Some say the grass is greener on the other side. Others say there’s no place like home. I’d say that two cultures are better than one. Of course that is more easily said now that I am home, sweet home, but I really do believe that something beautiful emerges when the best of many worlds are brought together. Coming to this realization is tough when you are 6500 miles from home (or about 10,500 kilometers to “do as the romans do”) but looking back I can now see that there are some things I will definitely miss about Chinese living and culture.But there are also things that I am thankful for here at home.
Culture Shock #1: Traffic, Traffic Everywhere With a population of about 10 million people, Shanghai has as many people as New York City and Chicago combined. Only 288 square miles in size, Shanghai has a population density of roughly 34,000 people per square mile. For comparison, Chicago has a slightly smaller land area (227 square miles), but is only about 1/3 as dense as Shanghai. This creates a virtual free-for-all on the roadways 23.5 out of every 24 hours of the
Traffic BarriersA good shot of the green barriers (left) that keep traffic on the correct side of the road.
day with cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians and even the occasional horse-drawn buggy all fighting for a piece of the road. Intersections often resemble complete chaos, but it somehow always works its way out in the end. Lane markings are only suggestions- and loose ones at that- and the shoulder creates a convenient additional lane. Even traffic directionality is optional. Really need to go the other way on that one-way road? Miss an exit and don’t want to turn around? No problem, just dodge the cars or throw your truck in reverse. Honk your horn a few times as a courtesy to say, “watch out, I’m coming through” and you are good to go. They have even put up small metal fences between the two directions of traffic to prevent people from invading into the oncoming lanes when traffic is heavier in one direction than the other. For a small taste of daily commuting in China visit here: (watch around 35 seconds the left turn “lane” at the bottom of the screen).
Culture Shock #2: What’s yours is mine In the US a meal is eaten, but in China a meal is
shared. This system has probably been one main reason why meals have remained a time to gather around the table as a family in China, while eating solo has become the way in the US. When eating out, the host or guest of honor is often given the duty of selecting 8-20 dishes that will be enjoyed by everyone. The dishes are placed on a rotating server in the middle of the table which can then be turned to bring a desired dish into reach. This often means sharing a dish with a complete stranger- your chopsticks, my chopsticks, everyone’s chopsticks all plunging into the same dish and back into their respective mouths- but by the end of the meal there usually isn’t a stranger left in the room. These meals bring everyone together while our system of eating on the run continues to push people apart. The Chinese tradition also encourages trying new things. If you don’t like it, someone else probably does so you can try a piece, leave the rest and someone else will finish it off, leaving little to waste. This is one reason why there are so many “new things” to try here- almost nothing
is left to waste. Our definition of “edible” and that of the Chinese are vastly different. There are many things that I tried on my trip- pig’s ear and tongue, cow’s tail and donkey intestine- that would be considered taboo to consume in the US. But in China, they don’t understand why something that is digestible and can be made palatable should be wasted. While I didn't care for eating intestine or tongue, ear was tolerable and cow’s tail was downright delectable. Once you let your inhibitions go, a whole new culinary world will open up- and what’s the point of living if you never try anything new? Oh, and those who are bothered by the thought of co-mingled saliva in serving dishes? After a little practice wielding chopsticks, you can usually get away with touching only the single item that will make its way on to your own plate.
Culture Shock #3: Smog & Smoke Lung cancer is the number one killer of men in China and its no surprise why. While we have been blessed with smoking bans and strong pollution controls in the US, this is not the case in China- far
from it actually. Chinese men are the largest consumers of cigarettes in the world, with nearly 70% of all men being smokers, compared with about 25% of American men (2002 stats). Interestingly, only about 5% of Chinese women smoke, while around 20% of American women do. I have my theories on that but I will leave the science, well most of it, at work today. Not only is smoking acceptable, but it almost seems to be encouraged in some places. Hotels have ash trays by every elevator and even draw artistic designs in the sand each morning; restaurants place an ash tray between each set of chairs; and cab drivers pass their time between rides smoking by their cars. I found this one of the most difficult- make that the most difficult- things to tolerate during my trip. Dining rooms are closed to retain heat in the winter and in turn contain every cigarette puff from around the table. I even had to excuse myself from one meeting where I could feel the carcinogenic particles traveling down my bronchioles and settling into my alveoli, doing their dirty work. On the bright side, there are signs of progress, with airports and
some other public areas with large “no smoking” signs…though they are often ignored. When there isn’t smoke, smog fills in. There were polluted cities that we visited (Xi’an, Shenyang) and then there were polluted-er cities (Beijing, Shanghai). With the sheer number of motorized vehicles filling the roadways day and night, I was shocked to never see a single Pruis (if they aren’t yet sold there, they should be) and less than a handful of other hybrid vehicles during my entire stay. We were told that China was switching over to hybrid and electric cars but I didn’t see any signs of that coming anytime soon. In the north, winters are frigid and summers are scorching- daily reminders of the dwindling ozone layer over this region. By the number of street-sweepers and trash collectors it was evident that China takes pride in protecting their major cities. Now we just have to hope that effort can translate into protecting their vast and rich environment.
Culture Shock #4: You want me to do what? I was told to prepare for Chinese customs. When you toast, always toast below the other person to show respect…If someone hands you a
Chinese "Restroom"Photo (and helpful hints): http://gochina.about.com/od/tripplanning/ht/How2_Squat.htm
business card, receive it with two hands…Wait to be told where to sit for a meal. I was prepared for these situations and handled them well. Then there is what I was not prepared for. It may have been the single most useful piece of information I could have received but nary a mention during a conversation or while browsing the internet discussing what I was about to encounter. Picture this: I am enjoying one of my first full days in China, touring the great expanse that is the Forbidden City. Then it hits me. All the juice and coffee I had for breakfast is now calling. I will admit that I had been warned that toilet paper is often not provided in restrooms, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to be faced with next. I enter the lady’s room tissues in hand and *bam* it hits me: what the heck is this hole in the floor? Just as I was sure I had walked into the men’s room, a woman emerged from the next stall. I seriously considered turning around and walking out, but I knew that wouldn’t solve the problem that had caused
me to enter in the first place. Everything ended up working out in the end, but suffice it to say, it was like receiving a kitten on Christmas morning every time I found that a hotel, restaurant or airport had “American” sit-down toilets. Lesson learned? Always carry tissues and hand sanitizer in your pocket and just go with the flow (pun intended)- heck, it might be the most exercise you get all day.
Take-home messages: These cultural jolts may have been difficult when I first encountered them, but I think they each lend something to our daily lives. Though the traffic creates environmental problems that need to be combated yesterday, the level-headedness of the drivers should remind us that we are all in a hurry to get somewhere, but getting angry doesn’t do a darn thing but raise your blood pressure. * With all the scrambling we now do in our own lives, we should take time to enjoy the company of one another. The idea of “together” is used a lot these days- instant messenger, video conferencing and the internet- but in reality has driven a wedge in true human connection. If you don't have time
CultureAt both the Summer Palace and Tian Tan artists write with water on the sidewalks.
to sit down for one meal each day as a family, then something should change, because people and the interactions we have with them are an essential part of every day. * Try something new. When faced with the decision to eat the burger or order the octopus, pick the octopus. Even if you don’t like it, I guarantee that it will make your day. * As far as the smoking and smog, I can’t think of a single good thing to say. Be thankful for some regulations and appreciative of your health. You don’t deserve to have something that you can’t take care of.
One last note on “culture”: A sense of pride and historical significance is electric throughout China. Though I couldn’t hope to remember the order and people involved in each of the Dynasties, the Chinese people I communicated with were all elated to share with me their personal histories and to illustrate how they fit into the development of the country as a whole. Though America is wonderful in many ways, and has brought innumerable cultures together, I feel like some sense of self has been lost in this new age.
CultureA woman cooking stinky tofu (no food has ever been more aptly named).
Our “melting pot” seems to have forgotten that each of the ingredients contribute something to the overall dish. I have French and German heritage, but know little of the cultures of my ancestors or where they came from before landing in the US. This is something I plan to change, and am happy to start by learning about Liang’s heritage so that our children can grow up with the same sense of culture that he did. As when Liang and I married and created a blended family, we hope to merge our cultures together to create the best possible future for our family. Be adventurous, appreciate what everyone has to bring to the table and make the best out of what you are given. Thanks for reading!
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