China snuck up on my like a ninja. Months past by before I extracted redeeming value out of my cultural immersion, or really noticed anything of importance about the difference between Chinese and American culture. All my focus was on my western friends and partying. This is an easy thing to distract yourself with in foreign countries, but China in particular.
With it’s reserved culture and extremely difficult language, expats and study abroad students, like myself, who have never previously spoken a word of Chinese will inevitably be sucked into the foreigner scene in Shanghai as opposed to the world of the locals, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. If you are looking for excitement and adventure, Chinese culture will not embrace your western needs. Chances are a local Chinese friend will not be game for the kind of activities you have your mind set on, and will be slightly awkward and judgmental of your crazy idea’s of what a good time embodies. The Chinese as a culture, are a bashful and accepting bunch that tend to be viewed as wallflowers by us westerners abroad, because of the differences in culture.
For me, I like to see an assertive person, someone who steps up to the plate to speak his or her mind, passionately perhaps. I have found a few of these colorful characters that I’m sure I will be lifelong friends with after this experience ends; none of them are from China. In order to understand why, I will go into detail on the Chinese demeanor and the one word that embodies it, subtle.
For a few thousand years China has been a unique empire, comprised of ideologies and values that differ from western ones. Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were religions supported by the state throughout China’s history. Their teachings preached moderation, acceptance, and subtlety as the way to a peaceful existence. To try and avoid conflict in an empire the size of China, the state required that citizens obeyed the emperor, for things to go smoothly. Basically, the less resistance the better. These philosophies achieved that. The Chinese people were generally a content bunch. Content to not speak their minds without being prompted, and content to skirt around issues. For them it meant not affecting the bigger picture negatively, but still fulfilling their roles in society. They were essentially little worker bees, and because of this the China of today is known for its labor. Manufacturing in labor-intensive industries coincides perfectly with Chinese thought. This is not a bad thing, and doesn’t mean that this will always be the case, it just is.
In a way this makes life much easier, when people aren’t butting heads but subtly implying things in a way that might or might not get across. But in cases when Westerners and Chinese people hang out in large groups the Chinese inevitably become road kill to sarcasm, pointed humor, and blatant opinions. The Chinese would much prefer to talk around answers as opposed to stating their opinions outright, so as not to cause a stir amongst friends.
The root of this desire to conform is implemented at an early age in Chinese culture when children go to school. At elementary schools, in military like formations they will do their mornings exercises and then proceed to sit down and copy, memorize, copy, memorize. There is no part of their lives that fosters the inner artist of inventor just routine after routine. I will not even attempt to address the government’s role in stripping the people of individualism though censorship, government regulation of business, and the people’s freedom to maneuver between industries and formulate dreams and goals, because it is too massive an influencing factor. The one way the Chinese do express themselves is their animated attire and bizarre media. Their obsession with little stuffed animals and childlike bubbliness is their main attribute in many cases. Throwing up double peace signs in every photo taken seems to be a key example of this. The combination of giggly girlyness, and an inability to function in an open forum of people, is a little off-putting to me, enough so that making friends in China has proven a daunting task.
Another trait that makes it difficult to bond with the English-speaking Chinese is their ability to slaughter Latin languages with their thick accents and bizarre word order. The same I’m sure can be said for most westerners attempting to learn Mandarin. Yesterday I heard a classic from our program director, a man who seldom makes many errors in the English language, translating for our Chinese zoo tour guide.
“She says, Cheetah is very unusual creature part feline and part canine, and has hands like birds.”
This obviously can’t be accurate, but this is what happens even during classes and tours, the relaying of unintentionally fallacy ridden information, which cannot be blamed on anyone when our Chinese English “speaking” professors/tour guides are obviously working their butts off to even make a sentence.
This might be very harsh on China, but take in mind this was written from the perspective of a young rash American who likes to take chances and speak her mind, and is not culture sensitive in many ways. Although this is the case, I am having a blast and coming to new realizations every day about what makes China, China. Racism implies that I would typecast every Chinese person as the previous description, I do not. This is just an underlying pattern I’ve observed, and cared enough to share. I have met many dynamic Chinese people; many of whom have been exposed to western culture but still hold themselves with the same withheld elegance their culture bestows them with. I still hope to make Chinese friends before I leave and learn more about cultural ties and separations.
Obviously loosing a passport in a foreign country is one of the worst-case scenarios. Who actually wants to steal a passport right? Wrong. It can and does happen. Since I have traveled out of the country often in the past few years my time has come I suppose, but it doesn’t hurt any less. Especially since all-of-my photo identification was stolen and I don’t have a birth certificate on hand. I’m not too concerned since I have reassurance from my embassy that I won’t be deported, but it still has been a big hassle. One, which could have been averted, had I taken the correct precautions.
Here’s some advice for readers:
It’s a tough world out there peep’s, but if you’re like me, and you happen to get in this pickle than it is okay, you’ll survive. Skype your parents and listen to your favorite songs while waiting though all the shit you’ll have to go through to get a new passport, and maybe you’ll even get to ride in a police car like I did, one of the few highlights of this ordeal. Good luck!
Steps to getting a new passport:
After a month of being in Shanghai it occurs to me that I could have saved money the first couple weeks of being here if someone had told me what I should and should not invest in. As with most big cities there are many necessary and unnecessary expenditures, and there is no way around spending a significant sum, unless you plan on sitting in your dorm all day eating the Chinese equivalent to ramen. Here are some tips….
1. Bring as many cloths as you can.
Shopping in Shanghai is expensive. You will pay for quality. If you are interested in the Chinese equivalent of Forever 21 you will probably pay what you would in the states, anything nicer and your purchasing Gucci. Handbags, headbands and other accessories are easy to come by though.
2. Street food is a friend but can be a foe.
When budgeting for food, set aside a reasonable amount. You can probably get by on $15 US a day. The first week street food is good. But once people in your group start to get Giarrdhia and you’ve had the same dumplings 5 times in a row, you will resort to making trips to Carls Jr.
Here are some of the better American places I’ve dined thus far….
3. If you are a woman, never buy your own drinks or pay entry into a club.
If you’re uncomfortable with flirting for drinks, there are ladies nights every day of the week. Pick up a free copy of Time Out Shanghai and look at all the promotions going on around town. There is plenty of night life that won’t cost you a dime, and at the best places in town! Here are a few that strike me as the nicest bars/clubs I’ve been.
Places to avoid…
I will add to this list later…
The Chinese women are a peculiar bunch in the way they attempt to better themselves. The western notions of beauty reside here in the east as well. Gorgeous models with classic European features and big breasts are all over the city in advertisements for an array of products. The Chinese obsess over their other world beauty, and also strive to meet western aesthetic standards. Companies that specialize in skin whiteners and outrageous weight loss regimens, profit from Chinese women’s insecurities. Strangely what the Chinese believe westerners will find attractive is not necessarily the traits we tend to value. My friend Allyson’s roommate Kitty is a victim of Westernization. She watches Western television like The Vampire Diaries, and other shows that have also become popular outside the United States and the UK. She also has eyes, meaning she see’s the constant stream of marketing media that targets her, the insecure young Asian women. Kitty is like most of us, who like to conform to beauty standards because there are more opportunities for good-looking women and men. So it is easy for advertisements to exploit this universal desire, especially in a place where the population consists of a race who worship another culture. I find it morbidly hilarious the routines that Kitty has developed. Weighing a mere 100 pounds she wraps her body in heat rub and plastic to loose weight, as well as wearing socks that will “magically” shrink her calves which are the size of a thin American 14 year old. Also by applying whiteners to her skin and using alarmingly pale foundation she hopes to please her American boyfriend. I informed her that in America being tan in a pleasing feature, and people go into booths to make themselves darker in perhaps a just as stupid attempt at being more physically appealing. Needless to say I am appreciative that as foreigners, our looks are valued, but I hope that Kitty and others can learn to accept that they are Asian and beautiful and that can be just as attractive as white and beautiful.
The daytime cityscape is rather unimpressive. The smog and pollution hang over the city blocking the sun from bathing the metropolis, creating shadows and adding dynamism to the bland expanse of buildings. As an artist, it does not appeal to my aesthetic to be here, I’d much prefer the natural landscape of home-the ragged mountain peaks that rise up around the city, and the abundance of greenery at my doorstep. I would prefer to sleep through the drear that surrounds SUFE between the hours of 5am-7pm, but I will begrudgingly trudge to class in the morning and daydream of what awaits me. Despite the city’s faults, once the “sun” goes down the city becomes an expanse of lights, the buildings even pulsating with blinding displays of vibrancy. Only the dark can do the architecture justice. Not only does the city go from a bland array of cement and structures to a Las Vegas like glowing paradise, but it’s also become a custom for me to go out and meet a flavorful crowd of other foreigners. Sipping a pink cocktail or chugging an IPA only makes the scene more exciting. Of course every day differs, but in general the city’s essence is much more accessible at night to a newcomer like me. The night is an excuse to take risks and have adventures, which I would never take on during the day. There is a reason all the pictures of Shanghai are night pictures across the bay looking at the vivid fluorescent skyline. It’s because the city comes alive after hours.
So for all you readers of my blog I will attempt to condense the essence of China in several paragraphs.
China has been a country of great wealth and prosperity since ancient times. Before Greece and soon after Egypt had become a full-fledged civilization, China was fast become a great empire-a civilization of great sophistication. China before and during the Warring States Period (500-200BC) was not the most cohesive country. Since it covered such a large area it was natural that there were many social divides. Different emperors with different ideologies ruled their own provinces, and these rulers would spar with each other over territory creating a time of chaos for the Chinese People.
Towards the end of the Spring and Autumn Period directly proceeding the Warring States Period a scholar by the name of Kongzi (Confucius) started to write a series of books on the way to balance (Dao) called the Dialects, these books he believed would lead China to peace and prosperity, and unify his country under one beloved empire. His philosophies preached restraint and duty to ones place in society, meaning that people prescribing to Confucianism would be at ease with the way things were and dutifully accept their responsibilities to China and the greater good. Although Kongzi like other great philosophers never reached acclaim in his lifetime, later after the destructive times of the Warring States his writings reached the hands of the new rulers of China, the Han. The Han Dynasty saw great potential in the teachings of Kongzi and set his philosophies into effect by making Confucianism the official philosophy of China, and instating the study of Kongzi’s work a requirement of being high up in China’s government. Since the Dialects preached that knowledge was the key to happiness and a flourishing society, China grew into an enviable society inventing the printing press, and gunpowder.
Later empires built on the Confucian state creating more amazing feats for China. China after Kongzi was a more unified state. Although there were threats to its well being they were mostly internal and the empire survived. From time to time the Mandate of Heaven would be overturned but China’s identity remained the same. Surrounding barbarians were held off using tactics similar to those found in The Art of War. China’s last resort was always war.
Encompassing many varied regions China did not feel the need to be expansionist like other European countries. As England, France and Spain colonized many parts of the globe, China still looked inward. It was the Empire of the Sun-the only part of the world that mattered, others were simply inferior. This is where China floundered. Because it was unwilling to associate itself in trade negotiations with other countries, which were quickly transitioning to industrialized, China, fell behind the curb. It’s ignorance of European innovations and foreign policy made it weak in the face of a growing western power. The Qing Dynasty was the last Dynasty to see the light of day.
The West and East came head to head in the Opium Wars a series of conflicts regarding the availability of Opium in China’s markets. The continued desire for premium opium in the England was incongruous with the Empires desires to make an embargo on all imports of exports of the drug, which had taken the China by storm, creating an unmotivated workforce. The wars were also about more than just opium; China had refused to enter into trade negotiations that weren’t considered “tribute” to the empire with Europeans. As a result England had staged many “nice” attempts win over the Qing Empire only to be met with polite condescension. England was not one to be messed with, and in the Opium wars China was forced to acknowledge a new world order, one where Western countries were a threat to China’s very existence. Russia and Japan also were a major cause of concern to China in the 19th century. China was entering into another period of constant conflict.
China’s conflict with outside forces forced the people of China to look for new methods of modernization. Stuck in their old ways China would surely be overrun by other Asian countries like Japan and USSR-Soviet Russia. Taking pointers from Marxist communism-Chinese revolutionaries latched on to these ideals in hopes that like Russia they could transition China into an industrialized country.
China did not emerge from constant conflict until after the Cultural Revolution in 1949 in which the communists won the civil war and the Qing dynasty was thrown to the curb. China’s culture and values had been reestablished and China was in a position of great weakness. As Maoist China came into power the communist structure started to take hold. Like Russia under Stalin, communism came at great costs. In rural areas a large percentage of China’s population died off in famines caused by the governments seizure of agricultural outputs. The motivation of workers waned and China’s GDP fell. It appeared that China along with other communist countries would remain in economic limbo. In the early 1990’s things started to change for China’s economy, with new policies aiming at lowering inflation and opening the economy to new markets and a more capitalist approach, business in China boomed. The GDP grew immensely and China was propelled into a new age of success. (Please take in mind I made no references to books or websites. This is off the top of my head, so if it sucks…sorry.)
I’ve never lived in a dorm before, let alone a dorm filled with different nationalities foreigners and locals alike. It’s busy, and there’s always something going on. When I am left alone with my thoughts I find it much too quite, and seek out others to spend time with. Although many of the days I spent with these people have had ups and downs, I find that most of them end on a good note, and I fall asleep feeling liked if not loved. It’s only been a week you see. Many of the people here are not so unlike me, maybe a little less whimsical. I find that many of them are well –traveled, open minded individuals with a keen sense of adventure. We spend our days practicing Chinese in and out of class, some more than others, and our nights touring different scenes with different characters. My favorites of these Shanghai people are the old and the young-the old with their weathered skin and knitted caps, and the young with their angelic eyes and bizarre outfits.