So I found this list on my newsfeed about the ‘habits’ that foreigners pick up when they come to China.
I was pretty disappointed in this list. I mean, look at #1 on the list: say bye bye? I don’t think that’s some major aspect of Chinese culture that I’ll bring back to America and surprise everyone with. “Hey, did you hear Mary say bye-bye? She really changed over there in China, it’s like I don’t even know her anymore!”
And there’s one about “beer shots.” I’ve lived in China for three years, some of my friends even longer, and we’ve yet to try one of these “beer shots.” If this writer is talking about just downing or chugging a whole can of beer; well, I think I was chugging good brew even before I came to China, so that’s something I can’t really say was China’s fault.
For #9 they list “take your shoes off before entering the house.” Now, I don’t know about y’all, but when the repairman comes over to fix my air conditioner, fridge, what have you–he be stompin in with his dirty boots. One time I even had a guy put plastic shower head caps over his shoes before entering my home (so it doesn’t really count as ‘taking off shoes,’ but at least he was polite).
Actually, while it’s rude for a Chinese person to wear shoes in their own home, they usually don’t think twice about entering your house with shoes on, bringing their muddy souvenirs, smudgin’ up your new wood floor. But I digress. I was taking off my shoes even when I lived in the USA, so I don’t think this counts as a special habit that I can blame China on.
This list does list a few habits that, I admit, I picked up in China.
The most noticeable one is #2: Drinking hot water.
When I first dined at a restaurant in China, I asked the waiter for a glass of water. When he asked me if I wanted hot or cold, I thought that I might have misunderstood his Chinese. I mean, who wants hot water? What kind of fool downs a glass of boiling hot liquid? I said to the waiter, cold with ice–of course! Why would I drink a glass of boiled water? Psh!
In China, thanks to the archaic belief of traditional Chinese medicine (yes, I think TCM, for the most part, is bullshit, but anyway..) the Chinese never drink cold water. Ever. It’s a really foreign concept for them to put ice cubes in a glass and drink water that is freezing cold. In the dead, humid heat of a Shanghai summer, my co-worker tells me that she can’t drink cold beverages. When people are dying outside from heatstroke, she’s sweatin buckets in a restaurant stall with no air conditioner, asking the waiter for a nice, refreshing, heat quenching–boiling glass of hot water.
Chinese people think hot water is good for your digestive system. And maybe it is. I don’t know. Either way, you couldn’t pay me to drink a hot glass of water during a Shanghai summer.
Anyway, I eventually picked up this habit. Autumn has finally landed in Shanghai, and last night I found myself asking the waiter for a glass of 热水 (hot water) to warm me up on that chilly evening. After the words left my mouth, I was in shock at myself. Every now and then you have those moments where you feel yourself transforming into a local–and last night was one of those epiphanies. Before coming to China, the thought of drinking hot water was–truly–just an incomprehensible concept to me. Now, it’s as normal to me as pancakes for breakfast, or a bowl of 粥 (congee) and a 油条 (Chinese fried breadstick)…
Oh god. I’m turning Chinese.
China doesn’t just change your habits, it changes who you are
China has changed me in a way I never expected. I’m not talking about those small little habits listed above, such as eating pickled goose eggs or bringing tissues around with you wherever you go because China doesn’t believe in toilet paper. In fact, even seeing grown men publicly urinating on a busy Shanghai street in broad daylight doesn’t phase me anymore (but last night I saw two guys doing it on the SAME STREET only a few feet away from each other. I wanted to take a picture, but you know, it was a bit awkward).
I’m talking about the big changes. In Japan, I think I grew more polite and fielal. In China, I became more aggressive.
As I wrote in the Bali post below, unless you scream and get pissed nothing in China gets done. Before coming to China, I was one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. I used my ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ excessively with a smile and helping hand. Now, I grunt and shove and kick and snarl.
When I first came to China, the fruit vendor would often cheat me. I’d meekly pay them more money and cry on the walk home, whispering insults to China and wondering why I came here.
After a few months, I got the balls to actually tell the fruit vendor, “I’m really sorry, but I think you charged me too much for this apple. Could you please reconsider the price?” They would tell me that they always sell apples at that price, and that I should go fuck myself. Again, I walked home with tears in my eyes, wondering why I came to China.
“I just saw you charge that other lady half the price of what you’re giving me for the exact same thing. Don’t fuck with me buddy, you gotta treat me fair because I’m not some stupid 老外 (foreigner) you can cheat. Now, you gonna charge me a decent price or what?”
And then he finally offers me a decent price.
While I’m happy that China has made me into a stronger and more aggressive person, I’m afraid this hostile attitude is going to come back with me to the USA. To be honest, last time I went home and ate out, I was tempted dozens of times to yell at the waiter to come over and fill up my glass of water rather than play the ‘eye-contact’ game and hopes s/he pops by asking “how is everything?” for the 22nd time.
I’m afraid that when I bump into someone in the USA, I’ll say FU instead of ‘excuse me.’
I’m afraid that I’ll forget to say thank you.
I’m afraid that I’ll be too blunt and discreet.
And worst of all, I’m afraid that I’ll start…
Choosing Friends with Benefits
J: “Mary, I think Shanghai is changing the way I select friends.”
Me: “How so?”
J: “Instead of just become friends with someone because they’re a cool person, I’ll catch myself subconsciously assesing their worth as a friend. Like, this guy works at an advertising firm so maybe he’ll be able to introduce me to a good job in the future, or this girl is rich so maybe she can introduce me to her other rich friends. I mean, it’s TERRIBLE! When I catch myself doing it, I just slap myself.”
Me: “Actually, I’ll find myself doing the same thing. I realized it not too long ago, either. I’ll meet someone new, asses them on their age, career, or social status, and mentally decide whether this person is worth my time or not. Then, I kick myself because all of that shit doesn’t matter. Before I came to China, I never used to think that way.”
J: “I think it must be a southern China thing–Beijing never used to do this to me.”
Me: “I agree. When I first moved to Shanghai I lived with a Shanghainese woman for a couple months. I’ll never forget that, after she had known me for two weeks and met a few of my friends in Shanghai, she basically gave me a stastical report on what friends I should keep and what friends weren’t worth my time. ‘Your friend Wang is no good, he’s a nice guy with a strong sense of morals, but he doesn’t really have a lot of foreign experience and his salary is low, do he’s not going to get you anywhere in life, Mary. As for your Japanese friend K, i don’t really see much potential in him but I have a feeling his dad is rich, so you should keep that one around you.’
Needless to say, I was completely blown away by her frank evaluation and, well, total lack of compassion and generosity.”
J: “I’m speechless.”
Mary: “I know. We can’t turn into that, J. We can’t let Shanghai ruin the good in us.”
And we shook on it.
While China has its problems and it’s definitely one of the hardest places to live in the world, the lessons learned here will give you tough skin and a new perspective on your moral code–and really, those are both things we need not only for surivial in China, but anywhere.
And to end the post, here’s a song from one of my favorite Chinese indie artist 阿肆 (Asi) . You should just listen to the song because the title is so awesome: 我在人民广场吃炸鸡 (I’m at People’s Square eating fried chicken)