Today marks eight months that I have lived in China. Some days this seems like such a small number, while other days it seems like eight years. This time period of my life has challenged me in ways that I never thought post – undergrad life would immediately do. Taking the unconventional route of [graduate > new place > new job] ( rinse and repeat X amount of times Generation Xers), I did not know what exactly to expect. However, that is one of the reasons I wanted to do this — it would bring new challenges and opportunities that I did not exactly expect
Is there an echo in here?
But seriously — how intense could China be? I did live in Seoul for a year, and I did travel around Southeast Asia solo for a couple of months. China was just another country……
I could not have been more wrong.
So without further unnecessary build – up, here are my eight thoughts on living in China.
One: Chinese locals are the worst of strangers.
Before coming to China, I made sure to pack my Minnesota Nice tightly so it would not fall out. Since I live in the suburbs of my city, few foreigners are ever out and about so sometimes my presence is alarming to some of the locals. After getting over the initial shock of being constantly gawked at, I now have a “mental clock” of 6 seconds — after that, I will automatically throw out a “ni hao” to break my perceived awkwardness. Now, staring isn’t really a social sin in China (but don’t you dare point!), however it still can be hard to get used to.
With that being said, Chinese strangers rarely acknowledge each other and it has taken me eight months to figure that out.
Imagine if the United States went from a country of 400 million people, to one of 1.4 billion people. That means for every one person in your immediate area, times by 3. Crazy right — well hold on. The urban cities in China are becoming more and more populated due to the growing opportunities presented by a double digit growth economy. My city is a “second – tier” city at a palsy 8 million people… ( 12th most populated city in China). So let’s take our 1.4 billion Americans and shove them into the pre-Louisiana Purchase area —- that’s right, all 1.4 people need to live east of the Mississippi. For a real – life example, my city of Hangzhou is geographically the same size as my hometown of Inver Grove Heights with a population of 30,000 people. 8 million people in IGH…… wow.
With this reality, everyday survival is a competition against your neighbor. From the best schools and jobs, to the best raw vegetables and dumplings, Chinese people recognize that if they want something in this world, they have to take it. This is apparent by such characteristics like: driving, line-cutting, and a lack of queueing in general. At first this can be very oft-putting, but you need to have a sense of humor and a sense of cultural awareness. The next part, however, makes it all worth it…
Two. Chinese locals are the best of friends.
While they can be weary strangers, Chinese people are the most loyal of friends. This has been made evident from my closer relationships including some of my Chinese teachers and colleagues. What really drove this point home, however, was my local everyday encounters.
At first these people were random chefs, shop owners, and baristas. Now, they greet me with a Ni Hao Pengyou (friend) and a warm smile. This starts usually two or three mornings a week with a stop in McDonalds for a coffee to start a long day. The barista, Summer, regularly gives me a large when I order a medium and has some sort of conversation starter ready to fire away. I have a “noodle guy” who has an open noodle stand where you get to fill up a bowl of any of pre – cut vegetables and choose a type of noodle to mix it with. A stranger at first — now he will take my order first if there happens to be a large crowd. Chinese people tend to consider friendships “lifelong” and that they need to constantly strengthened in order to flourish.
Three. Economically, China still has a long way to go.
I was a bit naïve at first by only looking at recent economic statistics when evaluating China’s economy before arriving in China. It is easy to get swayed by annual double-digit GDP growth and consistent “second strongest economy” labels to thinking that China is a “developed” economy but that is simply not true. There are developed cities, but the vast majority of China would be considered by Americans as “developing”. A closer look at history highlights both the reality and amazement when it comes to China’s economy today.
Due to a turbulent mid – 20th century, China’s economy didn’t begin to “modernize” until 1978; almost a full 100 years after such economies like Western Europe and the United States began. For the next 20 years, China created one of the strongest export – driven economies in the world; accurately labeled as “the factory of the world”. While statistics favor this approach, the economy’s sustainability is compromised resulting in one of the largest income gaps in the world. The last 10 years has seen China shift to a consumer – driven economy to balance the income gap. Today, every Chinese citizen seems to own an iPhone and all aspire to someday own a vehicle of their own. Instead of taking 100 years like Western countries, China is defying history by modernizing their economy in less than 30 years. This is truly remarkable and is a fascinating phenomenon to witness.
Four. The Pollution is a very real thing.
I think that is one of the first things Westerners comment about on China — the pollution. There have been many documentaries made about it ( of course not shown in China), but this was another phenomenon I was quite naïve about before landing in Chinaland.
At the beginning, I did not seem to notice it. That novelty seems quite confusing — since the pollution is so much stronger here, wouldn’t I be more aware of it initially? When you first land in China, you don’t really realize it is pollution. The first couple weeks will go by and you won’t really think of it. Of course, it’s not like the air is pollution – heavy every day in a row. During the “heavy” times, the pollution will be evident on 3 or 4 days of the week. Normally, however, there will be 5 or 6 days in between 1 or 2 polluted days (note: it varies from city to city but Hangzhou is quite polluted).
So at first, I simply just thought it was fog. Like a normal foggy day. Until, that is, you really examine the air. Some days you can see unnatural colors like orange or a lime green. You can really notice it when you look at the pollution near the sun. It took me about two months to really realize that it is not fog; it is real human – induced pollution. And it is very real.
Five. Chinese language is different from the English language
Big surprise here coming in at number 5, but I have some fresh perspective to add on this note.
I think the number one thing Chinese language learners first expect when they come to China is that they will just naturally become stronger Mandarin learners just by living in China (sneak peak, I did). I think it is quite common to hear study abroad stories about students returning from Spain or France after a semester or year of study and be fluent in the language. Chinese learners think that while studying Chinese in China will be helpful to becoming fluent, they also have the notion that they will learn Chinese faster just by living here through osmosis.
The difference between the Chinese language learner and the European language learner is that most European languages have similarities between English. Chinese has 0000000000000000000000000000000. You have to study this language everyday and go out of your way to practice. And no not just practicing the same conversation every time with the taxi driver or shop keeper and having them exclaim “ni de zhong wen fei chang hao” when you tell them you are American. No, sir, my Chinese is not excellent, I have just mastered “Wo shi mei guo ren” to a T. Each day is a battle, and the war still rages on.
Six. The opportunities are endless.
I imagine the economic atmosphere of China right now to being quite similar to the American gold rush, or the more contemporary Dot.Com era of the mid 1990s. The economy is exploding with new industry and there are many chances for any Average Joe to take it and make something with it. There is money to be made; you just have to take it. This goes for both Chinese nationals and foreigners, but I’ll stick to foreigners (like me).
New side jobs appear every day whether you want them to or not. English is one of the largest industries in China and lucky for me I am an official “Foreign Expert” on it. As you wonder how can someone who writes something littered with as many grammatical errors as this post be considered a “Foreign Expert”, consider this: I am American and therefore a native English speaker. This is the first qualification needed and I passed with flying colors. While I’m not going to sell myself short, for the time being I am going to sell myself short and move on (ha).
What is really neat about this is that you can create and implement a new company or idea without having 20 years of experience; which is exactly what I did. I wrote about my new job vaguely in my last post, and I am not going to articulate it here, but to make it short I would not be given this opportunity outside of China due to my lack of qualifications. I have been trusted and given free reign to create something and I am damn sure going to triumph from it. Like the dot com era when start – up companies and ideas grew exponentially in only two or three years time with no previous experience, China’s economy right now is taking risks and chances and is inviting every one and anyone to play.
Saw Voice “Live or die, the choice is yours”
Seven. The generational gap is staggering.
In America, our parents and even some grandparents are “somewhat” tech – savvy. They understand how to use computers and social media, and occasionally drop the word “tweet” in every day conversation —– cringe – worthy indeed. There is somewhat of a gap, but not nearly as large as some teenagers like to proudly boast.
In China, there is an equivalent gap. Most parents and grandparents in China as almost as equal to American parents and grandparents in the tech – savvy department. In fact, I get the feeling that there are more iPhone grandparent users in China than in America …. So why the title?
The generation gap I am talking about is generally knowledge based. While Chinese parents might have had the opportunity to attend university, their parents (grandparents) almost certainly did not. They would have been lucky to have an organized education after the age of 12. Due to China’s turbulent modern history, education was not nearly as comprehensive as America’s (or expanded to Western Europe) education during the same time period. An example is the language.
Standard Mandarin has only been required in school since the early 1980s. That means for most of China’s population, they do not have the ability to speak in the official tongue of their country and instead resort to their local dialect. Culturally, as well, China’s generation gap is huge. China has only been exposed to the Western world within the last 30 or 40 years (albeit with tight restrictions). This has led to many differences between the young and the old when considering foreign nations and cultures. Which leads me to my last point…..
Eight. China is incredibly curious about the outside world.
My students (well, the Freshman) bring eager attitudes every day to my class to soak up as much knowledge as they can about all things not – Chinese. China has been the center of the world for so long (literally, China in Chinese translates in English to middle kingdom) that since it has lost the spotlight the last 150 years or so, it’s eager to learn what it has missed. Most Chinese young adults today want to learn as much as they can about other countries, people, culture, food; anything they can get their hands on (with subtitles of course)!! The generation of youth in China today is ready to become a world player, and leader, once again.
While I could elaborate on what this could mean socially (and politically) for future in the near future, I am going to stop here. This has been quite the composition and I can only hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed expressing my thoughts.
Please let me know if you would like to learn more about any of the topics I mentioned (or ones I haven’t) and I will be eager to serve your needs. I could have created a separate blog post for each point; but am far too lazy to do just that. Do not hesitate to ask for more about something.
I hope all of you are reading this with good spirits and positive weather your way! Hangzhou is just about to climb into humid – heavy territory, a.k.a Sam’s kryptonite, so wish me luck. Sending lots of love to your location.
Peace & Blessings