To live in China –to live China – it is above all to realize that we do not know China.
When I accepted a job in Beijing, I did not really believe I could do it. When I walked into a tiny class with my first potential student, under the eyes of her mother and of my bosses, I had zero confidence. With sweaty palms and a trembling voice, I tried in vain to forget my incompetence.
Without any teaching experience, with a mastery of English far from bilingualism, a well discernable accent and a fear of this new sedentary lifestyle, my acclimatization to Chinese culture was the least of my worries.
Initially, I had given myself six months.
It was my personal goal, my challenge: if I survived all this time, no matter at what cost, I’d be satisfied. I would be proud, even.
Because if the decision was miles away from my skills and past experiences, it had something I always seek; it would pull me out of my comfort zone, 32 hours per week.
But teaching in China, it’s easy.
Living China is… different.
We quickly realize that our image (or our lack of image) of this vast country is limited to a very partial political knowledge, and some sparse stereotypes.
The first culture shock is usually with the rubbish, the toilets and other discomforts related directly or indirectly to the pollution.
Because pollution – in all its forms – is endemic. Omnipresent. Taking the appearance of an alarming smog in big cities, heart-breaking waste in national parks, stinky food litter in every corner of every street in every city, it strongly dented my environmental optimism. Even in a city of over 21 million inhabitants like Beijing, recycling is a myth and running water is nowhere really drinkable.
Still, exaggeration seems to tint many testimonies. The classic “I was in Beijing for a month and I have never seen a blue sky!” is nothing but sensationalism – or an unfortunate lack of observation.
On the other hand, I loved the “squat toilets” (or “Turkish toilets”), consisting of a hole in the ground and a well-appointed space to squat over. Physiologically, it is nothing else but the paradise of defecation. And about hygiene, it’s even better: you don’t need to touch anything!
However, some disadvantages may be annoying: a systematic lack of paper (the first pages of my book on the modern economy paid the price…) and the recurring lack of cleanup. This last point can be pretty scary, I must admit.
Do not forget the children’s tendency to urinate and defecate in public, whether on the sidewalk, in the street, in flowerbeds or next to you on the train.
Yes, a child peed next to me in a train. It woke me up as it splashed against my leg.
Also, the Chinese spit. Everywhere, all the time.
And it comes from really deep inside. A sublime sweeping of the nasal tubes which adds to the already impressive noise pollution between the cries of all kinds and the incessant honking. Horns signifying nothing more than: “Hey, I have a car. You too. Watch out.”
Or “LET ME GO ASSHOLE”.
But it’s not just that.
Once past these sometimes exotic aspects, often repulsive – to Western eyes – the Chinese people can be delightful. Highly charming, in fact.
“I like Chinese
They only come up to your knees
Yet they’re wise and they’re witty
And they’re ready to please! “
– Monty Python (I like Chinese)
A timid population that does not let others approach easily, but which reveals an impressive generosity once barriers fall. Unfortunately, the mix of their poor knowledge of English and widespread Chinese shyness makes it difficult to break ice.
The only really effective thing, as everywhere in the world: learn some Mandarin words. An alien who seeks to speak the local language always attracts sympathy and benevolence. Especially in China, where visitors are scarce and where almost all of them only know two words of Mandarin.
Living China means to accept to deal with all these small differences – yet indistinguishable on photo – setting the pace of everyday life, either enriching it or ruining it.
Living China means to discover a cuisine of unknown richness.
It means witnessing a strange superimposition of the modern, globalized world on one of the richest histories and cultures that humanity has produced.
It means to sit in the front row for an astonishingly tireless racism. A deep racism visible when (Chinese) tourists prefer to take my picture instead of turning their camera to the Great Wall, when the rich parents are convinced of my teaching skills at the mere sight of my golden hair.
A racism that unfortunately turns sour when the Chinese start idolizing the West and repudiate themselves. Whitening one’s skin, escaping the sun at all costs for fear of tanning, enlarging the eyes artificially on photo, participating in a fashion that glorifies and exacerbates American culture, the death wish of Japan…
To give preferential treatment to people with white skin, and deny their own citizens.
In short, China is the world turned upside down, in many ways…
To take the train, to try to speak to passersby, to attend tiny and dubious restaurants, to interact with friends who have a minimum of English, to wander in the streets and negotiate fruits and vegetables with the most basic mandarin, it’s fun.
It’s demanding, sometimes extremely frustrating, but generally fun.
By taking the taste buds and eardrums out of our comfort zone, by deconstructing both our manners and our values, China gives food for thoughts.
Perhaps there are other ways of communicating. Of eating. Of cohabiting.
Other ways of living. Of being.
Maybe, after all, we have no monopoly on all these truths we thought innate.