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Published: June 27th 2017
Diarra’s Year in Changsha, China
I wanted to make a blog post about my observations and experiences with Chinese culture. This is in no way the end all be all. Although this is my third time in China, considering China’s long history and deeply complex culture I want to be clear that this commentary is simply based on what I have observed and my own experiences. I in no way wish to proclaim that I am an expert or even fully understand Chinese culture. If you want to understand China I would still recommend the old fashioned way, reading or first hand experience. Even firsthand experience can be misconstrued and used inappropriately coming from an outsider perspective. As always I will subhead each section as the topics change. While I love doing my monthly blog post showing all of the beautiful things about China, I also want to be real and transparent about what I have witnessed and experienced. This post will be more serious so if you’re uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, I am giving you a warning to opt out now, however I encourage you to press on. I appreciate any comments or questions. If you have any please post them in the comments section or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am a person who likes to be purposeful in my use of language so here are a list of words or abbreviations that will be used throughout.
American- U.S Americans
Junior 1 (middle school students in the 7th
Senior 1 (high school students in 10th
WT – World Teach (the name of the volunteer program I am a part of)
The comparisons or examples I use will be inherently biased since I am coming from a Western, specifically U.S American perspective. Please keep that in mind as you read. Please do not fall prey to viewing what I have written here through a dichotomy of good and bad. The U.S is not right and China is not wrong. I hope you enjoy.
My perspective of the modern work ethic has obviously been shaped by the country I grew up in. The classic American mantra says, “If you work hard enough, then you’ll succeed in life.” Everything in your life is assumed to be based on merit. Just pull yourself up by the boot strap and everything will be okay. While I don’t personally agree with this idea as I believe it ignores hundreds of years of economic and racial inequality, it nonetheless is a part of the culture in which I was raised. The American way of thinking, which believes in a hardworking meritocracy can inform in many ways what we believe about ourselves. We control our own destiny. The future is ours to create. In China I believe there is a similar work ethic. People believe in hard work and similarly, if you work hard enough, one can improve their social and economic standing. The belief is similar, but the difference comes down to history and politics.
Modern Chinese History and Historical Context:
China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Chinese people are very prideful about this and will sometimes tell me as a foreigner about their history. Most of China’s history was ruled by dynasties. Only in 1911 was the last dynasty, the Qing dynasty overthrown. From 1911 up until the 1940’s China was ruled by power hungry war lords, none of whom could unify the country. China didn’t officially become unified again until October of 1949 when Mao Zedong, the leader of the communist party, proclaimed the country as The People’s Republic of China under a communist government. While China already has a long tradition of filial piety, meaning respect for parents, elders, or those in high positions of authority. From the very beginning, China already had a culture that found social balance and group harmony to be the most important thing. The founding of the communist government in 1949 now made this social way of order a political way of life. Land and wealth was stripped from the rich and redistributed. Chinese families were placed into government sanctioned communes where people were expected to work, sleep, and eat together to help develop and build a new China that could compete with the West. The labor was intensive. Most communes focused on developing a particular industry, such as steel or agriculture. Thousands of families were packed into these communes. Food was rationed. Many communes were overpopulated and run poorly. There were droughts and famine, and before long starvation became a commonality. This period of time was called The Great Leap Forward
. China was attempting to have its industrial revolution in record time and in doing so, millions died of starvation and some from intensive labor. Most historians estimate around 20 million people died from 1958-1962.
As a result of the Great Leap Forward’s failures Mao Zedong, had his position as the communist party’s rightful leader questioned from all sides. Mao’s insecurities and rumors of fellow communist party members trying to infiltrate the party, undermining his authority, turned into in outright bloodbath. The Cultural Revolution
, from 1966-1976 was a decade of violence, paranoia, and cultural transformation. The revolution was about two things: getting rid of the old traditions, and outing capitalist. Anyone who did, said, or kept anything from old Chinese traditions, or possessed anything Western whether physically or mentally would be outed and publicly humiliated. What started as a political fight between elites in the communist party trickled all the way down to the experiences and livelihood of everyday Chinese people. Citizens were encouraged to expose those engaging in old practices and Western ideas of thought. People accused of engaging in old ways and not the new could be forced to participate in struggle sessions
where their colleagues, friends, and neighbors would publicly criticize them, forcing them to repent for their traditional or capitalist ways. Things went to the extreme when Mao encouraged the young to enforce these new measures. Gangs of young people, particularly high school and college students formed groups to enforce the Cultural Revolution. They became known as the Red Guards
. Anyone in prestigious professions such as doctors, lawyers, even professors were often a symbol of the old elite and were persecuted in struggle sessions, sometimes even beaten to death. Teachers were afraid of their students and eventually schools were shut down. In fact youth alive during this period of time are often referred to as the lost generation
, as those people, now in their 50’s and 60’s, didn’t have any or little official schooling. Thousands of those accused of having capitalist sympathies not only endured struggle sessions but many were sent to do intensive labor out in the country side. As you can guess, millions also died during this time in Chinese history. Those who had wealthy family backgrounds were at risk the most and many people who had low economic and social standing before the communist party took over, found themselves with new found power. Some of China’s modern day wealthiest families come from this switch in the political and class order.
After the Cultural Revolution ended officially in 1969, Mao died soon after, and one of the leaders of a group of the Communist Party’s most powerful called The Gang of Four
was arrested in 1976. In the late 70’s, China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping began to get rid of old Maoist policies, and bring China back into a stability it hadn’t seen in decades. This is also the time when China began opening up to the outside world again. In modern day China, foreigners have only really been allowed in since the 1970s. Seeing a foreigner is still an anomaly for many people and our presence has a different meaning for different people, especially for a generation who was told that anything western was capitalist and must be thrown out. When young people look at me, a young black woman with dreads, it’s generally innocent and playful curiosity, however I have no idea what those from older generations are thinking when they see me. For more information on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution I encourage you to do so more research on your own.
It was important for me to try and give historical context in order to have a better understanding of the Chinese work ethic or anything else I may write in this commentary. Since most people reading this blog are Americans, I’ll spare the U.S history lesson concerning our understanding of hard work. Work ethic in the U.S. is coming from a capitalist, democratic historical context. You work hard to get ahead in life, and if someone is getting in the way of that, you can complain, you can file a law suit, you can petition, you can march, you can demand justice. Even if you never get justice, there is at least the opportunity to resist. Resistance and protest has always been in the fabric and the DNA of U.S history. For Chinese people, work ethic is more about working with what you have. People work hard, extremely hard, even the very young when it comes to school. Because of our history, Americans often have the attitude that certain things are simply a given. The mindset whether for good or bad says, “I was born here and as a citizen I am entitled to these rights………” Because of recent Chinese history and the Communist party, this is not the case in China. Chinese people by and large don’t have this entitlement. Some foreigners might observe and conclude that Chinese people are contempt but that is far from the truth. Chinese people want to improve their lives just as much as any other person in the world, however declaring so loudly, or expecting it, is simply not a part of the cultural fabric. The general mentality is, “This is the hand I was dealt in life. I will work hard to improve my status.”
Politeness and getting things done
This historical background completely impacts modern day social interactions. Chinese people are not soft spoken or docile as I have often heard as a stereotype growing up in the U.S, but should one speak up or express their hardships its usually to friends or co-workers, not necessarily to those in charge. Complaints are usually spoken behind closed doors. Even if a suggestion is made to someone in higher authority, it must be done in the most roundabout way. People rarely directly say what they want. If you do, you may come off as rude. Even when I ask my students what they want it’s hard to get them to answer honestly or at all. They aren’t used to teachers asking them anything.
Since being here a year, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to different cities around the country. Even I must admit, when traveling and I meet foreigners who are just visiting or haven’t been in China a long time and I’ll get embarrassed listening to them speak. I mean things like mentioning politics, sex, or making an extremely direct statement. When in China if someone ask you for something, it’s often not actually a question. It’s an indirect way of telling
you to do something. And if you can’t do it, you should give a legitimate reason for why not instead of saying no. Even if you have no reason and you just don’t want to do it. There is something in Chinese culture called guanxi 关系
. This word means, relations. To survive in China you have to have guanxi and you do this in the most basic ways by engaging in a continuous practice of small exchanges and favors. When people invite me out to dinner or to do something I always say yes the first time. This way, the second or third time I can have leverage or simply decline. If you decline an invitation the first time, that person might feel slighted and not ask you again. There is also something called losing face
. This means, it is not socially acceptable to embarrass someone publicly. Because this is something that goes without saying, I’ve gotten used to some of the patterns of how to have a conversation depending on the topic and who I’m talking to lose and have generally avoided making someone lose face.
I try not to publicly say no to someone. If I really can’t do something I will say, “I’m not sure. I have to check my schedule.” Also when you give a reason for your absence, you just need to give a clear and cut answer, if you give too much information it’s unnecessary. I’ve seen foreigners say no when invited out to drinks or something and they know enough about Chinese culture not to say no to someone directly but they’ll give this long or exaggerated answer for why not and then everyone ends up feeling uncomfortable. Don’t tell people too much information about yourself. I’ve noticed Americans who are new to China often say things about themselves in casual conversation that the average Chinese person would perceive as too personal and odd to mention at all. For example, If asked out to do something instead of saying, “My girlfriend would kill me if I don’t show up for our date.” Just say, “My girlfriend is really expecting to see me.” For emphasis you could say, “I’ve been busy at work all week and haven’t really seen her much.” That explanation is totally reasonable an understandable. But if you said, “My girlfriend will be really mad if I don’t see her tonight and I really don’t want to get into a fight with her again,” that would be a bit too much. With that being said, everyone you meet here is very different and some people can be very direct and casual, but as a general rule I keep my statements short and general when declining an invitation and if I must, I’ll add on another sentence for emphasis without getting too personal. When it comes to personal request or invitations, this is generally the best way to speak with friends or acquaintances. You should never be too direct.
If someone with higher authority ask me to do something or invites me out I say yes about 98%!o(MISSING)f the time. The other 2%!i(MISSING)s when I’ve made an important previous engagement that I really can’t get out of. Building guanxi (relations) is everything here. It’s how you meet important people, make connections, get your kids into the best schools, get a good job, and so on and so forth. I’ve even built guanxi with the security guards of my school by teaching some of them short phrases in English, or buying them fruit ocassionally so when I come in late afterhours, they’ll still open the gate for me even though I might’ve woken them up at 3:00 am. The difference between me coming in late at night and someone who does the same but doesn’t talk to the guards or do anything for them, is I’ll probably be perceived more favorably, and I might even receive small favors in return. Learning how to politely decline invitations or things you don’t want to do, how to speak in a sort of indirect way to get what you need done, and learning what is an isn’t acceptable to talk about is all about of building guanxi and surviving in China.
Considering everything I said about politeness and indirect speech, this next section might seem a bit contradictory. Chinese people can be extremely blunt. If you’re coming from a country where PC (political correctness) language is usually the norm, China will shock you. There is no such thing as political correctness here. When it comes to favors and asking people to do things, or invitations, people generally speak in an indirect fashion, but with everyday casual activities, people say what they see or what they want. In English when we talk to people we often use words such as “May I, could you, would you, please, thank you, excuse me,” and so on. In Mandarin this sort of politeness is seen as over the top and unnecessary. In fact if you speak too politely it can sometimes come off as offensive, as over polite language is very distancing. For example, when I’m at a store and I need a bag for what I’ve bought, it is completely acceptable to say, “Give me a bag,” instead of “Can I have a bag please?” In everyday informal speech, people use as little as possible to convey what they want. Sometimes I even say. “Want bag.” In Chinese it is not necessary to always mention the subject so sentences often don’t include, I me, he, or she. Chinese also doesn’t include articles such as a, an,
so sentences can be quite short and sound like commands rather than a request. This very short, direct way of speaking would most likely come off as rude in the U.S. I never realized how even informal English is actually still quite formal. The everyday phrases we use still require using certain words to convey politeness. I’ve even been told by many people that I say “thank you” too often. In fact I’m still not sure which situations do or don’t require a “thank you,” or a “sorry.” In English we say sorry about things that seem weird to Chinese people. For example if something bad happened to my friend and I feel bad for them I might say, “I’m sorry.” When I say 对不起 duibuqi or sorry in Chinese, people often ask me “Why?” Usually people say sorry if they committed an offense themselves. The over polite nature of the English language can often cause awkward misunderstandings or confusions for Chinese people if you try to directly translate words that make since grammatically but don’t fit the cultural norms of a warranted response.
Bluntness and Race
As a foreigner who sticks out everywhere, and as a foreigner who speaks and understands Chinese, when I walk outside, “waiguoren”外国人 or foreigner, “heiren” 黑人 or black person, and “Feizhouren” 非洲人 or African has literally become my background music. Every day my blackness is pointed out. It’s almost as if people don’t know that I know that I’m black. Not to be mistaken, blackness in America is always pointed out too, however much differently. In the U.S people don’t start saying, “black person” as soon as I step out the door. For the most part this doesn’t bother me because I’m so used to it, but of course sometimes I don’t want to be noticed and I just want to yell out loud, “YES I KNOW I’M BLACK!” In fact, while walking on my own school campus, I have heard on multiple occasions, usually male students, call me 黑鬼heigui or black devil. To be sure I have asked my fellow Chinese co-workers if this term is not as offensive as I might think it is, but considering my students have never called me this name and the reaction of the Chinese teachers lowering their heads in embarrassment is enough to let me know it’s not okay.
My blackness constantly being pointed out on a daily basis has become a game of me pretending like I can’t hear or understand Chinese, or politely nodding or saying something in Chinese to let people know that I understand and that I’m just as human as they are. Every day I go out I’m preparing for a battle of constant shouts that point out my foreignness. Even when people are saying hello, it can be an annoyance. If you ever visit China as a foreigner there are two types of hellos you’ll hear. There’s the normal “hello” which is completely innocent and is usually someone excited to say hi to a foreigner or there’s this over-exaggerated “haaaaaalo” that I usually hear coming from young Chinese boys or teenagers who are very clearly mocking you. Similar to how some Americans will over exaggerate when saying, “ni hao” because they think Chinese sounds funny. There is nothing funny about people perceiving your mere existence to be amusing. There is nothing funny about your culture, which includes language being made fun of. I’ve even had people close to me jokingly say something along the lines of “ching chong bong tong,” in complete over-exaggerated tones and gibberish when I told them I was going to China. I hate that. Making fun of the way someone speaks is denigrating and never funny. Sometimes I don’t even want to go outside. If I’m in a bad mood, or I just don’t feel like dealing with the attention, putting in earphones helps tremendously. My earphones have become my lifeline here. Drowning out all those voices with some loud pop and hip hop music always makes everything better. Whenever I walk into a store, or subway car and I notice people noticing me and they start to point or whisper, sometimes I pause the music and purposefully try to listen to what they’re saying. In this way I can control what I will and won’t hear. Sometimes I might even stare someone down very hard to let them know I understand. It’s a bit therapeutic, like a silent protest. Having earphones allows me to be somewhat invisible. Maybe even incognito. Sometimes I even feel like a spy out on a mission. My earphones are so important to me because they have become a weapon, a shield that can protect me.They give me the space to breath, the power to listen and the choice to engage when I want to and to ignore the world when I don’t.
Bluntness and Name Calling
I regularly hear students insult each other as a form of endearment or harmless fun. I often hear my students say the word 傻逼shabi or stupid cunt during break time. I happened to accidentally learn the meaning of this word while hanging out with some Chinese friends and realized that my students had been saying that word all year and I had no idea. Now I recognize it immediately and take disciplinary action as I have a zero tolerance policy for name calling or bullying. If they can, the students will definitely take advantage of the fact that you don’t understand Chinese or that your Chinese is limited. Some of my WT co-workers have even decided NO CHINESE in the classroom because of this problem. If you aren’t directly speaking to them, sometimes the students will try and chat with their friends in Chinese. Sometimes students will even try to answer a question I asked in English and answer me in Chinese, knowing that I probably understand. Sometimes I wish I had never let the students know I can speak Chinese. I’ve been able to get past some of these bad habits by making students stand and explain whatever joke they just said in Chinese that distracted the whole class. The embarrassment has stopped most of these outburst. If a student tries to speak Chinese to me, even if I understand I’ll stare at them blankly and wait for them to say it in English.
I try to get as many students as possible to participate but it’s extremely challenging in classrooms of 45-60 students. I’ve generally been able to access who has very strong or poor English but there are always the students in between who slip through the cracks and go unnoticed. There have been times when I have approached a student to speak who is either clearly nervous or will try to decline and their classmates will react by saying things like, “He’s stupid.” “She can’t speak English.” “That person is not very smart.” They make these statements in a matter of fact manner. Their tone even suggest that I should know better than to ask certain people to speak, such as the sports players who either sit quietly in shyness or play around. The sports players often have lower levels of English. Getting them to speak or even participate is always a task. Considering our girl’s high school soccer team is nationally ranked, I was even told in an indirect fashion not to bother them too much by the Dean of students. In the U.S school system, even if we don’t know the answer we’re still expected to try and if you get the answer wrong it’s not the end of the world. In China, students either know or don’t know and will be extremely embarrassed and confused that you ask them to speak, knowing that you know that they don’t know the answer. Their classmates making comments about how they aren’t smart certainly doesn’t help. I used to be extremely shocked and offended that students would say such things about classmates, but I’ve grown used to it. Normally, they really aren’t taunting or making fun. In their minds they are stating a simple fact and I should understand that. If anything they might be trying to save that person from losing face. It’s been extremely hard to get students used to me expecting everyone to try and to get students to stop making blunt comments like, “She can’t speak English,” or “He’s stupid.”
Bluntness and Appearance
Besides the name calling that I often hear, in regular conversation when students are outside of the classroom and they don’t have to be as filtered I’ll hear some of the most self-denigrating statements. In the U.S, perceptions of beauty are changing and we are demanding a push to move away from white beauty standards. Women of all cultures, religions, and body types are being celebrated more and more. There’s still a ton of work to be done but the fact that this culture exist at all really forced me to realize that when it comes to appearance, the U.S is quite progressive relative to China. Outside of the classroom I try and talk with my students, support their sports games, performances, and sometimes even eat lunch with them. Many of my students have commented on my features and compliment my appearance. They often call me beautiful. (Although I’m starting to see that beautiful is code word for exotic or foreign, nonetheless I’ll take the compliment) When I thank them and in return reply, “You’re also very beautiful,” it’s not uncommon for one of my female students to reply, “No I’m not.” When I ask them why they’ll usually answer, “I’m ugly,” or “I’m fat.” People seem to take appearances as a matter of fact. In the U.S we’re told everyone is beautiful in their own way but in China people either think they’re good looking or they’re not, and most people seem to have completely accepted their fate. There seems to be no point in uplifting someone’s confidence. I even had a friend of mine tell me, one time a man told her, “People would like you more if you lost weight.” Most times, I don’t believe people have malicious intent (although I generally feel intent matters very little considering the outcome is heavily damaging).
Bluntness and Weight
This is my third time in China. The first two times I was fat. At one point I weighed 275 lbs and China made sure that I never forget every day. Not only were people shocked by my being Black, but I would walk down the street and hear people say things like, “How fat.” “Wow, look at her legs.” “So fat.” If you can’t speak any Chinese and you’re just visiting China, you can be spared from these insults because you will have no idea what people are saying. Even the Chinese friends I made when I studied abroad in Chengdu two years ago would say things like, “You should lose weight,” or be too overwhelmingly happy if they thought I lost even a few pounds. After my weight loss I remember video calling these friends from the States. When they saw me they said, “Wow. You’ve become so much prettier.” You might be thinking, people who say things like that aren’t your real friends. If you think this, then you won’t have any friends in China. People seem to think they are helping you by pointing out a difference they may deem should be changed. In the U.S, this behavior could come off as rude, but here it’s not necessarily so. People make these sorts of comments often with the most innocent smile on their face. People will often give foreigners advice that we take a lot of offense to. I remember once asking where I could find soap in the grocery store. One of the employees took me to the correct aisle and then proceeded to tell me about the wonderful array of skin whitening creams available. This part of China really frustrates me. It’s hard in these situations to be a cultural relativist. To put it in perspective, almost all of my Chinese friends have said something about appearance that I found to be extremely offensive, whether it be about size, race, or religion. This doesn’t make me think any less of them but clearly there is a huge cultural divide with concern to politeness and body image.
Bluntness and Politics
I recently taught my high school students a lesson about advertisements and asked them if the ad they had just finished watching about skin whitening cream (which is sold all over China) was offensive. They all answered in unison, “NO.” They were genuinely confused that I was offended. I gave an explanation as to why, and the students were visibly uncomfortable and silent. Skin whitening products are sold all over China, and if you say that having such a product is wrong, you’re saying Chinese people are wrong. During orientation this is something we were trained about. While teaching here is exciting and refreshing, if you’re not careful a classroom could turn nationalistic very quickly. If you even slightly criticize anything about China, you should be very careful. I explained to my students, “If you use skin whitening products its okay. Most people want to change something about their bodies. I just want you to understand how a foreigner who looks like me might feel when I see products or ads like this.” When I reminded the students that such products aren’t inherently wrong, which in turn means China is not wrong, and that my perception was based on my own personal experience, they were very susceptible to listening and shook their heads in agreement. Nonetheless, their initial reaction was a bit disturbing since I had to hear 10 times in a row (since I teach 10 high school classes) that there is nothing problematic about skin whitening creams.
Considering that China is a communist country, many people have the perception that Chinese people are extremely oppressed, quiet, and docile. After Trump was elected, almost every day I had people approach me and directly ask me my thoughts on the new president. A conversation with a taxi driver, store owner, or even someone who approached me while walking would go something like this. “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in China?” “Do you have a Chinese boyfriend?” Eventually the usual questions game would end with, “So, you have a new president. Do you like him? What do you think?” While I admit that it takes a certain type of person to approach a foreigner and ask such questions, people do talk about politics. Chinese people have much more freedom than I ever expected. While I admit certain freedoms are granted as a privilege and not a right, Chinese people do enjoy or have access to many of the same things any American would. YouTube and Facebook are blocked, but China has its own equivalents such as Youku and Weibo. Surprisingly Instagram is not blocked here, yet. Most Americans believe protest is completely suppressed. That is not true, however you have to have a permit to protest. In fact Chinese people also vote. People can vote for their local representative or the person who will represent their district, then those chosen will vote for who will be governor, then people in those positions from each province will vote for higher offices and so on and so forth all the way up to the presidency. While obviously much different, at least at the local level there is an opportunity to vote.
In the U.S, not in all cases, you also have to have a permit to protest. And while the government isn’t technically choosing who we can vote for, our options are limited as we have a two party system and those running usually have ties to big corporations. It might not be by the government directly choosing but in a way our candidates are also chosen for us. The Chinese government gives people just enough freedom to be satisfied. The economy is improving more and more. China is building its infrastructure, making new cities and opening up industries at an impeccable rate. On the surface, most people actually seem quite happy or in the very least contempt with their lives. Many people, especially those who live out in countryside don’t even think about the government as an entity that really affects them, they’re too far removed and won’t really have an opinion about the communist party one way or another.
People who do openly engage with political talk usually ask me one of two questions, “Do you like your new president?” or “Do you like China or America better?” To the first question, I’ll usually answer quite frankly saying, “No.” When they ask me why and I explain Trump’s racism sexism, or any of the other isms he regularly engages in and most people will nod their heads in an understanding fashion. When I explain my fears as a minority and as a woman, women normally respond in a very motherly nurturing fashion, nodding their head while patting me or rubbing me on the back. Men either grinningly nod their heads or will completely ignore everything I said and respond with, “But Trump is strong.” For men, their happiness over the fact that I don’t like the new sitting president doesn’t really have much to do with their own personal beliefs. They’re excited that I don’t like something as important as the person who represents the United States. In a way, I’m siding with them. A U.S citizen doesn’t like their president, this is a win for China. They might even like the U.S president, but that’s beside the point. Not only is this exciting for many people but the fact that I firmly make a statement criticizing the government is shocking to people. Chinese people technically have the right to make such statements but most people don’t. There are many political prisoners in China for speaking out too much. Sometimes I feel people purposefully ask me political questions for their own amusement. Speaking out against the government is taboo. If people have any complaints about the government it is usually stated very lightly and then always followed with, “but China is very strong,” or “He will still lead China in the right direction.” Every complaint or dissatisfaction must be followed with a compliment. The government is never just wrong, so when I make very blatant statements about what I dislike not only abut Trump but the U.S at large, people often look at me with genuine curiosity but also a sort of condescending amusement. I don’t blame them. The fact that I can say all of these things freely without fear is a privilege that must be acknowledged and understood.
After living in China for a year, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand the U.S infrastructure system again. Traveling around China is so easy, cheap, and convenient. Here I’ll introduce all of the main forms of travel and discuss what I know in detail about all of them. The major forms of transportation in China include: the subway, bus, taxis, motor taxis, bikes, the slow train, and the fast train. You can of course take a plane to other major cities or countries but China’s airports are generally the same as any airport I’ve been to in the U.S, except customs doesn’t take as long.
Regardless of what city I’ve traveled to in China every time I’ve entered a subway station, if I had any sort of bag I had to have it scanned through a machine. If you have a drink the security guards may make you drink a bit to ensure that it’s safe. Sometimes they’ll ask you to throw it away. I must have grown too accustomed to certain things because when I used wechat to video call my aunt and uncle and I explained how subways work, they were shocked when I told them about the security. In my mind I thought, “Is this extreme?” Quite honestly the security guards barely scan you, sometimes not at all. It’s very chillax and it only takes a few seconds. It’s not like going through airport security. I feel extremely safe not just taking public transit here, but in general. This is not the airport, or the train station, not even the bus station. This is the subway I’m talking about. Be assured, if you need to take the subway at any point in China, its safe. The subway system in China is extremely modern and advanced. When you step onto the train, everything is modern. There are even flat screen TV’s embedded onto each car with commercials or clips from comedy TV prank shows to entertain you. I have also never been to any city in China where it would be possible for someone to fall into the train tracks. Older subway systems have these halfway fence like metal barriers, and more modern subway systems, such as the one in the city I live in, have floor to ceiling glass windows blocking you from the train. These glass windows have doors that open simultaneously with the train doors. Also it is so nice to consistently see bathrooms, no matter what Line I’m on, there will always be a bathroom towards the last train door. Because China has such a big population, there are usually line conductors, making sure people line up in an orderly fashion before entering the train. The line conductors aren’t always there and when they’re not, it’s every person for themselves. Public transit is easy to take, but sometimes unbearably crowded. Taking the subway is generally the only time I consistently see people line up in some sort of orderly fashion. If you go anywhere else people will often cut in front of you or even push you to get through crowds and be completely unapologetic. Generally speaking this is quite normal. Although people who may have gone over the top can be perceived as rude, generally speaking the action of pushing to get past people, or maybe even bussing in line when someone is not ready to order their food at KFC is quite common. Older people will regularly cut in front of people and no will feel comfortable saying anything.
The bus system is more challenging because it’s all in Chinese. The name of the stop might be in English but when you’re reading the bus schedule, everything else is in Chinese. Even if you don’t know any Chinese, you can learn how it works pretty quickly. There are different bus numbers and each number has a different route. There are often three, four, five, even six bus numbers that may all go the same route you need to take. As long as you memorize what bus numbers will get you to the normal locations you need to go, it’ll all be fine. If you’re really nervous about public transit you can also download a GPS app such as Baidu Maps or Amaps if you have a smart phone. I believe Baidu has an English version. If you use Amaps, it’s all in Chinese, but since you hit the same three buttons to get to where you need, it’s pretty easy to figure out. You can just ask a Chinese friend who can speak English. On buses in China there are usually seats in the front designated for the elderly, the physically disabled, or pregnant women. Even if those seats are open, I typically avoid them. Some bus drivers drive insanely wild. Some drivers will literally have the door open, with the last person still getting on, and already start moving the bus. It’s a common occurrence for bus drivers to not always come to a full stop. If you’re standing up because there are no more seats, you have to be extremely careful.
If you go to any city in China including the city I live in, Changsha, you will see about 8 different very popular biking companies with their bikes distributed on sidewalks all throughout the city. If you like to explore or you don’t always want to take the metro or the bus, you can download one of the major bike company apps. I have China’s most popular bike app, the Mobike
because their bikes are easily assessable and can be found on any street corner or sidewalk. Their app is also in English and Chinese. Each bike app will have a deposit fee that you can get back at any time. Mobike’s deposit fee is 300 kuai or $43. After paying the deposit fee you can add as much money as you like to your account. Depending on how long you ride, you’ll be charged after you officially end your bike ride. I usually never go that far so most of my rides cost me 1 kuai or about 15 cents. I have never seen anything quite like the biking culture that exist in China. There are just as many bikes (and motor bikes which I’ll talk about soon) as there are cars on the road. Bikes are everywhere. In the States I’m used to seeing bikes as a leisurely, alternative activity. Some U.S cities have really good biking systems and people do use them to get from point A to point B but until you’ve come to China, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Unless the U.S were to have a huge change in infrastructure and actually try to construct biking lanes and sidewalks everywhere, this sort of biking culture could never exist. If there ever was a serious push to make the U.S more accessible for pedestrians and bike riders, the biking business would explode. A whole new industry could boom and actually create tons of jobs. Every day, I see big green and black trucks delivering new bikes to the city’s public sidewalks. Major biking companies are competing with each other at an alarming rate It’s an amazing site to see. There are lanes throughout the entire city, even in the suburbs dedicated to bike and motor riders. Although bike riders regularly ride in the regular lanes, it is actually the law to drive in this lane if you have this sort of vehicle to prevent accidents from occurring.
in China is no joke. People generally take the driving laws as a suggestion and the police aren’t too concerned with minor traffic violations. People regularly break them, almost every second. They don’t have time to arrest everyone. While people switch lanes without signaling, go through red lights, make illegal U-turns, cut people off, don’t give the pedestrians the right of way, and park on sidewalks its not as chaotic as it may sound if you’re coming from a country where traffic is more organized. I view driving in China as beautiful chaos. Chinese drivers are probably some of the best drivers in the world. With millions of people living in overcrowded cities, bike riders, motor bikes and other uncaring drivers who are constantly in your way not following any sort of traffic law, it’s amazing that I have never witnessed any accidents. You have to be an extremely skilled driver to drive in China. You cannot be nervous, or second guess anything. There’s almost no time to think. You need to know where you’re going or people will honk at you constantly the moment you hesitate. Pedestrians regularly run out into the streets, even when they don’t have the right of way. And if you are a pedestrian crossing the street and you have the right of way, don’t assume all the cars will stop for you. You have to constantly be looking from all directions. Even if the cars have stopped the bikes and motor bikes probably have not. I have almost been hit more times than I can possibly count but I have never been hit. Beautiful chaos. People here, especially for those who live in the city anticipate that China’s driving culture is so unpredictable so people actually drive with the intention of being able to stop at any moment.
Motorbikes/motortaxis and taxis:
Motorbikes are basically smaller motorcycles. People use those as their preferred mode of transportation just as much as a bike or a car. Many cities have banned motorcycles because they’re viewed as too dangerous. Motorbikes are the next best thing. They’re smaller and can run on gas or electricity. The electric bikes are called E-bikes and are much more environmentally friendly. If you’re a foreigner and would like to purchase a motorbike, e-bikes don’t require a license. The regular motorbike can be filled at any gas station. The e-bikes can be charged at gas stations with electric chargers, or you can simply plug it in at home and charge it there. Motorbikes are generally safer than motorcycles because they’re smaller and can only go so fast. Most motorbike riders fix up their bikes in a way that it’s almost like a mini car. When it rains or if it’s too hot there are hoods that can be attached to the bike or motorbike umbrellas that are sold at biking stores. When it gets too cold there are sleeves that can be attached to the handles that you put your arms into to keep warm. If you don’t feel like walking somewhere and there’s too much traffic so there’d be no point in taking a regular taxi, you can take a motortaxi. This job is usually occupied by men, many of them migrant workers from the countryside who have come to the city to find work. It’s easy to find motor taxis. Usually they’ll be a dozen men sitting at any sort of crowded subway station exit or pedestrian street waiting to pick people up. They also wear helmets or a hat so you can easily recognize them. You might assume everyone is wearing helmets. Not true. Most people don’t wear helmets here, the people who do are almost always motortaxis drivers. You can negotiate a price with them before you get on the bike. I love taking motortaxis. I feel like I’m seeing the city from a whole new perspective. Also if you want to learn your city’s local dialect, take taxis or motortaxis more regularly. I can’t speak any Changshahua (the local dialect here) but I can understand general questions and respond in Mandarin. While every city will have its local dialect (and in China dialects are basically another language and not simply a change in accent and incomprehensible slang) it’s not a matter to worry about since everyone also knows how to speak Mandarin.
In China if you want to travel to another city you can take a slow train and buy a standing, sitting, or sleeper ticket. The sleeper ticket is usually for a very long train and you can order a soft sleeper or hard sleeper bed. Taking a sleeper train is really interesting. There are long trains with each car containing small, open rooms. Each room contains 6 beds. On each side of the room are 3 bunk beds. The bottom bunk has the most space but it goes without saying that if you have the bottom bunk that everyone is allowed to sit on your bed until it’s time to go to sleep. If you have the top bunk you will have absolutely no space to move. You’re basically in a pod. The middle bunk is probably the best. People are often curious about me as a foreigner taking the slow train and will stare at me until someone finally has the courage to speak English to me. Once people learn I can speak Chinese, a 12 or 15 hr train ride can turn into a long interview session about the U.S, learning English, and what I like about China. There are always people who can speak English, no matter where you go. If you ever travel to China and can’t speak any Mandarin, look for anyone under 35 and 8 times out of 10 they can speak some English. Taking the slow train can be very peaceful as the train runs through the country side and the mountains. The bathrooms are usually dirty with squat toilets and no toilet paper and for food everyone has snacks and cup noodles which you can eat by finding the hot water dispenser on the train.
Another option would be to take the gaotie 高铁 or fast train which will be more expensive. A fast train from here to Hangzhou (a city near Shanghai) can make a 12 hour slow sleeper train ride a 3 hr ride. So while the ticket price difference can be more expensive for a fast train ticket the time you save can be well worth it. All fast train tickets are just seats, no beds, however the seats are quite comfortable and spacious. The fast train is extremely clean, modern and even the bathrooms on the train have western toilets and always have toilet paper. You can order snacks, drinks, and full course meals. Every train has first class and second class seats although I barely see a difference between the two. The people who I see taking these trains are typically middle class or higher and people pay me little mind compared to when I take a sleeper train.
When it comes to anything related to work and school, everything is very loosely scheduled. Things can change at a moment’s notice. My colleagues and I in WT have all had the experience of our classes being canceled because our students have to do something and we haven’t found out until we go into the classroom and see no one is there. This happens all the time. Back in August during orientation, we were told this would happen. In China the students do not have a long 2-3 month summer break. There are two big breaks. Winter break, and summer break. If you combine the two, it’s almost as long as a U.S kid would have off for summer break. Winter break is very long. About a month for our students. Luckily for me I had off 6 weeks. Knowing that I would have this long break, I planned a vacation with some of my WT colleagues, however we could only plan so far in advance because most of us didn’t know the exact dates of when we could leave and when the new semester would begin until 2 weeks before Winter break began. This means we could only book hotels, plane, and train tickets about a week and a half in advance. We could’ve saved a lot of money had we had known earlier. I have now gotten into the habit of asking my liaison if there are any upcoming breaks, holidays, or changes to our schedule on a weekly basis .Luckily I bugged my liaison to death asking for the end date of the school year so I was able to buy my plane ticket home around March. Some of my colleagues still have not been able to buy their plane tickets home because their school has not yet chosen a date for the end of the semester, and flights are getting more expensive at this point. This habit actually ends up costing us money in the end.
With only 6 weeks left of the school year my school suddenly tells me that I will be teaching 2 more classes. They wanted me to teach two Junior 3 classes or the equivalent of 9th
grade. In China 7th
, and 9th
grade is middle school and 10th
, and 12th
is high school. My school wanted me to prepare the top ranked 9th
grade students for high school and teach them a fun introduction to Oral English for the last two months of school. I am currently in the midst of wrapping everything up. I’m extremely busy. I already teach 18 classes, two more than laid out in our contract (our WT contract says we only have to teach 16 classes. Anything more we can decline and if we accept the school must pay us extra). Not only is teaching 18 classes a week exhausting, I teach two grade levels while most of my colleagues teach 1. I am currently preparing my students for their final exams and I’m tired. At this point I have no energy to teach 20 classes a week and prepare 3 different lesson plans. These two extra classes were added to my schedule without my knowledge. No one even asked me. They simply told me. When I complained to my liaison about it I was basically told I have no choice and to deal with it. Unfortunately I had to get my field director involved. I’ve had classes canceled before or have been told about meetings last minute, but this one went way too far.
While this incident is related to the last minute nature of schedules in schools and jobs in China, as mentioned earlier, it is also about building guanxi (relationships). I have 19 other colleagues placed at multiple schools throughout Hunan province. The experiences that we have at our respective schools has really been the luck of the draw. Some of my colleagues have horror stories about how their school might not take care of them well. Luckily, I have always felt welcomed by my co-workers and the administration has treated me extremely well. My school takes care of me and whenever I have needed help with something the school has sent someone to help with whatever the issue may have been. Considering how well they have treated me, I was a little shocked at how they tried to handle this situation. This is where the indirectness of Chinese culture comes in. The school has treated me very well, they have gained my trust and created good guanxi so from the school’s perspective, asking me (telling me actually) to teach two more classes at the end of the year probably didn’t seem like such a big deal to them. After all, they’ve done so much for me. As I stated earlier, people will often tell you you’re doing something as a way of asking.
Construction and Maintenance
I have never seen such fast construction in my life. Changsha is still a developing city. Right now there are only 2 metro lines but they are planning to have 6. The third one will open next year. Two years ago I studied abroad in Chengdu, a city out in West China and when I was there, there were only two metro lines. After returning 2 years later for a visit, I couldn’t believe that there are now 4 metro lines. There were even parts of the city that I didn’t recognize because what was once small owned shops or apartment buildings are now high rise office buildings, malls, and hotels. Even where I live in Changsha, the city center is building two new malls. One is an underground mall that just opened, along with a whole new street of shops and restaurants right next to it upstairs. Sometime last month I was walking around this area and felt like I had walked into a parallel universe. All of a sudden one day, all of this new stuff was here. Often times construction sites are blocked off by these huge posters or billboards, so sometimes constructions sites can blend in with the city. I was shocked and couldn’t believe everyone was walking around as if all these new attractions had been there for years. I’m sure if I come back to visit Changsha two years from now, I won’t recognize certain areas that are still developing.
If a small restaurant or shop isn’t making money, they’ll suddenly disappear one day and be replaced by another one, and if they don’t succeed, the cycle repeats. One of my friends and colleagues, Anahita teaches at a school in the middle of the city center so we often hang out around her area. Within the year, I have seen a corner shop, outside of her school’s front gate, change four times. Some of my favorite small shops that I regularly visited, were there one day and gone the next. Renovations are also quite common. Particularly the very small family owned shops renovate quite often. As soon as the place gets too grimy or has too many problems, they’ll close down shop for about 1 to 2 weeks and then reopen with a new theme. The renovations aren’t typically done with quality in mind. It’s a quick fix so eventually they’ll have to renovate again. Many noodle, rice, and skewer shops are situated on a block lined up right next to each other. Sometimes a whole block will shut down for a few weeks, while they all renovate at the same time. Americans really care a lot about quality, so we often spend a lot on things with the purpose of it being long lasting. One of the things that has given me the most culture shock, is the Chinese mindset of what’s practical or choosing what’s the simplest option over anything else. In some ways this can be a good thing. When it comes to general service whether it be at a restaurant or a home maintenance company, Chinese people have tougher skin. They don’t complain about much and often times will only ask for help when a situation becomes unbearable. The normality of “This isn’t such a big deal,” has even forced me to change and rethink what is and really isn’t a problem. I’ve become less sensitive to things I know would be problematic in the States. In some ways I appreciate this because I complain less and have become less spoiled. I remember meeting another American while traveling to another city and she needed to fix her broken luggage. She went everywhere but couldn’t find duct tape. When she returned to the hotel she said to me in frustration, “They don’t have duct tape here!” In what probably came off as insensitive I said, “Yeah, they don’t,” in a tone that suggested that this is China and she should’ve known better.
Practicality over quality can become problematic when certain situations I just can’t tolerate are on the brink of ridiculousness. When people have mold in their apartment, it is not uncommon for the maintenance workers to simply paint over it. Or when the air conditioner units need to be cleaned, sometimes the workers will leave dust everywhere on your bed and on your floor and not clean up the mess they made. If they do clean it, it might be the next day. I remember when my school replaced my deteriorating old bed set, the maintenance crew had to break down the furniture. They left a huge mess in my house. Wood was splattered everywhere in my living room and it took a week of me complaining for someone to finally come and pick up the trash. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t mad or just as angry for bad service, it’s simply not uncommon and therefore not always worth losing a hair over. When one of my co-workers had an air conditioning c unit installed in her bedroom, the maintenance crew left glass on her floor, where they had to cut a hole in the window. While I was upset, I wasn’t at all surprised.
Expectations of Foreigners and English
While it’s more common nowadays, seeing a foreigner is still very new for many people in China. The cities in China known for having the most foreigners are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. Those cities also happen to be something called the top 4 tiered cities
. In China cities are broken down into three tiers which means the biggest cities in terms of GDP, and population. Most people have probably only heard of two out of those four. I live in Changsha, a second tier city which is funny because for China this city is considered medium sized. Changsha has a population of 7 million people and covers 4,563 sq miles. In the U.S, this would be a huge city. But to put it in perspective Beijing has 21 million people while Shanghai has 24 million. Washington D.C doesn’t even have 1 million residents. As you can imagine, only so many foreigners live here so I’m given much more attention living here. Everything I do is watched and very public. In a way it’s almost as if you’re a celebrity. Everywhere I go people are staring at me, whispering about me, or taking pictures of me. The boldest people are usually high school students who will giggle uncontrollably embarrassed while asking to take a picture with you or add you on Wechat. When my students are testing I get the day off, and most of the schools test on the same day. One Friday when our students were testing, I went with some of my WT friends to Orange Island
, which is one of the places to sight see if you ever visit Changsha. It’s an island in the middle of the city on the river. There happened to be some high school students on a field trip that Friday and they literally followed my friends and I around the entire time. Even after we finally agreed to take pictures they still followed. It was hilarious and quite cute. They reminded me of my students before my students got used to me. Those were the days.
If you can speak Chinese, people will gasp in shock. Even saying, “Ni hao,” is enough to impress some people. Chinese people recognize how hard Mandarin is, so if you can speak even a little it really bridges a cultural divide and can quickly help you meet people and form good relationships with your neighbors and local shop owners. Speaking Mandarin, immediately leaves a good impression on people. It shows that you care, that you’re trying, and that you respect China enough to attempt to learn the country’s language. People will smile and compliment you praising you for your hard work. I always appreciate this about China. People will always acknowledge and praise everything you do as a foreigner, especially if it is clear that you know anything about Chinese culture or history. Even knowing Chinese table manners deserves praise. I have been praised on numerous occasions for simply using chopsticks. For foreigners who can speak mandarin at a fluent level or for foreigners who have been in China for a while, these occurrences will actually start to annoy you. When every little thing you do is watched and commented on, eventually you’ll start to feel like you never have any privacy. Everyday actions such as the use of chopsticks being praised, will start to feel condescending. Just imagine, if you’re in the U.S, being a grown woman and someone were to come up to you and say, “You can use a fork! Amazing!” Once you get used to living in a new country of course you begin to adapt and do the same things that any other local would do. But as a foreigner when you do these everyday mundane activities it is noticed and commented on constantly. In some ways I feel babied. I don’t feel I should be congratulated unless I really deserve it. One of the most common phrases I hear on a daily basis is, “你说的很好ni shuo de hen hao or “You speak well.” While I speak conversationally fluent and I understand what’s being said most of the time, I’m not sure if I’ll ever know when I speak Mandarin on an extremely fluent level since people compliment me for saying, “Ni hao.”
When I meet new people one of the first questions they ask me is, “Are you here for work or study?” If you’re a foreigner you’re almost always one of two things. A university student, or an English teacher. I can see the expression of “Oh. Typical,” from Chinese people who are used to foreigners when I explain that my job is teaching Oral English. Others, who haven’t had much interaction with foreigners are often more excited and sometimes may say something like, “Thank you for teaching our children.” I feel that I receive way more praise than I deserve. Simply for being a foreign teacher, there’s often this automatic over the top gratefulness and respect. There are also people who will take this opportunity to put their children in the best possible position, by asking me to teach their children personally. Sometimes people I’ve just met, within the first 10 seconds are already asking me what my going rate is for tutoring so I can teach their children privately. In an extreme situation, once I met a woman who was a taxi driver (its rare to see female taxi drivers) and she took me from the Southern side of the city in the suburbs (where I often go to visit my friend Jody at the school she teaches at) all the way to the city center, where I live. At first her questions were very general. “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” Suddenly, I was being pushed into tutoring her daughter who is a college student in English. She even went so far as to call her daughter on the phone to talk to me while she was driving, even though I repeatedly explained that I was not taking on any more new students. I decided to end my trip early, got out of the taxi, and took the bus to get home. While I felt her behavior was rude, I can’t necessarily blame her. Many parents view English as the key to their child’s success.
Being a teacher in China is generally seen as a respected profession. Compared to the U.S, being a teacher at the elementary, middle, or high school level definitely has more respect and prestige than I’m used to, especially if you’re a foreign teacher. Being a foreign teacher is a privilege in China, especially if you’re white and from a Western country. If you wanted to, you could come to China and completely have an easy life with not too much work. I have seen plenty of foreigners do this. Some foreigners come to China as an escape if they feel things aren’t working out in their respective countries. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are people who have taken advantage of the easiness of being able to get a teaching job as a foreigner (again depending on race and nationality) and end up going out every night to all the foreign bars, show up to class late, sometimes even drunk, and barely make their way through the school year. I’ve even had some foreigners I’ve met tell me that all they did was show English movies all year. Some places won’t even require you to have a college degree. Last year China changed some of its visa laws and have cracked down on foreigners who are in China illegally. Any legitimate institution should now require a college degree and now more often than not, also a teaching certificate such as the TEFL. Even so, if you’re still questioning whether white privilege is real, come to China. You’ll regularly see teaching ads posted saying, “Looking for white native English speaker from the U.S, Europe, or Australia.” My friend Jody who tutors the children of a couple of families was asking around for me when I was looking for tutoring gigs. The families were excited I was an American but upon hearing I was Black would decline. This is completely normal and happens all the time. Let me be clear. If you are Black or Brown, especially if you’re not from a Western country, it will be harder for you to find a job. If you’re looking for a teaching job in China, it would be best if you applied to a program that is already established in your home country that sends teachers abroad. This way you can be directly placed into a school in the country you are trying to find work in and avoid this blatant racism. Due to the lazy, reckless behavior displayed by some foreigners, some Chinese people will have an automatic negative assumption about you when you tell them you’re an English teacher. From a Chinese person’s perspective, you might just be viewed as an entitled privileged foreigner, taking up space or a job a Chinese person could’ve had.
Not only are Chinese students usually in school from 8:00am-5:30pm but many students have night classes soon after. High school students have no choice and are often in school until sometime in between 8:00 and 10:00 at night. While middle school students haven’t transitioned into night classes yet, I have seen some of my 7th
graders coming out of English training schools sometime around 8:00pm as I’m walking around the neighborhood. In fact many of the students in my classes who are the strongest English speakers have told me they go to private after school English classes. I remember once teaching my middle schoolers a lesson about animals and the different noises they make. One student raised her hand and when I arrived at her desk she showed me a notebook of about 50 others animals she was currently studying. I asked her, “Did you study this on your own?” She answered by handing me a different English textbook than the one all the students have. I asked her, “Do you have after school classes?” She answers excitedly, “Yes. I study very hard every day.” The fact that I could completely speak to her in English is also very impressive. I usually have to use half Chinese and half English for the middle schoolers to fully understand me. Most students should not be able to understand the grammar, “on your own.” They might understand “yourself.” Even if I added, “by
yourself.” They might not understand. Initially the students learn English by memorizing sentence patterns. Middle school students will have a hard time understanding if you change that pattern. Even if you add one slight word, it could throw them off.
If I ask a middle school student a question and they don’t know the answer, the general answer for an average student will be, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t understand.” A more advanced student will answer. “I don’t understand the question,” or “I don’t know how to say that in English.” Over time I’ve been able to identify the key expressions that they understand such as, “raise your hand, listen, be good, participate, let’s check our answers, have a try, have a rest, it doesn’t matter,” and so on and so forth. If I were to say, “Let’s take a break,” instead of “have a rest,” half of the students would probably look at me puzzled, not knowing what to do. Although it’s only a three year difference, the comprehension level of my high school students (the 10th
graders) and my middle school students (7th
grade) is immense. The comprehension level of my high schoolers is extremely high. Their textbooks are completely in English and the content is college level English. The English level of an average Chinese high school student is really impressive. Even if their spoken English is poor, which is more common than not, they generally understand what you’re saying and their reading and writing skills are extremely good.
The topics my high school students are learning include: Space travel, archaeology, the Olympics, Advertising, Comics, Riddles, Detailed weather forecast and so on and so forth. Some of my high schoolers who are the strongest in English are near fluent and watch American TV shows like, Scandal, Two Broke Girls, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and The Big Bang Theory. BY THEY WAY, I WAS SO SHOCKED TO FIND OUT THAT SCANDAL, A TV SHOW ABOUT A BLACK WOMAN WHO IS A SMART, BEUATIFUL, POWERFUL LaAWYER IN WASHINGTON D.C IS SO POPULAR HERE. YEAH!
The high schoolers are also out of the habit of only using or understanding the same sentence patterns. While they do continue to memorize, they can at least say, “I think it’s going to rain later,” or “It looks like it might rain soon,” or even, “There’s a fair chance of rain in the afternoon.” The middle schoolers will probably say, “It is going to rain.” I remember having a challenging lesson for my seniors when they had to be able to describe the weather using some of the same sentences 4 different ways in the past, present, and future tense. These kids are so impressive and always blow my mind.
Social Context of Chinese Students
The test taking culture in the Chinese education system is real. The social and creative side of students is there but it really has to be pushed. Many people assume Chinese kids don’t know how to be creative but that is simply not the case. In order to really see this creativity blossom, the students need to be given a foundation to build off of. If you give them too much freedom in the speaking exercises or group projects, it could flop. The students always need some sort of structure. Test taking is the most important thing for students here. They do not have a lot of free time to socialize and hang out with friends. When they can students go to the movies, go shopping, and have fun just like any other kid but this free time is cut pretty short. Students are very stressed with homework and test. Many students even have night classes. The seriousness of the Chinese education system must be duly noted because having such a primary focus on test taking hasn’t left much room for developing social skills. In some classrooms, even the idea of a boy and girl standing to practice a dialogue together can become a big event, especially in a junior or middle school classroom. Sometimes a boy will outright refuse to participate if he has to speak or do some sort of activity with a girl. At this point in the year they’re used to it, but in the beginning it was extremely difficult to the point that I almost considered separating the boys and the girls to save class time. From an American perspective, or as someone coming from a Western country, the content of material in their text books and test taking skills are quite high, however social development can be lacking. The content of the material students are learning can be anywhere from 1-3 years ahead of what an American kid will be learning. A lot is expected of students here. The amount of English they already know is really impressive, however the pressure of test taking, night classes, and the little time there is for social activities leaves the social development of students about 2-3 years behind relative to American children and teenagers. The need to be very careful of what content you are teaching and how deep you can really go on any given topic. The students can be very immature for a topic you might expect they can handle.
One of the most interesting times of the day for the students is break time. In between each class, most schools have 10-15 minute breaks, sometimes even 20 minutes. While walking through the hallways I have often observed my students sitting quietly while taking notes for Math, History, Chemistry, and Chinese class. They sit so quietly and silently. (They never behave like that in my class). Moments like that make me realize why having extra-curricular classes such as Oral English is so important. Most of the time I feel my students thoroughly enjoy my class and have fun. We play speaking games, have interesting dialogues, watch videos, and have a call and respond based class rather than lecture. Sometimes when I look into the classroom windows from the hallway, I don’t recognize my students. Once the bell rings signaling the end of class, it’s like someone flipped a switch that reminded them they’re all still kids. Students will break out into a sprint chasing each other around the room. Boys will jump on each other and never in my life have I seen girls hit their peers so much. I remember during orientation, we were instructed not to interfere with what the students do during their own time. We can say no to whatever we don’t tolerate in our own classrooms but once that bell rings, anything is up for grabs. Students excitedly run to their friends, call each other names, and playfully hit each other. Although in my opinion, some of the hitting is a hair shy of bullying. I remember ending one of my rowdiest Senior 1 classes, and as soon as I dismissed them, a group of about 6 boys cornered one of the other male students outside near the hallway balcony. They all start hitting on him. I really couldn’t tell if they were playing or not so I walked outside and broke the group up. One of my most fluent students came to help translate. I asked if they were bullying him and of course they answered no. I then asked him, “Do you like this?” He answers yes while laughing nervously. I couldn’t be sure but a part of me felt that he was just saying that to get along. American schools often have a no touching policy but the kids always play around during break time by hitting each other. I’ve tried to ask others for advice concerning this but I’m still quite confused as to what the administration constitutes as bullying and where the line is for kids just being kids. Maybe I’m allowing my bias towards my own culture perceive what is just fun and games as something inappropriate but frankly, sometimes I can’t stand to be in the classrooms during break time. I’m afraid of what I’ll witness.
Chinese vs. American teaching style
As mentioned before Chinese students aren’t used to teachers asking them what they want, they’re just told to do things. It’s been a year coming but I finally have my students in the habit of feeling comfortable enough to have a call and response sort of class. I ask them open ended questions and most of the time they will now answer without hesitation. The first few weeks of class in September, with the exception of some very bold students most students did not answer me. Sometimes there was complete silence. You are the teacher. You’re supposed to tell the students what they need to know. Students are expected to read and memorize. In fact, plagiarism is quite common and not really seen as a big deal. I always have to emphasize NO PLAGIARISM
when I am assigning an assignment or an exam. The Chinese teaching style is mostly lectures and note taking. In America while we do have lecture style classes, we also have discussion based classes. Students are allowed to share their opinions and speak honestly. We’re encouraged to speak up and participate and if we’re wrong, the teacher might just thank us for trying anyway. In fact we’re often told that there are no right or wrong answers, just different perspectives. In China this is generally not the case. There are only right and wrong answers. Something either is or it isn’t. This explains why I often get questions like these from Chinese people, “Do you like China or America better?” as if it is impossible for me to like them equally. When I don’t choose one and tell them that I like and don’t like aspects about both countries I often receive a disappointed nod. Clearly I was expected to answer China. Because of this, sometimes it is painfully hard to get the students to do certain activities on their own. In a Chinese classroom students are often called on at random to speak and answer a question and if they answer incorrectly, you’re simply, “Wrong.” If they answer correctly the teacher won’t necessarily praise you. There’s no need to praise such miniscule things. Even I have made the mistake of praising my students too much just for speaking at all. If you always praise the students your praise starts to lose value and they might start to think anything will fly and begin slacking. I used to congratulate a student just for having the courage to speak, now if I feel like an answer is too simple or a student is playing around I say, “I’ll wait until you give me a better answer.” I try to keep a balance of Chinese and Western styles of teaching. This way students don’t feel too uncomfortable because you’re doing something they’re used to while also presenting to them new methods of learning.
If Oral English class does anything, it definitely boost the confidence of the students. I’ve even seen some students who were initially dead quiet, now participate and respond to my questions. Some students have even completely surprised me by unveiling their true characters. One of my funniest students is the banzhang of Senior 1 Class 8. Her English name is Jennifer. The banzhang is basically an elected leader of the classroom. Each Senior 1 class (and Junior 1 class for that matter) have a banzhang or student representative. Most of the banzhangs are charismatic and have good grades. I can clearly understand why the banzhangs for each class have been chosen based on how I’ve observed them in my classes, however initially I could never understand why the banzhang for Class 8 was selected. In the beginning of the year she was painfully quiet and I wasn’t sure how she could lead the students effectively because she seemed so shy. I even remember pulling her aside after class one day asking her, “Are you shy?” She shook her head no. Half the time she looked uninterested in class and just stared at me blankly. Then slowly but surely, she started to speak more, and show off her personality. I finally started to see why she is so popular and was chosen to be the banzhang. I gave my 10th
graders an oral skit to perform for their mid-term and final exams. Before winter break, during 1st
semester’s final, she was amazing. While I knew she had become more talkative, she completely shocked me by getting so into her character during her skit, acting wild and loud, chasing the fictional thief who stole her wallet around the room. This semester she’s regularly been quite loud and talkative, enjoying class. At this point, I really can’t recognize who she is.
There’s another Senior 1 student, a boy whose English name is Sun in Class 6. While he is not the banzhang he is also very shy and quiet. This past week I taught my students about the Olympics and for the second half of class we had an English Olympics tournament. I put the students into teams and each team was a country. I even gave them flags which they thought was cute. I showed them a video of Usain Bolt breaking the word record for the 100-metre dash, then drew a fake track on the board. I told the students they had to race the 100-metre by answering questions correctly. Once a team crossed the finish line, they would get a gold medal. (I used yellow magnets to signal the gold medals). For some reason, Sun was into this lesson, more than I’ve ever seen him. Since most of my classes have 40-60 students I have a rule when we play games. No one person can speak twice. Everyone on the team must participate. Students can only speak twice if everyone on their team has already spoken. I burrowed this strategy courtesy of Jawharah Nagi (Tip: This strategy creates great teamwork, helps with scaling or reaching students across all levels as the more advanced students will wait until a harder question appears before they answer, and the students whose English level is lower will try to answer easier questions. It also really does get everyone to pay attention and speak more regularly). I had four different games, so four races. The games included Pictionary, Act out the Olympic Sport, Facts about the Olympics, and Fill in the Blank. During the Fill in the Blank game students had to fill in the blank with the correct word. Suddenly, Sun raised his hand, and the whole room stopped as everyone gasped. I thought something bad had happened for a moment. Apparently everyone was shocked that he wanted to speak. When I asked the students why they were gasping, a very advanced student named Michelle said, “He’s an extremely shy boy. He never speaks.” I looked at him and then realized that he really never does speak. It’s so easy to miss students in a class of 45 kids. After he spoke everyone clapped and cheered. A scene like this is often what people imagine when you tell them you’re going to a country like China to be a volunteer teacher. If you have the white savoir complex, these kids will eat you alive. I’m not teaching out in the country side where students really don’t have many resources where I’m probably needed. I teach at one of the top 10 ranked high schools in the city and quite a few of the students are privileged. Don’t be fooled. Teaching is extremely hard, challenging, and quite tiring but it can also be extremely fun, especially when the students really get into a lesson like this. Every once in a while, you will have those movie moments. Moments like that is what makes being a teacher such a gift.
If you walk into any restaurant here, you will automatically be served with a cup of hot tea as soon as you’re seated. In the States it’s the exact opposite. When we walk into a restaurant we’re usually given a free cup of iced cold water. To Chinese people, this habit is weird. This isn’t simply a cultural difference of table manners; people believe hot tea and hot water is generally better for your health. I don’t know where the roots of this cultural belief begins. I am certainly more interested in Chinese medicine and would like to do some research on my own time. In the meantime, navigating cultural beliefs surrounding health can be difficult here. If you are sick with a cold the advice you’ll usually be given is to “Wear more clothes and drink hot water.” In this case, that makes since but then it starts to feel condescending when I have other health problems and again the advice that I receive is the same. If you have a stomach ache, “Wear more clothes and drink hot water.” If you have an ear infection, “Wear more clothes and drink hot water.” If you get food poisoning, “Wear more clothes and drink hot water.’” This type of advice is starting to drive me mad. One time I snapped at my liaison when I seriously felt I needed to go to the hospital as I was feeling extremely ill. In a sharp tone I spoke saying, “Warmth can’t fix every physical ailment.” Even when the weather changes, I’ve noticed clothing choice might not immediately change along with the seasons. People try to wear pants and long sleeves until it’s too hot and unbearable while foreigners start bringing out the sandals as soon as its 60 to 70 degrees outside.
In some ways China can be more progressive than America when it comes to what is acceptably masculine. Don’t get me wrong. There are still cultural expectations for men but in certain ways they aren’t always as strictly defined. For one thing (and of course I realize that U.S history, modern day sexism, and even racist policing has a huge effect on the absence of fathers in U.S households), fathers spend much more time with their children. I have never seen so many father figures constantly present in their children’s lives. Ideas surrounding marriage are still very conservative. Everyone is still expected to get married, sooner than later. For this reason, it’s very rare for me to see a single parent household. Divorce is very taboo. While they certainly happen, the rates are quite low compared to the U.S Dad’s are very involved in their children’s lives and due to the fact that China only recently changed its one child policy laws, most families still only have one child. Father’s give their children so much attention to the point of spoiling them.
As mentioned earlier, the test taking culture of the education system in China has left less room for social development so sometimes the students will cry or get angry about things that I can’t quite understand as I perceive them as being too old to cry about certain matters. Chinese culture is generally a group oriented society so when it comes to relationships, I find Chinese kids to be much more sensitive than American kids. I have seen many of my students, both middle and high school students cry. Whether it be about a bad grade, a fight with a friend, or something going on at home, students will display their emotions at times when I don’t expect. There are some students who clearly have anxiety issues around public speaking and will start to cry if I try to encourage them to speak. I’ve never seen so many boys allowed to cry publicly. For the record, I almost never see a Chinese man cry, but children and teenagers certainly will. Not only do boys cry more, from a Western perspective, they are more feminine. Chinese boys do things that would be misconstrued as them being gay in the U.S. While ideas of sexuality and masculinity are changing in the U.S, our general perception of manhood is still quite narrow. I often see my male students, especially high schoolers hug each other, hold each other, and sometimes they even sit on each other’s’ laps. Young people in China, generally show displays of affection more publicly for their friends. Although boys almost never do this, girls always hold hands with their best girlfriends. Even some of the friends I’ve made while being here will link their arm around mine or try to hold my hand. Some of my middle school female middle school students have even tried to kiss me. If anything I wish America could learn from China and allow kids, especially boys to cry more.
In other ways, Chinese men can be more masculine than American men. When it comes to relationships, American girls are much more independent. For Chinese girls who are of college age or around the age when women are expected to start getting married, having a man who can protect you, whether physically or financially is important. When I’ve had conversations in the past about relationships in China, most women have told me they want a man who: is kind, reliable with a decent job, tall, can lead or protect them well. This isn’t much different from what I’ve heard many American women express, however, the part about leading is what throws me off. The idea of a man leading, or taking care of things is something that I feel is quite strongly expected of Chinese men. Most people probably want to feel safe and protected with their partner, but the part about leading is what turns me off. It clearly doesn’t need to be stated. Much more pressure is put on men to be the breadwinner and take care of activities deemed to be masculine.
People often ask me here if I have a Chinese boyfriend, and if I don’t they recommend I try dating one. I’m often told that I’ll be treated like a princess. In some ways this is totally true. The gender gap between men and women is a big problem. Although the law has recently allowed for two children, China’s past one-child policy law affected today’s gender gap as most families preferred baby boys. Now there are too many men and finding a partner is difficult. For this reason there’s a stereotype that when a Chinese man finds a girlfriend, he showers her with gifts in order to keep her, get married, and secure a future. In this way, I agree that Chinese men can b extremely sweet and go over the top for their girlfriends. I find most Chinese men, my age, to be generally nice and respectful. (Older men is a different story). I was completely shocked my first time visiting China 5 years ago when I noticed no cat calling. Women could dress however they wanted and I rarely saw a man so much as look at even some of the most sensual outfits. I realize now that this is not because of some feminist utopia where men respect women’s’ bodies, it’s simply culturally unacceptable to call out to a woman. Sexism is simply less blunt here but it is certainly deeply ingrained in Chinese society, especially when it comes to the work force.
The machismo of Chinese men really comes out when men are gathered playing sports, card games (which often involves gambling), and drinking. I don’t particularly like to be around the men when any of these activities are taking place. Chinese men have a lot of pride, and even losing a friendly game of basketball can be like losing face. Often when I go to a city park, you can find the women line dancing and the men stuck in their own world playing mahjong (a traditional Chinse game) or cards. The atmosphere can often times be serious. It’s not always fun and games. Some of the old men who have retired have made this their permanent past time. I remember recently being invited by some of my high school students to see them play in the Senior 1 basketball tournament. Class 8 was playing against Class 3. The game was almost over. Everyone was watching, teachers and students alike cheering on their classmates and students with practiced chants. The best player on each respective team were going head to head. When Class 8 won, all of the male students from that class ran to the center of the court and tackled the MVP to the ground in excitement. The best player from Class 3 kicked the basketball to the sky in anger, then proceeded to kick a bottle of unopened Coke which then exploded. Continuing in his tantrum he stomps over to the fence and continuously kicks it while everyone in his class watches silently in embarrassment. I’m not sure which one was more violent, the losing team’s player’s anger or the winning team’s excitement. Both of the best players from both teams are very outgoing funny students. I usually think of them as very cute young charming young men who are balls of energy, always trying to keep the class atmosphere up, but watching them engage in such toxic masculinity in that moment really scared me. There was no mistaking; they were not my cute, charismatic students, they were 15 and 16 teenagers who would soon become men.
Relationships are much more conservative here. Students, particularly my high school students generally date in secret. In many schools, dating is not allowed at all. Students should be focusing on studying and don’t have much time for a relationship. As I mentioned in an earlier section. Asking a boy and girl to speak together can become an event. The high school students are used to working in mixed gender groups for projects or homework but even so, even my Senior 1’s could sometimes act like I’m asking them to get married by speaking together. By the second semester my Senior 1’s were used to my routines and got over that, however, I remember in the first semester, one time I asked a boy and girl to practice a dialogue together and the whole class burst out in the tune, “Here comes the bride, here comes the bride.” I once had a conversation with one of my Chinese friends who teaches at a public school about high school couples and she said, most of the teachers can spot who the couples are. As long as the student are discreet they usually won’t say anything, however if you are the head teacher (homeroom teacher) and you know two students are dating, and you say nothing, you can get into trouble. As the head teacher it’s their responsibility to report such things to the parents. I then continued to ask about sex education and she said, it generally doesn’t exist.
Most students find out from friends, the internet, or during college time how sex actually works. It’s not uncommon for young people not to know the details about sex. It’s simply not a topic that most schools or parents will have with their students. My class is very laid back, I’m a young teacher, and I’m American so it seems that the students are more comfortable with me when it comes to anything related to dating. I’ve seen some couples holding hands or playing footsy in my class. When I’ve told other co-workers about this, they seem surprised. In some ways as the foreign teacher the students are more open with us, because they assume we’re liberal and they know we will only be there teaching a short time. Some students have even told me they’re bi or gay. Generally speaking, just like anywhere around the world, the young people are more liberal. While many of the boys can be immature and sometimes use the word “gay” to describe something that happens as a joke (which I constantly have to get on them for) they generally don’t seem to care about people’s sexuality. Just like the States, girls are allowed to be more transparent about their sexuality. In China there are a lot of girls who have a boy’s haircut, dress masculine, and sometimes identify as gay. I have quite a few female high school students like this. They are usually quite confident, and popular with the female students. Some of them I know for certain are dating some of their female classmates. If you want to find n LGBTQ+ community in China, you’ll probably have to move to one of the big cities otherwise it could be very difficult. I live in a mid-sized city so there isn’t a very big community here. Nonetheless, you can find people, usually on one of the online dating apps. In general you will see same sex couples but they are always young people. Most people don’t comment on sexuality one way or another. It’s just a taboo topic.
How my perception of China and America changed:
While still a fairly short time I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to live in China for a year. I’ve been to China twice before. My first time was 5 years ago during my freshman year of college. At that time I didn’t know any Chinese and I only stayed in Beijing for a few weeks taking a history seminar. The second time I studied abroad for a semester in Chengdu, (the capital city of Sichuan province in Southwest China).While I was able to learn more about Chinese culture, my experience was limiting as I was usually in the dorms or academic building studying Mandarin for hours. I was also in a completely foreign bubble living in the international student dorm. While I still feel like I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface, my current understanding of China has changed since my first two times. Not only has my perception of China changed, but my perception of the U.S is also much different. For example I realized how obsessed we are with cleanliness. In China it’s not uncommon to walk into a bathroom with no toilet paper or soap. In fact, almost everyone I know, including foreigners, carry tissue around with them. If I walk into a bathroom and there’s toilet paper, I’m surprised. Places that provide these two things are usually either western and upscale restaurants, or hotels. China is simultaneously clean and dirty. For one, street cleaning is a regular employed job. All along the main roads are workers sweeping and watering down the roads and sidewalks. Generally speaking, most streets are kept clean. However, roads that aren’t taken care of, perhaps in residency neighborhoods, or back alley streets lined with dozens of restaurants, can be more than unpleasant. In fact, it’s not so unusual to see parents or grandparents allowing toddlers to use the bathroom in the street. There are baby clothes that are even made with the intention of allowing instant relief. It’s usually a pair of pants with a huge whole cut out where the butt is. For baby boys there’s also a whole for the front side. I’ve lost count of how many baby buts I have seen at this point.
Americans regularly carry around things like hand wipes or sanitary bottles. While I do see some Chinese girls carry hand sanitizer, most people seem just fine with washing their hands and no soap. If you go to a restaurant sometimes they’ll seat you before the table has been cleared from the guest who were there before. Service can often be subpar from a Western perspective. Sometimes I walk into a restaurant and have to seek out the waiters myself before being seated with a menu. Although this is a minor detail, it actually really irritates me that after being seated in a restaurant no matter how many people are seated at the table, there’s only one menu. I’ve adopted the habit of immediately asking for two or three after being seated since I usually go out to eat with a group. While some restaurants have a no smoking policy or a designated area for smokers, many restaurants and other facilities still don’t bother with smoking regulations. Smoking is still quite common. In fact cigarettes can often times be a quick and simple gift to build guanxi. I’ve seen more than a few of my own students off school grounds while out for lunch smoking. There is a growing stigma around smoking in China, but in many cases it’s still quite acceptable to smoke in public.
I have no idea why there is always a shortage of napkins or tissue but I am assuming it probably has to do with China’s population and need to preserve resources. Considering that China has some of the world’s highest pollution rates, I find it ironic that it’s actually quite environmentally friendly in more ways than I find in the U.S. People are much less wasteful here. When you walk into a restaurant, it’s not common to have napkins set on the table, and if you need napkins the restaurant can charge you and add it to your bill. For my senior students, I teach from a textbook that I’m required to follow so all of the content is already in the book. For my juniors, I can teach them however I like so I often teach them content that’s not from their textbook meaning they have to write down all the new words on paper. They’re extremely stingy about lending paper to classmates who don’t have any and even if they have paper they will use every possible white space. Some students will have English class notes mixed with Math and History class notes. They will use every last piece of paper and fill up every space until they have no choice but to buy a new notebook. There are also recycling trashcans everywhere in English and Chinese so there’s no mistaking what to put where. Of course there are people who are wasteful and don’t recycle, however every city I’ve traveled to in China has an army of recycling bins. As mentioned earlier more people also take motorbikes, many of which are e-bikes (which run on electricity) and just as many people use bikes to get around. Depending on what street you’re walking down, the city can be very clean and beautiful, or it can be one of the dirtiest sites you’ve ever seen. Major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Xi’An, Hangzhou and many more regularly have electric powered buses for transportation. Because China has such a bad reputation with its pollution rates, the government is really pushing for people to change their habits and to make China more technologically efficient and safe for the environment.
My perception of class has also changed. As someone who grew up class privileged in the suburbs of Maryland in the DMV area (Washington D.C, Maryland, Virginia), I have very high expectations and an unrealistic standard of living. When I applied to World Teach I knew what I was signing up for. As a volunteer teacher I knew my apartment wouldn’t be extravagant but it still shocked me when I first walked into my new home. I walked into an old, rickety place with wholes and marks on the walls. The entire apartment was filled with huge white, stained tiles, which is standard for most apartments in China. The curtains in the living room and the bedrooms were very old and grimy, and the colors of the curtains were an unattractive tan, off white color. The bathroom is situated in the kitchen which made no sense to me. The toilet is in the same room as the shower, which again, is quite standard here, even in some hotels. There was nowhere to sit and eat, my furniture is basically poorly put together plastic made to look like wooden furniture. The cabinets in the kitchen are extremely old and also an ugly tan color. My counter tops were chipping and still are. And this is the part where I’ll really sound spoiled. There was no stove, oven, dishwasher, or microwave. I know, first world problems. Even in upscale apartments in the city center, having a built-in oven is a luxury. Some homes come with a built-in stove top which is almost always run on gas but it’s quite common for people to have hotplates or portable stoves, which is what I have. When I try to describe Western ovens to Chinese people I usually end up having to pull up a picture from the internet to show what it looks like. This is usually followed by a question asking me what the need for something so big is for and then another comment about how Americans are so rich. If you want to bake something you can go to the store and buy a portable oven but even those are only so big. As you probably could have guessed, we didn’t have turkey during our Thanksgiving dinner celebration. Water is also a luxury as water from the sink is unsafe. Most people either buy bottled water or have portable water filters. There are men whose job it is to deliver water jugs to homes. They usually deliver them on motor bikes. They’re also quite strong as they’re used to having to climb countless flights of stairs carrying huge jugs of water on their back. It’s a labor intensive job.
As time went by I was able to make myself feel more at home. I bought some cheap dining tables and stools at a nearby shop. I bought a rack to stack my dishes since my cabinets are so old. I bought cushioning for the hard plastic wooden like benches. I bought slippers for my guest, so when people enter they can take off their shoes and not mess up my white tiled floors. Now I understand why every home I’ve ever been to has an entrance for shoes and slippers. Everyone has white tiled floors. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen carpet, nonetheless wood in anyone’s home, unless it’s laminated. I bought extra pillows and made up my beds nicely, (for the record, I love interior design so I had a project to work with). I bought some cheap cots for guest to sleep in for the third bedroom, and was able to get my school to replace my very old, deteriorating bed set. I live in a huge 3 bedroom apartment with a kitchen, living room, and dining room. I changed my way of thinking and realized that since the toilet is in the same room as the shower, my bathroom is always clean. It receives a daily bath. My apartment would normally house an entire family. There’s nothing to complain about. I have plenty of space so I host friends almost every weekend. I love the space and have forgotten all of the things I used to hate about my apartment. Now I love it.
One thing that I’m really grateful that being in China has forced me to change, is my perception of having material. While quality and goods are desired, convenience and practicality is more important. I care much less about style and quality than I ever have in my life. I’ve adopted to some of China’s way of thinking which is, “As long as this functions properly then its fine.” I didn’t realize how bad it was before, but Americans are super sensitive to quality or how something appears. I’ve been to the homes of middle class Chinese people who live in nice modern apartments who have designed their home in ways that don’t make any sense to me. I remember when I was trying to shop for pillows, rugs, curtains, and blankets to make my apartment more homey and colorful but it was so hard to find things that matched. It was hard to find a consistent color scheme. There would be a beautiful plate set with no matching cups or silverware. When you walk into a Wal-Mart or Target if you wanted to, you could style your home quite nicely for a pretty cheap price. It’s hard for me to do that here. Even buying hangers, there were no white, black, or silver hangers. I wanted bland matching hangars but every store I have been to has them in rainbow colors. Going to shops for basic necessities in a regular supermarket feels like walking through a tacky, mismatched, garish world of stuff. Truthfully, I gave up on designing my apartment the way I wanted to. If you really want to design your house nicely or simply find bland colors and consistent matching color schemes (it’s hard just to find black trash bags) you’ll have to go to a linens or furniture store where the prices are extremely expensive.
At this point, I can’t fathom what I was so disappointed with when I first moved in. I’m extremely spoiled and privileged and haven’t gotten over myself. I may have bought a few things to make myself feel more comfortable but the holes and cracks in the walls are still there. The white tiled floor still dirties easily. I still have chipped counters and old furniture. I’m happy with the practicality of my apartment, especially since visiting the homes of friends and co-workers. My apartment is very nice but in America it would probably be perceived as quite poor. If you look at pictures of China from a documentary you’ll often see old, grimy looking apartments stacked one on top of the other. The automatic assumption is often poverty. The outside appearance of homes in China is often times not an indicator of class or the quality of the interior. Having no curve appeal, ugly dirty walls from the outside, even elevators with wooden floors that look like they’re still being constructed on, are not enough to know about the quality of the actual homes. From the outside, the most dingy looking apartment complexes can often times be the most modern on the inside, especially in the city center. From the outside, my apartment complex looks quite poor and old but most of my neighbors are families who have established themselves and have nice renovated homes. China has forced me to perceive quality, style, design, and my perception of what is or isn’t living in poverty completely differently. Even the salaries my co-workers and I receive working as public school teachers here would be considered under the poverty line for some in the States but most of my co-workers live a working or middle class life by Chinese standards. Things are simply much cheaper and you don’t need a lot of money to do things that would be expensive in the States.
I know this commentary was long but I hope you enjoyed it. While this is my 3rd
time in China, I was only living in Changsha for a year. There are many things I’m certain I still don’t understand and maybe never will. My perspective is biased as I come from a Western, American background. There are some things that I wrote that others might disagree with and that is completely fine. I am always anxious to learn so if I’ve written anything that I may have misconstrued, I look forward to hearing about your own personal experiences. Comments are welcomed as long as they are appropriate, meaning racism will not be tolerated. If you have any comments or questions please refer to my contact info at the beginning of this piece. Thanks for reading ad I hope I was able to paint a clearer picture of my time here in China.
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