Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Okay, so I spent the last month bitching about China. It is an exceptionally different country to live in compared to the near-utopian social democracies of Northern Europe that I’ve called home before it. It can be beautiful, culturally enriching and cue imagery of Buddhist temples and misty bamboo forests. It can also be a bitch, as I’ve said. Really depends on the day.
Despite what you may think after last month, which was really just therapy for me (and I think it worked), I actually like it here. Sometimes I even love it. I knew it would be difficult just by judging how hard I fell for those neat and put together Scandinavian countries. China is most certainly not that, but it is also not the monster some people make it out to be. Those people can probably spout out thirty countries they’d rather be dropped in for a year in less than thirty seconds, if they were under such a threat. They would be relieved. They would also really be missing out. Here’s why.
It’s Very Laid Back
China operates on China Time. This can be absolutely maddening if you actually need something done well and in a timely manner. For instance, our roof started leaking in three places a few months back after a freak warm day melted the snow. Our school said someone would fix it in the spring, which is still two months away. Fuck that. But, this lack of urgency creates a very laid-back atmosphere that I enjoy most of the time.
The People are Really Nice
This country gets a bad rep for scammers taking advantage of foreigners, and you will definitely see some of that if you’re not careful. This is seriously overplayed, however. I’ve found the opposite to be true. Complete strangers will actually try to tell you, “Hey, buddy, that one’s cheaper.” The people you meet here are so excited to show you all things Chinese, whether it’s how to play Mahjong, the best hotpot restaurant in town or simply the ropes around the language. The Chinese have been exceedingly patient with my glacial progress towards becoming fluent at Mandarin (hahaha!). There are probably some places back home where they’ll still kick you out if you try to speak Spanish instead of - ironically - their horrible, barely coherent bastardization of English. They just think it’s funny here and that’s about it.
This may be a completely superficial and banal reason to be happy about China, but what can I say? I’m making fat stacks as an English teacher. And by fat stacks, I mean a literal envelope filled with enough of Chairman Mao’s face to live very comfortably while pocketing most of it at the end of the day. My apartment is paid for, the utilities are cheap and it’s just as inexpensive to eat out at any number of amazing restaurants as it is to cook when we actually do get tired of Chinese food. The cost of living, paired with my monthly salary (which is just as much as I made as a TA for a public school back home) puts me into the top 10% of earners in China compared to my status in the top 80% in America. You could say I upgraded. Again, not really a flowery cultural reason to love China, but not being able to spend my entire paycheck even if I wanted to certainly opens a lot of doors here.
What? Freedom? But China’s commie, right? Indeed it is, but in name only. I can do anything I wanted to do in America here in China. Well, the Great Firewall can really annoy the piss out of me sometimes, but I think that really is the only aspect of the authoritative government that reaches into my everyday life. In fact, I would say that I’m more at ease when I’m out and about. A major component to this carefree attitude is something that I would not have expected in a million years: I’m more relaxed around any cop in China than I would ever be in the US. At least in my experience, the majority of the police in North Carolina are former high school bullies (read: not very intelligent) just looking for a reason to stop you. Putting that power over you is their high. Give them automatic weapons, body armor and armored personal carriers and you’ve got a real police state in the making. For better or for worse, the police don’t do anything here. You gotta grease some palms, which isn’t the greatest phenomenon to have in your country, but then again, there’s not that much crime here, either.
Flat plains, rolling hills, Siberian forests, misty mountains, snow-capped peaks, jungles full of things that can kill you, deserts to die slowly of thirst in - you can find it all here. Want to discover “Real China” and shit in a bucket for a couple of weeks? Take an hour bus ride from any major city in any direction and you will find that. Want to snort Ketamine through a rolled up 100 yuan note in the most populous city in the world? Well, that’s getting trendy in Shanghai, or so I’m told. You can find anything you want here. And if you want a challenging destination, look no further than China. The language barrier is goliath - you will need an app for that, especially if you’re venturing outside of the major cities. It’s also a hot mess, so if you’re just looking for a difficult place to deal with, then you will be enriched in that way. It’s a lot of work but the rewards are well worth it.
The Food is Amazing
Just the other day I was brainstorming for future posts (which isn’t hard to do, because China) and decided I should definitely do a cheesy but necessary “5 Favorite Dishes” for the great food here. I thought about it for a bit and realized that…that would be impossible. I would have to make it a three-part series. Jiaozi, baozi, gong bao ji ding (real Kung pao chicken), chuanr, gou bao rou - oh sweet Jesus - gou bao rou…and that mushroom thing I like. Actually there’s a lot of “that-beef-thing”-type dishes. I don’t have to know the name. They’re all wonderful, some of them are terrible for you but better than crack. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to eat American-Chinese food again. I think the only reason I’ll go to our local place when I get back is to freak out people by being a white guy in a Red state fluently ordering in Mandarin, because multiculturalism is scary there. But what if they speak Cantonese…fuck.
Love and Hate
There are days that I want nothing to do with this country. I want sit around indoors, curtains drawn of course (hides the Chinese writing and sometimes smog outside), watch How I Met Your Mother and make some tacos. Then I want to eat the tacos while thinking about Starbucks. I don’t even like Starbucks that much, but it was the first American thing I could think of. Just sitting in there, listening to their indie-holiday playlist, also mixed with jazz so they can appeared cultured, safe from the constant onslaught of stuff slightly beyond my comfort-zone.
But that’s also why I love China. Because it makes me feel that way. It’s some real sado-masochistic shit. Every day is a battle against everything that seems natural to me and when I overcome these personal obstacles, I’m winning, and that’s a step closer to thriving. I will not grow any more in a country that I’m comfortable and complacent in than I would back home in America. So I have one thing to say to China: “Bring it, bitch!”
If you spent a day in China and decided it was far too rude of a place for you, I wouldn’t blame you very much. You will be bumped into, people will pass you in line, let the door slam in your face, take the taxi you were clearly waiting for first, shove past you when getting off the bus/train, spit/piss/shit in the street, toss garbage on the ground, stare at you if you are not Chinese, and the absolute worst: stop and check their phone at the bottom/top of the escalator. That’s a lot for a Southern boy or an English lady to get used to.
One could argue that these things are common in almost any city around the world due to the sheer volume of people crammed into one place. And, moreover, manners are just social constructs that develop differently in different places anyway. My mom taught me to hold the door for people. I’m not going to hold some stranger in a city 20,000 miles away in contempt for neglecting to do that, even if it does annoy me at the time. So, no, again I don’t think Chinese people are inherently to blame for the source of my final rant this month, and anyone who is expecting the same level of politeness that they are personally accustomed to at any point on the globe is making a rookie travel mistake anyway.
But, I came here to bitch and moan despite all of these caveats and prologues. So that’s what I’m going to do.
There are No Lines
By far the most irritating. As an American, a line is just the fairest way to get mundane chores done without bashing people out of the way with a stick to get your turn. So I was initially at a loss when people just shoved in front of me at the noodle place or the grocery store. What am I supposed to do? I don’t think anyone has actually cut in front of me in the US before… So I just ignore it the first couple of times it happens. And…it’s a perfectly good strategy if you don’t mind being walked all over. So, when in Daqing, do as the Daqingers do. I’m no longer afraid to raise an outstretched arm to my side, not too different from a barrier at a railroad crossing. Welcome back to kindergarten behavior of “Hey, no fronting!” I still retain some of my former principles and will not actually pass someone myself, but I refuse to be passed. It’s weird, because I’ve gotten a few nasty looks for standing my ground. I’m not sure if that’s common or if this is one of many, many strange double standards for foreigners in China. It’s only rude if I do it.
Using a Pneumatic Drill at 5am is OK.
Don’t be loud past 10pm in China. That’s very rude. Your neighbors will tell you to be quiet. However, are you an early riser and need to knock down a wall? Go to town. Totally okay. Within our first few weeks of moving in, the downstairs neighbors decided to use a pneumatic drill between the hours of 5 and 7am every morning. Imagine if a jackhammer was able to mainline 250 dB while making love to a jet engine. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but as long as you understand that it is one of the most annoying sounds I’ve ever heard, then we’re on the same page. And because most Chinese apartment blocks are basically concrete poured over steel frames, you get to actually feel the vibrations as well (and hope like hell the guy actually knows what the fuck he’s doing and doesn’t cause your building to collapse). There are actually rules against this in most buildings; I guess ours isn’t one of them.
Public Expulsion of Bodily Fluids/Solids
There’s a fun mental game I now play with myself while walking about the frozen reaches of Heilongjiang: leftover ice or frozen spit? Bonus points for piss, raw sewage from busted pipes or vomit. Sure, everyone’s had a discrete, drunken piss under the cover of darkness behind a bush or in an alley. But facing me, even making eye-contact while draining the snake in broad daylight as children are walking home from school? Not cool, man. There’s that, and then there’s The Shit. The Shit that haunts us to this day, literally. We saw him on the street corner, squatting, probably after knocking some baijiu back in the nearby KTV. And now we see It every day on our commute, frozen in time, at least until April or May. You can’t not look at It, knowing It’s there. It has that power over us. Also, the sound of a middle-age Chinese man preparing a ball of phlegm in the back of his throat, after which he will spit on the ground, will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. If I forget, I’ll only need to wait seconds after exiting my building for that little cultural gem to remind that I am, in fact, still in China.
No Spacial Awareness
When I’m going about my day, I use my peripheral vision to make sure I’m not in anyone’s way. This conscious effort to not obstruct another person’s path must be a Western-only phenomenon. On any given day, you will play chicken with oncoming pedestrian traffic. They never seem to know which direction they want to go until they’re right there, then you have to do the whole which-way-you-goin dance to force a decision. You know that feeling that one person in front of you is somehow occupying an entire sidewalk? My personal bubble makes it difficult to pass if you’re slowly zig-zagging along in front of me, checking your phone. How hard is it to walk in a straight line sober? Watch out for your heels in the grocery store. I’m going to start wearing shin-guards backwards to protect them from the absent-minded bashing of shopping carts into the back of me. Don’t even make me mention standing in entrances, exits, the ends of escalators as if they were built specifically for you, specifically for that one moment you needed to use it. No one should need to tell you that more people are coming, GET OUT OF THE WAY.
Not My Problem
When it comes to who is best at passing the buck, the buck stops in China. If you plan on teaching here, listen up, because this is a huge part of Chinese office culture. Foreigner or Chinese, one’s existence here is a massive game of who has the most face. This means that if you admit that you screwed up or if there is a problem at all, especially for the foreigner you’re hosting if you happen to be a school, you lose face. The solution? Blame it on someone else, refuse to acknowledge a problem at all, and say a bunch of flowery things in hopes of appeasing the other party so that you don’t have to actually do anything. This can be soooooo frustrating, especially when my boss doesn’t realize that in my eyes, you will lose much more face if I can tell you’re not being straight up with me. Try to force an “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry, I was wrong” from your school, and watch them squirm in the process. A running refrain from a pissed off foreigner in Daqing is “I’m going to make him/her lose so much face that you won’t even recognize them anymore!”
This is complete speculation on my part, but hear me out. China’s economic growth strategy is essentially build baby build. So much so that ghost cities planned for millions of residents can pop up seemingly overnight. How does the government fill them? Easy. They force rural populations to move there in order to create a new class of consumers, and consequentially, a new sustainable form of economic growth. The New York Times has a great series of articles on this massive forced migration.
These people have never interacted within the close quarters of a city before. It’s like expecting a bunch of farmers and their families who have lived on their plots of land for generations to become instant urbanites. Coupled with the obvious chasm between Western and Eastern culture, it’s not surprising at all that someone from the US would find the urban momentum of China to be clumsy, confusing and on some days, absolutely maddening. Somehow it all works. We still get from A to B, even if it’s a struggle every now and then.
Chinese New Year
Wow, that was cathartic. After getting all of that out of my system, you will not hear me complain again unless I can help it. Well, there is the coffee situation. Might have to write a survival guide for that one. Anyway, seemingly just in time for my Daqing cabin fever, I’ll be going to Hong Kong for about two weeks for Chinese New Year. I’m taking off from Harbin in two days after freezing my ass off one last time at the Harbin Ice Festival. When I get back, that is, after donning my 15 layers again while sobbing in the corner of the airport, I’ll be publishing a complete archive of the blog from 2011-2013 (with an excerpt from an upcoming ebook oh-mer-gosh) to Amazon! I think I’ve worked the system to where it will be free for a while, then only $0.99 after that. Stay tuned, I’ll be teasing it a lot.
If you enjoyed this rant, click here for some bitching on the driving situation in China and here for some moaning about getting stared and pointed at every day. And if you’re a Sinophile with hurt feelings, you can click here to read about how much I don’t care. Stick around…maybe, just maybe I’m writing something nice about China next week.
I’m one of 60 foreigners in a Chinese city of 3 million people. I’m a tall, white male with blonde hair and blue eyes (some say I have deep pools). You could say it’s not hard for me to get noticed here. There’s a word for what I am. Laowai. I hear it all the time, sometimes even daily, in hushed tones spoken to friends who are elbowing each other in the ribs and alerting each other to my presence. Some are less inconspicuous and just decide to shout, “LaoWAI!” I’ve gotten used to it. My newbie self would turn around every time I heard this interjection, something that would be considered highly rude back home, but now it’s just water off a duck’s back. I ignore it like I would the drone of plane passing overhead.
This behavior is usually no less than annoying (unless it’s a kid, then it’s kinda cute), especially after the realization that it’s not going to stop a month into your stay in China. You feel like everyone should eventually know of the big, white man-beast that emerges from time to time, but 3 million is a lot of people. There are several entertaining ways that my foreign-ness dawns on Chinese people, many of which would get your ass kicked back home in America. But I realize it’s a pretty homogenous country, and Daqing is especially as far as Chinese cities go. It’s probably a complete mystery to many people why I’ve decided to come and live in what many would consider a frozen hellhole. Here are the most common reactions to my simple existence as I go about mundane activities.
The Classic “Laowai!”
Imagine if you saw a hispanic, a Middle Eastern or, hey, even a Chinese person walking down the street in America. Would you point and shout “Foreigner!”? Would you say “Hey, look! There’s a foreigner” to your friend without even bothering to lower your voice at all within earshot of this person (which, I know, is beside the point)? Well, that’s exactly what happens here. As a foreigner in China, it will be one of the first words you learn, the first you will understand. Good thing, too, as it will be directed at you quite a bit. After five months, it’s just white noise to me.
A random Chinese person shouting “Hellooo!?” at you is not that dissimilar from making monkey noises at the chimpanzee exhibit or tapping on the glass to get a response. The zoo analogy sounds pretty harsh, but it is almost dead on. It is very easy to separate who is actually trying to practice their English from someone who is just being obnoxious and openly mocking you. The latter will be smiling and alerting their friend of your presence as you approach, and only after have you passed them will one venture that feeble, goofy hello. Those guys are having a day at the zoo, and I barely hear them anymore I’ve gotten so good at ignoring them.
The 360° Pivot Stare
This is one of my personal favorites. You know someone has to be a special kind of sheltered when they are so shocked at your very presence that they slowly turn in a complete circle, blatantly staring at you the entire 360 degrees. Sure, you can try making eye-contact with them, hoping in vain that they’ll just look away and mind their own business. Good luck. I’m just glad the little old lady didn’t drop her bag of eggs. This is also probably one of the most annoying reactions. I guess, even in North Carolina, I’ve been so exposed to multiculturalism that this type of reaction would be completely out of the question in any situation. Oh well, keep looking while it’s free.
The Not So Inconspicuous Photo Op
Another favorite, because it’s so incredulous. What would you do if some random-ass stranger took a photo of you for no particular reason other than your skin is a different color? Yeah, wouldn’t go over so well back home… Hmm, you’re holding your phone at a very strange angle in the middle of the supermarket. *Whoosh, to the other side of the amateur photographer.* Busted. Her camera is up and I see a thumbnail of myself. I know I’m sexy, but please restrain yourself. I’d love to know how this conversation with friends actually goes down. “Yep, so here’s a nice sunset from yesterday evening, there’s the good noodles I was telling you about, and oh, some white guy I’ve never met before carrying his groceries.”
The Point and Laugh
This one probably pisses me off the most. Really, you’re just going to wear that shit-eating grin while elbowing your friend and laughing? Seriously. As with virtually every one of these, I can’t imagine any universe in which this would go down well back home. I understand I’m clearly different. You may not have even seen a foreigner in person before. But how can you think this is the best reaction? Maybe I’m just too complacent in my whiteness. It’s become old hat until now. Okay, you can laugh it up. Just don’t ever go to the Bronx. Especially don’t go anywhere in the South. They won’t ‘preciate that there.
The…Wow, you’re actually scared of me
I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong. One day I was in H&M (I know, the whole minimalism thing but there was a great sale) just purusing, minding my own business. I pay for my new shirt and walk out the door just as a couple enters. The girl gasps and makes a noise in surprise when she notices my foreign face, and shrinks up against here boyfriend in fear, clutching on to him for dear life. I don’t know if you, the reader, have ever seen a photo of me, but I’m about as far away from intimidating as it gets. What the fuck have people been telling you about 150-pounds-when-soaking-wet white guys? Okay, to be fair my beard was in full force that day.
The Passing Glance
Thank you, person, for being an actual human being. Thank you for just briefly acknowledging that I may be a bit different and continuing about your business. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for other people to go about their day without trying to inconspicuously (yeah, you’re not fooling anyone) take a photo of me, but you’re a saint.
This one does not bother me at all because kids are innocent no matter where you go in the world. If they haven’t had a foreign teacher before, then of course they might be a bit taken aback by their first foreigner sighting. And when I say taken aback, I mean some of their jaws literally drop. Others will smile at you and try to practice their English, which I always indulge. English is very much in demand throughout Asia and I’m hopeful that this increasing early exposure to someone of a different culture will condition a new generation of people to be more culturally aware, even as members of a very homogenous population. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this will be the case unless the parents help out. Maybe telling their children that it is actually not okay to point and laugh at someone different from them would be a good start. But I think there is probably a better chance of the children teaching their parents this stuff.
IMPORTANT UPDATE FOR TUMBLRS
Okay, I’m not deleting my tumblog. It wouldn’t be fair to the best audience, like, ever. BUT. After this month I will no longer be posting to tumblr. Instead, I’ll be using it the same way most people use it, by sharing content related to my interests - travel and minimalism - rather than using it as my primary blogging platform. I will post a link from the new Wordpress blog every time a post is up, but you’ll have to go there to get all the goodness! Part of this change is making things more automated so I can focus on my ebook and freelance writing a bit more. Heading over to Wordpress now would be a huge help towards succeeding in that goal. Thanks guys, see you around!
Edit: Maybe I should add a link to the new blog if I’m begging you to go there… Mwuahhahaha, is it big enough?
What can I say about the driving here? Well. Cracks knuckles. AHHHHRRRGGGGARGHHH!1!!1one. Sorry, that was my pent-up inner monologue from the past 5 months escaping. The driving in China is something that – on any given day – never fails to infuriate me on a small level, even after generally enjoying myself here for the past 5 months. I wouldn’t blame this entirely on China, however. I’m a pretty scrupulous driver back in the States. If you’re going too fast you’re a douchebag; too slow, an idiot. I guess, ironically, that would make me an asshole. Equipped with that knowledge of my vehicular hubris, any laowai reading this can imagine how quick I am to anger here.
Pedestrians have the right to get out of the way.
As a walker – that’s a person without a two-ton machine with wheels, not a zombie – you have no sacred ground here. Don’t even look at your feet (a necessity during the winter) lest you look back up to find you have roughly 0.3 seconds to get out of the way of some tool driving his SUV on the sidewalk. I’m not sure, but I think the way it works is that if your car is big enough, then you have an unwritten amendment to your license that allows you to go anywhere the fuck you want.
Pedestrian lights are just decorations here. While waiting for your (nonexistent) window to cross the street, you’ll notice vehicles going right, left and sometimes straight on red. Basically you’re your best judge. Wading through traffic is an art form and you’ll just have to use the elderly Chinese woman beside you, walking through the rush-hour, zero fucks given, as your shield until you perfect it yourself.
When you do decide to start throwing caution to the wind and just adopt the Chinese method for crossing the street whenever the hell you can, take a look at the oncoming traffic. Just briefly; don’t die. You’ll notice that instead of slowing down, or even just getting into the next lane to avoid you, they start heading toward you. It’s almost as if they’re trying to beat you to it, until the last possible second when there just isn’t enough space between you and the other side of the street to make it through without hitting you.
Take a look at this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on China’s convoluted right-of-way. You can’t make this shit up.
Compared to the western understanding of right-of-way, which refers to the legal right to proceed forward in a vehicle without fear of being found at fault for causing a collision, right-of-way in China means, for all intents and purposes, that the person who is in the way (first) has the right. In practice, this translates into motorists and cyclists turning or merging straight into the path of other traffic believing that the onus is on the other person to avoid a collision.
That’s almost akin to me blindly merging into peak traffic because it’s the unlucky soul in the other lane’s problem. Oh wait…that’s exactly what it is. So, this is the “system” that some apologetic expats will tell you “kind of works”. A free-for-all. A battle royale of aluminum, steel and meat-bags. Who will win?
Metal wins. This data from the World Health Organization bears it out. I do actually like to back up my vitriolic rants with facts here at Spartan Wanderer so I don’t seem like the drunkest, oldest guy at the expat bar. The most impassioned cultural relativist argument can’t stand up to the numbers that declare that even India has safer roads than China – a fact my girlfriend couldn’t believe after having travelled their for 6 months.
This isn’t because Chinese people are inherently bad drivers. All developing nations in the thrust of rapid industrialization are responsible for a high amount of traffic fatalities due to poor infrastructure that can’t keep up with the purchasing power of a new middle class desiring vehicular status symbols with little to no knowledge of how to actually use them. The US and Europe have had years and years to develop good traffic laws and niceties on the road while the Chinese middle class has only just arrived. Road manners haven’t had time to develop.
But what about the police?
Hahahahaha, that’s so cute! Three months in, I was flabbergasted (don’t get to use that word very often) to see a police officer directing traffic. Toilet paper and oranges were on sale at the local mall, so naturally, chaos ensued. It was the first time I had seen the police actually doing something. I even did a double-take. There are large arrays of traffic cameras at every light, designed to photograph and automatically fine traffic-violations, but in several cities these “cameras” are no more than a flash attached to a motion sensor. Even if the police were motivated to do more, China is a communist country in name only. For all practical purposes, the government is a plutocratic/kleptocratic oligarchy, meaning anyone with the money or connections can run red-lights at 100 mph all day long without fear of retribution.
The most dangerous people on the road are…
Women driving luxury vehicles. No, really. Daqing is an oil city, and one of the most affluent in China despite it having only been around since 1959. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of beamers, mercs and jags in my life. I saw my first Bentley here. And of course there are plenty of douche-mobile Hummers. If you have the money to put yourself in one of those, then you also have the funds to put your wife in a matching one. No license? No problem. This is China; if you have the money and the guanxi (friends in high places), then your wife has an Audi and a license to terrorize everyone else on the road.
About the photo…
I’ve seen maybe four or five accidents, just bump-ups, from our apartment window. We’ll be going about our business, planning lessons, writing, being a lazy slob on a Netflix binge after a night at Kingsley’s thenSCREEECH CRASH! Then they get out and stand beside their cars for 2+ hours and wait for police/insurance company. This taxi driver in particular decided to try and avoid a busy intersection beside our place and cut through the hospital parking lot. Fair enough; even I do that at home sometimes. But the trick is to not continue going at 50 mph, which he didn’t do (obviously) and now he will pretty much certainly lose his livelihood for hitting a BMW, likely owned by someone important. Or rich. Doesn’t matter. It’s harsh, but yeah…slow the fuck down.
The takeaway: the driving pisses me off here, it’s objectively worse than back home, but it’s because of rapid industrialization, not because Asian-driver jokes are true.
That felt good.
I’m gonna go ahead and beat up on something that a lot of traveler’s hold sacred, whether they know it or not. Cultural relativism is the philosophical view that no culture is superior to another in regards to political systems, law and morality. Truth itself is relative when comparing two systems. You eat sheep’s head? Okay, you quirky Icelander, you. Have a pass from cultural relativism. Throw battery acid in a woman’s face because she was raped? Andddd now you see where I’m going with this.
This concept, if not complete and utter bullshit, simply cannot be used in such a black and white manner. It’s completely appropriate when talking about the consumption of chicken’s feet, the wearing of weird hats or saying “Ni hao” instead of “Hello.” These things are most certainly relative to China and not really up for debate over the correctness of them compared to drinking Starbucks, wearing non-prescription hipster glasses and saying things like “YOLO.” Chinese food is different, the language is different, the art is different, and they are all quite special to experience up close and personal.
The problem with cultural relativism is that it does not stop with the aesthetics of a culture. By claiming that morality is relative to a culture, it becomes a misguided approach to create a false equivalency in the name of tolerance and political correctness. Some answers to questions of morality are superior to others. Sam Harris nailed it when he said this in a TED Talk on science and morality:
"But who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? Who are we to say even that they’re wrong to beat their wives with steel cables, or to throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege to be smothered in this way? Who are we NOT to say this? Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this?"
China, as does any country, has it’s own blemishes within the culture. They do not spare the rod here, and as a teacher, it really makes me squeamish to see a kid get smacked in the back of the head or see his father basically kick him around in public. It feels me with rage. But don’t raise the accusatory finger just yet. Corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states back home; where they are won’t surprise you very much (the South). This example isn’t quite as bad as Sam Harris’, but it is something I’ve personally witnessed here. I think we can all agree that most of the developed world has a superior moral answer to the question “Should we beat children?”
There’s also a lot of basic health stuff here that can alarm any expat until it becomes old hat. If I ever forget I’m in China, the sound of someone preparing a ball of phlegm (usually due to having just smoked 10 cigs in the last hour) and then spitting it next to my feet will wake me up. Pissing in the street, even in broad daylight, is not entirely looked down on. And if you need to shit, well, where better than the sidewalk? We’ve known this stuff is bad for the general population’s health since the Middle Ages, but ignorance keeps these things alive. Oh, and a man and a woman shouldn’t (actually) sleep in the same bed, because that’s where babies come from, apparently.
China’s Gilded Age
Westerners can take pot shots all day long at China’s societal problems, and many expats do the same with some cultural aspects that bother them. I’m not immune. I can’t stand the dangerous driving here and the superficial nature of the quest for status symbols (lighters and mascara tubes actually have the Apple logo on them). You will see your personal bubble decrease from a good 2-3 foot radius to the size of a marble. Anyone from back home would be quick to slap a label on Chinese culture reading VERY RUDE, and I wouldn’t blame them. There are some days that I probably mutter under my breath more than a crazy person.
BUT. I don’t think all of these annoying things are innate in the culture, but rather symptomatic of the rapid industrialization that has pervaded life here since the late 1980s. Car ownership didn’t really start exploding here until the mid-1990s while one can argue that car culture in the US began to take off after WWII. Manners and niceties on the road simply haven’t had time to develop here, but that’s the least of your worries when a rich man can simply buy his wife’s driver’s license and put her behind the wheel of a Range Rover with zero experience.
Money buys anything here, from fur coats and iPhones to your wife’s driver’s license and get-out-of-jail-free cards. This corruption is another thing that is so easy for us to criticize, just another ripple from ten-ton stone of industrialization that has fallen into Chinese urban society. The thing is, we’re huge hypocrites for talking shit about these problems. Ever heard of the Gilded Age? Robber-barons? We went through this same process before during our own period of industrialization, complete with massive corruption and a myriad of social problems.
Before Casting Stones…
So what’s the point of this meandering post? It’s okay to have a critical opinion of a country’s cultural quirks. Every country has bad shit. Every country has annoying shit. Some of your criticisms are probably completely valid. BUT. But, we should always make an effort to understand why these things are before we fly off the handle at the expat bar. You can say, “China is a rude country.” Or you could say, “Chinese culture seems to be quite rude at times because of the rapid migration of rural populations, causing urban culture to develop differently than in the West.” These aren’t the same. One is a vapid criticism propped up with nothing but a guttural emotion while the other is an informed opinion.
China Bitch Month
With that long prologue to mitigate some of the well-meaning but misguided criticism from Sinophiles and other expats, I introduce China Bitch Month, where, as the name suggests, I will bitch about China for the rest of the month. Don’t get me wrong, I love the time I’ve had here so far and I’m not clamoring to get out just yet. But it is a difficult country to live in sometimes. Expats have a term - China day. We all have them. They usually end with your back against your apartment door trying to keep China outside and downloading reruns of Friends.
I’m going to deconstruct, bitch and moan, and possibly even rant and rave about the three main sources of my China days. First I will talk about the driving, which I think is objectively bad no matter how you slice it. I’ve got the numbers! Oh man, my middle finger would be in a sling if I used it whenever I wanted to. Next, I’ll talk about my second job: being a foreigner in China. The staring, the not so inconspicuous attempts to take photos and outright pointing and laughing will be exquisitely whined about, as if I didn’t sign up for this.
Yes, I chose to be here, I don’t hate China and I actually quite enjoy day-to-day life here. But some days, I have no platitudes to dish out. Instead of thinking, “Oh, that man nearly backed into me because of the rapid introduction of cars since the 90’s” I want to knock on his window and tell him “You are a dumb cunt,” a.k.a. the only insult I know in Chinese. Instead of letting it go when someone passes me in these things that remotely resemble an ancient ancestor of queues, I want to ask them what they think they’re doing and who they think they are. So, I will talk about these things in three short bursts of well-orchestrated and nuanced raving and, hopefully, never complain about them again.
IMPORTANT NOTE TO TUMBLR USERS
I mentioned last week that I moved my blog over to Wordpress. It’s over there waiting for you! I owe where Spartan Wanderer is now - not hugely popular but kinda gaining a following - to you guys, and I love you to death for it. Unfortunately though, this will be the last month of SW on tumblr. In February, it will be gone! With that said, get over to Wordpress and subscribe so you don’t miss a beat!