unsure how to respond, I just tentatively said, "Oh, really, what happened?"

She went on to explain that she got unexpectedly pregnant a few years after she had her daughter, and although they tried to figure out a way around it, this woman, against her own heart and will, got an abortion when she was 5 months pregnant. "I think about her all the time, and I wish I could have had her. It’s so unfair; it’s too hard – these government policies."

She felt she had no real choice. Her 2nd child would not have been given a ‘hukou’ – or a city citizenship card, and thus would not have had access to all the social benefits that hukou comes with. She and her husband could not have supported this 2nd child the way the system works now. They also would have been fined. Both of them came from the countryside in China (which means they were very poor growing up) – they did well in school, and made it into university (which is supposed to be the ticket to a better life). But now, their lives are still difficult in the city. With aging and sick parents and a daughter to look after, along with her full-time job that doesn’t pay enough, this woman’s burdens are still very heavy. Not to mention the grief brought by having to abort her 2nd child. She feels cheated and wronged by her government – who, by her own words, "Only look out for the big picture; they never consider individual circumstances or difficulties."

We went on to talk about the big picture of China’s demographic issues, and we got to talking about the fact that it’s actually really problematic for only children when their parents begin to have health problems. I have many brothers and sisters to help step in when my parents need help, but she only has herself. We talked about the fact that the policies are loosening up now, but she shook her head and said, "It’s too late for a lot of us."

I mentioned that although the government is loosening up it’s one-child policy, most young couples here in China don’t plan to have more than one child because they do not want the burden of supporting more than one child through school, and they’d rather spend those extra resources on themselves. She asked if these were younger or older couples, and I said, "Younger." She said, "Oh of course, they just don’t know any better yet. They haven’t really thought it through. Just wait until they are 40 and I imagine they’ll think differently, but then it may be too late for them anyway."

This is far from the first time I’ve heard the plaintive tone in a woman’s voice when telling me how lucky I am to have my two children. I see and hear it over and over again, and I know there are countless unborn children here in China being sorely missed by their mothers who didn’t really have a choice. But it is the first time someone has so openly shared with me her sadness over losing her own second child – a child she so dearly wanted. I can hardly imagine this woman’s grief, and I can hardly understand her unaffected candor, clarity, and tremendous courage in the face of such injustice. I’m really thankful to have met her.

A Chinese Mother’s Heroic Forgiveness

This article is worth reading.  A moving story of a Chinese mother’s heart-wrenching forgiveness of the man who hit her son and ran from the scene, causing her son’s paralysis and so much suffering and hardship.  She has a beautifully open and empathetic heart!  May we all seek after such generosity of spirit!

Outrage in China as hit-and-run toddler dies – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English

Outrage in China as hit-and-run toddler dies – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English.


There have been a number of incidents in recent years here of good samaritans helping people who fell/were hit/etc… and then being blamed as the culprits.  Those same good samaritans have been held liable for hospital bills and have also been found wrongfully guilty in courts.  As you may imagine, this has had a really negative effect here in China on people’s willingness to help out a stranger in need.

The most recent victim of this public reticence to reach out is a poor little 2-year-old girl, Wang Yue, who died because she was run over not once, but twice, in a double hit-and-run accident.  Between the time the little toddler was hit the first and second times, apathetic strangers walked past the bleeding, writhing child and did nothing.  Finally a street cleaner came to her rescue, but it was too late.

This is a really serious problem here and I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes.  I saw an 80 year-old man fall from his bike and no one came to his assistance even though he was in the middle of a major intersection and taxis were swerving to keep from hitting him as he struggled to get to his feet.  I waited for someone to act before running to help him up.  I was furious at the shallow crowd of unhelpful people around me, and I let them know it too!  This was when I first got here to China though, and I did not know the history.

My second direct experience with this problem was a fall I took when I was about 7 months pregnant.  I slipped and fell in the rain and while I was alright, I was dazed and soaking wet, and what was worse, not ONE person stopped to help me up until one of my non-Chinese friends happened to pass by.  By that time, I understood the issues surrounding people’s hesitancy to help out, but it was bitter to realize how selfish people can be.  I’m sure I’m not immune from such selfishness, but experiencing it firsthand from so many others who passed me by was disheartening.

This little girl’s death though, is a tragedy that I hope will awaken Chinese people’s greater instincts to help their fellow man.  It certainly is causing a major uproar in the media here.  I hope that it lasts and I hope that it drives the provinces to pass strong ‘good samaritan’ laws that will protect people who reach out to help others here.

There is a huge and deep lack of trust between strangers here.  Even so, I can not think of anything that would cause someone to walk past a bleeding toddler on the street.  It is a new low, and I hope this is a low we will never see again.

Where are the girls?

I’ve always noticed the dearth of women out on the playing fields – it’s always been a bunch of men playing soccer on the weekends, a bunch of guys playing basketball, and even more men than women playing ping pong and badminton. There are always plenty of older women (maybe this is the one area where it’s equal) out in the early morning doing their morning exercises (Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, flying kites, looking at their pet birds, walking their little dogs, etc.), but really almost no women doing more intense sports and certainly NO young women. It’s apparently not very fashionable. And lately it’s begun to bother me.

Likely this is because this summer, I’m running 6 days a week (and loving that I have the freedom to do that right now!), and I’m taking a lot more notice. I’m running hard too – in training for another half marathon, and I’ve ramped up the training to include speedwork on the track, hill work, and long runs around our local lake. I sweat like a pig in this hot weather, and it’s not graceful at times. 😉 But my muscles are thanking me.

Two incidents have underscored the lack of women out there. As I was circling the lake last week (about an 8-mile run altogether), two thin, stylishly dressed young Chinese girls just looked at me and burst into giggles as they strolled along the lake. I really don’t run like a clown and I wasn’t dressed like one either, but I’ve gotten this reaction before – the blank stares, the utter disbelief, the laughter. I glanced at their muscle-less calves and birdlike arms and managed to feel pity for them, knowing that if necessary, I could likely carry them in my arms and still run around the lake (carrying toddlers is great practice for carrying thin Chinese women, I imagine).

There is a regular crew of guys that run around the lake every Saturday too – and it’s awesome to get their thumbs up and shouts of encouragement each week after enduring the stares and laughter of the younger girls. It makes me think that these younger women are placing these restrictions on themselves, because even some of the old yeyes and nainais (grandpas and grandmas) give me a smile and a wave!

The second incident happened this morning at the track. A whole crew of young kids, around 11-12 years old, were out on the Nanjing University track for morning exercises. For the boys, this meant playing badminton and soccer on the field, and for the girls, it meant sitting in a circle on the bleachers until their teachers gathered them together to move on to their classes. It took everything in me not to go over to them and tell them that sitting on the bench was not going to serve them well later in life when they will be expected to join the fray with those same boys.

This is not just some "I live in China and it drives me crazy" blog post. I do go crazy over little things here sometimes, and I try to temper that with understanding, compassion, and cappuccinos. But this isn’t some little thing. This is a one whole half of the young population who are somehow of the idea that it’s okay to do a little yoga, and maybe work out half-heartedly on a treadmill or step machine every once in a while, but it’s certainly not ok to get out there and kick it on the soccer field or the basketball courts. And certainly don’t even think about breaking a sweat on the track.

A recent TV commercial here not-so-subtly pushes this idea forward – it’s an add for a tea that supposed to make you thinner. It shows a young-20-something girl (who is thin), depressed about her weight. She attempts some half-hearted exercises, and then sighs in frustration. Then she gets this brilliant idea to drink this tea. Screen breaks to girl, looking even more thin in a tiny dress surrounded by a field of daisies. She’s fabulously happy, but exhorts the television audience at the end of the commercial, "Remember, not too thin!" If she were much thinner, I’d need a magnifying glass.

JM and I always burst into laughter at the end of the commercial; it’s so ludicrous! But here we are surrounded by scores of young women who lack the muscle definition to carry a box up a flight of stairs. Or the will – again, it’s just not fashionable. I’m not so sure this faux-femininity is really going to serve them all that well down the road. Or maybe somehow it does in the realms they wish to live in. I haven’t got it all figure out just yet, but I sure do miss all the active women I see on the trails and tracks back in the US. In the meantime, I’ll don my sunglasses and crank up my music, and if those girls need a lift around the lake, I’ll be there for them!

Summer break

We didn’t go home this summer- tickets to USA from China are expensive, easily above $1000 round trip per person. With Rosie being almost 2 years old, we wouldn’t really want to carry her in our laps for 14 hours anyway.

So here we are in Nanjing, toughing it out through hot, sticky, stormy weather. It’s been incredibly wet- it has rained about 25 days on the month ever since July. And it doesn’t really break the temperature, usually staying around 90 degrees.

We have been enjoying our home turf anyways, with trips to the lake on the mountain, finding a local swimming pool, going to kiddie land playgrounds (indoors), and eating ice cream from McDonalds!

JM has been working all summer, since there’s no break at his school. Liz has been out of her office while her program takes its summer break, so she’s loved having extra time with the family. September 1st will be the return to routine with all the schools opening up again.

We’re going to a bamboo forest for a few days to try to beat the heat! We’ll post pictures afterwards, especially if we see any mysterious martial artists flying through the treetops! Thanks for continuing to read our blog!

From the mouths of preschoolers…

Leo’s Chinese ability has gotten to the point where he can now embarrass us :). Out at the vegetable market yesterday, Leo ran into a friendly "Nai Nai" (older lady of a grandmotherly age) who was chatting with him. He took one look at her and said, "Nide yachi dou huaile!" – meaning, "Your teeth are all rotten!" Which actually, her teeth weren’t all that bad (she still had them after all!). I got ready to say sorry 100 times to her, when she just turned her big grin to me and said, "Wow! His Chinese is so good! Is he in school here?" Relieved, I said thank you and yes, he’s in school and we continued to chat for a bit.

Afterward, Mr. Leo and I had a little chat about being more polite, and then headed up to the grocery store. I’m pretty sure this will not be the last time something like this happens!

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