huzhou, less food-related, musings

Americans Have Genes, Too?

12.29.08 | Comment?

Once they discover I speak the language and engage me in conversation, the locals will inevitably ask me, “Have you gotten used to life in China yet?”

Most often, this question pertains to the food. A lot of foreigners have problems adjusting to the food. Many Chinese just don’t understand why Westerners eat the way we do, so perhaps the transition from eating Western food to eating The Right Food can seem like a tough one. In my past journeys to China, I’ve had the occasional malfunction. My first time in China, I got very sick from food at ‘reputable, clean’ restaurants on two separate occasions. My second time, when I studied in Shanghai, I missed bread so badly I was having dreams about it. My third time, studying in Beijing, I got giardia in Lhasa. But the food was so good that a parasite hardly seemed troublesome. Here, I still blush at organs, though I did try my first brain the other night.

Almost all foreigners have stomach troubles. But I think that that’s not what the locals really mean. Instead, I think they’re referring to Chinese eating habits: all that rice and no bread; feet, heads, and inner organs; things with strange, mushy, slippery textures; oily food; everyone sharing from dishes in the middle of the table; people using their chopsticks to give you food. I’ve adapted to and embraced all of that.

The one food habit that I just can’t adjust to, however, is how Chinese people don’t drink anything with their meals. Aside from a few tablespoons of tea or a never-ending glass of strong alcohol, they don’t do liquids. No water. No soda. No juice. After every meal I’m dying of thirst. I buy a water bottle and knock the thing back in 30 seconds. And it doesn’t help that everything here has so much salt and oil.

When I go out with a Chinese person and I tell them I’m thirsty, I’m presented with hot tea, milk, or juice. Chinese people don’t drink lots of water to begin with (though they drink lots of it in its tea-infused form), so despite my best efforts to explain, no one seems to fully grasp that the only thing to quench my thirst is not piping hot tea or sugar water, but good old water in its natural state. I live in a state of perpetual dehydration.

“Have you gotten used to life in China?” also refers to the weather (no, too cold, no heating), using chopsticks (yes), or pretty much anything else. For the most part, I think I’ve adjusted. But there are still aspects of life here that surprise me almost every day.

On one of my time-killing walks, I looked up to see cleaned, split fish drying on telephone wires and out with the underwear.

Well—of course! Completely logical, yeah…?

Don’t forget the pork ribs.

Whenever I go anywhere, people (mostly young men, with the occasional young woman or girl thrown in) shout “Hello!” at me. This gets really old. It’s one thing if they smile and greet me cheerfully—I’ll smile and say hello back. But when it’s clearly obnoxious and accompanied by laughter I want to roll my eyes and give them the finger. Everyone here thinks I’m Russian, Italian, French, or Greek, anyway, so I just pretend I’m not American and ignore the catcalls. It must get really frustrating for the non-American laowai. I wouldn’t like it if everywhere I went people called “bonjour!” at me. That seems almost worse.

However for the first time, I have seen my foreign face elicit fear. Recently, I made a trip to the hospital. This is not as serious as it sounds—in China, the hospital is the equivalent of the doctor. Don’t be worried—everything’s fine, nothing serious.

On this trip to the hospital, I didn’t have a Chinese chaperone—I was all by my lonesome. I spent a few minutes in front of the building with my dictionary, trying to figure out which building to go in and which entrance to use. I figured it out and went in, and for a moment, I felt like time stopped.

Having a foreign face is like having a sign above my head that says, “Stare at Me.” (I once called this phenomenon the Scarlet Waiguo Ren) When I walked into the hospital, it was like that sign had sprouted flashing neon lights. Whenever I approached anyone, from personnel at the desk to nurses in the hallway, that person’s face would widen with fear and anxiety.

“Oh, no,” said the face. “A foreigner. What do I do what do I do what do I do? She won’t understand. Oh God oh God this laowai is about to make my already difficult life about ten times harder.” After I spoke in Chinese, the face would relax. “Oh, you understand,” the person would say with relief. Thank Confucius that one’s not totally ignorant.

I have not noticed this fear previously. Usually I get looks of curiosity, amusement or amazement, but not fear. It’s rather disconcerting.

It’s also tough to adjust to manners. Manners seem like opposite day over here. Burping, slurping, spitting everywhere (I mean everywhere. I see loogies splattered on the street like raindrops), shoving, no lines, cutting in said nonexistent lines, bones on the table, blowing snot out your nose onto the street, men relieving themselves against walls and in corners and in bushes all over the city. Mostly, I can deal with this now. I learned to accept it in Beijing.

But the hardest part of manners is the use of “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” In Chinese, you don’t just throw in a thank you to the taxi driver when he drops you off at home, or when the waiter gives you your food in a restaurant, or when a friend fills your cup with tea. This is too polite. It is better to nod your head and grunt. I have been accused of being too polite, mostly around people who have/want to become my friends.

“Stop thanking me. We’re friends. You’re being too polite.” This is a bad thing; I think it indicates not only that you’re insincere, but also that, since you’re friends, your friend is just doing what he/she should and you’re not allowing that. It’s like refusing to accept friendship.

[When oil in your wok catches fire you cannot use water to put it out.]

On a recent taxi ride, my driver engaged me in the standard “You speak Chinese! How do you speak so well? How many years have you been here?” sort of conversation that I keep writing about. Tired of hearing about it? Well guess what? I’m tired of having it. It’s Groundhog Day—again. At that hour, I just want to ride home in peace.

Then the driver proceeded to tell me about how he had had a few foreigners in his taxi before, and how they couldn’t speak Chinese, but when he dropped them at their destination, they would invariably thank him in poorly executed Chinese.

“Why do laowai do that? They’re too polite!”

I then tried, in 1 AM Chinese, to explain that manners are different outside of China, and that we’re used to saying ‘thank you.’

“I have one more question for you,” he said as I was about to get out of the cab at school. “Is everyone in America so tall, or do you have short people?”

Only somewhat surprisingly, I get this question a lot.

“Not everyone is tall,” I replied. “Some people are short.”

Then he waved me out of his cab. I made sure not to say ‘thank you’ as I got out.

I am perpetually dumbfounded by the notions that Chinese have of Americans. We’re all tall, rich, too polite, fat, blonde and blue-eyed. [I have been asked, on more than one occasion, “Why aren’t your eyes blue?] Granted, Americans have a lot of equally silly perceptions of the Chinese (they don’t all look the same), but so many of the questions I’m asked seem totally ignorant. I don’t have blue eyes because of genetics. Not everyone in America is rich, not everyone is tall (those darned genes again), just like not everyone in China is short, nor is everyone poor.

It sure puts a lot of things in perspective. Throughout my times in China, I have become a lot more aware of how I perceive people. I think I’ve become a lot less judgmental, more averse to generalizations (though I’m aware I still use them. Avoiding them is nearly impossible), more aware of what life is like for other people.

When I was little and acted bratty, my dad would say, “ellis, you’re not the center of the universe.” As I grew up, I realized that. But being abroad helped, and still helps, me to understand that. The kind of life I grew up with is nonexistent here; the standard of living to which I’ve become accustomed in America can, at best, be only poorly replicated here. But the beauty of being here is that I can abandon that standard and seek out a new one. Perhaps many Americans would call it a lower standard, but I disagree. It’s a different standard to be sure, but in my opinion, it’s a better standard.

I’ve mentioned before about how life here is more interesting and exciting. It’s also a perpetual puzzle. It’s also unsolvable, but gosh it’s fun to see how close I can get. Do I want a hot shower? I learn to plan my day around the temperature gauge on the water heater. There’s only heat in one room of my apartment? Cook in my down jacket. No clothes dryer? Adjust your laundry schedule to the appearance of the sun. No sun? Sucks for you. No heat in the classrooms? Grit your teeth, fill your water bottle with hot water, jump around, and maybe curse a bit in your head.

It’s remarkable the situations to which one can adjust. I am constantly surprised by myself. I’m learning to differentiate between what I need and what I don’t. Newsflash: I don’t need as much as I have. And you probably don’t either.

[The district is my home; cleanliness depends on everybody.]

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