This semester I’m teaching an English Stylistics course where we delve into the various styles of written English including official documents like resumes and letters of recommendation, but also more creative forms of writing like poetry and blogs. To finish out the unit on creative writing, I had my students use the features we’d been discussing in class to write a blog post of their own, and for added excitement and authenticity, I told them I’d share the best ones with all of you on my own blog.
We decided on the topic “To Me China Is _______” as a way for them to reflect on their own culture and harness their own unique points of view to share something new with an unknown audience. I honestly wish I could share all 46 of them because they all did an amazing job, but for now, here are the links to some of my favorites:
Last month I wrote about the things we’ll be leaving behind when we say goodbye to China, but this month I want to focus on the things we’ll be taking with us when we go: the skills and perspectives we have been developing over the past 20 months.
The first two skills that we have undoubtedly been cultivating during our China time are our flexibility and patience. Any time you’re in an unfamiliar place or situation these two traits are brought to attention, but China has a unique talent for testing just how flexible and patient a person can be (red tape anyone?). In order to cope with some of the more annoying aspects of life as an American in China, we’ve picked up the phrase “cha bu duo” – it’s a Chinese phrase that has become our hakuna matata, but rather than “no worries” it means “alright” or “close enough”. We use it when plans fall through, when new arrangements pop up over night, or when something that should have taken a few hours ends up taking a few days. It’s all cha bu duo, and it’ll all work out in the end. We’ve definitely become pretty zen in China.
Another trait we’ve been honing is our adaptability. China is certainly full of surprises, and keeping up is all any of us can hope for. In fact, early on in our move here we visited Wuhan, a large city in central China, and learned that they have a slogan: “Wuhan: Different Every Day”. However, we’ve long suspected that this particular saying really applies to the country as a whole. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been bewildered by something we’ve seen or heard, but I can say that now it doesn’t really phase us. We’ve learned to take it all in and roll with the punches better than we’ve ever be able to before. From unexplained detours and missing reservations to chicken feet pasta and drinking hot water on 90 degree days, whatever comes, we’ll keep calm, cool, and ready for anything.
Accepting ambiguity is definitely another newly acquired skill. Living abroad always comes with a lot of ambiguity because we’re never quite sure what’s going on (even after asking our thousandth question of the day). However, with China, the ambiguity is off the charts! Partially because the writing system is more like code than language and partially because things have been done in a certain way here for thousands of years – even the locals aren’t always sure why! Luckily rather than frustration, we’ve found peace in not always knowing everything, and more than that, we’ve found that trusting others can really help ease the uncertainty and fear that often accompany ambiguity.
Perhaps a surprising virtue to have further developed in China is our positivity. Before coming to China most of what we heard was negative, in fact, even while living here, we hear a lot of negative things about the people and culture we’re surrounded in (and other cultures and people as well), but rather than bring us down, it has actually increased our positivity and positive associations. We’ve asked a lot of hard questions, and we’ve be given a lot of really great answers. We’ve met so many friends, colleagues, and students that are extremely positive and excited about both the present and the future of their lives, their country, and the world that it has began to rub off on us. The smallest things now seem to bring us joy, and a positive attitude is our norm. We all really are more alike than different, and it’s easy to stay positive when faced with that reality every day.
While I’m actually still working on this one, I think we have developed a bit of a knack for taking compliments. It is very common here to give compliments to your friends, and at first it made me super uncomfortable. I’ve had compliments about my “jade arms”, my “3D face”, and my “beautiful nail shape”, which all left me completely embarrassed and occasionally speechless. With time, however, I’ve learned to take my well-practiced American/European self-deprecation and turn it into a humble reply followed by a reciprocating compliment. A very useful skill!
Another really useful skill we’ve definitely sharpened over these two years is our ability to focus. Noise essentially means nothing to us now. The daily (very early) singing street sweeper, the constant construction clatter, the whirring of air filters, all sorts of clamoring people and blaring traffic are so easily blocked out now. Living in close quarters with 8 million other people has allowed us to focus our attention as never before, which is something we’ll forever appreciate as we intend to continue city living for the foreseeable future.
In the process of all this development, another set of skills has subsequently been brought to our attention in China: communication methods. It’s clear to me now that words are not truly needed for communication. Gestures, facial expressions, pictures, and so many other visual cues end up being more than sufficient. I’ve actually really enjoyed exploring work-arounds for complex topics such as how to get the grocery store people to understand the fundamentals of American life (ie we need deodorant, garlic powder, and tortillas to sustain life!). We’ve also refined our questioning techniques because in English, questions can be complicated and often ambiguous – another skill I had no idea I needed. And if all else fails, we’ve learned to embrace the complex language of emojis and stickers (although my students say my particular style is old-school…and not in the cool way).
There are also a handful of cultural skills we’ve been able to adopt such as the precise methods of selecting, brewing, and sipping some of the finest teas in the world. With that, has also come the ability to drink and occasionally be splashed by scalding hot water. We’ve also perfected our chopsticks skills. I actually now prefer them to a knife and fork, which Tucker finds a little strange, but hey, I’m adaptable. 😉 And finally, one more modern skill we’ve picked up: the art of online shopping. I was never really into Cyber Monday and often failed at buying products online in the US only to end up giving them away rather than attempting a return and redo. But here in China, we’ve become experts at scanning reviews, looking for the tiniest details in photos, measuring twice and buying once. Taobao has been our teacher, and I can’t wait to test out my new found talent on Amazon when we next visit the US.
So many useful skills and so many new perspectives and changes to our collective mindset. I have to thank China and my Chinese culture guides for so effortlessly guiding us through 20 months of one of the most demanding self-development courses I’ve ever been a part of. Just like when we left Poland, I was sure there were changes we’d undergone that would forever be a part of us, and so it is with China as well. Living in a new place changes you, and for that I’m thankful.
Perhaps due to its location on the opposite side of the globe or maybe because of its notorious closed-door periods in history, China is a place with a lot of misconceptions. I remember when I first visited China; it was absolutely nothing like I thought it would be. Since then, I’ve continually been surprised by China and have had the pleasure of watching several others break some of their preconceived notions on their first trips to this land in the Far East. While pretty much everything I post (let’s be honest, it’s mostly photos) is in some way shaping people’s views of this country I now call home, sometimes there’s a need for more explicit explanations. Some things just can’t be seen in photos, but can definitely be felt and discussed (and often are if given enough time). However, since not everyone can come to China and experience it all in person, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and discoveries (in written form) on some of the impressions that seem to have a strong effect on outsiders’ views of China, impressions that are often among the first to be thrown into question upon closer observation.
China’s One-Child Policy
The One-Child Policy always seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts on China, its policy, family structure, etc., and while, there’s no doubt it has played a role in many aspects of family life in China, it’s not as black and white as the name makes it seem. It actually began as the Two-Child Policy in the 1970s and was put forth as a way to curb the exponential growth of an already heavily populated country. The policy’s aim was to limit the overall population over time and more importantly bring attention to the fact that the previously held views (something along the lines of “more people = more power”) were not accurate and would in fact hurt the population as a whole. The policy also went through a lot of changes throughout its 36 years, which included many exemptions for people in rural areas, minority groups, etc. Even if you weren’t among the exemptees at a given time, the punishment for having more than one child was a fine, which families often found a way to get around (or just knowingly paid). During this time (and still today) the government also provided easily accessible contraception and family planning education, something that still astounds me as I walk into a convenience store that sells affordable, shame-free birth control. What a concept?!
Today, China is back to a Two-Child Policy, but of course, there are still many exceptions. I also want to mention that of my roughly 100 students, the majority of them have siblings, despite the fact that they were all born under the One-Child Policy. For me, I think the trickiest thing about the One-Child Policy is that it is inextricably linked with so many other events and policies in China as they ended one really rough era of their history and very eagerly worked to jump into a position of leadership in the 21st century. Because of these coinciding events (and in part due to our national predisposition towards individual autonomy) we tend to think very harshly of this policy (and sometimes of China as a whole) because we’re remembering things like unwanted babies, hasty adoptions, unprecedented governmental control or worse. However, as I’ve been reminded, these were effects of a much greater set of events, not one policy. China was in the middle of a famine and recovering from a revolution that rivals those of 19th century Europe. Ultimately, nothing is simple or black and white, least of all the effects of any government policy.
China’s Communist Government
After delving into just one policy that definitely captured the world’s attention, I think another misconception of China lies in the government as a whole. When I told friends and family I’d be coming to China, this was a main point of contention. How could you live in a country that’s not free? Aren’t you worried about the communists? In hindsight, it must have got into my head a little because I now realize that when I first arrived I was a little careful about what I said, how I interacted with Party Members, etc. Now I’ve been here for over a year, and I see that that was totally necessary. While the government has many features of communism, it’s actually a hybrid of several political systems. It’s much more complicated than I care to go into, especially because unlike the US, changes within the government here seem to be made more quickly. China is still figuring out exactly how they want their government and economy to fit and work together, and due to their long history of preferring guidelines to written laws, it’s difficult to nail down the specifics regardless.
It seems like many people are imagining China to look and feel like Cold War era Soviet Union, but it actually looks and feels much more like the US. Capitalism is here in full force, and the Chinese Dream is on everyone’s mind. One noticeable difference, however, is the safety. Cameras are everywhere, people are everywhere, and although I have no idea who (or if) anyone is watching, I know that there are less crimes because there’s a possibility that they are. We see children walking home from school alone in a city of 8 million, and I’ve never felt or experienced any sort of unwelcomed attention when walking alone at night (something that would be impossible in the US today). When my students talk about China one of the things they are most proud of is how safe it is, which I think is an incredible thing to be proud of. Political systems are often a factor in things like this, but culture is another.
Another point often brought up about China is the censorship and the Great Firewall. Many Americans have latched onto the censorship in China as a lack of freedom, but every time I hear this I can’t help but laugh. Seen any nudity on American TV as of late? We all live in various forms of censorship. It just so happens that China, coming late to the internet party, was able to pick and choose very carefully from the beginning what they wanted in or out. And of course, as anywhere, there is always a way around that (I don’t think I have a single student who hasn’t see Game of Thrones). I think what’s more interesting though, is that most Chinese people I know wouldn’t have it any other way. They often ask me, why do you want to be able to access media with excessive violence? Do you want young kids to be exposed to more negative influences than they already are? They’re usually tough questions to respond to. We love physical safety features, why don’t we look at mental safety the same way?
In addition to the safety and influence arguments made in support of the Firewall is an economic one. Of course China would prefer its citizens not use Facebook, YouTube, etc. That advertising money is going into other countries’ GDPs. China has cornered their own market by creating essentially the same apps, sites, and services here, but through Chinese companies. That’s how I have come to have double the social media options now. For Facebook I have WeChat, for Twitter – Weibo, Amazon – Taobao. Censorship seems to be part business strategy in China, and to me, it seems a lot like the US move towards more American-made products – it makes sense economically. However, most people aren’t especially concerned with who is benefiting from their use of a free app. Usually it just comes down to how good is the product, and I can tell you without a doubt that WeChat is way better than Facebook.
China’s Cheap Quality Products
Speaking of Chinese products, another misconception is that everything here is cheap. I assume this one comes from the fact that we get all of our cheap stuff with “made in China” stamped on the back; however, I’d wager some of your most expensive items also come from China. In my experience, just like in the US, there are places you go for cheap stuff and places you go for expensive stuff. We do most of our grocery shopping at a large chain grocery (like Walmart) where if I were to buy a whisk or something like that I would expect it to break in a few months. However, we could go to a nice home goods store and buy a quality whisk as well. Unfortunately, I think the preference for cheap and fast has been an influence the US has had over a lot of countries – it’s something we hear people complain about on every continent we’ve been to.
I’m not sure if this fits into my “misconceptions” post, but I think it just needs to be reiterated how big China truly is. Like the US, it would take days to drive across it, and many years to visit all it’s provinces and regions (there are 34 by the way). However, even with it’s massive size (and extreme geological features: tallest mountains in the world, one of the largest deserts, a few of the longest, widest rivers, etc.), it’s actually incredibly easy and affordable to get around. It took my family 8 years of concentrated effort to visit all 50 states. Between the incredible amounts of planning, purchasing of flights, renting of cars, and the hours upon hours of driving, it was a challenge. We’ve been here in China for about a year and a half and have already visited over half of the provinces. The ease and affordability of the public transportation situation here definitely makes China feel a bit smaller – it means that without a car and without speaking the national language, we can still explore the whole of the country.
Something else that makes China seem very big is the fact that it’s not crowded. 1.3 billion people live here, but it almost never feels that way. Another misconception I think people have is that there are lines everywhere you go in China, and that nothing can be enjoyed because there are too many people. But I hope this is something I’ve been able to show with my pictures – we find ourselves alone even at the most popular of tourist destinations quite often. Chalk it up to the vast spaces or the well-designed properties, but honestly, only on the major festivals have I ever really felt the population of China.
Another common insight people often have when visiting China is that it’s not as rigid as they thought. Perhaps this comes from the movies, where we see actors portraying the demur, obedient Chinese brides or stoic martial arts instructors of China’s past, but whatever it is that has given us this mental picture, it’s one of the first to be debunked. In my experience people here love to laugh. I think my favorite are the taxi drivers. They love guessing where we’re from, asking what we’re doing in China, if we like it here, etc. In China we’ve also experienced random strangers smiling at us, which after a year in Europe, I had begun to think was just an American thing. Sometimes the older generation here is a bit slower to smile or laugh, but I think it’s because they’ve been through a lot of changes in the last 30 years or so, and maybe they’re waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
A final misconception I want to touch on, since it’s so near and dear to my teacher’s heart, is how the students of China are always seen as studious and highly motivated and how the teachers are often seen as aloof and uncaring. It’s very difficult to describe what education is like here. As a whole, I think China is a land of contradictions (some of the newest technology coupled with the oldest historical sites, some of the most stringent internet restrictions with the largest number of internet users on the planet, etc.), but especially in Chinese schools, can these dichotomies be seen. Students sort of have to be studious; a lot rides on their performances, but really they’re like students all over the world, a bit lazy and more interested in other things. Teachers have similar struggles; they are extremely motivated and often become teachers because they love learning themselves, but the pressure for them is high as well, and like most places around the world, they don’t get paid near enough.
Students having fun!
Teachers hard at work!
Ultimately a key difference for me in teaching in China is the amount of respect the society at large has for students and teachers. Students enjoy discounted tickets at most tourist attractions and are not expected to work or support themselves until after they’ve graduated. Teachers also enjoy a high level of respect in the form of our very own holiday (September 10th) and the general admiration of students and children everywhere we go. In the US, education is treated much more like a business, which I think has turned many people off to the importance of education, but in China even with some of the negative effects of test-based systems and low salaries, the push for education is as strong as ever, and the importance of self-improvement can be seen in and out of universities.
Yikes! That was a lot of information about China! I should probably start writing a book or something because I have learned so much from my time here. More than I could have possibly imagined, and the longer I’m here, the more I know I’ll learn. I’m extremely thankful that I have been given this opportunity to better understand the people and the culture of the China, and I love sharing what I learn on both sides of the world. Recognizing some of my own misconceptions has been fascinating, but equally interesting is discovering others’ misconceptions of me (and America as a whole). Maybe that’ll be a future post! For now, I’m going to continue soaking it all up, remembering that things aren’t often as they first appear.
One of my goals this year, as I mentioned in my last post, is to really focus on my Mandarin skills. I’m planning to take the HSK before we leave next summer, and I’d really like to do well. The HSK is a Chinese proficiency test for foreigners learning the language. The highest score is a 6, which would demonstrate “a learner who can easily understand any information in Chinese and is capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form”. I’m aiming for a 3 (haha!), and since I’m likely going on this journey alone (Tucker really has no interest), I’d like to at least share a little bit about what makes Chinese such a difficult language to learn.
First off, there is no alphabet. For example, 没 (meaning “not”) is pronounced méi, while 设 (meaning “establish”) is pronounced shè. They look similar, but sound nothing alike. Similarly, 香蕉 “banana” and 相交“to intersect” are pronounced the exact same way (xiāngjiāo). There is clearly no “sounding it out”, which is what frustrates Tucker to no end! Okay, you think, that’s not such a big deal. You just have to remember the characters as if they were words. Unfortunately that means there are over 50,000 to memorize. Also, each word is not one character; they are some combination of characters, which means not only do you have to know the characters in a particular word, but you have to know the order: 蜜蜂 (mìfēng) means “bee”, but 蜂蜜 (fēngmì) means “honey”. No, I don’t want any bees on my toast, thanks.
However, recognizing the characters and knowing their order isn’t enough either because if you want to learn how to say them or find more information about them, in, say, a dictionary, you must be able to write them. Chinese has a very particular stroke order, which refers to the order and direction in which you write the characters. This is how Chinese dictionaries are often organized (even online), and if you don’t obey the proper stroke order, most online translators can’t seem to figure out what you’re going for. If you’re someone who starts your English letters from the bottom up, good luck! Even if ignoring the correct stroke order wasn’t an issue, most Chinese characters an average of between 7 and 12 strokes. The most in any single English letter? 4. My characteristically neat handwriting has never been tested in such a way!
Luckily, a group of linguists realized just how difficult the Chinese characters were for people coming from languages with alphabets, so they created one of my favorite things in the world: pinyin. Pinyin is a system of phonetic representation of Mandarin. It utilizes the Latin script (like English), and allows us, alphabet freaks, to quickly (and more naturally) read the pronunciation of a word. Sometimes a word will be presented with both the characters and the pinyin, such as: “卫生间 wèishēngjiān” (which means “bathroom” by the way – very useful!). This double representation is why I often say learning Mandarin is like learning two languages, you really have to know the characters and the pinyin! It is super helpful for us when we see both pieces of information together though. Then we know both how to say the new word and how to write it. Unfortunately, we rarely get that; usually it’s one or the other, not both. Sometimes there is a translation instead of the pinyin, but I’m not sure that is always so helpful…
Another problem we often encounter with pinyin is that it is more often than not missing the diacritic marks. Those marks represent the four tones of Mandarin, and are essential in its pronunciation. Unlike in English, changing the pitch of your voice while speaking Chinese can actually change the words you are saying. The pronunciation of mā (“mom”), má (“hemp”), mǎ (“horse”), and mà (“to scold”) only differs in tone. Unfortunately for lazy, toneless English speakers (like me), this makes it really hard for native Mandarin speakers to understand exactly what we’re saying. We try for “mom” and end up with “horse”, something which I hope has been more entertaining than irritating for them!
Ultimately, we struggle in reading, writing, speaking, and, with the various Chinese dialects, listening is a challenge as well. However, if you ask me whether I find Chinese or Polish more difficult to learn, I’ll say Polish every time. Chinese and English grammar actually have a lot in common. Our word order for example, is pretty similar. Chinese also has no articles or gender to worry about (two language features that I learned to despise very early on in French, and again with Polish). Perhaps most interestingly, unlike Polish and English, Mandarin is an isolating language, which means that the verbs are not inflected or changed for things like tense or aspect. So while in Polish I had to work really hard to conjugate and decline every word in a sentence before I could put them into a coherent thought, in Chinese I can just string them all together, adding new words when a change in tense or number is needed. For my brain, that is so much easier to do!
There is also something so intuitive about Chinese. Although my Chinese teachers tell me I should NEVER separate the characters of various words, it’s hard not to, and honestly that’s what helps me remember the vocabulary half the time in the first place! Here are some gems we’ve discovered (so far) in the Chinese lexicon:
Train = Fire + Car
Balloon = Air + Ball
Cellphone = Hand + Machine
Turkey = Fire + Chicken
Menu = Food + Sheet
Patriotism = Love + Country
Delicious = Good + Eat/Drink
Alright now! Who’s ready to learn this with me?! Chinese is definitely a language on the rise as far as power and prestige go. Much like what happened to English in the 1700s, increases in immigration, tourism, and business are spreading Chinese to all parts of the globe. In Australia, I was surprised and delighted to find Mandarin on most signage, and, even in Georgia/Florida (quite far away from China), maps and other tourist information can often be found in Mandarin. Some linguists refer to Chinese as the language of the future, and while right now it’s more painfully in my present, I hope to keep it around for my future as well! Wish me luck! 祝我好运!
We’re back! Back in China, back in Hefei, back at Anhui University, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m so thankful I was given the opportunity to extend my fellowship until June 2019, and I definitely plan to make the most of it! In fact, I thought I’d even share a little bit about my plans for the next ten months, partially in the hope that putting them in writing will make them come true and partially so that when I look back I can justify my exhaustion!
Back with some Beijing beers
All the EAP Fellows’ locations
First, I plan to do my job, of course. Much like last year, my job consists of both teaching and teacher-training. I’ll be teaching courses like Critical Thinking and Writing, Public Speaking and Debate, and English Stylistics to undergraduates at Anhui University. I’ll also be working with my colleagues at AHU to coordinate the English Corner, help coach the student representatives for various national competitions, and ultimately join in whenever and wherever my help is needed. This semester I have an even larger group of students, but I’m super excited to get back into teaching! Now that I have a year’s worth of experience teaching at Anda, I’m ready to try out a few new ideas as well – I hope they’re ready! In addition my duties at the university, this year I’ve also been made a “Fellow Coordinator”, which means that I get to help the new Fellows ease into their China/fellowship lives and help organize and relay various outreach projects within China/Mongolia.
I also hope to go a bit beyond just doing my job and leave something that lasts within the program as well as at Anhui University. I’m dedicated to making as many teacher-to-teacher connections as possible, so that when I leave, there will still be a clear link for sharing ideas, resources, and information. I’m working on creating an online Anhui English Teachers’ group as well as organizing a province-wide conference, where teachers can get together and build lasting relationships in addition to working on their professional development. I’m the only Fellow in my province, so I feel a certain responsibility to make sure I share everything I have with my fellow Anhui teachers. I’m really hoping to create as many opportunities for them as possible, which will hopefully mean a lot of collaboration throughout the year.
Additionally, I hope to see more of China. If you know me, you know I like new places, and China is full of new places! Tucker and I are already planning several trips throughout the next year (some work-related, others just for fun), but all are very special to me because it’s usually during these trips that I can relax and remember the “cultural exchange” aspect of my fellowship. As far as in-country travel goes, we’ve made a list and hope to visit the cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Guilin, Qingdao, Macau, and Xining (and more if we possibly can!). Of course, while we’re still in East Asia, there are a few out-of-country destinations I’m hoping to visit as well, starting with a trip to the Philippines in January! 🙂
More than just travel though, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that I’m living immersed in such an interesting and vast culture! This year there are many ways I’m hoping to experience more of what China has to offer, such as by joining AHU’s badminton team, attending a Chinese opera, learning to make dumplings, volunteering at local animal shelter, and continuing to explore life in our home city. We’ve already made some amazing, lifelong friends, and I want to take this year to really enjoy our time with them, learning and doing all sorts of new things. I’m also still diligently working on my Mandarin skills with the hope of taking the HSK before we leave – one of my more lofty goals, but we’ll see how it goes!
AHU’s 90th Birthday Celebration
Finally, and rather importantly, I hope to spend some time planning for the future. Tucker and I have decided to move to a new place after this fellowship year is up, but we haven’t fully decided on where. Technically it’s Tucker’s turn to decide, so he’s already working on updating his resume and hunting down our next opportunity. Of course, I’ll soon have to join him in some of the mundane prepping-to-move tasks, but for now, I’m just focusing on not letting the time slip by. We have so much still to do in China, and I’m beyond excited for it all! Here’s to a successful round two!
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!
Last month my parents visited us in China, and I think it’s safe to say everyone learned quite a bit! Tucker and I learned a little more about what it’s like to be responsible for people other than ourselves (consistently asking if everyone had what they needed, were they hungry, did they understand, etc. It was exhausting!), and my parents definitely learned a lot more about the Middle Kingdom, this time, firsthand.
When they arrived after their very long flight, we met my parents at the Airport Express station in Beijing. We then spent the following two weeks fitting in as much Chinese culture, food, and fun as we possibly could! We spent a few days each in Beijing, Shanghai, Huangshan, and Hefei: four very different cities in China. Of course, we did lot of touristy things (like walking the Great Wall, shopping on Nanjing road, and hiking Yellow Mountain), but we also went grocery shopping, met Chinese friends for dinner, and spent some time just hanging out in our campus apartment. Overall I think it was a well-rounded trip, and even though we were often on the go, we did still find some time to talk about the things that surprised my parents most about China.
Delightful Surprises: There seem to be three areas in which China excels in my parents’ eyes: restaurants, transportation, and safety. Very early on they were impressed with China’s restaurant game. A la carte menus, ordering for the table (rather than individually), food coming out as it’s ready, and the lack of tipping just to name a few of the positives. They also, as does everyone, loved paying for everything through a mobile phone app (like WeChat or Alipay) – it’s so quick and easy: no receipt, no signing, no waiting! My mom also really enjoyed the plastic tops and to-go bags for drinks on the run, another innovation that we don’t see much of in the US.
As far as transportation goes, they were most impressed with how fast, cheap, and punctual everything was. China doesn’t usually have the reputation of timeliness like, say, Japan, but every train we took left on time or a minute early. They were also amazed that with as many people as China has, the traffic wasn’t really bad and any/all lines moved pretty efficiently. Even I was doubting a few times during the peak tourist hours at the most popular destinations, but even some of the longest lines we had ever seen still moved along pretty rapidly. No dilly-dallying here!
In China my parents also mentioned safety fairly often: how safe they felt with the cameras, hotel check-ins, and security presence and how welcomed they felt as foreigners. They also noticed fewer homeless people and a great emphasis placed on family time and family connections. Perhaps not directly related to safety, but my mom was also extremely pleased that the hole in the ground that she was imagining China toilets to be was entirely exaggerated, and that they are actually pretty clean and easy to use.
Not So Delightful Surprises: Of course, leaving the familiar can always lead to a few uncomfortable surprises as well. One of the most common difficulties foreigners have in China is adjusting to some of the culinary differences, and my parents were no exception. They mentioned the lack of ice in drinks and the lack of good coffee a few times. My dad had also not expected the lack of meat in many Chinese dishes (probably because American-Chinese food is all about the meat). And of course, even after only two weeks, they also started craving Western favorites like a bacon cheeseburger or a plate of fettuccine Alfredo (imagine the cravings after nine months!).
Some other unpleasant surprises seemed related to the expectations of personal boundaries. My parents noticed pretty quickly that a person’s “personal bubble” is much smaller in China, and that bumping shoulders is a way of life here. They also weren’t so pleased with finding themselves head-to-head with a bicycle, scooter, or even the occasional car on the sidewalk (something I was already used to thanks to Poland). And finally, coming across several street-spitters and the rare, but still present, late night street-urinators were also surprises that didn’t exactly fall into the positive category.
A third area of perpetual surprises seemed to be in the lack or inferiority of paper products in China. Due to China’s vast size and population, many public restrooms and restaurants do not provide general-use paper products, instead, customers carry around their own packs of tissues to use however and whenever they’d like. Even when some restaurants do provide “napkins”, my parents correctly pointed out that they would be better off using their pants than the tiny, thinner-than-tissue-paper pieces they could get there. And while, as my parents also noticed, this does actually have a positive impact on the potential overuse of resources, it can be pretty annoying when you find yourself without a multi-purpose paper pack in hand.
It’s always interesting to see what expectations are met or broken upon first arrival to a new place! Although my parents did have a lot of advanced information from my photos, blog posts, and stories, it was still so much fun to see them experience life in China for themselves: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m so proud of my parents for seamlessly adapting to the ambiguity, and at times, insanity, that comes with immersing yourself into a very different culture, and I’m so thankful we were able to share this experience together! I truly can’t wait to do this again with another culture in a few years, and for the impending reverse culture shock I’m sure to experience when we’re back in the States at the end of the summer!
Lodz, Poland and Hefei, China are two cities that 1) not many people have heard of and 2) don’t really seem like they’d share many similarities, but I feel it’s my job as a former resident of one, and a current resident of the other to share some interesting information about these two beautiful places, perhaps increasing their notoriety and proving that two very different cities can actually have quite a lot in common.
Similarities: For me (and Tucker, as I’ve enlisted his help with the following comparisons), the most prominent similarities lie in the locations, reputations, and inhabitants of the two cities.
Location: Both Lodz and Hefei are somewhat centrally located within their respective countries. They are cities that are not known for their tourist attractions, but are instead used as transportation hubs. All the train routes and major highways, for example, seem to connect through these large, regional capitals. We have absolutely loved this feature in both locations because it has made our travels around Poland and China significantly easier (and cheaper). We have also found that both cities are surrounded by farmland. Unlike the US, which seems to be the land of never-ending suburbs, both Lodz and Hefei have a very clear line between city and countryside. This clear division never fails to amaze me as we ride a train out of the city, and I look down for a moment only to look up and see fields and tractors rather than high-rises. While, we knew both cities were geographically in the middle of their nations, the ease and plethora of transportation options and the stark city to farm transitions were not something we anticipated finding in one, let alone both cities.
Farmland outside of Hefei
Train travel in Poland
Farmland outside of Lodz
Reputation: Another similarity we’ve run into is what the two cities are most known for. Lodz was described to us as the Detroit of Europe (or the Manchester of the Continent), a place where industry was king. In Hefei, it is and has always been about business as well; whether the tea or other Anhui specialties from the past or the engineered or technological goods of today, Hefei is also place where industry has thrived. Both cities are also well off-the-beaten track as far as travelers are concerned. Many people travel to Poland and to China, but far fewer have made it to Lodz or Hefei. For that reason, I think the two cities share a sense of undisturbed cultural “essence” that places like Kracow and Shanghai can’t quite advertise. We often joke that we live in “real” China as opposed to places like Beijing or Hong Kong, which have many international residents and conveniences that might not feel that different from any other large city. Lodz also felt like a part of “real” Poland, and no matter which country we’re in, Tucker and I have definitely preferred being one with the locals.
Fitting in in Hefei
Fitting in in Lodz
Cityscape in Hefei
Inhabitants: A third similarity that has appeared in so many ways is in regards to the people. Both Lodz and Hefei, possibly as a result of their lack of tourism, are fairly homogeneous cities. I remember in Lodz feeling like I was missing out on the diversity that, to me, made a city like Atlanta something special. Hefei is similar in that the vast majority of people fit a very similar mold. Even the names fit very specific standardizations in both locations. In one of my classes in Poland I had six students named Marta, four Michals, etc. In China it’s the same but with the last names, I have seven students in one class with the surname Zhang, five with Liu, etc. We’ve also found hospitality to be very highly valued by the inhabitants of both Lodz and Hefei. People in both cities have been extremely welcoming towards us whether we have a connection (via friends or work) or not. From snack offerings and dinner invitations to personal tour guides and assistance with even the most mundane tasks, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike went out of their way in both cities to be friendly and hospitable to us, the newbies on the block.
Dinner in Hefei
Dinner in Lodz
The last similarity that I want to mention, which may even be the reason I’m writing this post, is that people from Lodz (Lodzites, as we call them) and people from Hefei (Hefeians) both regard their cities as “nothing special”. When people asked me what my favorite city in Poland was, truly my answer was Lodz, and they didn’t believe me! Now when I talk about all the things I like about Hefei, I’m met with suggestions for other cities to visit in China. Maybe this can be boiled down to the “grass is always greener” adage, or maybe some form of modesty, but really I think both Lodz and Hefei are great places to visit or to live.
Honorable mentions for similarities: Some other things that stick out as oddly similar between the two cities include:
The prevalence of shopping malls, the of ubiquity of uneven pavements (it’s unclear as of yet whether I’ve tripped more often in Poland or in China), the common appearance of cars on these uneven pavements (i.e. sidewalks, store fronts, etc.), and the the popularity of duck (as opposed to other poultry).
Mall in Lodz
Mall in Hefei
Differences: I don’t think my information about the cities would be entirely complete if I didn’t at least briefly outline some of the differences we’ve encountered as well. When thinking about the ways the two cities are not alike, interestingly, I still come to the features of location, reputation, and inhabitants.
Location: The size of the two cities is quite different. Lodz has a population of about 100,000, while Hefei has between 6-8 million. With the population difference, of course, comes a difference of area. Lodz was fairly walkable; usually we chose to take buses or trams, but if it got too late, we could walk home if we needed to. We were also able to walk to the grocery store, a nearby mall, several parks, etc. In Hefei there is no way to get around solely by walking. It takes us over an hour to get to the other side of the city in the best of circumstances, several hours by bus. In Hefei we end up taking taxis a lot more than we ever have before (cheap, reliable, and fast – can’t be it!). Another locational difference is the fact that Poland is surrounded quite close on all sides by different cultures. Europe, in general, has been mixing the cuisines, festivals, etc. of its various nations for quite a while. China, while also surrounded by other countries/cultures, is much larger and only newly “open” for mixing. The difference these facts have made on the cities is quite evident. In Lodz we could go to an Italian, French, Turkish, German, Chinese, or any other restaurant we might want on any given night, while in Hefei, it’s pretty much Chinese all around. There is variety to be had (Sichuanese, Canton, Beijing-style, etc.), but ultimately to me, it’s still all Chinese.
Reputation: Another difference would have to be the government systems, and perhaps even more than that are the views towards the government systems. In Lodz, I talked about politics more than I ever had previously in my life. We talked about Poland’s history, laws, elections, etc. all the time. I learned that Poland had the world’s second democracy, I heard the word “solidarity” more often than I would have thought possible, and of course, I observed all the negativity surrounding the ideals of communism (which is really no wonder given Poland and Russia’s history). However, now that I’m in Hefei, politics are pretty well avoided. Solidarity has perhaps been replaced with “CPC”, and communism is viewed completely differently, which makes sense, as it is completely different than the former Russian system we’ve all read about. Another large difference in regards to reputation is the presence of religion in Lodz and the almost complete absence of it in Hefei. I took hundreds of photos of churches during my time in Poland, and I think I’ve seen maybe four over the past seven months in China. It’s also interesting to note that in Poland many people loved arguing over the influence the church had/has on the government, but in China that’s just not even possible.
Inhabitants: Finally, there are definitely some differences among the people of Lodz and Hefei. While I mentioned both populations were incredible hospitable, their ways of showing it are completely different. In Poland people had a motherly way of treating guest: Did we want something to drink? Something to eat? Are we cold? Etc. We were asked over to people’s houses for the holidays, and we had no trouble connecting to people on a casual, friend level. In China, we’re treated more like honored guests. We are given the best seats in the house, gifts, toasts, red-carpet treatment (sometimes literally). While hospitable, occasionally we feel a little isolated by this guest-treatment, which has taken a bit of time to overcome and finally allow us to reach the friendzone. Another obvious difference would be lifestyles. In Lodz it seemed like a quiet life was desired. Most people in the city kept to themselves and enjoyed quiet activities like reading or silently playing mobile games while making it through the day (the great exception to this being when a Polish sports team was on TV). In Hefei, however, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly quiet moment. Cars and buses blast their horns around the clock, people listen to surprisingly loud audio messages wherever they are, and with the singing street sweepers and an abundance salespeople armed with loudspeakers, it’s safe to say people here aren’t concerned with the quiet life.
Grocery store in Lodz
Grocery store in Hefei
Honorable mentions for differences: Some other notable differences include:
The amount and importance placed on alcohol as a form of socializing, the ability to regulate indoor temperatures (in Lodz we couldn’t cool down our apartment, and in Hefei we can’t heat it), the emphasis placed on the quality of food, and last but not least, the language (there’s way too much to say about the differences in this aspect, so I’ll save it for a later post).
I’m not sure if anyone really wanted quite that much information about Lodz and Hefei, but when I start talking (or writing) about these two places I always find that I have so much to say! Ultimately though no matter the similarities or differences we’ve found, the most remarkable things we’ve taken away form our time in both Lodz and Hefei are the things we’ve learned, the memories we’ve made, and the people we’ve met. And personally, I can’t wait to find out which city we’ll be adding to the comparison list next!
Tucker and I used to order Chinese food fairly often when we lived in Atlanta. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it’s utterly delicious, but as I’m what I like to call a “safe eater” (read: picky), I only ever ordered Sesame Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, or some other entirely Americanized dish. However, now I find myself living in the Chinese food homeland (allegedly), and since I have yet to see anything remotely resembling those two stand-bys, I’m going to share some of my new favorite Chinese dishes. REAL Chinese food!
Pork , potatoes, and broccoli
But First, About Meals: Mealtimes in China are quite similar to what I’m used to from the US – an early, light breakfast before work, lunch around noon, and a larger, warm dinner in the early evening. A little less familiar is the utter lack of liquids. I’ve previously mentioned the Chinese affinity for drinking hot water throughout the day, but what I haven’t yet described is the fact that it’s rare for locals to have a drink (of anything) while eating. Occasionally they’ll have a small bowl of soup or broth, which they use as a drink substitute, but most people eat OR drink rather than what I previously thought was universal, eat AND drink.
Another thing that stands out is the absence of sweet options. I’m used to having the option of a sweet breakfast and almost always being offered dessert after dinner, but these phenomena are rarer in China. Instead of cereal, pop-tarts, waffles, etc. we see people eating noodles and pork buns on their way to work/class. As a fan of leftovers for breakfast and a former noodletarian, I love that there’s no judgment for eating noodles multiple times a day! However, I do miss the occasional dessert. Sometimes in a vain effort to satisfy my sweet tooth, I’ll pick up a dessert-like-thing from Wal-mart or the campus store, and nine times out of ten, I’m disappointed by a bite of red bean instead of chocolate. Our Chinese friends swear red bean is a dessert (and a sweet one at that), but coming from the US, where processed sugar is pretty much its own category in the food pyramid, I haven’t found much that’s up to my “sweet” standard.
What we usually think of as “Family Style” serving/eating is another prominent characteristic of Chinese meals. It’s fairly rare to go out with a group (even a small group) and each order one individual dish. Instead everyone agrees on 8-10 dishes and shares everything, often at a table with a large lazy-susan in the middle for easy reaching. Tucker loves this way of dining out because he gets to try many different dishes all at one meal, and, of course, I don’t like it for the same reason. Have I mentioned it’s really difficult to be a picky eater in a foreign country?
Blueberry mashed potatoes – why would you do that?!
My face when trying new foods
Regional Cuisine: Very early on we were told about the different regional cuisines of China, and have since discovered that many restaurants will choose a specialty and run with it. For that reason, we can find Beijing, Sichuan, or Hong Kong style restaurants in pretty much every Chinese city; just like we can go to any city in the US and find Italian, Mexican, and Chinese places. Also similar to the US, many Chinese cities have special foods that are almost synonymous with that place (think deep-dish pizza and Chicago or cheesesteaks and Philadelphia). Every time we tell friends about our travels plans, they immediately tell us which foods we have to try when we get there. We’ve had the Hot Dry Noodles (Re Gan Mian) of Wuhan, the Sweet and Sour Pork (Gou Bao Rou) of Harbin, the Egg Puffs of Hong Kong, and many others.
My Favorite Dishes: Okay, time to make your mouth water! Here are the Chinese foods I’ve come to love over the last 6 months:
Dumplings (Jiao): Of course! Boiled (shui jiao) or fried (guo tie), filled with meat or vegetables, these are a staple in my life. You can get them in soup or not, with sauce or not, and we’ve even been known to buy them by the dozens in the frozen food section of the grocery store. Everyone loves dumplings, and China has the best I’ve ever had.
Noodles (Mian tiao): Another favorite that has more variations than I could possibly write out are the noodles of China. There are noodle soups (mian tang), mixed sauce noodles (zhajiang mian), cold noodles (liang mian), handmade noodles, and the list goes on. Noodles disheds can run the flavor gamut from spicy Sichuan style to sour, vinegar-forward Anhui varieties. I’m pretty sure my Chinese friends, students, and colleagues think the only thing I eat is noodles…
Beef noodle soup with guo tie (fried dumplings)
Ji Pai: Translated as “chicken steak”, it’s basically sliced, fried chicken breast served over steamed rice. The campus restaurants serve it with a white sauce (sha la – like salad, as in salad dressing), and it’s delicious! Crispy and juicy with a delicious cream-based sauced (another rarity in China), it ensures I don’t only eat noodles.
Dry Pot Veggies (Gan guo cai): A little difficult to describe, “dry pot” refers to the way these dishes are served: in a wok placed over a small burner on the table. They bubble and continue to soak up the sauces and spices in the wok as everyone works to mix and eat them up. Our favorites include dry pot cabbage with bacon, cauliflower with peppers, and spicy potatoes and onions.
Sticky Potatoes (Ba Si Hongshu): It is no secret that I love potatoes. In Poland I ate boiled potatoes with dill just about every other day, but in China, this is my go-to potato dish. Fried sweet potatoes with a sweet, sticky glaze on top – what’s not to love?
Hot Pot (Huo guo): I call this Chinese Fondue, but it’s not quite the same. Hot pot (literally translated as “fire pot”) is a sort of soup or broth that’s used to cook meats and vegetables at your table. There are many choices to be made when eating hot pot, like which style of broth (spicy, mushroom, tomato, etc.) and which foods to cook/eat, meats (the most popular being lamb, pork, beef, and shrimp), vegetables (like cabbage, cucumbers, and potatoes), and many other choices (including bamboo shoots, bread, mushrooms, noodles, etc.).
Tucker with a much-needed bib
Hot pot four ways
Fast Food: I’m not going to lie. There have been times I’ve craved “familiar” food, broke down, and went to a fast food chain for some nostalgia (and let’s face it, ease). In China we have plenty of McDonalds, KFCs, Subways, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts. We’ve also seen Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Haagen Dazs, and an Outback. If ever we find ourselves at a place like this, I safely, happily order something that I know and love, and Tucker tries the more adventurous route: like a shrimp burger at McDonald’s and a coffee and mochi blizzard at Dairy Queen. He’s a food gambler, and it has yet to truly pay off – fast food classics are popular for a reason, regardless of country.
To be honest this is just the tip of the Chinese food iceberg. In such a vast, diverse, and old country, there’s bound to be a plethora of culinary options. Maybe in the future I’ll write about Chinese snack foods, holiday foods, crazy menu translations, and/or the dishes that scare the hunger right out of me. Until then, I’m just going to eat some more noodles.