China Day

Well, I’ve had one. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one, and they seem to be fewer and fewer and farther between (especially since I’m not pregnant anymore – ha!). But today, I had a "China Day" – a day where everything kind of goes wrong outside the house, and a day where I just really feel like the foreigner that I am, and uncomfortably so. It’s natural to have these days, when we live in such a foreign place, but this one was significant. In part because I was treated like a fool at the bank for not knowing a minute detail when trying to transact business, and the staff talked way down to me and that just stinks no matter what part of the world I’m in! When I asked them to explain the process, they just said, "Why don’t you bring a Chinese friend back with you to help you next time?" and I said, "No, I speak Chinese and can understand you, please just tell me what I need to do." They begrudgingly did so, and I found another branch of the same bank this afternoon to finish my business, because I just didn’t want to face them again!

I also once again faced the reality that some Chinese people really do not like to bargain with foreigners. Foreigners often pay the higher price here, and I get that foreigners, on average, have more money than most Chinese do, but it still gets old to get high-balled every time! This time, the shopkeeper just looked at me when I began to bargain, and said, "That is the price." and then refused to make eye contact as she continued to eat her lunch. So I took my money and went home.

So, that along with a couple of other incidences, made for a "China Day" today. But it felt different than other China days for some reason. Perhaps in part because we’ve recently made a longer-term commitment to staying here for a few more years, or perhaps because now that we speak Chinese it’s easier to at least communicate ourselves, even if we can’t change the status quo – I’m really not sure. I have been noticing more and more that this place is becoming my home. I’m feeling more and more at home here – the streets, the people, the weather, the shops, friends – we are rather grounded here. So a rude teller at a bank doesn’t necessarily make me want to shove off and swim back to the US, and a silly shopkeeper who doesn’t want to make a sale just seems ridiculous, but not emblematic of China.

But the funny thing is, that no matter how many years we are here, we will always, always, be glaringly obvious foreigners. There is no blending in here after a few years, as there may be opportunity for in the US. Our skin, our height, our accents, our grammar mistakes, our clothes, our manners – it’s all different! And that is also part of what attracts us here – all the differences here to learn about are so interesting and make every day new. So right now, just as we are feeling very at home here, we are also realizing that China will never really be home; it simply doesn’t seem possible in the way it might be elsewhere in the world. Maybe I will look back and have a different opinion someday – who knows?

So I will probably continue to have "China Days" – with snooty bank tellers and unwanted attention, among other things – it’s pretty inevitable. And I will have to continue to live in this dichotomy – on the one hand more and more at home here and on the other as much a stranger and foreigner as the first day I stepped on Chinese soil.

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6 Responses to “China Day”


  1. 1 Chris Burgwald May 26, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    From what little I know of China — from reading and your experiences — this is one of the biggest things that irks me, i.e. the tinge (or sometimes more than that) of xenophobia in Chinese culture. Sure, a New Yorker can be (relatively) rude, but he’ll be just as rude to an American as to a foreigner! Obviously we have xenophobes here as well, but it doesn’t seem to characterize our culture in the same way it does Chinese culture.

    So, maybe to help me balance… 🙂 … any examples of Chinese cultural tendencies which you’d say are clearly *better* than ours? I know they exist…. I just can’t think of them right now. 🙂

    • 2 Liz May 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm

      I guess the thing is, we in the US are much much more exposed on a daily basis to different kinds of people and diversity is quite a national value – whereas in China it is not, and the people are rather homogenous (especially in this part of China) – so… it makes sense why I stick out like a sore thumb. I am culturally unbelievably, irrevocably different. Period. Nothing I do can change that. Being American means something dif’t altogether – you can have a foreign accent and be American – you can be from any country in the world and become an American. But that is unique to America.

      But I would hesitate to say that it is xenophobia – it’s just lack of exposure, to a large extent, I believe. People don’t always know what to do with foreigners and their strange ways here. And we are certainly a curiosity.

      You asked what cultural tendencies I think are better than those in America. I think that in particular the focus on community rather than on the individual does have wonderful fruits here. There is a much greater respect for the family and the community here. I think fewer people are truly lonely here and fewer people get lost in the cracks. There is a wonderful respect of older people here that we lack almost entirely. Age is associated with wisdom and experience, rather than being old and out of date. People are also so outgoing with strangers – my experience here is that for every annoying run in I have with a Chinese person, I have about 99 other good experiences. Sure the attention is overwhelming at times with the kids, but 99% of the time, people here are just genuinely interested in us. I do like this a lot. Americans are much more stand-offish. Sometimes, the Chinese strike me as being much like one big family.

      I think we can learn from that. I like China, most days. Just not on “China Days”. 🙂 I don’t think they are scared of foreigners, or xenophobic, I just think they don’t always know how to interact with cultural differences for lack of experience.

      • 3 Chris Burgwald May 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm

        Interesting. JM gave some thoughts in an email as well, and I see that it’s not necessarily xenophobia, but the fact that you’re simply different in — as you put it — an otherwise homogenous society.

        And the more community-centric orientation does seem to be a positive.

        Thanks for the response!

  2. 4 Mom Falk May 26, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    No matter where we are in this world we are all on our way to a different “kingdom”, not from here. One of the advantages of being displaced is the constant reminder that this underlying reality is so——we are on loan here—we have been ransomed at a great price and we are not even our own anymore. This is not a once in a lifetime call that we just remember as a thing or occurrence in the past—–no, it is a daily call that needs a daily answer—-every day——when the pluses and minuses are tallied each day, we feel either the comfort or the challenge edges of our response to this daily call——-that’s the nature of love and commitment—-24/7—-the international exchange in the cultural world is a microcosm )?) of the battle in another realm—tune up your armour, call on all those triumphant warriors to come to your aid—trust the Man in the Sky to know your needs at all times—-see Matt; 28:20. Love from GB

  3. 5 Lucy Muller May 27, 2010 at 11:38 am

    The previous posting will have been a nice counterbalance to the Chinese “bad hair” day. Like we said a few weeks ago, when you answered your cell phone, it sure sounded Chinese to us. I admire your standing your ground and would hope I could do equally well in France one day. At least 99% of them won’t come back at you in English. So I think you won.

  4. 6 Becca G. May 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Really…I just think you had a universal “bad day”. It sounds like my day at work the other day. Just because I’m the “new” girl I get talked down to and brushed off all the time by my trainer and someone else. I had FIVE examples in one morning ie: we were cleaning out a store room and I said, “We need to get these off the floor. Even if we just put them on the roller they have to be off the floor.” Then he argued and told me it didn’t matter etc. An hour later a big wig came by and I overheard him say to my trainer, “These have to be off the floor. Even if you just put them on the roller…” I just sat in my little hole and continued studying. Like I say, “I’m 40 years old. This isn’t my first job and I come with skills. Please stop giving me the same life advice that you give your teenage daughter when you’re only five years older than me.”

    Bad day. :o) But great friends all over the world to share it with.


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