The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

New Habits Die Hard

Over the last year, I’ve admittedly cracked a fair share of jokes about the daily interactions and reactions I’ve witnessed here in China that I’ve deemed peculiar, or just plain weird. Whether my wisecracks were bred out of my own cultural ignorance or justified bemusement remains to be seen. However, what has become very apparent to me is that I, myself, have picked up quite a few quirks and impulses, which—as I look toward my highly anticipated return home at the end of this week—might strike some of my fellow countrymen as well…weird.

Now, I’m not so audacious as to say that after just one year, I’ve somehow fully assimilated to China’s incredibly complex culture. But I will say that living here has definitely left me with a few new idiosyncrasies that might be hard to drop upon my return to the states. Here are a just a few of the reentrance, readjustment issues I imagine I’ll face:

1. “And I’m like ‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’”— Ok, I’m not trying to sound conceited or anything, but I’m like kind of a big deal here. :o) I imagine life for me here has been somewhat comparable to that of a D-List celebrity. People stare and whisper when you walk by, children giggle with excitement when you wave at them, restaurants seat you in VIP rooms, businesses give you free stuff and VIP cards, everybody wants to take pictures of you or with you (I even once caught a guy snapping a picture of me behind a tree in a park—the China-razzi.) People are always going on about how cool you are and asking you things about your fabulous American life (and then, going back and telling their friends what a dumb, conceited, loser you are.) Anyway, it might be possible that I’ve developed a little bit of a complex here. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a shock to my inflated ego not to have people constantly staring and pointing at me anymore or asking to touch my magical hair. I imagine I will, in turn, end up doing most of the staring from now on, trying desperately to lock eyes with just one intrigued individual in order to once again validate my own self-importance (In the end, I’ll probably just gain the attention of some weird, creepy guy hanging out in a subway station.) 

2.  The Non-existent Language Barrier—One time, while shopping at a Western import store here, I saw an American woman that I recognized. As I passed her, I looked directly at her and said to my friend quite loudly, “You see that woman, right there, I know her, but I cannot remember her name.” Then, it immediately struck me: This woman speaks English…She can understand me right now. I even opened my mouth to share this divine revelation with my friend…and then, I realized that once again this woman would understand if I said that, too. That’s when it hit me…I’ve gotten so used to people having no idea what I’m saying, that it’s become habitual for me to voice whatever thought about them pops into my head—however, obnoxious—as I stare them right in the face. It’s actually kind of scary how accustomed I’ve become to it. I’m seriously afraid that when I get back to the states I’m going to see someone I know and just half-wittedly blurt out something like, “Wow, well she sure gained a lot of weight, now, didn’t she?”

3. “Are you gonna eat that?”—In most restaurants and during most meals in general here, food is served family-style, which means one big bowl for everyone to share. It is perfectly fine to continually pick food out of the communal dish or off your friends’ plates without asking, even after your chopsticks are covered in your own saliva. Sanitary concerns aside, I’ve actually come to really enjoy eating in this fashion. It emphasizes sharing and truly embracing the company you keep (and plus, at restaurants I was always that kid who wanted to try whatever everyone else was eating) Anyway, given my voracious affinity for any and all food, I could see myself, almost unconsciously, grabbing something from somebody else’s plate without so much as an “Are you gonna eat that?” Let me just preemptively apologize to all my friends for that now :o)

4. 15% PLUS Gratuity???—Tipping. Ugh! We’re back to that again? For a glorious 372 days now, I have not been obligated to leave a single extra cent for any service offered in the fine People’s Republic of China. In fact, I was told that offering a tip would actually insult most employees in the service sector here, including taxi drivers. It’s considered condescending. However, I honestly wasn’t all that interested in the reasons behind it as much as the savings behind it. I’m sure I must have literally saved thousands in RMB simply by not tipping. It’s such a beautiful thing! But alas, in a few short days, I will be back to a world where waiters, taxi drivers, cashiers, bellhops, bagboys and even people who just hand you a paper towel on your way out of the bathroom expect some sort of financial compensation for their mediocre service. I know, I sound like a stingy, insensitive elitist (and maybe I am), but seriously, you deal with New York customer service for three years, and then talk to me about freakin’ gratuity for a job half done. Sorry...thinking about this has obviously brought up some deep-seeded emotions.

5.  Full-contact Walking?—One thing I really don’t think I’ll be able to shake for a while is the constant urge to look over my shoulder when walking. No, not because I’m afraid of being followed. It’s because I’m afraid of being hit…by a car. In China (or Dalian, at least), cars drive on the sidewalk. They also drive on the wrong side of the road…in between lanes…through red lights…through buildings…Let me be clear, there are 101 stereotypes about Chinese people that are absolutely not true (they don’t all look alike by any stretch of the imagination, they aren’t all good at math, they definitely aren’t all short, the women are not docile and submissive…) BUT that one about the driving…Yeah, TOTALLY TRUE. I am so sorry to concede to this, but it is what it is.       

Then, there’s all the other miscellaneous habits…greeting everyone I see with an over-inflected “Hel-looo!”…staring at perfect strangers for uncomfortably long periods of time…haggling with salespeople…answering every question with “dui” (meaning “correct”) or “uh” (meaning everything else depending on your tone)…using mime-like hand motions when using nouns or verbs with more than one syllable.

Who really knows at this point if any of the above will even stick with me at all once I get off that plane. I might just be a product of my current environment. But if they do last and I find myself ostracized by an abundance of irritated and weirded-out American friends…well, there’s always room in Chinatown. :o)

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