Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.
Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”
Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.
Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.
Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!
So, we’re getting close to finishing up our first year in China, and I think it’s about time to share some of our funny little mishaps and the lessons we’ve learned from them because if I’m taking anything home with me from China, it’s definitely the stories! Enjoy:
Lessons in Flexibility: Ambiguity and flexibility are a way of life when living abroad. There are so many things that happen around us that we can’t explain, and without command of the local language, what can we do but accept them and move on? Usually it’s just something small that completely confuses us, but also makes us laugh in our ignorance. One such example of this happened when my parents were visiting. We were on a train from Huangshan to Hefei, minding our own business, snacking and playing cards when one of the train attendants stood beside our row and asked us to get out of our seats. Tucker and I have been on a lot of trains in China and had never experienced anything like this before, so we were slightly confused…but we did what they asked. We got up, grabbed all of our belongings, stood in the aisle and watched them switch the seats around, so that they were facing the opposite direction. We sat back down and watched them go row by row, asking everyone to do the same. We thought it was very odd to displace everyone for a little reorganizing; however, we soon realized that at the next station the train would be changing tracks and directions. They wanted everyone to be facing forward for the next leg of the trip, perhaps to ward against any bouts of motion sickness. For us, it was just another go-with-the-flow moment that had us all super confused at the time!
Food is another area where I have had to become pretty flexible. Picky eaters don’t really exist in China, so I’ve been working on my acceptance of various foods (but also on my language skills because there are some things that I just can’t bring myself to try!) However, sometimes the flexibility stems not from the food itself but from my ability (or inability) to successfully da bao. Da bao is essentially “take out” and is very useful on my way home from work, but sometimes I run into issues. One evening on my way home, I stopped at one of the campus canteens to pick up dinner for Tucker and myself. I ordered two noodle dishes for us, but when I was asked about the sides, I mistakenly ordered one bowl of rice instead of two. No big deal, they just put both meals into one container and on top of it, the one bowl of rice. I was a little annoyed with myself for the language mistake, so as I started to bike home with the to-go bag hanging from my handlebars, my mind was elsewhere. Unfortunately, my inattention and a plastic bag that wasn’t quite as strong as I thought led to a slight mishap. I hit a somewhat large bump in the road, and the food hit the ground. The one bowl of rice I had been worried about became one pile of rice, and we ended up having leftovers for dinner instead. Oops. The good news is a couple of students got ringside seats to my little comedy sketch as they sat on the curb right in front of the scene!
Lessons in Safety: Safety in China is a bit different than in the US. There isn’t a litigation mindset here, so it’s pretty much fend for yourself, and if you’re dumb enough to try it, then you deserve any accidents that come your way. For the most part, I have no issue with the safety standards because I typically walk a pretty safe line, no dangling from balconies or standing on ottomans on chairs on tables for me – events we have, indeed, witnessed from our apartment. However, the driving here does scare me a bit. One time on a bus from Hefei to Sanhe (about an hours’ drive) we got a bit of an arm workout and a fun story from this difference in driving habits. The bus driver was clearly a wannabe race car driver, weaving when he could, driving on the wrong side of the road to pass traffic, and subsequently needing to slam on the breaks often. Unfortunately this was a rather full bus, so Tucker and I were dangling from the overhead hand grips, wildly swinging around every time the bus moved. At one point, Tucker was looking at his phone with his free hand when the bus stopped abruptly, sending everyone flying forward so hard that Tucker practically threw his phone. Luckily, it landed in the seat of an older man, who upon sitting back down, felt something a little different, and retrieved the phone for us. We all had a good chuckle, pointed at the crazy driver, and left as new friends.
There’s also a stereotype that things made in China are cheap and possibly unsafe because of the quality. We haven’t found that to be true with most things, but we do live in a converted dorm suite, where the furniture we were provided is possibly a bit on the cheap side and is definitely pre-owned (and owned and owned and owned). Some pieces are clearly showing signs of wear and tear (significant signs that often have me wondering what these students did that was so hard on the furniture!), but generally it all feels pretty sturdy. Or so we thought upon moving in. Flash forward a few months, we’re sitting on the bed voice-calling Tucker’s mom, and we hear some creaking and cracking. The bed slowly starts sinking beneath us until there’s a loud CRACK, and the mattress falls to the floor. Uh oh. Apparently the frame was missing a few screws…good thing we bought a small tool box the week before.
Lessons in Using a Second Language: Eventually I will need to write a post entirely about the language difficulties (and occasional successes) we experience pretty much every day, but for now I’ll limit myself to two incidents that had us laughing for days. The first happened when we were ordering a meal. It’s an incredible challenge to order food here because while we may know the words for a lot of what we like to order and eat, we don’t always know the characters. On this particular day, I wanted something cold, so I asked for cold vegetables. The server pointed to a small section on the menu, and Tucker picked an item at random. No problem, we do this all the time; it’s usually variations of the same dish but prepared with different vegetables. A few minutes later the server comes back not with cold vegetables, but with a cold, fully intact carcass of a small bird. Umm, what?! I’m not a very adventurous eater, so this was a big nope from me. It seems we were randomly choosing from the list of liang cai (cold dishes) instead of liang shucai (cold vegetables). We won’t make that mistake again!
Luckily the language errors (and lessons) are not just on our side. Sometimes it’s our Chinese friends that have us laughing with their choice of words/phrases and their occasional mistakes. One of our best friends in China has beautiful English, but as any great language learner, she is always trying to add new vocabulary and expressions to her repertoire. One time as we were riding downtown on a public bus, we asked her how much further until we needed to get off. She looked ahead and reported that the stop we need is just after we “take a left at the intercourse”. Tucker and I couldn’t keep straight faces. She asked us what was so weird about that – “inter” meaning between and “course” meaning path. It totally makes sense! But nope, intersection, “intersection” was the word she wanted.
Lessons in Noticing the Small Things: Living abroad brings out the weirdest forms of nostalgia. I’m always up for a good dose of anything 90s related, but now we’re sometimes thrown into reminiscing about the strangest things. While we were visiting Harbin, a city near the Russian boarder, we went to a traditional Russian restaurant. We were so excited to have some of their delicious homemade bread and butter, some potatoes and meat in a thick sauce: the Eastern European specialties that we’ve been missing from Poland. What we did not expect was that the thing that brought on the most nostalgia was being in a restaurant where you could hear the clatter of everyone’s silverware! Eating with chopsticks for the previous six months had deprived us of that particular sound, which surprisingly, was very obvious after its sudden resurgence. I never realized how loud knives and forks can be or how much they remind me of home!
We can buy almost anything in China. I mean this is the land where most of our purchases in the US hail from, so it makes sense that anything and everything we want is available and can be delivered within a day or two here. However, for some reason, China hasn’t warmed up to the use of solid deodorant sticks. We have sprays and roll-ons, but not what I consider to be the “classic” deodorant, the white solid type. After a few months in China, we ran out of the deodorant we brought with us and started using the other types, but for me, it just wasn’t the same! Cue our trip to SE Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, and even Hong Kong had all the solid sticks we could possibly want! So we went a little crazy. We literally bought bagfuls and smuggled (okay, more like lugged) them from country to country until we safely stored them in our now deodorant-full apartment. It’s so interesting which items we’ve found ourselves clinging to! Some of the smallest things can make a huge difference and some of the larger ones we’ve never even noticed!
Lessons in Friendliness: The last couple of stories revolve around the friendliness of Chinese people. Perhaps coming from a particularly turbulent time in the US, after spending a year in famously aloof Europe, China has seemed very different when it comes to strangers and how/when they speak to each other, especially when one of the strangers is a waiguoren (foreigner). During one of the first few weeks of class, I was walking home when I saw a very large group of kids obviously on some type of field trip to the university. There must have been over 150 elementary school children, all in their little orange vests walking towards me in a rough line formation. As soon as one of them saw me, I promptly got approximately 150 different greetings: high fives or waves accompanied by “hello”, “hi”, and even a stunned “waiguoren” or two. It was adorable! After this and other similar experiences, I’ve realized that people here are usually really excited to see and interact with foreigners – they like that more people are choosing to visit or live in China. It’s the ultimate hosting gig for a country that places a lot of value in hospitality, and honestly, since moving here, I’ve found that I’ve also picked up some of these friendly and hospitable traits!
Another incredibly small moment of friendliness that completely caught Tucker and I by surprise happened in a mall elevator of all places. Typically people smile at us or kids will say “hello”, but for adults it’s a lot of pressure to try and speak English. Imagine trying to use your high school Spanish after so many years out of school. Embarrassing to say the least! However, every now and then we are surprised and excited when someone very kindly uses English just to further connect with us or help us out if/when they see us struggling with the extremely difficult Zhongwen (Chinese language). On one of our many mall elevator rides, I (as I happened to be near the front) held the doors open for a man who was at the back of the elevator as he made his way through the crowd. When he stepped out of the elevator, he casually turned back, said “thank you” in perfect standard English, and tipped his hat to us as the doors closed. For a moment I totally forgot where I was! To understand and to be understood is a truly powerful thing – something we take for granted when surrounded by others who speak the same language as we do. However, in this moment I was reminded of all the positive effects using someone’s first language can have on them, even if it’s something simple like “thank you”.
I have about a million more of these anecdotes and their subsequent lessons swirling around in my head. It truly seems like something has us bursting out in laughter just about every day in China. In fact, I think the ultimate lesson I’ve learned from my year living here is that there is no reason to fear the unknown – it’s really much more fun to just go with it and laugh along the way!
As always, time seems to be whizzing by, and somehow the halfway point of this year’s EL Fellow Program is only a few days away. For my region’s midyear meeting, we’ll be gathering in Thailand and reflecting, sharing, and discussing what we’ve all been doing these last 5 months. I can’t wait to hear about the other Fellows and their experiences, but I also wanted to take some time to write down some of my own. I did something similar when I was halfway through my Fulbright grant, and I was amazed at how it shaped my focus for the next semester. So here it is: my progress report.
The EL Fellow Program places experienced English teachers from the US into various contexts all over the world, so we can interact with students, teachers, and other professionals by learning, sharing, and working together in our new environments. The main two jobs I have at my host institution are related to teaching and teacher-training; however, as an individual from one culture living fully immersed in a different culture, I’m quite engaged in US-China cultural exchange and general expat life as well. Looking at each of these roles, here’s what I’ve been up to since last September:
Teaching: The most familiar part of my job is the teaching. I teach English/Linguistics courses to third year English majors at Anhui University in Hefei, China. Their specializations run from linguistics and translation to literature and journalism, and they have a vast array of future goals and career paths in mind. I absolutely love spending time with them in class, hearing their candid thoughts about American culture and the English language as we discuss the challenges of public speaking and critical thinking. As a teacher at AHU, it’s also part of my job to attend and present at Linguistics-related conferences (like ELTAM’s TESOL Conference in Mongolia and the Teacher’s Development Conference in Wuhan). I’ve also been asked to participate as a coach, a judge, or even a “question master” for the various language competitions that the university and the country seem to love! This semester I’ve been involved with the English writing competition, the public speaking competition, and the American culture competition, just to name a few. Additionally, as a somewhat rare (in Hefei at least), native-speaking English teacher, I was invited to lead the university’s English Corner, which meets every other week. This is a chance for dedicated students wanting additional practice to meet up, play some games, and have general conversation in English. It’s also a place where I can ask all my cultural questions, have a little fun with the students, and at the end of the day, call it “work”!
Teacher-Training: Another part of my job is teacher-training. Teachers in China are very interested in Western teaching styles, and are even more interested in teachers trained in Applied Linguistics (like me). For this reason, I usually have at least 1 or 2 visiting observers (usually other English teachers or graduate students) in my classes each week, taking notes on everything from the way I dress to the exact words that come out of my mouth. Luckily I have been able to observe a few of them in return, and we’re working together on blending the education styles of the two countries, as well as discussing concepts like classroom atmosphere and student-teacher roles. I’ve also been really active in facilitating online professional development courses/webinars for my colleagues. They’re extremely motivated teachers, but they don’t always have access to resources like that. Luckily the Fellow program (with the help of American English) provides them in spades. Workshops are another large part of my work here. At my host institution, my supervisor and I have set up monthly seminars where I, a visiting Fellow from another part of China, and occasionally local professors give presentations and workshops to the English department at AHU. I’ve also been able to travel to other universities in China to give these workshops and participate in their professional development activities. It has been a great way to meet new teachers, collaborate with other Fellows, and learn what life is like in other parts of China.
Wuhan pre-conference dinner
Workshop in Shanghai
Cultural Exchange: Possibly my favorite part of being in a foreign country is the cultural exchange. Whether it’s through our traveling around the country or through our grocery store encounters, I never get bored of learning the little things about life in a new place. Tucker and I have been very fortunate in the amount of travel we’ve been able to do thus far in and around China. In the last five months we’ve visited Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the Chinese cities of Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Huangshan, Xi’an, and Harbin. Some visits were for work, others for pleasure, but all were in the name of cultural exchange. We’ve met so many amazing new friends, seen some absolutely incredible things, and, of course, added to our growing knowledge of this country and its culture. I’m also doing my best to share my experiences (big and small) not only with my students, friends, and colleagues here, but also with anyone else who’s interested (even if it’s just my mom). I’ve become a “social media person”, posting consistently on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WeChat (one of China’s biggest social media apps). I’ve also surprised myself by adding to this blog more than my previously dictated “once a month”. It turns out there is just so much I want to share about living in China! It’s also really fun to share what life was like for us in the US. My colleagues are interested so they can add cultural aspects to their classrooms, my students are interested so they can connect further with the language, and my friends are interested so they can understand why we are so weird about some things (for example, the fact that we enjoy drinking cold water even in winter – weirdos!).
English learners abound!
Expat Life: The last element of my time as an English Language Fellow in China has to be my experience of living the expat life. I decided quite a while ago that the expat life is the life for me, but now in my second year of actually living it, I decided to fully embrace the lifestyle. I’ve joined several expat groups here in Hefei and have met some amazing people that share so much in common with me and Tucker. We’ve had game nights, beer tastings, and other adventures that are made all the more fun by our shared experience of being the “outsiders” here. It’s amazing how quickly groups of expats become like family! Recently I’ve also become a “Warden”, which sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually sort of a go-between for the US Consulates and any Americans living abroad. Of course, to me another important part of expat life is learning to blend in. Honestly, it’s a bit harder here than it was in Poland, but regardless, Tucker and I are studying Chinese and doing our best to live like locals. We buy our non-perishables from Taobao, we use WeChat or Alipay to pay for everything, and we’ve even been known to yell for the servers (fuwuyuan!) when needed. It’s been an incredibly exciting five months, full of new opportunities, unforgettable experiences, funny situations, personal developments, and so much more. I can’t wait to see what the next half will bring!
Happy holidays from Hefei! Tucker and I are now into our fifth month of living in China and have just made it through our first holiday season in the Far East. China is the first country we’ve lived in that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, so we were pretty curious to see what it would be like over here. I’ve collected about a month’s worth of holiday observations to share with everyone, so let’s get to it!
The Lead Up: Holiday decorations were everywhere! Early in December we started noticing Christmas decorations around the city: large, lighted trees, festive window stickers, red bows, etc. Our local supermarkets put up displays and seasonal aisles that sold everything from ornaments and stuffed Rudolphs to full-sized Santa animatronics (only mildly creepy). I had a great time buying a new set of Christmas décor (we now have a set on three separate continents) for our apartment here: stockings, lights, Santa hats, a small tree, etc. We were also able to find some seasonal treats like Andes candies, hot cocoa, and Ferrero Rochers as well. The malls were probably the biggest Christmas perpetrators with decorations on just about every store front, staircase, and atrium. People were often lined up to get their pictures with Santa or to enter the “Secret Wonderland”, which to us looked like a small, dark room with tons of white Christmas lights on the ceiling. Of course, many American chains like Starbucks and Dairy Queen also had their usual holiday specials advertised in the usual places, and Christmas music (particularly Jingle Bells) could be heard in most stores and restaurants throughout the month.
My new decor
Christmas Eve: The word for Christmas Eve in Chinese is “Ping’an Ye”, which sort of sounds like “pingguo” (apple), so on Christmas Eve many Chinese people give apples as gifts to their friends and neighbors. The stores sell brightly wrapped apples just for this occasion, and if you tell a Chinese person that we, in fact, don’t have this tradition (despite the fact that it stems entirely from a play on Chinese words), they will be extremely surprised. Other than the apples, many Chinese Christians also go to church on Christmas Eve. In fact, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, it was more popular for local church services than Christmas Day. However, the religious facet of Christmas is not as well-known as some of the more commercial aspects. For example, when I asked the students in the English Corner what American Christmas traditions they knew, they stuck to things like presents, Santa Claus, and holiday movies. It was really surprising to us which things they had heard of and which things are just not associated with Christmas for them. Leaving Santa cookies, for example, was something they had not heard of, but during Chinese New Year they have a similar tradition, which I can’t wait to be a part of!
Christmas Day: Christmas Day is not a national holiday in China; therefore, people (regardless of religion, nationality, etc.) do not get the day off. I was lucky to not have classes that day, but I still got many work-related emails and had to go pick up my paycheck (on Christmas Day!!). When I told my colleagues and students what I planned to do on Christmas, which was to spend the whole day in my pajamas watching the Yule Log on YouTube, they were very surprised. In China, Christmas is the biggest shopping day of the year. Many people (especially the younger generations) spend the day going to the movies or out to eat, and then out shopping for gifts for each other or for their significant others. Christmas Day for the majority of Chinese people is more like another Valentine’s Day, only with slightly different characters. I took no part in the holiday shopping as I can only imagine what the crowds were like, but I did enjoy my fair share of Christmas gifts/messages. On WeChat, a Chinese social media app, I received over a hundred holiday messages from students, coworkers, and friends I’ve met over the last few months. I read “Merry Christmas” and “Sheng Dan Kuai Le” many times over the holiday and was blown away by the effort so many people put into making my Christmas Day a little more cheerful.
YouTube Yule Log
New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve, as we know it, refers to midnight on January 1st, but in China that’s only a minor New Year. Their longest holiday and biggest celebration is for the Lunar New Year, which will be in February this year (more on this later, I imagine). For our piddly little New Year, there was a bit less going on in Hefei than in other Chinese cities. We have signs and decorations wishing everyone a “Happy 2018” and from what I could tell, there were many parties downtown as well, but the large celebrations are reserved for China’s mega cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. We ended up watching a live stream from Hong Kong and were surprised that the only fireworks we heard were coming from the laptop. I suppose since we live on a university campus and China, in general, is really strict about air pollution, local fireworks seem to be rare on New Year’s Eve. I have a feeling this might not hold true for Lunar New Year though. Can’t wait to find out! Happy 2018!
We’re almost three months into our move to China, and something that we’re asked pretty regularly is: what are the differences we notice in our daily lives. Most people are aware of the obvious differences like the language and the food, and, although most daily activities are pretty universal (shower, eat, work, play on your phone, etc.), there are definitely some things that we didn’t really have a need to think about before moving to China. In reality, these are rather small differences, but their regularity and new-found importance have kept them in our minds daily as we shift into a new way of living – the China way!
First is our struggle for food. Of course, as I mentioned, the food itself is obviously quite different. For example, most things are cooked in oil here rather than in butter, and almost everything (from drinking water to what some refer to as a “salad”) is served piping hot. However, something we didn’t think about is how difficult it would be to obtain our food, let alone the foods we actually prefer. Whether at a restaurant or a grocery store we have to put a lot of effort into translating food items. Even then, we’re often not sure what we’ve actually purchased. In the last week alone we’ve gotten translations like “sealed duck palm”, “saliva chicken”, and “fried enema” – I’m sorry, what?!
At the grocery store, things are not only hard for us to read, but they’re often packaged differently or organized in a way we would have never thought of; for example, milk is not refrigerated, but pasta is! On top of these difficulties, there is also a sense of lingering mistrust. We’ve all heard stories about China and the shortcuts they may have taken, so when we see something unfamiliar or “weird”, we’re conditioned to think it’s not healthy or good. The depth of these feelings really surprised me because, although I saw similar things in Poland, I never questioned the hygiene or motives there. This is something we’re really working on by constantly asking “why” and delving a little deeper into these differences. Our Chinese friends have been incredibly illuminating, and honestly, we’ve learned to look at our own way of doing things a little differently as well.
Another daily difference for us is the general environment that we’re living in. Typically when I wake up, the first thing I do is check the weather. However, in China, I must also check the AQI (air quality index). We live in a city of 8 million people; a city that still uses coal to heat some of its building and has farms just outside the city limits that burn their fields twice a year before replanting. These conditions mean that the air quality in Hefei can have an effect on my day. If the AQI is above 200, I need to wear a mask to ensure that I don’t get a sore throat the next day. Checking the AQI and occasionally wearing masks have become part of our routine. In our (almost) 90 days here, we’ve only had a handful of “bad days”, which we recently found out are about the equivalent of smoking a few cigarettes (and we all know that is not great for long term health).
Another environmental issue I was not at all looking forward to was the inability to drink the tap water. I remember last time we were in China, I had a really hard time making sure I had enough water bottles. Something about steaming hot water served in restaurants (even in summer) really just didn’t agree with me. Turns out, although this is a difference, it really isn’t a difficult one to handle. Now that we’re residents of China, it’s pretty easy to get water. We have a water cooler and a weekly delivery that ensures we have plenty of drinking water (hot OR cold)! Another environmental difference, for Tucker, would have to be the height of everything. Doorways, sinks, counters, they’re all much lower than we’re used to, and he (just about 6 feet tall) struggles with hitting his head and constantly bending over at an uncomfortable angle. I (at 5’3”) don’t really have this problem!
Finally, the way we use technology has also changed greatly. It seems that in some ways we’re using technology more efficiently, and in others it’s substantially slowed down or non-existent. For one thing, in China you are not allowed to have two people sharing one bank account. Therefore, Tucker and I “share” my card by handing it over whenever one of us needs it, which just feels so strange! Online banking is also not very popular here, and it’s only possible with a monthly fee. Needless to say, Tucker and I have become much more familiar with the “balance inquiry” function at the ATM. While those banking aspects feel less than modern to us, we’re also being ushered into the future by instead paying for everything with our phones and buying most of what we need from an online service that delivers to our door. The saying “there is an app for that” feels so true in China, as we now utilize our phones for everything! Even street vendors use QR codes for payment!
However, possible is not the same as familiar. As westerners new to China, our most valued service is a VPN (virtual private network). As many people know, China is very particular about what shows up on their search engines (or even which search engines are available), and for this reason, we need to use a VPN to access YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and several other favorites. Of course, for nationals and people who have been here long enough, those services are no longer as important as YouKu, WeChat, and QQ (Chinese versions of the same services), but for now, we’re bogged down remembering to connect to the VPN for some things and at times, not having enough bandwidth to do so.
There are plenty of other differences in our daily lives, and some, as we’re beginning to see, are less China-specific and more like everywhere-but-in-the-US kind of things. We find ourselves walking so much more here, watching less TV, meeting with very different groups of people, and taking advantages of opportunities that we would’ve never had at home. There are so many reasons I enjoy my life abroad, but I think none are as great as these small differences that teach us so much!
Where exactly is the land of Chinggis and cheese, you ask? Mongolia, of course! Although truth be told it should really be “dairy” as opposed to “cheese”, but then the alliteration is completely lost. The Chinggis part (which refers to the Mongolian spelling/pronunciation of Genghis, as in Genghis Khan) is extremely accurate though. Between all the statues, pictures on the currency, and the multiple beer and vodka brands that bare his name, he is well-known in his native land. Catchy titles aside, last week Tucker and I were lucky enough to spend six days in Mongolia, and I could not have been more impressed! Again (this is becoming too common for me!), I failed to think about my expectations before heading off to the “Land of Eternal Blue Skies”, but I know that what we experienced far exceeded whatever I had thought the trip would be. Even with almost zero planning on our part, each thing we decided to try in Mongolia turned out better than we could have imagined, and Tucker and I came away from Mongolia with so many unique memories and experiences that will truly last a lifetime.
I should start this post by saying that my time in Mongolia was first and foremost work-related. I was able to travel to Mongolia in order to give a teacher-training workshop at the University of Finance and Economics as well as to attend and present at the local TESOL conference in Ulaanbaatar. However, to say that work things were my ONLY motive would be completely false. I really wanted to tourist around Mongolia – and I did! Apart from the professional experiences, which were phenomenal by the way (I met such great people and had a wonderful time exchanging ideas with fellow English teachers, not to mention an epic mini-reunion of Fellows), I was able to carve out some time for exploring the city of Ulaanbaatar, trying some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes, and even taking a road trip out of the city. To choose a favorite moment, or even activity, from our trip would be impossible, but here are a few things that stuck out:
Our Arrival: Tucker, who is not easily impressed, is still talking about our flight into Ulaanbaatar. The city itself lies in a valley and is full of colorful buildings that range from small circular gers (the traditional round houses also known as yurts) to sleek and shiny, new skyscrapers. Around the city are snow-covered mountains, which with very little vegetation give a stark and geometric feel to the land. Beyond the mountains are the desserts, orange sand stretches as far as you can see from the window of a plane. It really was a beautiful sight, and something I haven’t seen on any other flight. Another thing we noticed upon our arrival was the thorough mixing of cultures. There was text in traditional Mongolian script as well as both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. We saw Italian and Mexican restaurants (MexiKhan might be the best pun-based name out there!), German brewpubs, and plenty of American brands/chains as well. After time in China or even the US, where authentic, foreign brands are sometimes hard to come by, it was a pleasant experience to see such a mix. We also noticed the strangeness that came with using Facebook and Instagram to connect with people again, as opposed to WeChat. China has pretty successfully occupied all my thoughts in the last two months, and stepping into Mongolia was almost like stepping back into something a little more familiar.
Definitely more familiar
All the New Knowledge: Although, Mongolia wasn’t quite that familiar as it turns out. On our first day in the country I had to give a presentation during which I had placed my backpack on the floor. Oops – mistake! I was quickly told that’s a bit of a faux pas in Mongolia, and that the other teachers definitely noticed. Another fact we soon learned was that to bump someone’s shoe is a sign of disrespect, and even if it’s done accidentally, you should offer to shake that person’s hand as a sort of truce. Other facts I learned about Mongolia include that their entire country has less inhabitants than the city I live in in China, the language sounds a little more like Arabic than Chinese or Russian, and that lamb/mutton is the most commonly consumed meat. In addition to lamb, Mongolians seem to have an affinity for dumplings, as there were many different types to choose from: the fried kuushuur and boiled buuz, for example.
Many had a slightly Chinese flair to them, but the addition of cheese was completely new to me. Another Chinese favorite, milk tea, turns out to be a bit different there as well: it’s salty instead of sweet. And then there’s the bone game. On our tables at several restaurants we found small, felt boxes with four ankle bones inside. The bones are rolled like dice, and the results are read from a list, which can predict your future. We saw fortunes like “will be happy and content” and also ones like “no hope”. Haha!
The Nature and Climate: I mentioned what it was like to fly into Ulaanbaatar, but the most beautiful scenery we came across lay outside the city. On our second full day in Mongolia, we went against several people’s advice and rented/drove a car outside the city. While I was extremely nervous for Tucker to drive in a place with a slightly different driving situation (most roads are not paved, steering wheels can be on the right or the left side of the car, and lines on the road are completely meaningless), I’m so happy we braved it and drove to Terelj National Park. The park and the landscapes on the way there and back were absolutely breathtaking. Flat sandy plains (complete with yaks), rocky mountain formations, a few sparkling rivers, and the snowy mountains in Terelj were all beautiful.
Also, they are not kidding about the blue skies thing; they were by far the bluest skies I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve been to Montana). I was also incredibly happy to be in a colder climate again! Hefei, Orlando, and Atlanta – the last three cities in which I’ve lived are way too hot and humid for my taste. Mongolia was simply cold, and I loved it! We saw several flurries during our time there, and I relished my time in big, fluffy jackets, scarves, and gloves.
Overall it was an incredible place to visit, even for just a short time. The people we met in Mongolia, including the hostel staff, the car renter, the teachers I encountered at the conference, and even the strangers who approached us in the street (looking to practice their English, of course), were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and we’d like to offer them our sincerest “bayarlalaa” (thanks). I highly recommend traveling to Mongolia if you ever get the chance! It’s very high on my list to re-visit, and I hope that happens sooner rather than later!
This week is Golden Week in China! Don’t know what that means? Neither did we. But we enjoyed the time off regardless! After several questioning sessions and a quick google (yes, I still exclusively use Google thanks to my trusty VPN), I found out that there are actually two Golden Weeks in China. One following National Day, which is every October 1st, and another following the Chinese Lunar New Year (usually in January or February). These weeks are supposed to be a time when everyone in China can take a full seven days off to visit family, do some traveling, or just relax. The universities were certainly closed (and pretty empty), so Tucker and I were definitely able to do these things. However, buses and trains still ran as usual and most restaurants and stores were still open, so clearly not everyone in China enjoyed a week-long vacation. I’m starting to think Golden Week is a bit like a long Thanksgiving: good for the majority, bad for retail/travel workers.
So how does one celebrate Golden Week? Well, first of all, it’s actually two holidays that are being celebrated: National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. National Day is pretty easy to explain. It celebrates the day the People’s Republic of China was founded (1949), and looks a bit like the 4th of July in the US (although maybe slightly scaled down). We saw lots of decorations and flags all over the city, and there were more fireworks than usual. Apparently there are larger events in the big cities, but in Hefei we didn’t see or hear much about National Day. Mid-Autumn Festival, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an equivalent in popular US culture. Its date is set by the lunar calendar; thus, it doesn’t always fall on the same day. It coincides with the full moon in the 8th lunar month and is supposed to be a time for gathering, thanking, and moon-watching. As we’re not in with a Chinese family (yet!), I’m not exactly sure how much of this is actually done, but I do know that everyone buys and eats mooncakes during the festival.
Mooncakes are dense and doughy little cakes with a design pressed into the top that are given to family members as a sign of unity and respect (we gave some to our building supervisor, and he seemed really pleased!). These treats started popping up in grocery stores weeks ago and run the gamut from extremely cheap (and rather dry and boring) to the outrageously expensive, ornate, boxed variety packs. Friends gave us some mooncakes early on in the week, and Tucker has bought several others to try as since then. However, I have to say, they’re just not one of my favorites. They’re very pretty, but, honestly, don’t have such a great mouthfeel.
Another piece of the Golden Week puzzle is travel. Golden Week is seen as a great time for families to travel long distances for reunions in hometowns or for sightseeing somewhere new, which makes perfect sense since everyone has the time off to do it! However, with a country of 1.3 billion people, things can quickly become rather crowded. We were warned by many people not to travel during Golden Week, so, of course, we booked train tickets right away. I had to see it for myself! And honestly, in retrospect, I didn’t think it was that bad. We chose to go to Nanjing (China’s old capital), which is only about an hour away by high-speed train. At the train station, it’s true, there were a lot of people, but that should be expected for a large and busy train station on a holiday. On the train itself, every seat was filled, but there were no crowds (or even standers) there. In Nanjing, a pretty touristy place, there were some crowds, but no more than you would expect at a festival. Overall, I was underwhelmed by the crowds on Golden Week. It could be that people are starting to stay home instead of fighting the crowds or maybe China’s facilities are just well-equipped for handling these numbers or maybe we just got really lucky. Regardless, we weren’t scared off and are planning to travel during the next Golden Week as well!
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).