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.
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.
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?!
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.
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!
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.
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).