Sunday, September 28, 2008

Are you Kidding Me?

Communicating cross culturally is challenging to say the least! Forget about the language barrier. Let's talk about the idea of social graces and acceptable verbiage. In the West, we find questions about profession, age, and martial status common, although for some mildly annoying. Other comments or questions are just plain "off limits." I would never ask a complete stranger or even a casual acquaintance about their weight, financial status or question their child rearing practices. Yet, this is a common occurrence in China.

A friend of mine was relaying a story about getting his tire pumped up by a local bike repair guy. During their conversation, a buddy of the repair guy stated,
"You're too fat! That's why your tire is flat. You shouldn't ride a bike. What do you usually eat?" Just this last week one of the Chinese interns told a male classmate of mine that his voice was cute and he sounded like a small Japanese girl! Ouch! Talk about crushing a man's masculinity!

These comments sound shocking to us, but believe it or not they are common ways to socially engage and show care, concern or affection for another person. It's called "Guan xin Talk." When someone asks about one's age, financial status, or physical attributes it is generally not to be nosey, but to gain information about another person so that the proper respect or care can be shown to them. For example, when someone is advanced in age or financial accomplishment they are shown special honor. Given that perspective, it makes sense, (sort of) but it still doesn't feel less embarrassing or intrusive. Westerners cherish our individualism and don't feel that anyone has the right to pry into our business, judge us, or give us advise on our weight, finances, or any other matter we consider personal.

That doesn't even start to cover the humiliation of Chinese people staring or laughing at, pointing to, or touching our physical body parts...which for most of us is even more challenging to handle. First of all, let's face the fact that most Chinese women don't have hips or bubble butts...we do! Arm hair in China is normally not present either, so it freaked me out a little bit when a Chinese student started "petting my fur" (arm hair) because it was so interesting to her. I really wanted to crawl in a hole when she bluntly asked, "Are all Americans fat and hairy?"

It's so offensive it's almost funny...except when you are the one in the spotlight. How should one respond when told that Americans should eat less bread and dairy products because it make us fat and smell like sour milk? I'm not really sure yet. If I try to remember that these comments and bits of advise are signs of care, affection and curiosity rather than malicious arrows aimed at tearing apart my formerly strong self esteem, then it's easier to take-most days. As long as they keep their hands off my "interesting" rear end!


Friday, September 19, 2008

Run, Lindy, Run!

After seeing the athletes compete in the Olympic track events, I was amazed. As a kid, I was never very good at running and certainly not running fast. However, I have now been officially admitted to the Chinese Traveler’s Club where occasionally running is essential. People in different regions have terms of endearment for this rite of passage. Some call it having Beijing Belly, the Shenyang Sh**tz, or what I have recently dubbed Tianjin Tummy. No further explanation is needed. You know when you are on the couch, listening to the loud gurgling coming from your mid-section and thinking, “This can’t be good!” ~then you probably are going to become the fasted sprinter on record. It really is part of being an overseas traveler and who knows what can trigger such a gastric revolt. It could be some water you didn’t boil long enough, or some street food that has been just fine for the last 2 weeks and has suddenly gone bad. In any event, it is an expected pitfall of being in a foreign country.

In America we have some very stringent rules about food preparation and about not leaving food out for very long before it is refrigerated. Not so here. Pretty much anything goes and refrigeration is the exception and not the rule. Most of my friends know that I usually have a cast iron stomach. Even after long periods of fasting, I can dive right into a plateful of food and never suffer ill effects. For as many times as I’ve been in China, I’ve never had a “crook in the gut” as my Australian friends say. This time it kicked my butt!

There is one good result of Tianjin Tummy. I have now officially lost over the 10 pounds since my medical exam 3 weeks ago. After losing 7lbs. the correct way through proper diet (whatever that is) and exercise, the Tianjin Tummy pushed me off of my weight loss plateau and into the next level of health. (?) Not that I still don’t need to take off some weight, (because according to Chinese stereotypes all Americans are fat, lazy slobs) but this method of weight loss sure isn’t going to be bottled and sold to anyone but the most desperate souls. I recommend the walking and biking. It’s a lot easier on your system and you won’t waste a lot of money on TP.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Facing "Face Issues"

Americans cherish the right to have their own thoughts, to speak their minds, and be uniquely individual. It is just the opposite in China. We think individually, whereas in Asian culture it's all about the whole and "face issues." So, what exactly does that mean? Well, simply put it means "putting on your best face." It means doing your very best not to upset the balance or offend someone~not to cause them or you embarrassment or public shame. Some Americans would say, "Well, that's just not reality and it's not honest, either." But in the Chinese way of thinking, it's not being fake or dishonest. It's just omitting the negative to the extreme so the positive can be highlighted. Being wrong is not something to be pointed out in order to improve, it is to be hidden so as not to cause shame for someone. Saving face means using indirect means of confronting issues...very un-American.

This is one of the reasons why hosting the 2008 Olympics and doing an excellent job of it was critical for China. It was a way to show the country's economic development and gain "face" with the world. Being critical of China, their policies, their environmental issues, etc... is a slap in their "face" and definitely offensive. As someone who has been part of watching the progress that China has made over the past 5 years, I can honestly say that I am truly in awe of the sweeping changes that China has least economically. Americans forget that there are 1.3 billion people here! It's a huge ship to turn and you have to give them a lot of credit for doing what they've done so far.

This is also why I was so excited about Beijing hosting the Paralympics and Special Olympics. People with disabilities in China have historically been hidden so as not to be a shame to their families. Five years ago, I never saw a disabled child or even a wheelchair on the streets. Everyone with a disability was kept inside or was institutionalized...not unlike it used to be in the States. Today things are changing. I see more and more wheelchairs, and some schools for the disabled are slowly popping up around the country. The Paralympics have given new exposure to people with disabilities and encouragement for those who have previously not been given opportunities to be part of Chinese society. What a joy it was for me to witness the cheering crowds at the Wheelchair Rugby event. It warmed my heart to see the support for these athletes. Maybe it's my heart for kids with special needs, but I am hopeful that this will be the start of something good for everyone with disabilities.

I'm not saying that China, like every country with its unique culture doesn't have a long way to go in dealing with its own issues. Being positive is a good thing. I sometimes wish that Americans weren't so out there with everything...even those things that shouldn't be talked about in public. But facing these "face issues" is a really important thing to address and I'm sure it will be a work in progress for many years to come.


Friday, September 12, 2008

What's for Dinner?

I remember Ryan and Lacey coming through the door at night asking, "Hey, Mom. What's for dinner?" I never really was the Rachel Ray type so they could always count on something familiar like spaghetti ala Prego or my specialty...Stouffer's lasagna! Now that I'm here in China without all the conveniences of a local Meijer store, I have to fend for myself. Going to the local cai shi chang (vegetable and fruit market) is an amazing experience in sensory overload! There are sights, sounds, and smells that we never get in the States, and some I'm sure are very glad about that!

I generally try to go to the same vendors in order to build the relationship and practice my Chinese with people that know I'll be back to patronize their stands. The fruit lady is really nice and when she sees me coming, she makes a special point to greet me and give me a small basket to put my fruit in. The fruit is really delicious! I could eat it all day, everyday. The vegetable lady is the same, but she is always very busy, so she doesn't have much time for small talk, which is all I can really do right now.

It's very interesting to wander around the market and check things out. I usually stay away from the fish and meat stands because they often smell like...well dead meat. It's pretty rank about 4pm when the owner and the product have literally been hanging out all day waiting for a buyer. The fish and crabs are pretty interesting. A lot of the fish look like snakes. Nothing like the "snakes" we threw back while fishing at the lake in Minnesota. I'd take them over these any day of the week. Yuck! Nothing is refrigerated, so if you buy eggs or perishable items you have to cook them up right away. Who knows how long they've been sitting there in the summer heat.

I've tried to attach a short video on my dinner for tonight. It can also be seen on Youtube if you search for Chinachick or chinachick61. Bon Appetite


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Theft Proof

Well, I took the plunge last week and started riding a bike around town. I was understandably nervous the first week, seeing how difficult it can be to maneuver in crowded streets. Learning the flow of traffic is very tricky because there aren't really any hard and fast rules of the road. Vehicles don't stop on red lights when they turn right and crosswalks are not "safe spots" for bikes or pedestrians. They just mark the areas where people should cross...not that that is followed either. When I arrived in Tianjin, we got a "bike talk" and a two page hand-out on how to ride as safely as possible, and what to do if there is an accident. The rule of thumb is, "Go slowly, and follow a local." One thing is for sure-you always have to be aware of everything/everyone around you because if you aren't, you're an accident waiting to happen!

Another thing that is just something you have to accept. At some point, your bike will be stolen. Most people have at least 2 locks on their bikes and even then there are no guarantees. Nice bikes and foreigner's bikes are prime targets for theft. One of my friends here has lost 4 bikes so far! But some of the associates have discovered an effective deterrent...spray paint! The resale of a stolen bike is non-existent if the bike is too ugly or too identifiable. Also, certain color combinations like red and green are considered really ugly and disgusting to the Chinese, so you guessed it! That's what I spray painted my bike.

You should've seen the stares and giggles I got riding my newly painted bike down the if I'm not conspicuous enough! No self respecting Chinese would be caught dead on a bike like mine, so maybe-just maybe, I'll have it for awhile. I mean I paid $6 for this used bike and the Dutchman in me says six bucks is six bucks! No use giving it away. I should still probably get a second lock for my bike, but I have a feeling the spray paint is a better investment than any lock would be.

For a video clip of traffic in Tianjin, go to the Youtube on the side of this blog and write in "bignoseforeigner." Scroll down the clips until you find the clip on traffic/crossing the street. My friend Joel and his wife, Jessica have some great clips. This will give you a taste of what it's like to bike here. Enjoy!