October 29th, 2010 | Published in China - Cultural Differences
There are certain comments/observations that I always took literally when I first came to China because I wasn’t used to hearing them and I didn’t know why the person was asking me them. For example:
- Are you tired? Do you want to have a rest?
My response to this question last year was always, “No, I don’t think so…why? Do I look tired? I don’t feel tired. Well, maybe I’m a little tired. I wonder if I’m talking too slowly or something…everyone’s always asking me if I want to have a rest….BUT I’M NOT TIRED SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME!!?”
After about six months in-country, though, I stopped having this internal monologue whenever somebody asked me this question, because I realized they asked it because:
- People actually take 1-hour naps after lunch here, way, way more commonly than in the U.S., especially at college campuses…classes stop for a few hours so that the teachers and students can ALL go to their rooms and sleep
- Students are nervous to talk to me and don’t know what the hell else to say
A year ago, I wondered what was wrong with me whenever somebody asked me if I wanted to have a rest. No I just decide if I’m tired or not and say “yes” or “no”. Way easier.
- You don’t like to eat very much. You’ve eaten so little.
This one also used to confuse the shit out of me. Usually at lunch/dinner I eat way more than everybody else. I take like three vegetable servings and two meat servings and an egg or a chicken leg and a bowl of rice and soup and pig out, and everybody else takes like one fucking piece of cucumber and a bowl of soup and two pounds of rice. So I used to always think…wait a minute, I just ate a ton of meat and veggies, and this person ate like nothing but rice, why are they telling me I only ate a little, WTF?
And then I realized, again, somewhere after month six-ish, that Chinese people look at eating completely differently from (warning: a few sweeping generalizations are to follow) us foreigners. Essentially, and I don’t think this is an exaggeration, Chinese people, at least here in my area, look at a tray of food and measure the amount of rice on it. And that’s the quantity of food eaten. Foreigners people (I guess meaning westerners in general but maybe just Americans), of course, look at veggies and meats as the food consumed. So when Chinese people look at my tray and see that I at like a normal westerner-person portion of rice, they don’t even see all the veggies and meats I ate. It doesn’t register. So they think I am a starving child, and I look at their meal which basically consisted of white rice and think they are a starving child, and everybody ends up saying, “What is wrong with you? You only ate a little (rice/meat), you are going to die on that diet YOU NEED TO EAT MORE WTF”
- My life is not very interesting. I’m not very good at English.
This one is just about the necessity of modesty. Even if a student or person is super interesting or really good at English, he/she is unlikely to admit it, even after intense questioning. At this point if someone is really modest about something after I’ve given them a compliment, I just let it go and know that they heard the compliment, even if they can never verbally agree.
- Have you eaten?
This one is basic Chinese stuff. If someone asks this, they’re not asking you to eat with them. They’re just being polite. Just like the meaningless English greeting, “how are you?” to which we all reply “good”.
The moral of this story, for me, has been in realizing that a lot of the time, especially here but also in normal life back home, there’s a lot of information I don’t know, a lot of reasons for the stuff that happens on a day to day basis. So there’s no point getting worked up about stuff that may or may not have meaning. No use interpreting things internally unless you’re sure they’re really an issue.
For example, when I ride the bus here, if someone’s sitting next to me, and then a free seat opens somewhere else, they will frequently go sit there. A year ago this made me feel terrible, and I internally assumed it was because they didn’t want to sit next to the laowai. But after a while I realized that it is far more likely that they just see that I am super tall and can’t fit in any seat on the bus and need extra space. I don’t know why/how I realized that, but I did, and for some reason I’m pretty sure it’s true (mostly because I don’t think people really mind sitting next to me…just as many times people have been super happy to sit next to me here).
Likewise, I used to be really bothered by people shouting “hello!” at me all over the place. I used to find it annoying and slightly mocking. But now I’ve actually talked to some of those people, and realized that they just really want to interact but are way too shy to just come up and talk to me. One group of kids who shouted at me like that are now my private students — paying me to teach them English. I just had to break through that barrier of shyness and realized that there was a lot of curiousity and desire to learn about my culture/language behind that somewhat intimidating, shouted greeting.
So there are definitely good things about life in China year 2. Mainly that everything gets easier and makes a hell of a lot more sense (however note the post from a couple weeks ago where I explained that nothing makes sense in China).