That Was Unexpected! As Was That…

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Family selfie!

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.

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I can’t stress enough how much there is to see in 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.

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Family-style meals

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!

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“Flat toilets”

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!).

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Tea > coffee anyways…

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.

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Nothing like pushing through the hordes

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.

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The adventurers!

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!

The Land of Chinggis and Cheese

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Sunset in Ulaanbaatar

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.

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     I promise I was working.

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:

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Flight into Mongolia

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.

 

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.

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Mongolian dumplings

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!

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Road Trip!

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.

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Terelj National Park

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.

 

 

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Pretty epic, no?

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!

 

 

Reactions and Expectations: China

People’s Reactions:

We are moving to China in five days (only five days!), and Tucker and I are beyond excited about our next adventure abroad! This past month we’ve been lucky enough to take off from work and spend time with family and friends before we go, which has (of course) led to a lot of talk about our next destination. Perhaps because we just did this less than two years ago when we moved to Poland, we couldn’t help but make comparisons to the reactions people have had when we tell them it’s China this time. I suppose I knew it wouldn’t be as well-received due to certain perceptions of China, plus our moving abroad isn’t as exciting and new as it once was; however, I do have to say that I didn’t expect quite as many (or as strong) negative comments as we got. Things like:

  • “Why China? Europe would have been better.”
  • “China has definitely never been on my list of places to see.”
  • “I would never go to a country that isn’t free, a country that has a ban on things like Facebook.”
  • “Don’t go to China. They treat animals terribly there.”
  • “Don’t eat anything you didn’t cook yourself.”
  • “Just get some makeup to make your eyes look slanted, and you’ll fit right in.”

I think most of the comments we’ve received are stemming from the classic fear of the unknown. Most people just don’t have a whole lot of factual knowledge about today’s China (which honestly, we found this to be true of Poland as well. There’s a relevant “they don’t have bacon in Poland” story here.), but several also come from the negative stereotypes and perceptions that are particularly strong and ingrained in regards to China. China is really far away from the U.S.: geographically, linguistically, and culturally, and although China is changing at an absolutely astonishing rate, it’ll likely take a long time and a lot of mutual sharing to change these lingering ideas, which, coincidentally, is exactly what I want to be a part of!

Teacher in ChinaI have loved hearing and collecting people’s reactions and thoughts about China (including my own), and I plan on spending this next year educating. Educating Chinese students and teachers on American culture and language as well as educating myself and fellow Americans on Chinese culture (and language if any of you are interested!). At one time, these comments might have made me nervous for what we would find in China, but mostly I’m just eager to see and experience it for myself, which actually leads me to another fact worth mentioning: I have already been to China, albeit briefly, and so I have some hazy, half-forgotten reactions of my own to share.

My Initial Reactions:

In 2014 I was finishing up my MA program when I started to get really antsy about never having studied abroad. It was always something I had wanted to do, but somehow after 5+ years of university study it hadn’t happened. So during my last year at GSU, I applied for several scholarships and signed up to go to Spain. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the Spain trip was canceled because not enough people had signed up; however, as an alternative I was offered the opportunity to accompany the undergraduates on their trip to China. China?! I had just finished up a semester of Spanish in preparation for my Spain trip! Oh well, I bought a Chinese phrasebook and was off to spend a little over a month in the massive cities of Shanghai and Beijing, China.

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Me on the Bund in Shanghai

I’m not sure I had much time to think of my expectations before landing in China for the first time (I was still extremely surprised I wasn’t gong to Spain), but luckily journaling was a biweekly part of the program I was in. And due to my suburb ability to not clean out my USBs, I still have these written records of my initial reactions. Out of curiosity, I recently reread these journal entries, and have subsequently listed some of my first thoughts of China:

  • The traffic laws are either completely different or nonexistent.
  • Gestures are common for everyone, often in place of words (e.g. prices when haggling).
  • Everything to do with toilets is different in China. You carry your own toilet paper, never flush any paper products, and many times sitting down is not an option.
  • Everyone seems to love laughing and joking around.
  • Shanghai and Beijing have trees, are not terribly crowded, and only moderately smoggy in May.
  • It is extremely disorienting (and embarrassing) when you can’t read a single thing.
  • It feels like I’m a celebrity because so many strangers are asking to take my picture.
  • Everyone seems very eager to learn about English and life in the United States.

In hindsight it’s clear by my reactions that I was surprised by these things, which sheds light onto what I thought China was going to be like. I thought it would be difficult to breathe, really crowded and dirty. I thought the people would be stiff and unfriendly towards foreigners who could hardly say ni hao. I had heard so many negative things about China all my life that my reactions were a bit jaded. Even small differences (like with traffic and toilets) took a negative spin; however, I soon learned their reasoning behind these different choices: individual vigilance over an abundance of minute traffic laws and economic efficiency over unnecessary comfort in regards to public toilets. They weren’t weird or bad choices, just different. This lesson changed the way I viewed cultures (including my own) and taught me to inquire about differences rather than judge them. In short, I learned the value of cultural awareness and have carried that with me ever since.

My Expectations This Time:

FullSizeRenderAs culturally aware as I hope I am, this time we aren’t just traveling to China; we aren’t just visiting with a large group of other Americans for a specific, short-term purpose; this time we’re moving there. The difference between short and long-term cultural immersion is evident in our physical preparations already as I have had one hell of a time obtaining the proper visas and, of course, if you take one look at our four mostly-packed suitcases you’ll see I’m planning on taking a lot of my culture with me. However, there are also differences as I mentally prepare for living (not just traveling) in China. We absolutely adored our time in Poland, but reading my early posts about our move there reminded me that there was definitely an adjustment period, and as different as Poland seemed, it was much closer on the cultural scale than China. Therefore we’re now spending the necessary time preparing ourselves for all the ambiguities and unknowns that come with living in a new place. One of these preparations is discussing our expectations.

I am expecting to…

  • Feel uncertain in everything I do.
  • Need a lot of patience.
  • Either grow tired of or used to the oily food and hot water.
  • Live in a noisy, dirty city.
  • Work around the Great Firewall of China.
  • Notice a greater social distance.
  • Experience life with an extreme language barrier.
  • Have a vast array of new experiences.
  • Glean endless tidbits of cultural information.
  • Eat a lot of delicious food.
  • Go to new, beautiful places.
  • Make friends.

And of course so many other things that pass through my head on a daily basis. Ultimately, I wanted to write this post so that I can look back on it in a few months and compare my expectations to my new reality. I’m also hoping to share what I learn over the next year through this blog (and maybe change some perspectives), so with that, let’s go to China!