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 that’s largely a good thing for us. I privately rejoice whenever I am reminded that I’m “not in Kansas anymore.” I’m 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 I’ll 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 doesn’t operate on English, and now we know: it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s Cheap. Sera and I have gone out to a restaurant and eaten dinner for the equivalent of $1.25. We’ve 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 wasn’t in a restaurant in 60 seconds, I’d 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 “hole in the wall” 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 it’s 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 don’t cost any extra to use.
So we eat out a lot, it’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s fun, but there are some downsides. Most of these restaurants are, you guessed it: Chinese, and if they aren’t 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. It’s 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 they’ve returned home. I don’t think it’s necessarily true for me because the Chinese food here is quite different from most “Chinese” 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 don’t 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, it’s 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 couldn’t 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 …not so much. I’ll 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. It’s 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. It’s not because I’m on the road, no no no, it’s 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 don’t 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 aren’t really. They are just different; the people here just get out of the way of each other in their own way and don’t feel slighted or upset at all. Sometimes it’s harder than others to get used to these deviations from what I’m used to, but on the whole the pleasure from having my ideas about how the world should work challenged far outweigh the frustrations.