Sunday, March 22, 2009

China II: Through Foreign Eyes

The plane transfer from the Tokyo airport at Nerita to Beijing was the first instance during the China trip that our group probably felt a culture shift. The flight attendants spoke in English, Chinese, and Japanese. I was amused (and perhaps relieved?) when the flight attendants defaulted to Mandarin Chinese when speaking with me. Perhaps I wasn't so out of place after all. Then imagine stepping off the plane into the Beijing airport - the signs all in Chinese with English below, and the people overwhelmingly Chinese.

For most in our group of 14, I'm sure they immediately felt the reality of being in a foreign country where English was not the primary language. For me, less so. It's difficult to describe - I could still feel myself in a different country on a different continent, and yet it didn't feel totally unknown to me. In a way (terrible analogy coming up) it was like a ridiculously massive Chinatown. More than culture-shock, I was filled with a sense of adventure. I attempted to read every sign I could. I didn't do too badly, as I could usually get the gist of what many signs were about even if I could not read them outright. It's strange to be able to understand a word (character) but not know/remember how to pronounce it.

Still, there were notable departures from the US. A country steeped in thousands of years of history is about to accumulate a rich cultural tapestry that continues to evolve and progress. You could feel the ancient as it resonates to the current day. In comparison, the US almost feels raw, too young, and without a unifying thread. Of course I know this isn't really true, but everything's relative.

Some things of note - cultural differences - with accompanying pictures. These pictures are but imperfect glimpses of China through foreign eyes.

1. Everywhere you went, the ancient contrasts with the modern. Iconic old-style gates adorn many street corners as high-rises and skyscrapers tower in the background.
A typical Chinese gate in Beijing.

High-rises in Tianjin.

2. There is an interesting atmosphere within China. People are constantly striving towards progress, to become a developed first-world nation and leave the third-world behind. Yet, traditions are strong and the culture is proud.
An assortment of Chinese instruments. And a cello in the back. :D

Okay, this is just epic. The 2 standing women have a platform candle-holder thing in their mouth that holds up 3 candles, and they're supposed to sing through their teeth without letting go of the candle-holder while playing a drum with one hand and a snap thing in the other. And then they do all this while being in sync with each other. I wasn't technically allowed to take a pic of this.

3. There is a kind of bluntness in China that I found quite amusing. There are things people aren't afraid to write or say to your face.
Yes, it said that in the hotel room. LOL!!

4. I'm convinced that babies and young kids are cuter in China than they are in the US. It might have something to do with what they wear. I also found it particularly interesting that babies don't wear diapers in China. Instead, there's a flap over their butt (if there's a flap there at all). I see babies with their bare butts. Not too sure why it's this way . . . and I didn't take a pic of that. But, cute babies!
I kind of "stalked" this kid for a minute to get a pic. Too bad she fell asleep on her dad.

He wanted to hold our tour guide's pink flower. :)

The child is wearing a ladybug coat!!

A cute kid in Ji County (蓟县 - Jixian) in Tianjin.

5. Perhaps the most culturally different thing is the dichotomy between how homes look on the outside compared to how they look on the inside. Outside many apartments look run-down with trash everywhere. If you were to view these places through the "lens of the US" you would think people of low SES (socio-economic status) lived in these dwellings. But the moment you walk into these homes, you'll be in for a shock. Inside these homes are immaculately clean, the furniture nice if not always new, and all in all better condition than my apartment back near campus. Does. Not. Compute.
Yes, it looks that trashy everywhere in some places.

Apartments in Dagang District (大港) in Tianjian.

6. The CDC people were very open when talking with us. We were surprised that they were willing to talk about so many topics. For example, they suggested that we visit Tibet because it's so beautiful there, and many people make Buddhist pilgrimages to Tibet. The national government may censor a lot of things, but most people don't seem to care unless it interferes with their daily life. It seems the Chinese are very apolitical and could care less about politics, again, as long as it doesn't interfere with their daily lives.

7. The Chinese have a different definition of ethnicity than we do here in the US. There are dozens of minority groups in China other than the Han Chinese, that consists of well over 90% of the populace. To a foreigner, everyone looks Chinese. But there are subtle differences in culture, clothing, traditions, and dialects.

8. The bikers in China are fearless. They will ride their bicycles right up next to cars and buses without any kind of body protection. Traffic in China defies the rules observed in the US. You go if you have the green and you see a chance. As my friend JW-M says (he's studying abroad in China for a year right now), "It's all about the intent. The moment you're nice and try to let people go, confusion and chaos arises. That's when accidents happen. As long as you move with intent, everything will work itself out."

9. KFC, yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, is everywhere. So is McDonald's. Apparently, people in China treat KFC like we do with Starbucks. People will buy a chicken sandwich and sit in the KFC for hours while on their computers, reading a newspaper, or studying. Supposedly the food served in the Chinese KFC is better than the food served in KFC here. Same goes for Pizza Hut, which is actually a big deal there - it's sit-down with table service, and actually really nice. We didn't go while we were there, but the thought amused us.
Another gate somewhere in Ji County.

Weird ass statue. I don't understand this.

Yes, there is a KFC in some remote area in Ji County.

10. What else? There aren't many fat people in China. I think it's because people walk EVERYWHERE. Traffic sucks because there are tons of cars, taxis, trucks, and buses. But the safety signs on the highway are highly entertaining. Too bad we were moving too fast for me to take pics of them. And yes, air pollution is a huge issue in China. We definitely experienced some of it (though not at its worst). Interestingly, there were signs for green energy and green technology everywhere. There were many trees planted outside Beijing, like almost an entire forest full. I think this is presumably to help against the sandstorms that blow into Beijing in the summer and to prevent the desertification due to the encroachment of the deserts to the north and west. "Arbor day" in China actually means something.

I do not have enough pictures to do justice to all the "differences" and interesting things we saw in China. There's so much that I haven't even begun to touch on. This is only a sample of China through foreign eyes. Though my eyes may not be as foreign as many of you readers looking at these pics.

I'll finish this post with a couple of pics: Wang Leehom on a water bottle. XD Stay tuned for the next post of Aek in China!! :P

Really quick, I caught up on a "new" blog: southern inebriation. Go over and say hi if you haven't already!! :D


E said...

You could feel the ancient as it resonates to the current day[....]the US almost feels raw, too young, and without a unifying thread.

Just like to point out a bit of good writing first. This post was pleasantly readable, not that the others aren't! This seems to function as both a personal and intellectual account of the experience. Both the pictures and the language was enjoyable.

How'd you feel communicating with the native speakers? Did you learn new things? Did they you say you have an accent, or did you blend pretty well? With French and Spanish I never have the issue of transliteration. Hopefully I will be learning some more Japanese soon, so I can relate a little better.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I can't stand that when they default into English. Then again, I'm have no Chinese heritage. XD

Does that sign mean don't fight WITH your prostitute, or don't fight OFF your prostitute??? Is it really blunt or is it merely a matter of translation?

That's interesting about the ethnicity part. I don't know about those other aspects of culture, but some of those linguistic differences are anything but subtle, lol. Linguists don't even bother calling many of the varieties "dialects"...just, "languages."

letopho said...

I feel like I was there with you!

I love how observant you are!

And those children are adorable!

call.the.shots said...

I LOVE CHINA!!! I wanna be a damn bottle one day too! though my heart will break if i saw somebody throw away a bottle w/ my face on it.

Mike said...

Did you fight the prostitutes?

Good man.

Aek said...

E: Thanks!! I'm glad you enjoyed this post. Your questions will be answered in Post IV. ;-)

James: I haven't bothered actually attempting to translate it. So I'm not sure if it's "with" or "off."

letopho: Thanks! I tend to think of myself as pretty observant. It's what I do. And I do mean that in the most non-perverted way possible.

c.t.s: Haha, I don't think I'd want my face on a bottle. That'd weird me out a little.

Mike: No, I didn't fight the prostitutes. I don't think there were any when we were there. Too cold perhaps. ;-)