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!