“Don’t make me play with that disgusting foreign kid, Grandma! Those barbarians poo in their pants!”
“Wait, you mean you Chinese kids poo on the ground?”
Next time you’re appalled by Chinese people (or any other culture’s people) because they’re doing something that any halfway intelligent and nominally decent person would know not to do, just remember chances are high they feel they same way about you, and not always without reason.
P.S. — And just for kicks, here’s the poop in the potty song (also here – open then scroll down to For The Kids III). P.P.S. — For the record: I don’t think everything boils down to perspective; it’s not all relative. But a large amount of what we assume about the world — like much of what’s barbaric and what’s civilized, sit-downs or squatties — certainly is.
Foreigners in China sometimes experience what’s called a “Bad China Day.” Bad China Days can come in any zillion varieties. These are the days when you especially feel the culture stress; you’re irritated and short-tempered, and everything is dirty and loud and inconvenient and irrational and obnoxious.
Now it’s important to note that Bad China Days aren’t necessarily China’s fault — whoever or whatever ‘China’ is. For example, there’s a big difference between:
“I’m having a bad day, and I just happen to be in China.”
“‘China’ is being bad to me today.”
And both of those are different still from “Living in a culture not your own inevitably causes stress and today I’m really feeling it. I should go take a nap, and definitely should not write a blog post about culture stress.”
Not that it matters; Bad China Days are irrational. They’re when you’re tempted to exhibit your worst cross-cultural behaviour. Hopefully I’ll keep it together. But I can imagine, on a very Bad China Day, in the hotter corners of the culture stress crucible, on the lowest swing of a culture stress cycle, that an untimely encounter with one of several situations could cause me to do things that will end up on the Chinese evening news. Here are five, in no particular order…
1. Public-Surface-Area-Violating Biohazards
Observe closely this surreptitiously-taken and mercifully-angled cell phone photo from last weekend at the beach:
On the right: a nice public restroom. Directly opposite on the left: Grandma suspends Junior in mid-air so he can make something on the ground that looks a bit like but definitely is not a sandcastle. Grandpa prepares the newspapers.
I used to be pretty live-and-let-live when it comes to diapers vs. split-pants — at least in theory. After all, who cares what other people do, right, so long as it doesn’t impact your life? But now we have kids who play in crowded public spaces, and it turns out that letting kids pee and poo on the ground in the middle of parks and neighbourhood play areas (and on subway platforms, restaurant garbage cans, subway platform garbage cans inches from me sitting on a bench) does impact my life: “Don’t step in that puddle!” “I know he is, sweetie, but it’s not nice to watch.” “Oh for the love…”
It’s kind of like camping in a secluded forest and peeing on a tree. Except it’s over-populated and everything’s concrete. But bonus points to our district government for tackling this issue head-on with bilingual (though unintentionally profane) signage:
These are the notes of a culture-stressed foreign English teacher in a Chinese preschool:
No matter what country you’re in, preschools are essentially contagion exchange centres. Every morning Monday-Friday I teach over 200 2-to-6-yr-old Chinese kids English. I’m their only English teacher. I’m also their only cover-your-mouth-when-you-cough-and-sneeze teacher; none of the local teachers give attention to it. It’s flu season all year long in there. Literally every class (20-30 kids each) I remind kids to cover their mouths, because there are always a few coughers. I’ve worked covering your mouth into two different action songs. But when our daughter gets a cold: “That’s because you don’t make her wear enough clothing.” When you’re a sick and tired one-man public health crusader who’s been staring down hacking kids all morning and your daughter’s preschool teacher tells you her cold is due to your bad parenting, being able to speak Chinese is suddenly a liability.
In Canada honking your horn can only mean one of two things: “DANGER!” or “—- YOU!” In Chinese traffic honking means, “Here I come!” “Hey, I’m here!” “Excuse me, coming through!” or “Hurry up!” But in a Chinese neighbourhood — all of which have too few yet cruelly overpriced parking spaces — it means, “We’re waaaaaaaaaiiiting….!” or “Someone’s-in-my-parking-spot-and-I-don’t-have-their-phone-number!” The idea is that if you just sit there and lay on the horn for minutes on end, people will get so irritated that someone who knows the owner of the mis-parked car will be annoyed into action and contact the owner. I guess. (Pro Tip: They know guests have to park in other people’s empty spots. Just leave your phone number on the dash where they can see it so they can call you if they get back before you leave.)
How many times have I fantasized about neutralizing drunk honkers’ cars in creative ways… oh, sweet justice. If I can just get them to pop the hood, I already have a spot picked out to throw their car battery.
4. Jack-Hammering Noise Polluters
Hey here’s an idea. Let’s make it so every time someone moves into an apartment, they strip the walls and floor down to the concrete — with jack-freaking-hammers. Right on the other side of your ceiling. During your kids’ nap time. Let me explain how that works: Kids don’t nap. Mommy and Daddy don’t get a break. Kids are not only awake when they’re not supposed to be, they’re emotionally disturbed little mutants due to lack of sleep and being terrorized awake by jackhammers. That’s why we banged on the upstairs neighbours’ door so much the workers just started pretending no one was there. They knew it was safer to keep the door locked.
I don’t care if it’s grandmas rubbing their eyeballs in time to music that sounds like it was illegally downloaded from a kindergarten website or slapping their thighs in unison while counting out loud or migrant worker trucks unloading renovation materials at 5:45am. In my dreams none of them have been spared a merciless paintballing, and they’d be easy targets so close to our windows. You might think: How could a decent person harbour such horrible thoughts toward senior citizens leading active lives of musical healthiness? You might have never lived in China.
This post doesn’t just talk about culture stress; it conveys the negative, sarcastic feelings of culture stress in the way it’s written. Everything written is true, but it’s presented in a slanted, culture-stressed frame of mind. Culture stress skews your perception by magnifying annoyances while blinding you to positives. Living in China is usually not as bad as this post makes it sound, and there are still truly wonderful things about China that only those who really live here will ever get to experience. In the midst of culture stress, though, it’s easy to forget.
Our daughter goes to a local, all-Chinese preschool. We live in the neighbourhood and I’m their 外教。 She started last November but unlike most kids who go all day five days a week, she only goes mornings on Mon/Wed/Fri. We’re the only foreigners. This week she got to participate in the Monday morning flag-raising ceremony.
They deliberately put her in the class with the nicest teachers, who don’t criticize and shame and negatively compare and threaten as per normal in China (and like in the other classes). As the English teacher, I’m in each of the seven classes every morning so it’s easy for me to compare their discipline and teaching styles.
It seems like participating in this event and celebrating her birthday, which means going through the birthday kid routine that all the other kids go through on their birthdays, have gone a long way toward her fitting in — both in how she feels and how the other kids relate to her. Maybe it’s made everyone realize more that she’s a student, too, and not just some weird visitor. And of course it helps that her Chinese is way better now than when she started.
The chain is owned by an American/Chinese couple who are our friends and members of our NGO. This means I have way more leverage to address issues than I normally would, so this is an exceptional situation for us. I don’t know what we’d do if our only options were normal preschools. Even for the most cross-culturally savvy families, sometimes putting a foreign kid in a Chinese preschool just doesn’t work. There are endless possibilities for deal-breaking conflict.
Their sashes say “I’m a little flag-bearer” 我是小旗手。 Here’s the video of her little performance:
(Part of being at this local Chinese preschool is a horrible, disorganized sound system. Normally this doesn’t matter, because the point of a Chinese sound system is not to clearly amplify speech or music; it’s to make noise so that events feel more 热闹。 On this day, the mics they first tried to use at the base of the flagpole were set to broadcast inside the school instead of outside. But the other mics that do broadcast through the outdoor speakers couldn’t reach all the way to the flagpole, so they moved the kids over to one side. And then the batteries were worn out and fuzzy and loose. But anyway… :)
Hi, everybody! I’m Lu Xinyu from Little Class 2. I just turned 4. I want to sing a song for you:
I love my preschool
At preschool there are lots of friends
There’s singing and dancing
Everybody’s happy together
Once upon a time we went to an all-Chinese mall in Vancouver, Canada to practice Chinese. We overheard this group of college-age girls say, “Hey, those wàiguórén speak Chinese!” Wàiguórén (外国人) meaning “foreigner.” And never mind who was in whose country.
Anyway, saw this shirt tonight and had to share. Reminds me of the mzungu shirts worn by wàiguórén in East Africa during bad reactions to culture stress. But with a twist. And not worn by a mzungu/wàiguórén:
Aside from just being funny, it’s also interesting because of China’s general love/hate relationship with wàiguórén/the West. Just this week I come across usage of “fake foreign devil” 假洋鬼子. And not to mention Chinese Christianity‘s complicated relationship to the English language, Western culture and Western Christianity in particular.
Maybe the t-shirt’s just a Bible joke and not meant to reference any of that. Or maybe it’s deliberately redefining the terms. Either way the joke’s historical-cultural context is hard to ignore. Because historical-cultural context is always hard to ignore. At least for this 外国人。
P.S. - And lest anyone feel like accusing this guy of being a fake foreign devil (假洋鬼子), I should point out that not only does he not speak any English, he doesn’t even have an ‘English name’. Dude is just not interested in “sniffing after foreigners’ farts.”
One sure way to spot a China newbie is that they’re still trying to talk sense into Chinese people regarding health and medicine. They don’t know to avoid conversations like the one I avoided earlier this week with our daughter’s Chinese preschool teacher.
I drop off our daughter at her classroom and say to her teacher, “She’s got a bit of a cold.”
“That’s because she doesn’t wear enough, isn’t it.” She smiles sweetly. But it’s not a question.
Now, we like this teacher; she’s not harsh like the other teachers. She’s patient, and positive. And in this situation she’s not so much criticizing our parenting as demonstrating the responsible concern of a good, dedicated and attentive teacher. Every Chinese person who has ever voiced an opinion on the topic (note: that’s a lot of Chinese people) thinks our kids don’t wear enough to the detriment of their health. It’s borderline scandalous. Our particular Bad Parents Offense these last two weeks is letting our almost-4-year-old wear short sleeves to school. It’s what I hear the nǎinais comment about as we run their gauntlet on our way into the school. It’s just not the time of year for kids to wear short sleeves; weather and the actual temperature has nothing to do with it.
I want to reply, “No, it’s because no one teaches her classmates even nominal hygiene, like covering your mouth when you’re hacking up a gooey lung onto the floor. Besides, it’s 8:30am and already over 20 degrees outside and sunny. And when I come give your kids their English lesson, 90% of them will be sweating in their long sleeves, just like all the other classes. And several of them will still have colds despite their extra layers.”
So what’s it feel like, talking about health with Chinese who have a firmly entrenched TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) perspective? The excerpt below makes a fun illustration.
Jessica and I read stories out loud to each other. We’re in the middle of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Kvothe, the protagonist, comes from what’s essentially a pre-industrial Western culture. But he spends several months living among, training under, and learning the basic language and customs of the Adem, a closed and tight-knit, high-context race of philosophical warriors (think: kung-fu + ninjas + inscrutable East Asians). They consider everyone else to be barbarians and augment their conversation with specific hand-gestures. There’s little contact between the two cultures and they are mutually ignorant of the other’s very different customs and beliefs.
In the section below Kvothe and an Adem named Penthe have been sharing the crazy stories each of their respective cultures tells about the other’s. Kvothe is about to discover that the Adem don’t actually know where babies come from – in fact they have no concept or word for father — and he tries to set the record straight. When a Westerner and a traditionally-minded Chinese talk about health, this is what it’s like for both of them; the Chinese or the Westerner could be represented by either character.
Penthe chuckled. “You have the wrong word,” she said, rubbing at my chin. “A beard is what a man makes. A baby is something different, and that you have no part of.”
“We don’t carry the baby,” I said, slightly offended. “But still, we play our part in making it.”
Penthe turned to look at me, smiling as if I had made a joke. Then her smile faded [...] “Are you serious?”
Seeing my perplexed expression, her eyes grew wide with amazement and she sat upright on the bed. “It is true!” she said. “You believe in man-mothers!” She giggled, covering the bottom half of her face with both hands. “I never believed it was true!” She lowered her left hand, revealing an excited grin as she gestured amazed delight.
I felt I should be irritated [...] “What is a man-mother?” I asked.
“Are you not making a joke?” she asked, one hand still half-covering her smile. “Do you truly believe a man puts a baby in a woman?”
“Well…yes,” I said a little awkwardly. “In a manner of speaking. It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. A mother and a father.”
“You have a word for it!” she said, delighted. “They told me this too. With the stories of dirt soup. But I never thought it a real story!”
I sat up myself at this point, growing concerned. “You do know how babies are made, don’t you?” I asked, gesturing serious earnestness. [...]
She looked at me for a moment in stunned silence, then dissolved helplessly into laughter, trying to speak several times only to have it overwhelm her again when she looked up at the expression on my face.
Penthe put her hands on her belly, prodding it as if puzzled. “Where is my baby?” She looked down at her flat belly. “Perhaps I have been sexing wrong these years. I should have a hundred babies if what you say is true. Five hundred babies!”
“It does not happen every time there is sex,” I said. “There are only certain times when a woman is ripe for a baby.”
“And have you done this? she asked, looking at me with mock seriousness while a smile tugged at her mouth. “Have you made a baby with a woman?”
“I have been careful not to do such a thing,” I said. “There is an herb called silphium. I chew it every day, and it keeps me from putting a baby in a woman.”
Penthe shook her head. “This is more of your barbarian sex rituals,” she said. “Does bringing a man to the flowers also make a baby where you come from?”
I decided to take a different tack. “If men do not help with making babies, how do you explain that babies look like their fathers?”
“Babies look like angry old men,” Penthe said. “All bald and with…” She hesitated, touching her cheek. “…with face lines. Perhaps the old men are the only ones making babies then?” She smirked.
“What about kittens?” I asked. “You have seen a litter of kittens. When a white cat and a black cat have sex, you get kittens both white and black. And kittens of both colors.”
“Always?” she asked.
“Not always,” I admitted. “But most times.” [...]
Penthe gave me a serious look. “You are committing false thinking. You could as easily say two stones make a baby by banging against each other until a piece breaks off. Therefore two people make baby peoples in the same way.”
I fumed, but she was right. I was committing a fallacy of analogy. It was faulty logic.
Our conversation continued along this vein for some time [...] Eventually Penthe waved a hand to stop me, gesturing exasperation. “Do you hear your own excuses? Sex makes babies, but not always. The sex must be at the right time, but not always. There are plants that make it more likely, or less likely.” She shook her head. “You must realize what you say is thin as a net. You keep sewing new threads, hoping it will hold water. But hoping does not make it true.”
Seeing me frown, she took my hand and gestured comfort into it [...] “I can see you think this truly. I can understand why barbarian men would want to believe it. It must be comforting to think you are important in this way. But it is simply not.” Penthe looked at me with something close to pity. [...] “Sometimes a woman ripens. It is a natural thing, and men have no part in it. That is why more women ripen in the fall, like fruit.”
Pro Tip: Here’s a cheap cop-out that works, if you need to escape a conversation like the one above: “foreigners’ bodies are different.” This works. I’m not necessarily saying you should use it — I don’t like it because it’s not being straight with people; avoiding expressing your opinion and giving misleading impressions about your opinion are different things — but it does work. And it’s an explanation that goes back ages. In My Country My People, Lin Yutang relates how some Chinese doctors, upon discovering a Western medical text showing the heart on the left, concluded smugly that, ‘Aha! Barbarians’ bodies are fundamentally different from Chinese, whose hearts are on the right. And this is why barbarians have a different religion.’ (Those Chinese doctors had never bothered to dissect a cadaver.) I use modified forms of this excuse: “Foreigners aren’t afraid of ‘cold’” or “Foreigners can’t ‘get wind’”. or “We’re used to it. It’s not a problem for us.”
P.S. - The Kingkiller Chronicle is entertaining, but has (a lot) more (superfluous) sex and violence than we normally read. So don’t go download it and then come complaining to me!
More about TCM & healthiness with Chinese characteristics:
Just now I opened my latest ZGBriefs China news digest and found: “Rat meat and Chinese food safety” and “20 million taps (and not a drop to drink)”. Right as I sat to down to write this post I also checked my Weixin (微信 – a Chinese social media thing). At the top of my feed was a post about someone encountering “gutter oil” 地沟油 at lunch. Gutter oil comes from the kitchen slop that restaurants dump down the nearest manhole. Some enterprising (desperate?) soul scoops it out and skims off the oil, which he sells to restaurants and street vendors. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Or they drive around at night collecting it in barrels from the restaurants directly (I’ve seen that, too). And these aren’t the worst Chinese food safety examples I can think of; they’re just the ones that happen to be immediately on hand as I write this. This is truly just the muculent tip of a putrescent iceberg.
Why am I bringing this up? I don’t want a blog full of expat whining. But I got this e-mail a few days ago from a couple who’s been in China for three months:
[...] I’m living with my husband in a town in the middle of nowhere called Neixiang (Hunan Province) we’d had tons of shocking experiences here… and now we’re mainly concern about what food is safe to eat.
I’m not talking about eating cat or dog, but eating safe and clean. After reading news about food scandals in China we became more and more afraid of buying food on the streets and even at super markets.
If you have time, could you please tell us your experience with Chinese food brands and give us some advice about what brands has more quality standards than others?
How would you answer? If you live or lived in China, what specific things do you do to make your food safer?
Here’s what I replied with (plus some links)…
Other than spending tons of money and eating only imported products, I don’t know if it’s possible to eat safe and clean in China (and outside China, safe and clean is really just an illusion anyway, but that’s another topic). We’re less stringent than a lot of other expats, and I don’t think what we’re doing makes it safe and clean, but at least it’s something.
Fruit & veggies: We wash all our fruit and vegetables really well.
Milk/dairy: Our girls drink/drank imported milk and formula for their first two years. We drink the major domestic brands, but not because we think they’re necessarily safe.
Meat: Some meat vendors in vegetable markets are “certified” (so they claim, usually by displaying posters and/or certificates on the walls). We get our chicken at Metro麦德龙 (a bulk import store, cheaper than regular import stores), but the beef and pork there is still too expensive. So we’re eating “certified” vegetable market pork and beef while still looking for better options. We also eat less meat than we did in North America.
Packaged/bottled products: We don’t usually buy packaged products like bottles of vinegar or soy milk from the tiny window shops (小卖部) or traditional vegetable markets (菜市场), because things are more likely to be fake. In our first year our teacher pointed out some details of things we’d bought: labels glued on crooked and printed in slightly lower quality, caps were just plugs instead of factory sealed screw caps, etc. Packaged stuff has better chances at a supermarket.
Water: Our drinking water at home comes in big blue bottles, like an office water cooler. At least there’s a chance that it’s better than the tap water (and it tastes way better). During our first week in Qingdao I asked a convenience store owner if we could buy the blue bottles from them. She said we didn’t need them, that we could just drink the tap water. When I balked, she said, well, children shouldn’t drink the tap water, they have to drink bottled water, but for adults it’s fine. We went across the parking lot to the other little convenience store and got the blue bottles.
Air: We didn’t buy an air purifier; they’re prohibitively expensive. We use the China Air Quality Index app to keep track of the pollution levels (though you hardly need it; it’s obvious when the API is over 150), and on really bad days we try to keep our daughters inside. I also googled for pictures of house plants that are supposedly good for the air, and got dozens of a kind in the plant market that looked similar (not scientific, I know, but I like the green anyway, plus they’re cheap). Most importantly as far as air quality is concerned, we left Tianjin (next to Beijing) for Qingdao. Short of building pollution domes over your life like some international schools, you can’t fight the bad air. Your options: wear uncomfortable and expensive high-tech masks, live and work under a (literal) bubble, embrace an early death, or leave. We left. Sort of.
Being in China means choosing to ingest and absorb all kinds garbage. There’s no avoiding it, there’s just lessening it. There’s a joke floating around online that when a Chinese person dies if you flatten their body you’ll get the entire Periodic Table of Elements. Our first year in Tianjin, back before the Olympics when restaurant place settings didn’t come shrink wrapped with your meal, our Chinese teachers would obsessively wipe out every cup, bowl and plate before eating with them. What did they know that we didn’t? So don’t forget to ask (delicately!) your Chinese coworkers, waiban, students, etc. what they do about food safety and pollution. They aren’t unaware.
P.S. - Not exactly the kind of food safety issue we’ve been talking about, but still, this dumpling chef doesn’t mess around: