Three weeks in

It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for three weeks already. We feel like there are so many interesting things we’ve seen that it’s hard to know what to start with. I’ll try to pick out just a few of the things that stand out in my mind as noteworthy experiences in our new life here.

First, there are many parts of Nanjing that aren’t so different from life in the states. Our first surprise was to see many American companies that have made their arrival in this mainland city, even though being 4 hours removed from Shanghai. First were the obvious, McDonald’s and KFC. But after a few days of taxi rides around town trying to file all of our visa papers, we spotted Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and of course, multiple Starbucks coffee shops. Our neighborhood food mart has Pampers disposable diapers, and a full line of Johnson and Johnson toiletries. The department stores in town are stocked with all of Liz’s favorite makeup brands and beauty products, and many name-brand clothing companies have their lines for sale, from Gucci to Esprit. Maybe due to our apartment’s proximity to the Johns Hopkins campus at Nanjing University, we find ourselves right around the corner from an American food import store, with everything from pasta and cheeses to Swiss Miss and Betty Crocker mixes. Our impulse to leave parts of US commercialism behind seems to be thwarted by all of this. However, it is certainly a clear segment of the population that can afford these items, as they are all sold at American prices, which makes them 7 times more expensive in the local currency.

Second, we had our first experience of receiving bias towards foreigners. During our apartment search we found a well priced flat near school that was relatively clean. Desperate by this point, we tried to lock in the lease. At first the landlord backtracked, saying he had another person interested in a longer lease duration than us. Our friend translating pressed him with our counter offer for a higher monthly rental rate, but he confessed that he didn’t feel comfortable with tenants who had a language barrier. We realize this is quite a natural concern, but we never imagined we’d be in this situation ourselves, especially since we came to town with the objective of improving our Chinese. Also, people typically had no reserves about renting property to us. Was there something else besides the language difficulty behind this situation? We don’t really know, but this was definitely a new experience for us. (We found a much better apartment, so this one just wasn’t meant to be.)

Third, today I had the experience for the first time of looking at a fellow Westerner as a foreigner. While practicing Chinese with a classmate, I found myself subconsciously evaluating his features, noticing that his eyes looked strange to me. I realized what I was doing, along with the irony that I shared these exact same features that put us so out of place in China. The six million residents of Nanjing share the same ethnic background, much more so than the residents of most cities in the US. This makes we few Westerners stick out like sore thumbs against the homogeneity. It really struck home today that I too am a foreign element to this community, something that I’m powerless to change no matter how well I may learn to speak Chinese.


5 Responses to “Three weeks in”

  1. 1 Chris Burgwald March 7, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    JM, I’m curious to hear how class is going.

  2. 2 mjfalk March 8, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Do you get any TV or radio reception there in your apt or on campus? We had a TV set in our room in Beijing for the weeks during winter break when we were taking some Chinese classes and staying at the foreign students residents there—had BBC in English, a lot of Chinese channels—interesting. It is 7 below zeroF here in GB today—how is your weather there? I doubt there will be any outdoor egghunts this year. We really enjoyed the train trip from Yanji City to Beijing and back—nice dining car and great way to see the countryside. Love, Mom and Dad Falk

  3. 3 Adrienne March 9, 2008 at 1:43 am

    I’ve loved reading every minute of your blog…it’s so great to hear all about what you’ve been experiencing…keep the updates coming, stay safe, have fun, and promise me you’ll officially publish this some day!! ; )

    PS I’m taking care of your old desk while you’re on the other side of the world… ; )

  4. 4 Mom March 9, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    I remember feeling uncomfortably foreign for the first time in my life when I visited a week or so in Morocco during my Junior Year Abroad. I’ve never contemplated returning.

  5. 5 Becca March 15, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Ahhhh Chris Burgwald. Forever a Prof. :o)

    JM…did I ever tell you I dated a former Morman who did his mission in China? He spoke fluent Mandarin…was 6’3″, red hair, freckles, glasses and braces. Yeah. He had a bit of trouble “fitting in”.

    Your the greatest and it’s JM the locals will fall in love with not how well you speak Chinese (which you’ll end up mastering anyhoo, cuz you’re JM).

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