THE CAR IS ON THE SIDEWALK
So Sera and I have been in Dalian now for eight months
and we have adapted pretty well to our temporary life here. China is much
different from the States, but of course thatís largely a good thing for
us. I privately rejoice whenever I am reminded that Iím ďnot in Kansas
anymore.Ē Iím not sure why this is exactly because I like living in the USA
well enough. I think, even after three years of traveling and living
abroad, its just plain exciting to see new things and try to get along
within a new set of rules. After first coming to China the peculiarities
seemed vast and entirely obvious. Now, however, things that once seemed
novel are fast fading into the normal. In the hope of checking this slide
Iíll revisit some things that make China China and China not the USA.
The first thing that comes to mind is the language.
We were wondering what it was going to be like living in a place that
doesnít operate on English, and now we know: itís hard, but not too hard.
Sera and I are studying Chinese but our efforts have been rather
lackadaisical. When we do try to use Chinese we are often met with blank
stares because we spoke without the proper tones. The words sound correct
to us but are in fact completely incomprehensible to Chinese ears.
Needless to say we donít rely on our spoken Chinese for anything important.
If we do need to convey a precise message we will ask one of our Chinese
friends to write out a message for us. This has worked well for our daily
life in Dalian, and in fact we have gotten quite used to not being able to
read or understand anything we hear. I carry a business card for a
restaurant near our flat to get home in a taxi and we have a personal menu
that has all of our favorite dishes written on it. In the grocery store
most things have a familiar logo, have a picture of some sort, or can
otherwise be guessed at. Sometimes I am so used to not being able to read
labels that I overlook the fact that the one I am looking at has English on
it! We can actually manage to complete quite a range of transactions using
a combination of rudimentary Chinese and English, gestures, pictures, and
most importantly, numbers. In the end, the language barrier is challenging
and we often joke about how it will be too easy to do things once we get
back to the English speaking world.
Another big part of our China experience has been the
Chinese food. We eat out a lot here, much more than we ever have before.
There are a few reasons for this: The first reason is that itís Cheap.
Sera and I have gone out to a restaurant and eaten dinner for the equivalent
of $1.25. Weíve also treated 20 people to dinner for about $30 dollars. Of
course, it is possible to spend more money, the seafood dishes are pricy and
if we go to Pizza Hut, which has reinvented itself as a fancy restaurant
here in China, we pay about the same as we would in the States. Another
reason is that restaurants are everywhere. If someone told me, sitting here
in my flat, that I would die if I wasnít in a restaurant in 60 seconds, Iíd
have time to put on my shoes. Within a ten-minute-on-foot radius there are
easily a fifty different establishments, and there is nothing special about
where we live. Most of these places would classify as ďhole in the wallĒ
but again, the food is just as good as in a big restaurant and we get the
pleasure of supporting a small family business. The
next major factor is the culture here. In America itís common to invite
friends and relatives over to your house for dinner, and house parties are
popular. The Chinese houses are smaller and less conducive to gatherings so
it is normal to meet at a restaurant instead. Almost every restaurant has
special rooms set aside for these sort of private dinners; they often come
equipped with karaoke paraphernalia, and donít cost any extra to use.
So we eat out a lot, itís cheap, itís easy, itís fun,
but there are some downsides. Most of these restaurants are, you guessed
it: Chinese, and if they arenít Chinese they are Korean or Japanese. (There
are western food restaurants but they tend to be awful, expensive, or, more
likely, both.) Also, the Chinese food here tends to be really oily and is
known to have a lot of MSG. Itís easy to get tired of the food here so we
do cook for ourselves, though not nearly as much as in Namibia (where I
would have needed three hours to walk to the nearest restaurant). Some of
the westerners like to joke about how they will never eat in a Chinese
restaurant again once theyíve returned home. I donít think itís necessarily
true for me because the Chinese food here is quite different from most
ďChineseĒ food in the USA. The cooks there had to adjust the food for
American tastes. The most obvious difference is the paucity of chicken
feet, intestines and rabbit heads, but there are more subtle things that
separate the two, and these make all the difference. By the way, we have
yet to see a fortune cookie or an eggroll.
One of things that are different about the Chinese
people themselves is that they donít have the same concept of right of way.
It seems to be a strange thing, but it really is a noticeable difference.
Walking down the sidewalk or doing anything with other anonymous people is
not the same. If someone leaves a gap in front of them in a queue, itís an
open invitation to crowd. If there is no queue, as is often the case, then
it is absolutely irrelevant who has been waiting longer, the only ways to
get to the front are elbows, gentle (or not so gentle) shoves or possibly
waiting until everyone else has cleared out. Even walking in a straight
line can be difficult. I innately measure my pace against those around me,
I think everyone does, or else people couldnít walk without hitting each
other. Anyway, I adjust my path if it is obvious that I will get to the
same place at the same time as someone else, the people here Önot so much.
Iíll have people walk right in front of me, stop right in front of me or
worse, pull their car out right in front of me.
Speaking of cars, forget about driving here, an
average American driver would go berserk with road rage. Itís standard
operating procedure to pull right out in front of someone as long as they
are given enough time to dodge out of the way or screech to a halt before
there is a collision. If someone needs to make a left turn onto a busy
street, they just nose their way out until all the oncoming traffic is
blocked. Oh, and I should mention why a car might be pulling out in front
of me in the first place. Itís not because Iím on the road, no no no, itís
because the car is on the sidewalk. The Chinese have a different system for
parking here and it often involves combining sidewalks and parking lots. It
can be frustrating/dangerous at times; I donít especially appreciate looking
over my shoulder to see oncoming, albeit slow moving, traffic. The thing
is, though these things might seem rude to me and other westerners, they
arenít really. They are just different; the people here just get out of the
way of each other in their own way and donít feel slighted or upset at all.
Sometimes itís harder than others to get used to these deviations from what
Iím used to, but on the whole the pleasure from having my ideas about how
the world should work challenged far outweigh the frustrations.