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Humid and Humider - How to get along and survive in China

A perfect, comprehensive survival guide by Gene Richards

September 2003



Ever lived where it’s really humid? The weather here in Chengdu would be almost balmy compared to any summer in Central California - except for the humidity. Eat breakfast, and work up a sweat. Go for a walk to buy vegetables from the open air market down the road, and work up a sweat. Play tennis under an almost always overcast sky, and… Fortunately bike riders ace it again, as the cooling of the motion is just about enough to carry off the sweat of the exercise - almost. Speaking of which, it takes longer to get across town from my old school to the new university by car than by bike, sitting in stifling heat and exhaust, waiting - ugly. It’s about 50 minutes by bike compared to over an hour by car. I don’t have to tell most of you that you don’t see much in a car. Of course, you’re thinking America, where there’s not much to see anyway. But here there is something to look at and wonder about all along the way. Oh, hey, look at that little shop that sells nothing but

toilet paper (yeah, I know you think I’m kidding).

New quarters, new things to get used to, new object of curiosity for everyone else to stare at. Living situation much improved, I’m on the ground floor but luckily there’s a courtyard to look out on just over my computer monitor, kids darting around because it’s summer break, else they’d be in school 16 hours a day (which is only a slight exaggeration). I guess this is about as close to middle class as I’ve ever been in China. American middle class: 2 bedrooms, 3 ACs, microwave, video and DVD players, washing machine, etc. Actually, the standard by which I judge all Chinese living situations is the size of the refrigerator. You never see the large ones we have in the States, or even close. I do have friends with very large apartments and have seen some large detached houses, without the large yards you see in America, and no big refers. Part of this is that the Chinese are used to buying almost all their food fresh and often; someone in the household will go out every morning to the vegetable market to get about a day’s worth of stuff, including live animals (poultry, rabbits or fish), eggs, produce, tofu, pickles, noodles, bread, almost anything. Sort of like having a cut-rate Whole Foods on almost every major corner.

Nota bene: I just realized that in these rambling thoughts, I’m usually talking about my life in the city but 80% of China’s 1.2 billion people still live as peasants in the countryside. There existence, while slowly being elevated, is still a long way from what we would call tolerable. They work hard, have little security, live humbly and maybe dream of a better life. Some city people are little removed from these primitive conditions and some of the students I see everyday are only one or two generations away from the farmer’s life. To sum up my own point of view, I sometimes imagine I could live on a farm with them for a while. You know, the simple life. Then I think that probably I couldn’t.
Ok, here’s a short video of city life in China: I’m coming back last night from visiting friends and playing tennis over at my old school, just ambling along on my bike about 9 pm. It’s pretty safe and I never think about being attacked except when I start swearing at someone for nerving me. You often see single females out pretty late. And I’m thinking about what I’m going to tell you about life here, rubber necking at pretty girls or couples talking ‘intently’ in each other’s arms, trying to remember where I am, listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the Walkman, singing to myself and whoever happens to be beside me, which isn’t many because traffic has thinned considerably. And this girl cuts me off on her bike so I sort of raise my voice a little and tell her to watch out (in a mixture of Chinese and English) but not angrily and she sort of nods like, ok dude, and then I’m closer to my place and I’m passing all these little shops open late with red light in side and they have girls sitting around doing nothing and they’re not selling any obvious merchandise and then I do realize what merchandise they are selling. I have to keep checking the street signs to make sure I don’t miss my street because I haven’t come back this way before. At one point I ask a couple of guys walking if this is Fuqing Road (jiege jie Fuqing Lu ma?) but they say ‘bu shi’ (isn’t). Then I do find the right street and have to negotiate the little side street near my residential area along the river but they’re rebuilding the banks so the path is torn up and it was raining in the morning so if I put my foot down it’s mud-city but it’s dark because there are few street lights here - in some parts it’s pitch black but I can make out the path edge from the big tree shadows. Then I wheel onto my street where a bunch of guys and a few girls are still out playing mah-jong (a Chinese friend calls it China’s worst drug). Then into my compound where most of the university’s teachers live and a nod and a ‘hey’ to the guard, who won’t close the gate until midnight (but he’ll be there to let me in even if I stumble in early in the morning).
I can’t shake the feeling, when I’m tooling around on my bike, plugged into the music, that I’m taking you on a tour of my town: stay over to the right; hey watch out for the taxi turning from the right (you thought they were going to stop? -ha!) and keep your eyes open; I think it’s down this street ‘cause it looks familiar; wait to cross: wait, wait - NOW; oh, there’s a cute girl sucking on a Popsicle; hey, let’s stop here and have noodles for lunch. And like that. And amaze you with my really rather pathetic Mandarin and even some local dialect.

You knew that there is great variation in Chinese speech, nothing like the situation you see in England, unless you find someone there who speaks only Scots or Irish Gallic or Welsh, and certainly nothing like America where everyone’s speech is almost identical by comparison. In China there are about 10 mutually unintelligible languages (like Cantonese and Fujianese), not to mention the many minority languages, so most TV broadcasts have subtitles - all use the same written characters. But even the dialects of Mandarin are quite different from the Beijing / CCTV standard. Mandarin has four tones but each dialect varies the tones somewhat, not to mention very different vowel and consonant variations and the many, many local expressions. As an example of which, to say that something doesn’t matter (it’s not important, don’t worry about it), in Mandarin it’s mei guanxi, but in Sichuanese it’s ma dei si, which, when I say it, always gets a laugh from my friends mainly because they know my Chinese is pitiful and it seems odd to hear such a good expression come out of my mouth. Gotta have a good ear to develop language skills in Asia.

Which reminds me, you have to have a lot of what I would call survival skills when negotiating another culture. Sometimes I’m proud of my ability to get along here, then something will happen to show just how much of an oddity I am, often with me losing my already limited patience and telling someone to fuck off. My limitations, while personal, are also universal to any human being in a strange culture - not liking to be stared at or constantly referred to as a foreigner. And, frankly, I just can’t see the cuteness of the constant Hello’s you hear in a sort of chirpy voice when wandering around on foot. If it’s face to face I usually say something like, ‘hey, what’s up?’ or ‘whadaya say?’ which throws them.

Ok, another side note. I sometimes wonder why I bother with these involved explanations to folks back home? It’s pretty much a given that it’s impossible to share what you’ve been through while overseas for an extended period of time. The best you can hope for is the polite, ‘um hmm, how interesting or: Gene, I really admire you for doing that.’ But to explain what it’s like to be in China - out of the question. There’s too much adaptation, too much getting used to things that at first are hard to deal with, too many mental adjustments that must be made in order to just survive day to day.

But you do survive by making those adjustments, and learn to make the best out of things, meet people who come to like you for who you are, form lasting friendships despite the incredible differences of culture with forbearance and patience on both parts, see amazing things, learn a hell of a lot about yourself and a little about the rest of the world, stop thinking about America as the center of the universe (after all, China calls itself the Middle or Central Kingdom). And you come home, if you do come home, a changed person. Not that anyone can see it, which is part of what I meant by not being able to explain what you have been through to anyone back home even if they are genuinely interested.

Which seems somewhat sad to me because there is some wasted quality of life about it all. It’s as though you had missed out on something even though you are the one who has been through all the changes. Your friends give you that cocktail party stare to show they are interested in what you are saying (you can see I’ve been through this before). I realize that I am the one who knows more about the world because of my experiences here but it’s of little value to ‘America the insular,’ America the world power and America that knows-it-all. It’s not to say that we Americans are stupid (and I DO include myself) but we are definitely ignorant of the rest of the world. Our physical size and separation from other continents, our vast wealth and natural resources, compounded by our lack of knowledge of other languages and expense of travel in other countries, all contribute to this ignorance.

I have also reflected about what it is that sets expatriates, like myself and the others I meet here, apart. Is it a different breed of person that goes overseas to live, some sympathy that distinguishes you but which unites you with all those that do go to live ‘elsewhere’. It seems to me that it is partly a sense of adventure, which in my case may have something to do with the fact that my folks lived overseas, in Europe and South America, for many years when I was small. There’s some curiosity in there, but not the ‘let’s-look-it-up-in-the-encyclopaedia’ kind of curiosity. It’s some quality of scepticism, of not taking someone’s word for something, of having listened to someone many years ago talk about another country and never really being able to have gotten it out of your mind. There’s some boredom involved also, of looking around yourself at home and realizing there must be something more to the world. Maybe it’s just that when others were watching the Lowell Thomas and Michael Palin types explaining the rest of the world, we were not satisfied to sit and watch the tube but had to go out and see for ourselves.

It’s not that we don’t feel the effects of culture shock and frustration at times. It’s not like we don’t complain. Frequently, newcomers will have ‘why I hate China’ sessions, but it’s done more as a sense of gaining temporary balance in an intrinsically unbalanced situation. And even long time expats nurture deeper discontent, prejudices and grudges which are hard to dislodge. This is probably because these feelings form the necessary barricades against the constant onslaught of an alien culture.
I have a Canadian friend married to a Chinese woman, who has a little girl now, and he’s been here many years, rarely travelling outside the country. He’s not rich but has a nice home and comfortable life here. When we get together, the conversation usually comes around to something ugly about things here - politics, corruption, cleanliness, electric bicycles. And because of his connections and business dealings, he knows of what he speaks.

Or a long time Canadian teacher who has often been available to me when I’ve had problems at school, who simply says that it’s just ‘Chinese way’ and there’s nothing you’re going to do about it so you might as well just accept it. It’s like when your biking in the bike lane and a taxi swerves in front of you to pick up a hailing citizen, as though he were on a bike also and not controlling a several thousand pound death machine. At first you kick the fender and swear. Later you just swear and then you just swear under your breath. Finally you just brake and pass on the left, even if you have to go out into traffic because everyone is so used to this situation, anticipates it and deals with it. It would be useless to get worked up which would just slow you down anyway and raise your blood pressure.

HOWEVER, recently I was coming up on a huge military bus inching out into the traffic so I, and everyone else on bikes or walking, went around on the curb side. Then the bus reversed - no brake or reverse lights or signal or any other kind of warning, even from the guy guiding him on the street. I came that close to being squished between his rear bumper and the curb. I guess I could have jumped out of the way but my bike would have been toast. Even the Chinese were squealing and looking worried for me as they saw what was happening. When I pushed my way by the other bikists from behind him, I let the driver know in clear terms he was an ass (the f-word was prominent ?which is understood by all here) but didn’t make the mistake of taking it to his face, which would have gotten me in a huge explanation with the police as to why I had leaped onto a military bus to beat up the driver. Spy would have been the first accusation.

As long as I’m regaling you, I once set off with the other cyclists after the light changed to green but there were still cars in the huge intersection under the overpass. I rode on after the others but got off a little slowly and so I was trailing them by a few meters. Anyway, this guy just kept coming slowly on, against the light, and smacked my front wheel before braking. No harm was done except to knock the stuff out of my basket. At first I shouted something like ‘what the fuck’ pointing to the light which had changed. But when I looked at him (everyone in the car was wide-eyed that they had hit a foreigner), his sheepish and apologetic look cooled my anger and I just shook my head, picked up my stuff, with them all looking at me, and went on - no harm done, like I said, more or less.

In the general area of complaining, I am very lucky to be a teacher because my students are a huge support group, even when they think I am wrong, because they provide me with a forum from which to vent some frustrations and just speak out what I am feeling and going through. It even allows me to pontificate about American culture. After all, who’s going to disagree with me? We can often laugh at our own follies.

I finally realized that ranting about things Chinese, while feeling good at the moment, was not helpful to my well-being and ability to survive, so I have pretty much shut up - except now I’m talking to you so it’s ok. Oh, I do hate Chinese pop music and this is no secret to my close friends. I hate the traffic here but I keep my mouth shut, mostly, and just use my brakes and pedal power to get around situations, just like the Chinese. My attitude is best summed up in my reaction to Chinese TV and movies. I simply say that it is dreadful, almost as bad as American. And while I love American movies, most of what Hollywood produces is junk, or pablum, or rehashing. Tune in to HBO or Star Movies (Fox/Murdoch in Asia) if you want an accurate sampling.

My biggest complaint, though, about China and Chinese? They don’t complain. They don’t tell the store to give them their money back because the damned product they were sold is a piece of junk, or the food they ordered is not right, or the work done on their apartment is not proper, or people are talking too loud in a restaurant. But you know my biggest admiration for Chinese? They can accept things the way they are, not losing their cool when confronted with the idiocies of life. If that’s not ambivalent, I don’t know what is. In fact, that should be my epitaph - he was ambivalent. And that’s a good place to end my tale.


nach oben



andere Themen der Rubrik China

-.- Reisebericht -.- Chengdu-Tips -.- Chinesisch lernen -.- Spinatblätter -.- Lebenszeichen -.- Laßt hundert Blumen blühen -.-

-.- Die Margarineschachtel -.- Wochenende -.- Beijing um 1900 -.- Beijing heute: 1. Eindruck & Heizen -.- Die chinesischen Sprachen -.-

-.- Chinese short news -.- Survival Guide -.- China-Fotos -.-


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