Culture Shock: It Goes Both Ways

America. The grass, it was green. I found myself in the Chicago, O’hare airport staring out the window (which was so clean you wouldn’t even know it was there) at the beautiful grass. It was perfectly manicured and not a fleck of brown could be spotted! It was lush and healthy. Oh, how pretty! I could’ve stared at it all day. Like a child, I commented to Neal, “Look at how pretty the grass is!” He, clearly not as enthused as I, replied, “Yeah.” Listening to me, you would have thought I’d never seen green grass in my life. In reality, it had only been a year. A year was long enough to forget how perfectly stunning and wonderful something as simple as grass could be.

It wasn’t our plan to spend our short summer in the states. Circumstances left us with no choice. So, back we went. It turned out to be exactly what I needed… right when I needed it. Culture shock was setting in hard and heavy during that last month in China. Every little thing was getting under my skin and my Mandarin was hardly up to par.

People talking about me (right in front of me) in the market was aggravating. “Where do you think she’s from? Probably Germany.” “Look at her child, she needs to put more clothes on her.” “Do you think she’s married to a Chinese man? Or maybe she’s working here.” I felt like telling them I could understand what they were saying about me and that I found it rude. I couldn’t seem to get the sentences out, so instead I listened… and fumed. Even if I had said something, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The conversation would have carried right on without a glitch. And that too was annoying.

Perfect strangers rubbed Lois’ face as if she was a doll. They even called her a “foreign” doll.

People gave me their opinion about everything. “You shouldn’t wear high heals when you’re pregnant. You’re hurting your baby.” “Don’t drink cold water, it’s bad for your health.” “Put more clothes on your child, she’ll get sick!”

I was rude to turn down any food offered to me, while my own Western dishes were declined with a wrinkled nose and an odd stare.

In WuMart I was approached by a perfect stranger. A man, who appeared to be younger than myself, came within just a few feet of Lois and my pregnant self and without a word, started snapping pictures of us. You can imagine that in my pregnant state, I wasn’t very welcoming of candid photos. He finished his business of invading our space and concluded with a “thank you” before turning and walking away. I all-too-quickly snapped back, “You didn’t even ask us, so why are you thanking us?” He didn’t reply and I left the market… fuming.

All of these experiences and many more were piling up to a mountain of culture shock. America was a welcome sight. I was expecting all of my troubles to disappear with the rumble of the plane wheels on the tarmac. And for a while that is exactly what happened. I soaked up every ounce of everything that I had missed. I was carefree and relaxed. However, after eating my weight in queso dip and hitting all my favorite stores within four days of arriving, I found myself less than fulfilled. I missed home. After only two weeks I was missing the sights and sounds of China. I was even missing all the free advice!

It was then that American culture shock set in. I was expecting culture shock in China. After all, everything about the place went directly against my grain. I was adapting to a completely opposite way of life than what I was used to. I was NOT expecting to culture shock in the states. I wasn’t expecting to find myself opening my mouth to speak a Chinese word only to remember at the last second that this was an English speaking country. A slight twinge of sadness always pricked me when that happened. I missed it. I wasn’t expecting to find myself constantly making excuses for Lois. She would say, “shu shu hao” (a common and respectful greeting to older men) to strangers in restaurants or stores. In the beginning I would tell them, “Oh we live in China and she’s greeting you in Chinese, she’s not talking baby talk.” Most people just shrugged it off and after a while I simply stopped explaining. There were a few occasions when Lois saw a cellphone and automatically smiled at it. More explaining. “In China she gets photographed every time she leaves the house. She doesn’t LOVE the camera, she’s just used to always having to smile when she sees one.” Again, no one was interested. Our friends and family were patient and understanding, but life outside of that was different. It was awkward and I felt oddly out of place. I was still me, yet there was a whole part of me that no one knew a lick about or would even expect. And so, I tried my best to bury it for our few weeks there.

Coming back to China, TWO babies in tow, I was over-joyed. This was our life. This was the plan God had for us. All of a sudden, those little things that were driving me crazy when we left were the very things I found myself smiling at and embracing when we returned. A dear sweet friend of ours approached me only a few days after arriving to remind me that our newborn should have a hat on every single day. I smiled, threw my arm around her old shoulders and told her I loved her and had missed her. She returned the love and hug and I was smiling on the inside at the irony of how perfectly happy her comment had made me.

Culture shock comes and goes. As we change and grow and accept new people and places, we are challenged. The more we overcome these challenges, the more this place becomes a part of us and the harder it is to keep China and our family here from creeping into our hearts and changing us.

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Finally Home

The days are getting hotter, much hotter. My belly is getting bigger. My baby, well, she’s a toddler now and a big sister at that. Am I too young to be thinking that life is flying by way too fast? I want to stop it. I want to freeze time, but it seems the seconds keep on ticking by and the sun continues to rise and set. The other day I listened to Neal tickle Lois in the living room. Her sweet uncontrollable laugh mixed with his loud roars was the sound of perfection. I soaked it up and smiled to myself while the baby inside me kicked and squirmed. What could I want more than all of this? Sometimes I forget that I live in China. While life outside is full of reminders that I’m not from around here, when I’m with my little family I just absorb them and forget to realize that I’m in a “different” place living a “different” life.

Every time I leave my home I get stared at, pointed at and even photographed. It doesn’t really bother me. Sometimes I stare back and play the game, then I applaud myself when they break the stare first. Sometimes I get cheeky and stick out my tongue when a complete stranger practices no discretion in the process of taking a picture. They already think I’m strange enough to take a random picture of me, so why not make it interesting!

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Lois being photographed in Tiananmen Square

While riding the bus one day, we stopped at a red light and another bus pulled up next to mine. A few elderly people from the other bus caught sight of me and I could read their lips as they expressed “外国人!” or “a foreigner!” The staring continued and I imagine they had a long conversation about which country they thought I was from and what I could possibly be doing here in China. I shrugged and looked away. It’s normal. At times I don’t even notice it. I even manage to forget that I’m different sometimes. I forget until I catch a stare or over-hear people chattering about me.

One day I was buying fruit at our local market and I over-heard an elderly lady say “Look at the foreigner!” I turned to her and teasingly asked, “Where’s the foreigner!?” She immediately responded in a matter-of-fact voice, finger pointed in my direction, “YOU are the foreigner.” I slipped a chuckle and she grinned. I couldn’t help but be amused by how she felt the need to stress that I, indeed, was a foreigner. I had thought it rather obvious and didn’t see the need to inform all of the other strangers there that I was a foreigner, but clearly she thought she was the only one to have noticed. She continued to ask a long strand of questions and I politely answered each of them to the best of my abilities. She looked long and hard and made every possible observation. It was simply another day in China. I walked home with my groceries and then spilled the story to Neal as soon as I walked in the door. I spent the rest of the day trying to understand why the white skin and accent was so terribly captivating.

Then one day I understood. I made the connection. It was the day l I noticed an older white man walking across my school campus. I stared and said to my class-mate, “look, a white person!” I shocked myself. How dare I! I had pointed and gawked and stated the obvious! Being the only white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed person at my school, I was always the receiver of such comments and stares and yet there I sat doing the very thing I had found it impossible to answer “why” to. I laughed at myself and exclaimed, “I’m SO Chinese!”

I continue to have little moments that connect me to this place and culture. Little by little I notice changes that I’ve unconsciously made.  I’ve carved out a new way of thinking and a new opinion of “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.

Friends in the neighbourhood

Friends in the neighbourhood

The day I walked arm-in-arm with my friend and didn’t feel the least bit awkward was a definite give-away that I am not the same girl I used to be. My friend and I simply get off the bus, link arms and walk to school together. It happens every day and no-one looks twice or thinks it weird.

Somehow I’ve become accustomed to things that were initially uncomfortable and weird to me. Somehow I’ve learned to love and appreciate (and even adopt) many of the Chinese ways. Neal and I spent two hours drinking tea the other night. We went to a friend’s house for a tea ceremony and drank tea from 200-year-old tea leaves. We loved it. We even have our own little tea set to do it ourselves at home. Somehow I just changed. I stopped being shocked by anything and everything different. I almost expect it now. A switch has slowly been flipped and with no warning at all, I became a different person. Not completely different for I’ll never be completely like the Chinese. And yet, I have a strange feeling that I’ll never again be completely Canadian either. It’s a funny feeling and I’m not sure exactly how to deal with it yet.

And then there’s home.

Home. don’t know when it happened, but this vast, culturally rich country became my home. This smoggy, people-packed city became my city. This little community filled with murky ponds and far too many dogs became my community. It’s not just “the place we live.” It’s home. For years I was telling people that I would be moving to Beijing, China. When we first arrived I was largely out-of-place and I was simply “living” here. It was always that far-off place. Lately, however, it’s been this place, my home. It just happened. I’ve disconnected a small part of me that once held strong ties to the “true north strong and free.” I’ve not only left North America, but the roots have been cut. It feels strangely normal to call this place home. It’s an experience I don’t understand well enough myself to clearly convey it to others.

This has been my last few months. It has been the switch from everything being new, crazy, adventurous and foreign to things being familiar, normal, comforting and finally home.

The Eating Thing

Wrinkled. Weathered. Worn.

These were the hands that held out a piece of corn to Lois and I. I smiled and tried to politely refuse. (It never works). I took the corn. Neal has taught me that when the Chinese give you food, you eat it. Simple as that. To not eat it is rude, showing a great disrespect. I shoved all hesitation from my mind and enthusiastically chomped down. I shared with Lois and she ate more vigorously than I.

We were just there to get some pictures printed. I didn’t even know her! She didn’t know me! Why would she do that? It’s so…

I chuckled to myself. This custom is one I would have to learn to love.

Neal was going to be a while at the print shop so I stepped out into the courtyard of the small shopping complex. Little stores lined the square with tiny homes nestled above each one. The occasional dog could be found making a meal of the garbage littering the street. Bikes and scooters crowded the small, uneven road.

I ventured across the street to buy my favorite bread. These warm, round creations are made by my friend with two very brown front teeth whose name I’ve yet to learn. We always share a smile and a nod. At first I wrinkled my nose at his filthy shirt and his dumpy shack. I batted at the flies and whined about the black pit he was baking the bread in. I dared to ask, “Does he wash his hands after touching the money?” Apparently he keeps a damp cloth beside him and taps it between serving customers and patting out his dough. But now… now I don’t see the flies. Now I wake up craving this bread and when I’m in the area I can’t help myself from picking up a few pieces. I grabbed four. Lois and I strolled back across the street.

I stopped to make conversation with a young lady standing outside her little restaurant. She touched Lois’ white skin and asked me a thousand questions. I smiled and nodded. I introduced Lois and used every word I knew. She could see I was trying and we smiled as I repeated the same things over and over. We drew a crowd. Several people peered out of the windows above while others poked their heads out of their shops. Some simply walked right up and tried to join the non-existing conversation. My newfound friend disappeared into her restaurant and came back with a treat for Lois. Go figure. She shared a small pastry and a bottle of juice. We shared a few bites and sipped a few sips. Pure joy flooded across the girl’s face. What is it about this eating thing?

As we enjoyed our snack a familiar face appeared. Mrs. Lee,  a sweet friend of the family owned a little shop and home in that complex. She beamed and excitedly chatted while scooping up Lois. I pointed at Neal (still in the print shop) and tried to figure out where she had come from. She grinned from ear to ear and pulled me to her shop. Out came a peach for Lois and a coke for me. I chugged. Lois chomped. We’ve got this eating thing DOWN!

The courtyard soon became a buzz. I shared my “nang” bread and watched Lois get hugged and fed.

Neal finally finished his business but our afternoon was far from over. We were soon ushered to the little plastic table sitting in the middle of the courtyard. Before I knew what was happening a large bowl of noodles, cucumber and tofu was placed in front of me. (And another coke). Neal and I dug right in. It was delicious. Even more impressive than the noodles, however, was the gesture. It absolutely made their day to be able to share their food with us.

I wrapped my arm around Mrs. Lee and struggled to thank her. I looked around at the sweet faces that had shared with us that day. Their houses were a single room above a tiny store. They gave what they would normally be making a living off of. They showed a desire to be a friend to someone who couldn’t even talk to them. “Thank you” was so small. I wanted to say, “You are just the sweetest to do all of this for us and you absolutely didn’t have to and I’m just so overwhelmed with your kindness and you are just so nice and thank you so much for being my friend when I can’t even talk to you.” I was humbled. I gave a smile and a squeeze in hopes that my meaning would be felt.

Neal and I finally left with bags of yogurt, cokes and gifts. More importantly, we left feeling loved, welcomed and accepted. The food thing had worked. They had expressed their friendship and we had accepted it.

Another day in China down for the records.

Introducing my Neighborhood in Beijing

Some things I may never relate to. Some things delight me. Some things intrigue me. Here are a few of those things:

DSC_0247This is how she makes her living. She totes her baby and her cart of plastic balloons around.

I’ll never relate to it.

DSC_0279This dad (ba ba) and daughter (nu er) fell in love with Lois. They stopped us on the street for a chat. I didn’t tell them that in America we’re really nothing special. We quickly became friends and they even told me my Chinese is good. I believed them for a brief moment of bliss. Reality then smacked me right upside the head to remind me that I’m not so fluent.

I’m delighted with it.

DSC_0284We eat fresh fruits and veggies. Every day the farmers bring their produce to town and set up shop on the street corner. I pass an average of ten or more vendors on my half mile walk to the market.

I’m intrigued by it.

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And this I have no words for. The local garbage bin was full. Problem solver: dump it all on the street.

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