Third year in China- some cultural observations

Now we are back at the University after the National Week Holiday I find myself back in the classroom and mulling over some cultural observations on our life here.We are beginning our third year here much to my surprise.When we set off on this little jaunt we had absolutely no thought that we would still be here two years on.Anyway here we are and some things struck me this morning as I waited for the school bus.Firstly some things which of course made us marvel when we first arrived here now seem natural and don’t strike me as strange any more- office and factory workers with name tags and uniform trooping into work in the morning and out again at lunch time,people sleeping on their desks or in the shopping mall or just about anywhere at noon.Entire families on motor bikes whizzing along with no crash-helmets and against the traffic.Pot holes in the middle of the road with no protective fence or warning around them.These are things we see every day and hardly notice now.Buses crammed to the gills with people is another everyday inconvenience but of course only to be expected in a country of 1.4 billion.And of course countless other things we were surprised at on arrival now seem commonplace.But maybe the thing that I find odd is that despite our everyday life becoming just that-everyday,there are countless other things that we find mind-bogglingly weird and even after living here for a while I find that other foreigners,even the ones who speak decent Chinese,still feel the culture to be totally alien in so many ways.I mean even if I could read and write and converse,I have come to the conclusion that I could never ever feel at home here.I love my life in China dearly,but whatever you do and however much you might learn about China you are never going to fit in culturally it seems.These are the things I would like to grasp,and try to explain here. I am not sure I will succeed.

Firstly the attitude to older people (specifically teachers) which so charmed me at the beginning,is beginning to trouble me.Much as I enjoy basking in the students’ adoration and feeling honoured and respected,there is a problem with it.And specifically at University level.I mean,it’s great for a bunch of kindergarteners or even Middle School kids to look up to their teacher and venerate him,I am thinking that maybe College kids should be doing a bit of questioning.And this Chinese kids just don’t do.According to the Confucian method they must venerate their elders without question and must strive to emulate.Now Chinese students are brilliant at emulating,copying,reciting and regurgitating.This of course is NOT what we are used to in the West.

Last week we judged a Speech Competition and an Poetry recital competition.The former had students declaim some horrid texts most probably written by their teachers,which in many cases they couldn’t understand at all.THere was absolutely NO personal element in their talks at all and no real emotion,just a kind of overdramatic presentation at best.The following day the Poetry thing was totally weird.The first part consisted of students reciting some poetry (some original and some not) over a background of sort of “feel good” New Age style music and then in the next part,in pairs,they dubbed the soundtrack of some Disney cartoon scenes.I mean they just learnt the speeches off by heart and tried to deliver them as close to the original as possible.What for! I cried internally? I mean okay good practice for pronunciation etc but how in heaven am I supposed to give a grade for language,and content? They didn’t write any of it themselves! These things continually mystify me.


Then on Saturday we were invited by our neighbour to attend a performance of the Beijing Opera at her University,Huaqiao,which is just up the road from here.She is a musicologist and piano teacher there.She brought tickets round to our house and offered to take us in her car,together with her mum and her small daughter.Of course we were thrilled to go with her.And although the Opera was being given also at our College we thought it would be more fun to go with our neighbour,which proved true because she tried to explain what was going on throughout the performance (with the aid of my phone dictionary) It proved very difficult to follow however,not just because of the language,but because culturally we had no clue about the different kinds of characters,the movements or plots involved.They only presented two scenes which I think were not that difficult,but we felt we were just watching something totally alien about which we had no clue.The characters were kind of stylized ones like in Comedia Del’ Arte,but I felt that each hand movement had significance,and each head tilt was important.The two scenes were followed by some singers and this was where we really felt lost.The style of singing was just totally weird for us,and to be honest it sounded like cats screeching,both the men and the women.Our friend said that even for her it is difficult but of course she has some cultural background and can appreciate it.We felt flummoxed.




So this is pretty much where we stand here today. We can manage here on a day to day basis.We can order food and buy train tickets,and say who we are and where we are from.We can ask the price of things. But have a real conversation with someone? Nope.So as people keep asking me “Can you speak Chinese now?”  the answer would have to be “Not really”,and it is really much much more difficult than I could ever have imagined.Maybe for younger people it’s easier.But as we all know just because you can speak the words doesn’t mean you really understand the culture of the place.That just seems to be getting more and more impenetrable.





6 thoughts on “Third year in China- some cultural observations

  1. Great article which I can identify a lot with. My time in China was relatively brief but I got the impression that even if I were to overcome the linguistic barrier (in itself no small feat!), the cultural differences are just so vast as to be practically impenetrable.

    I think the way I dealt with it is just by accepting that, there are places on earth where you can go and both acclimatize and (in time) assimilate. I think China is a place where you can quickly acclimatize (even for some of the negative aspects there are just so many charming aspects to more than tilt the scales in favour of the positive), but it’s not a place that easily lends itself to assimilation.

    I try/tried not to see this as a bad or good thing, it just is. Although I knew I wasn’t going to be there for long, so the effect of “being [palatably] the outsider” was never that great on me. – Although it’s certainly a feeling I also felt (in some ways to a greater extent) when I lived in Istanbul.

  2. Hi Ruth: Thanks for your terrific insights (and thanks to Ty too for his comments). Being a foreigner in a “foreign” land is challenging and wonderful in more ways than we can imagine. Even living in Hawaii as we do, we know we will never really assimilate with native Hawaiians although we admire many of their ways of being.

    Right now, Barry and I are near St. Paul, MN. on the Great River Road. We hope to be back in China next spring and get to see you two.

    We look forward to your posts. Wishing you and Danny another interesting year in China. Aloha, Renee

  3. I guess to get into the character of the Chinese you have to learn the language from scratch and not just try to get by with simple words or phrases that are used in daily life but then you would probably have to go through their school from the lowest to highest grades for about 10-12 years as they do themselves.

  4. very interesting. the first part of course makes me think of HOTS (or at least the theory behind them.) hope you keep on enjoying your adventures!

  5. I identify with your remarks about speaking Chinese. I spent two 4 month stints and people ask me if I can speak Chinese. I only know some basic expressions and words. It is takes much longer to learn to hold a significant conversation in Chinese.

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