Being Blond in China

Imagine getting off the plane and arriving in China to find yourself engulfed in a sea of black hair. The people would stare at you and point like you were some strange anomaly; a wild animal that has escaped from the zoo. You’d be an easy target, so don’t bother breaking the law, lest you desire being found within ten seconds of committing the crime.

Chinese people have a wide range of responses to foreigners: curiosity, excitement, fear, and disgust are just a few. I have experienced all of these, and even several times made grown-ups cry and run away in the opposite direction. I’m not joking.

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At first, these responses to your presence are humorous, as they seem irrational, but later you come to understand it’s just curiosity. Despite knowing this, it can slowly grate on your nerves. To them, you are one foreigner, something shiny and new. To you, a billion people find you odd and want to prod you. It happens every day for as long as you live there, and it will never stop.

The excited Chinese are the best because they are interested in talking with you and understanding the outside world. Many Chinese who can’t speak English are still excited by your presence, and so it’s best to learn Chinese so you can speak with the majority of the population, however most expats just get involved with English-speaking Chinese and have them translate.

Fear and disgust are just completely irrational responses in our minds, but it’s wise to understand their recent history before you judge them. They have been oppressed for eight of the last eleven decades, and had to fight off Nationalists, then the Japanese, then themselves. They have been “opened up to the world” for the last 40 years, but they have many more decades to go before we are just “normal” to them. And that’s OK!

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There are two ways to deal with these reactions while living in China. The first way is by being nonchalant. Why should one be bothered by the curiosity of strangers? In fact, with nonchalance you can even leverage yourself to create great friendships and at the same time bridge the cultural gap and de-mystify the “foreigner.” Those who fear you can be slowly turned into a great friend by approaching them slowly and showing them there is nothing to be afraid of, but good luck getting close enough to touch them! Those who disgust you are a lot further off and should be ignored.

The second way to cope is that of greater resistance, and one I despise. The expats who decided to say something back are the worst ones because they have no sense of compassion. They might scream, yell, act like an animal, or comment on the Chinese person’s behavior, and overall be rude. This only furthers their negative feelings for us, and makes bridging gaps more difficult.

Overall, living in another culture is hard no matter how much you want to going into it. It takes roughly 6 months to become comfortable with your surroundings there, and that’s okay even though it might be a very difficult time and you might want to go home. But you deal, and you do it because you made the decision to move. You are a representative of your country, your government, and your culture, and it behooves you to create understanding, instead of fostering contempt. So don’t worry about the negative responses you get as a foreign citizen in a new place, embrace it and your assimilation will become easier!

Chinese New Year

When I think of Spring Festival in China, images of red packets filled with money, heaps of food on the dinner table, and a seemingly endless barrage of fireworks comes to mind. But what does it all mean? Well, Spring Festival is the most important holiday for the Chinese culture, as it is their New Year celebration. Not only is it the longest holiday, but also the most expensive. It is estimated that during the 40 day period leading up to and following this holiday, 3.2 billion trips made by 300 million people will be made on the train network in China.

The official day this year is January 23rd, and earlier than the last few years. The weeks leading up to the holiday, people begin buying tickets to go home, as well as gifts to return with. People cram together like sardines on trains, making terribly long journeys to villages still relatively unknown to the West. Families anxiously await the arrival of loved ones at the station, but you won’t see them greet with a hug or kiss. They either walk, or take small private vans to their homes, where a feast is waiting to happen.

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Hours, if not days, are spent in agony bent over a fire cutting vegetables, slaughtering and cleaning meat. The younger family members clean the home from top to bottom to prevent the bad from last year from haunting good fortune happening in the new year. This opportunity will give them the chance to start fresh, and forgive all wrongdoing. When the feast is ready, the entire family gathers together and serves each other, the elderly eating before the young.

The men drink a clear alcohol called “bai jiu,” or “white wine,” which resembles more like moonshine than wine. In between glasses of bai jiu, the men smoke their favorite cigarettes and gulp food. The women take care of the children, making sure they’ve all eaten. Once the meal is finished, the women clean up and the men prepare the fireworks.

Red packets get passed out, and bubbling children shake them franticly in the hopes of determining how much money is inside. In the eyes of the Chinese, the more money you give, the closer you are to that person. It is not uncommon to receive huge sums of money, upwards of 500rmb (equivalent to $90 USD). To give you an idea, the average Chinese person only earns 1500rmb a month, and this is quite difficult to survive on.

Drunken men regress to children as they blow things up with fireworks, and then join the children in playing games. These activities last for several days. Bittersweet memories cleanly etched into the minds of the younger generations, they sadly pack their things and cram back onto trains to return home to the city and await the next holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Flickr users scazon and tanakawho via a creative commons license.

Do You Eat Dog?

Having lived in Asia, the question most asked by those who’ve never been is “Have you eaten <insert completely random animal/thing>?”

The answer is, I’ve eaten a lot of crazy things, but we’ll get to that later. The first thing I want to clarify is that, yes, they DO eat cats and dogs in China, but typically only the uneducated. It is also true that they love taking these animals as pets in their homes, and NO they don’t eat their pets. They are probably crazier about their pets than we are, and they tend to not use leashes in public.

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I have an American friend with an awesome dog that just follows him around. He goes in taxis, on buses, chases after him while he’s on the skateboard, etc. The animals that get eaten are strays, and although I’d NEVER indulge the curiosity of what animal a dog or cat most closely resembles to my tastebuds, I can say I’ve come across these restaurants.  I’ve also never had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing them hung from hooks, gutted and skinned, however I’ve heard markets exist where these sights are commonplace.

When I ask Chinese people if they’ve eaten dogs or cats, the common reply is “no! only peasants would do that!” It seems that my generation is much more open-minded about human/animal rights, but still a bit close-minded and class-oriented in other ways, which is an altogether different beast I wish to not let out of the cage.

You might see the picture of the scorpions on a stick, and you’re probably wondering if I ate them, right? The answer is also NO! The thought of consuming something with an exoskeleton and claws isn’t quite appealing, when lamb kebabs were being served in the stall immediately to it’s left. (Author’s note: I downed the kebabs in under a minute).

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All in all, I’d consider donkey to be the craziest thing I’ve ever eaten. Served cool and sliced thin, you would imagine it was raw beef, but once you pick it up with your chopsticks and put it in your mouth, your brain informs you it’s nothing of the sort. Thankfully, I was told in advance what I was getting myself into, so I opted to try it, but it’s definitely not something I’d care to eat given another chance.

As I was writing the article, I came across this gem, so please give it a read: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2011-10/17/content_13909761.htm

Chinese Culture: Saving Face

Travelers in China often struggle to really understand the cultural concept of “face.” The Eastern idea of “face” is that at ALL times the giving of “face” (making someone look good) must be maximized while the loss of “face” (preventing yourself or others from looking bad) must be minimized. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves and look good (who doesn’t?) to others, so it’s a massive blow to a person’s reputation or self-image if they are brought down. The giving of “face” is  especially important towards those older than you, and especially superiors at work.

For example,  as an English language teacher, when I spoke to a student in Chinese, he or she might use “nin” when referring to me, although I would use “ni.” The extra “n” at the end displays respect for the person with whom you are speaking, however this is a dying trend. Other examples of giving “face” could be bringing a nice gift to someone who has invited you into their home, something not very common because people tend to meet in public as most homes are usually quite small.

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Paying for dinner, can be quite tricky. Meals are paid by one person only, and depending on how you pay, you can be making someone lose “face”! For example, by me paying for four other friends it gives me “face”, but if someone else was the one who did the inviting, he might feel like I made him lose “face”, even though in the West this would not be an issue.

[Ed Note: We heard a story of an executive of Microsoft coming to China to give a speech.  At the end of the speech he asked for questions and received none.  This speaker was annoyed because he felt as though his audience hadn’t been listening.  In fact, the opposite was true!  The audience did not want to disrespect the speaker and cause him to lose “face” by asking questions and implying that the speech did not contain all the necessary information.]

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“Face” is extremely complicated, and many foreigners living in China tend to struggle with this aspect of Chinese culture and often give up because it is difficult to understand.  In reality, people who wish to save “face” can deny their involvement and avoid responsibility and blame underlings, which makes getting things done (or getting justice) difficult. The funny thing is that many people in China assume all cultures give and save “face” like they do, and from my experience many youth are jealous that Westerners don’t have to deal with “face” the way they do.

There have been many times where I caused others to lose “face” and it caused trouble for me and my relationships (called “guanxi,” or “connections”). I realized later what I had done and felt bad for it, but knew I would have an opportunity later to give them “face” to save my own “face”!

Chinese Acupuncture

Chinese Traditional Medicine is often looked upon as insane by Westerners. When I first moved to China, I would actually get upset at medical professionals when they told me the medicine or procedure I was looking for would not work, instead recommending tea or acupuncture. Eventually I realized I should heed their advice and visit an acupuncturist. After all, many of Asia’s medical practices have been around for over 5000 years, something pointed out to me almost daily.

I took a trip to the doctor and took off my shoes and socks as instructed. Sam, ironically the name of my Chinese doctor, took out a box of needles and made it a point to show me they were sterile before ripping open the package. He asked me where my pain was and was shocked at how many achy spots I had for my age, then he got to work cleaning some skin and then….

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Then he STABBED me with a needle.

Ok, it was more like a quick jab followed by a twist. The twist makes it so that the nerves tighten up. A little twist and there is a little bit of pain, so he twisted until the pain went away.

My stomach churned whilst I watched the needles plunge quickly into my skin, but it was over just as it had begun. When I thought we were finished, he walked away without saying a word. A minute later, Sam returned with a machine unfamiliar to me. He explained it was going to send electrical pulses to the needles, which would make the tissue surrounding the needle jump. Sam continued by saying this would not hurt, but in fact relieve the pain because it allowed the tissue to relax and heal itself. All I could think about was how completely unnatural the needles and electrical stimulation felt to my body.

He turned it on slowly so as not to make the pulse too strong. It felt….weird! He had me lay still for a full 20 minutes before he began removing the needles from my body. When he finished, I couldn’t stand up! My muscles were just that relaxed.

Next, Sam offered to cup me, which clearly required further explanation. The procedure required that he take a glass bowl and place a flame inside it so it ate up all the oxygen. With the oxygen gone, Sam would quickly place the bowl on my back so as to suck the toxins from my body while also increasing blood flow to the area….and giving me some serious circular bruises for a few weeks.

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The pain of the cups sucking on my skin was much more than I had anticipated and far stronger than the acupuncture had been but I managed to grin and bared it. Twenty minutes later, I was a free man. I shook Sam’s hand and dashed out of the hospital as quickly as I could.

In time I grew to love acupuncture. Although I still hate the process, it actually makes me feel better. I’ve gone back nine times since that first trip and can’t wait for my next treatment.

IF YOU GO: Acupuncturists in China are like lawyers in America, they’re everywhere! The procedure is affordable for everyone. If you go to China and want to give this a shot be sure to ask around for recommendations. The first time you do something like this you’ll want it to be a bit ‘gentler’ and if you don’t speak the language you’ll either need a translator to help you through it or you’ll need to find an English-speaking doctor.