First(ish) Impressions of China and Its People

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Garden at Anhui University

A couple of years ago I was writing a very similar post about a very different country, but now that we’re in a new city (in a new country and even on a new continent), I think it’s time for another sharing of our first impressions. Honestly, it can be really hard to write about these impressions! They come all at once (immediately upon arrival) and are quickly forgotten as we try our best to assimilate and adapt to our new lives; however, some things are definitely sticking out as we grow more familiar with China. My plan is to share everything I can about our time in Hefei, China, such as our impressions, experiences, and reflections, mostly because everyone seems to have a lot of questions about China (including the Chinese themselves – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already been asked how the Chinese are viewed in the US). Of course, China is a massive country (much like the US) and as such, no one person can truly sum up what it’s like to live here, but I’d like to add to our collective knowledge by sharing a few things (in no particular order) that have stood out to us during our first month living in the Middle Kingdom.

 

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Lunch of crispy rice with sauce, garlic broccoli, and lotus root

Variety in Everything: As I mentioned, China is a vast country with a very long history, and for these (and likely other reasons), there is just SO MUCH. I’ll start with the food. Every menu has about a thousand options (not really an exaggeration), and the typical ordering style for a table is to get a few dishes and share everything. Basically the options are limitless! We find ourselves asking a lot of questions about the different dishes because really there are just so many, and, of course, Tucker wants to try them all! However, our Chinese experts (i.e. local friends) don’t seem to focus on the dishes themselves, but rather on the styles. They’ve explained that China has “four cuisines” based on different regions of the country: the spicy Sichuan, salty Shandong, fresh Huaiyang, and light Guangdong, which brings me to the next point: geography. Coming from the US, I know what living in a big country is like. I thought I knew what living in a geographically diverse country was like, but China knows the extremes. The world’s tallest mountain and a good portion of the Himalayas reside partially in southwest corner of the country. China also has the fifth largest desert in the world (the Gobi), Hainan Island (the Hawaii of the East), two of the world’s top ten longest rivers (the Yellow and the Yangtze), and a mainland that stretches into both tropic and subarctic climates! But variety can be heard as well as seen throughout China. It’s a little harder for us to observe, however, since we know very little Chinese (so far!), but we have noticed that communication can be difficult even for two natives. For example, on a bus an older woman asked a question about us to one of our Chinese friends, and our friend was unable to answer her. We asked what the woman had said, but our friend didn’t know. She said the woman spoke in the Hefei dialect that she couldn’t understand. But we’re in Hefei! Who can understand her if not other Hefeians?! This doesn’t bode well for our communication prospects.

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Bamboo broom

Mix of Old and New: Another interesting observance is the incredible mix of old and new that we see on a daily basis. China has been rapidly developing over the past twenty years, and I think it’s evident in this phenomenon. Walking around the city, it’s pretty common to see people sweeping the street with handmade bamboo brooms, while talking on their iPhone 7. We can also watch high speed trains whiz by us on one side, not making a sound, and on the other side a massively overloaded wooden cart delivering materials through puffs of smoke. To me it seems like a country that can have whatever modernity it wants, but maybe feels like, what’s the point if this way has been working for the past hundred years. Another example of an odd mix of old and new comes in the forms of payment used, and is actually a challenge we’ve experienced before. When paying for things like groceries, bus tickets, food, etc. you can either go old school or very new school, but nothing in between (which, coincidentally, is where the US lies on this front). In Poland you pay by either cash or tap cards, and in China, it’s either cash or phone app. What happened to paying with credit cards? Who knew that was such an American thing?!

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We spent over 8 hours in this room.

Organizational Differences: I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch upon the different organizational style of China. Again, it’s early on for me to try and explain what is actually happening behind the scenes, but I can notice how at my level things seem to be done very differently. There are small things like the absence of lining up and taking turns, which honestly, has helped us out in a few time-sensitive situations (apparently cutting should be for those in need). However, it also makes it pretty obvious who the foreigners are (of course, that’s already pretty obvious in our case). In addition to queuing vs. crowding, I have noticed that people stand MUCH closer to me than I would prefer. Granted, I know I enjoy a pretty big personal bubble even by American standards, but I have honestly been a little freaked out by the face proximity of some of my students asking questions after class. Another difference we’ve encountered quite a bit this first month is the concept of collective hierarchies. Generally in the US, at institutes and companies each person has their own authority over something, be it small things like paperwork or large things like hiring/firing people. In China, it seems very few people (perhaps no one) has authority alone. There are almost always several offices and multiple employees involved in everything; even a seemingly simple classroom change request required six stamps, four separate offices, and three signatures. China really has a complicated system of checks and balances, which when coupled with a lack of Chinese, can be a tad frustrating to wade through.

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A colleague and me touring the old campus

Helpfulness of the People: Finally, the most evident impression I have of China is that this is a land of helpful people. To say that we’ve needed a lot of help in getting set up here in Hefei would be a drastic understatement! From bank accounts to medical exams to renting shared bikes, with very little English around us (and Chinese being impossible to read as a beginner), we’ve had to rely on many people that we’ve only just met. And they have absolutely addressed every need/wish we could have possibly imagined. We’ve had colleagues, friends, and random graduate students at the university accompany us on so many long, mundane tasks. On their days off they offer to sit in the bank with us for hours (multiple times), take extremely long bus rides to the train station in order to register us (which we still haven’t been able to accomplish), walk with us through our first trips to the grocery store while we argue about which sheet set we want, and so much more. I honestly don’t know why they keep offering their help!

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Three tired friends after a long day of errands

We’ve surely put them through some terrible experiences, and at the very least sheer boredom! But they do come back; they want to help; they want us to enjoy ourselves in China no matter how much time and energy it might cost them. Even strangers have been helpful in whatever ways they can. We’ve had people help us order food, show us the way when we’re lost, and even just listen to our terrible Chinese, trying harder than most to really understand us. It can sometimes feel isolating, not being able to talk to people, but so far, we’ve felt pretty well-connected, regardless of language barriers.

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Living the life!

And so the record of our first impressions of China is complete. Overall we’ve had an amazing first month (albeit confusing at times), but truly, even after contemplating my expectations beforehand and reflecting on our last trip to China, our impressions still differ from what we thought. The feelings we have are just different somehow. Maybe it’s because now we’re not just thinking of the country, but also the people and connections we’re making. Of course, sometimes we do get frustrated and the ambiguity we endure could probably stretch the length of the Great Wall, but it honestly doesn’t feel that different from living in the US or in Poland. People are people, and some things are just always frustrating (paperwork, for example).

We’re in China! Now What Are We Doing?

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Fresh off the Plane!

We’ve been in China for almost three weeks now, and it’s been a little hectic to say the least! In fact, my thoughts are still catching up to everything we’ve seen and done so far, and I’m a little worried this post might seem scattered because of it! Most likely, my best bet for clarity is going to be by starting from the beginning: On August 29th we flew out of Orlando into Houston and then onto Beijing. We started our day around 4am and got to our hotel room in Beijing around 5pm the next day, which means that even with the 12 hour time difference between EST and China, we had been traveling for over 24 hours! Luckily, we were kept pretty busy in Beijing, which helped fight off the jet lag. For four days we participated in an orientation held at the US Embassy in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, meeting our contacts, receiving various briefings, and generally discussing what the next year could look like. Tucker and I loved hanging out with the other China Fellows and all our new acquaintances; we ate at a trendy hot pot restaurant, attended a reception at the ambassador’s house, watched a traditional acrobatics show, and so much more, packed into just a few days! And although we were having a great time in Beijing, Tucker and I had been without our own space for over a year and were itching to get into our new home and finally unpack our suitcases in the city of Hefei.

After a short 2 hour flight, we arrived in Hefei (pronounced huh-fay), the capital city of Anhui (ahn-hway) province. Hefei is a small (by Chinese standards) city of about 8 million and lies between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in eastern China. We actually live on Anhui University’s new campus, in a building exclusively for foreign teachers. Our apartment is extremely nice and very large. We have 3 bedrooms, a small kitchen, a bathroom/laundry room, a living room, a fairly spacious entryway, and astonishingly 4 balconies! We believe our “suite” used to be a shared dorm, but now it’s all ours!

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Our Apartment Building

Upon our arrival, we immediately started settling in. It seemed no one had been living in the apartment for a while, so there was a lot of cleaning to do there. We also had to register ourselves as residents, begin the paperwork for our ID cards, set up a bank account, find out where everything is, buy cellphone plans, bus cards, groceries, etc. As you can imagine, it was a busy week, especially since we arrived on a Sunday and the first class I taught was on Tuesday. Yikes! Good thing we work quickly, and, of course, we also had some of the best help possible in the form of the director of the English department (Alex), my foreign affairs officer (Sunny), and some incredibly helpful graduate students (Arthur, Stream, and Born)! I think we can officially say we’re now totally moved in and are proudly and confidently ordering the rest of the things we need/want from Taobao (like Amazon) and E Le Me (a food delivery service). We’re practically natives. Okay, maybe not.

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Anhui University

Anhui University is not only where we live, it’s also where I work. I’m part of the English Language Fellow Program, which is an exchange program for language teaching professionals run by the US State Department. This semester I’ll be teaching 3 courses and about 90 students at AHU, and so far it’s been going really well! The students are so much fun and thankfully very helpful with my technology struggles in the classroom (I have trouble with computers in English, so obviously it wasn’t going to get better without my being able to read anything!). The new campus is incredibly beautiful, and quite expansive. I’m generally out of breath any time we have to walk somewhere! For example, from our apartment to the building my classrooms are in is a little over a 1 mile walk, not to mention the 9 stories’ worth of stairs I have to traverse as well. I know, I know. I’m a lazy, complaining American, but its just so humid outside right now! In addition to my teaching at the university, this year I will also be responsible for several teacher-training events in the form of workshops both at AHU and in the China-Mongolia region. Plans are already in motion for a trip to Ulaanbaatar next month, and I’m working on sharing my talents with the nearest Consulate as well. I think this is going to be a busy, but incredibly rewarding year for both me and Tucker.

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Tucker and His Kiwi Tool

Speaking of Tucker, what is he doing while we’re in China? Well, presently he’s right here with me, elbows deep in the settling in process. I recently told him if anyone asks what his job is, he should just say “living in China”, as it’s a full-time job of its own! And that’s exactly what it feels like in this early stage of our move. Everything is new and different for us; thus, it takes much longer to get even the simplest tasks completed. Sending two letters took us half a day between locating envelopes in the store, figuring out how to address them, finding a post office that ships internationally, buying the correct postage, and placing the finished product in the correct bin (which we’re honestly still hoping was the correct one). I really don’t know if I could do this without Tucker! He’s really carrying the team as far as technology goes, which is turning out to be pretty important in China. Almost everything is done on our phones; from WeChat to Ctrip to Alipay, we can essentially communicate, order, and purchase everything without the use of money or a card. I also know I wouldn’t have half as much fun if I couldn’t share the confusion, the frustration, and especially the small successes of everyday life in a foreign country with him! In the near future though, he’ll begin studying to get his Medical Technologist certificate, which will allow him to work in labs internationally, and who knows, maybe that’ll be in Hefei.

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Exploring and Eating

Well, I think that’s about all I have for this update. I’m planning to share some of the growing list of first (or really second) impressions of China soon and, of course, some of our hilarious failings as well (I just need the embarrassment to die down a bit before I begin writing!). Until next time, you can see plenty of other photos on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and please don’t hesitate to ask any questions! Xiè xiè!