It’s a good thing I don’t own a paintball gun in China

This neighbourhood always seems noisier when my daughters are sleeping. I don’t know if that’s because of the peasants’ motorized three-wheel carts, the Porsche, or that people think the best way to deal with strangers who park in their parking spaces is to repeatedly smack the car alarm until the owner comes out and moves it. (Mainlanders have this fantastic capacity for slowly achieving an objective through loud, repetitious tedium — meaning you’ll be worn out long before the car alarm slapper.) Man I want a paintball gun…

“Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news

Bad China Days

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:

2. Public-Air-Space-Violating Biohazards

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.

3. Car-Horn-Honking Noise Polluters

There’s already been one time where I actually looked in the fridge for eggs to throw on my way out the door in the dead of night. Not that it mattered; other neighbours threw heavier objects.

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.

5. Early-Rising Noise Polluters

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.

P.S. – Understanding Culture Stress

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.

How to do cross-cultural transitions right: Build a “RAFT”

Moving cross-culturally is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is easy. You leave behind siblings, nephews and nieces, parents and grandparents, and friends, plus places and things infused with memories and meaning, like the house where you grew up and park where you proposed.

We did that once, the first time we moved to Asia. After three years we returned to Canada to have our first child, and then we did it again. After another two years in China we returned to Canada a second time for the birth of our second child. And now we’re back in China for the third time.

The return trips to China after each birth were harder than the first time we left. Taking your children away from their grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, Sunday school friends (never mind all the grass and trees and oceans and lakes and air) hurts.

You realize more what you’re doing when you’re also doing it to your kid.

There’re others you leave behind, too: coworkers, people you don’t like, people you have a grudge against. And there’s the nasty bonus surprise: returning to your culture of origin (like our friend Rob) after a long time away is often harder than leaving your original home ever was in the first place. Not only are you leaving behind so many friends and places and memories, but “home” has changed since you left, and so have you, and it won’t feel the same. Much of the familiarity you’re expectantly anticipating never materializes. But this post isn’t about entry or re-entry; it’s about leaving.

Regardless of which direction you’re going, the experience of leaving so much behind is huge whether you take the time to acknowledge it or not. And how you leave it can have a big impact on you personal development, on the kind of people you and your lover and your kids are becoming. This experience impacts all of you, and some ways of intentionally navigating the experience are healthier than others.

We received some great advice about how to do cross-cultural transitions before our most recent move back to China, advice we tried out a little bit in the months before we left, and we think it’s worth sharing. I wish we’d put more of it into practice than we did. It’s called “building a R.A.F.T.” and comes from chapter 13 of Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (pages 200-204 in our 2001 edition). Below is my summary/paraphrase/riff of what they wrote.

Building a R.A.F.T.

You’ll see quickly that this process takes some forethought and planning ahead; put it off ’til the last two weeks and you’ll likely not have enough opportunities. You’ll also notice that it’s something for every family member to do, not just the adults.

Closure matters. Festering bitterness matters. Making peace matters. Emotional baggage matters. Guilt and regrets matter. Forgiving and being forgiven matter, and that’s what reconciliation is all about. Reconciliation means growing up. It means attempting to communicate hurts and forgiveness, and initiate apologies.

A cross-cultural move presents a tempting cop-out: to run away and ignore strained or broken relationships. But refusing to resolve interpersonal conflicts sabotages healthy closure, and this lack of reconciliation sabotages the rest of your “RAFT” — the rest of your transition and entry/re-entry experience. You can’t really move away from these kinds of difficulties anyway; you’ll carry the emotional baggage of unresolved problems with you. Bitterness is unhealthy, unresolved relational issues can interfere with new relationships, and if/when you eventually move back, those problems will still be there, and they’ll be even harder to resolve.

A cross-cultural move also provides a great excuse, if you need one, for attempting to make peace: “Hey, I’m leaving for China for who knows how long, and I don’t want to leave a mess between us…” or however you need to do it.

You can’t always achieve reconciliation, of course, because it takes two willing parties. But you can always attempt it, and at least own up to the part of the relationship you’re responsible for. In our recent personal experience we found that the attempt is worth it whether the other side engages or not.

Think through your list of friends, coworkers, supervisors, neighbours, classmates. Do more than just say goodbye. Affirm people; let them know you respect and appreciate them, acknowledge that they matter. This is good for them and for you: it strengthens your relationships into the future and makes you more aware of what you’ve gained from living in the place you’re leaving. Pollock and Van Reken illustrate with some examples:

  • Make time to tell coworkers that you enjoyed working with them.
  • Tell friends how their friendship has been important, and maybe leave them some sort of memento.
  • Send a note and small gift to neighbours, mentioning positive things about your interactions with them.
  • Reassure those close to you of your love for them and that you don’t leave them lightly. Order flowers for the day after you leave.

Affirmation helps with closure by acknowledging the blessings you have in the form of relationships, and mourning their passing.

Making farewells to people, places, and possessions helps avoid deep regrets later. Schedule ahead so that you won’t end up missing anyone or anywhere or any thing that was in any way significant, and make a real ‘official’ farewell to each. It’s a time to acknowledge all the positive things and feelings, and acknowledge that it’s sad to leave each person and thing behind.

People - this is crucial, even more so for children, who will need guidance. You want to say and do something, make some sort of gesture like baking cookies or writing a note, that acknowledges the importance of that person to you, expresses thanks, and lets them know they will be missed.

Some sort of “rite of passage” ritual often accompanies major life transitions like graduation or retirement parties. Taking the time to do something similar in spirit creates a significant memory acknowledging the importance of a person or place, and helps face and process the fact that you’re leaving them.

Places - Visit emotionally significant sites to reminisce and say goodbye. Everything from the tree you loved climbing to the park where you got engaged. Some people plant a tree, or hide some little treasure that they could dig up later if they ever return. The point is to openly acknowledge the time as a true goodbye, admitting that the stage of life these places represent will soon be in the past.

Possessions - You have to leave a lot of stuff behind in international moves. Certainly, adults and kids have to learn about letting go, and we all have too much stuff anyway, but everyone should talk over what to take and what to leave behind. It’s also important to deliberately choose and take what become “sacred objects”, a slowly growing collection of physical objects that connect the different places and stages of your life. When important objects must be left behind, try giving them as gifts to a friend and taking photographs. Jessica and I have a Christmas tree ornament (or something we use as one) from most of the significant places in our life together. Every year we can remember.

In addition to all her teachers and ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, we had our three-year-old say good-bye to her classrooms, playground, the lake where she swam all summer, places we visited regularly, her bedrooms, toys she was leaving behind, parks we often walked in, and a bunch of other stuff. And we took pictures of it all. This gave us plenty of opportunity to verbalize what was happening then and later after we’d returned to China. It helped all of us put words to the experience and mourn all that we were losing in a healthy way.

Think Destination
During the goodbye process, start shifting gears mentally, reorienting your thinking to the near future: you’re arrival and adjustment in a new place. Think realistically: identify positives and negatives and differences about your destination. List problems you’ll likely encounter. Make a list of your coping resources, both external (finances, support people you can lean on) and internal (your ability and methods of dealing with the stress of change).

Thinking ahead and identifying these things helps make the transition much less rockier than it could be. Forming realistic expectations helps avoid disappointment (from too high expectations) and makes sure you don’t miss out on available resources (due to too low expectations). You aren’t mentally and emotionally leaving so much behind in order to go nowhere; every step away from what you’re leaving can be a step toward what you’re gaining.

Related stuff:


This scene at the Temple of the Empress of Heaven 天后 (aka 妈祖) this weekend reminded me that, in China, we’re “special”, and that being special in China is a mixed bag:

(Click to view larger image.).

The picture doesn’t do the scene justice; there were a lot more people around before I managed to get the camera up and clicking. Similar but better pictures from Tianjin are here:

Foreigners are “special” in China, and they tend to both love and hate it. One the one hand, what’s not to love about being special? We get preferential treatment. We’re always the guests. Our mistakes are more easily excused. Supply-and-demand means we have multiple times more leverage than our Chinese coworkers and our salaries and other aspects of compensation reflect it. Guys who rank 2 out of 10 in their home country can find girlfriends with minimal effort. You walk down the street and literally turn heads because you’re special.

On the other hand, there’s the constant “othering” — the staring, the photos, the zoo animal feeling, the “hellooo!”s and “laowai!”s, the invasion of personal space and boundaries, the realization that you aren’t respected but rather just interesting or useful, the daily distancing and reminders that “you’re not one of us and don’t really belong here.”

Foreigners routinely gripe about the negatives while enjoying the positives. It’s a mixed bag that most of us have never faced before coming here, and it’s already on you and affecting you before you’re even aware. Add to that the culture stress (or shock) cycles that everyone experiences, and it can be an emotionally volatile mix. And having foreign children amplifies everything by 10.

Other than being more alert than I used to be (because we have kids now and not all attention is friendly or benign), I mostly just smile and wave and be friendly, even if people are crossing my culture’s personal space boundaries. We tell our oldest daughter she doesn’t have to let people take her picture if she doesn’t want them to, or talk to anyone she doesn’t want to, and we run interference for her if that’s what she wants, while trying to give her a gracious, friendly example. The vast majority of the time, in my experience, foreigners make a much bigger deal of it than it really is.

But then again, I don’t have bright blond long hair. Our friend Shannon (who does have long blond hair) moved back to the U.S. after 3.5 years and wrote “Hero to Zero” about her cultural re-entry stress experience in which she discovered that, in America, she isn’t special anymore.

Unwanted attention can be difficult to handle, positive or not. But as difficult as it can be at the time, all things considered, it’s a small price to pay for existing as the economically privileged minority on this globe. Plus, a lot of the associated stress foreigners bring on themselves. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to bat people’s fingers out of my kids’ mouths on the Beijing subway. ;)

The Peace of Spring Festival (is over)

Peace is not an association anyone has with Chinese New Year in China. Insane amounts of fireworks for days and nights on end is what people associate with Spring Festival in China. And forget that stereotype of the quiet, mild-mannered Chinaman. China is loud. Chinese are loud. But let me explain.

Fireworks aside (I know, it’s a big ‘aside’), our neighbourhood was silent until today. Because so many people were gone back to their hometowns. They say 9.5 million people left Beijing for the holidays. Our neighbourhood was like a miniature version of that. The place felt virtually empty. All week there’ve been no cars honking. No people yelling outside our windows. Almost like Canada.

But our napping daughters were just woken up by both honking and people yelling. And then I remembered: today is the day most people go back to work. The neighbours have returned. All the extra fireworks this morning were businesses opening. Spring Festival continues but the holiday is over. And so is naptime, at least for today.

Racism in Vancouver, Canada and my ESL student’s experience

It started with an unengaged substitute teacher, escalated with white kids throwing unprovoked juice boxes and insults at the Chinese kids, peaked with a fistfight between one of my Chinese tutoring students and two local black kids, and ended (hopefully) with a two-day suspension from school. My student ended up with a long, nasty scratch across his shoulder and chest.

I get that cafeteria scuffles will happen, and that race is only one factor among many and perhaps not even the main one. But the local students were swearing at the ESL kids in Chinese — they’ve been around Chinese classmates enough to pick up the swear words. It’s his first semester in Canada, but it’s not the first time he’s been randomly accosted for being Chinese. Getting cursed at in your own language by passing locals seems to me to be a little bit worse than having random Chinese people yell “老外!” at you.

Since we’re back in Vancouver, Canada for a few months I’ve picked up some ESL tutoring students. This one, like many, came to Vancouver to finish high school because his parents knew he wouldn’t do well on the 高考, the Chinese college entrance exam. He’s in a grade 11 ESL program at a local public school, with generally poor English, and it’s interesting to hear him relate his fight at school yesterday from a second-language, only partially-understood perspective (for example, he knows he was being taunted and challenged but doesn’t know exactly what they said to him, aside from the Chinese swear words). But it also makes me rethink about the experiences of Chinese students in Canadian schools. I don’t want to imagine what kind of impression he and his mom are getting.

I assume that my white majority perspective, growing up and being educated in a multicultural environment, maybe gives me a rosier-than-reality view of the current Asian Canadian racial experience in Vancouver. I’m not accusing Vancouverites of being exceptionally racist; although I think we’re generally much less civilized than we think we are, it was just one schoolyard scuffle, and I didn’t notice any racism when I was a white student among a large minority of Indians and Asians. But incidents like that of my student yesterday start me wondering if perhaps some of the sunshine and rainbows of our multicultural utopia shine a little less brightly for the immigrants and international students than they do for us in the white majority.

More about Asian Canadian and ESL student experiences:

About racism in China:

Belatedly starting to understand my Asian Canadian high school classmates

Greater Hongkouver is loaded with Asians. There’s the “University of Brilliant Chinese” (UBC), and it has the fastest way to get from India to China (the Alex Fraser Bridge). There are two Chinatowns, and whole shopping malls that are 100%-Chinese-language-English-is-absolutely-unnecessary (we’ve gone there to practice Chinese). The parents of Taiwanese kids I’ve tutored complain that their kids speak Chinese all day at their Canadian public high school. Even 500 years ago when I was in high school, I had no shortage of Korean and Chinese classmates (most of us couldn’t tell them apart, at least I know I couldn’t!).

Of my high school classmates (small high school, 50 kids in my graduating class), I can specifically remember five who, while certainly Asian and from Asian families, fit in well with the rest of us. I didn’t consciously talk or relate to them any differently, though I remember once or twice one girl getting annoyed if someone thought she was Chinese: “I’m Korean!” she’d emphatically reply in 100% native-speaker English (sorry, Jennie! ;) ). But aside from those five, our class also had a small group of Asian girls who, from my perspective at the time, were nearly invisible. They were the quietest and most unobtrusive students in our class; they kept to themselves and I can’t remember them ever speaking up in class. I have memories of coming up the stairs, seeing them huddled together by the lockers, but never talking loud enough to be heard.

I recently read Yell-Oh Girls! by Vickie Nam (ed.), 2001, a book of essays by Asian American high school and college freshman girls where they talk about their experience of growing up as TCKs (though they don’t use that term). There’s one particular essay that really made me think of my old classmates, especially that group of quiet girls; I wonder how much this essay does or doesn’t resonate with their experience. It’s unfair in the sense that it compares American cultural ideals to the worst side of particular aspects of East Asian cultures, from the view of a teenager, but it’s still an eye-opening read. You can read the whole essay and more at this googlebooks link. Here’s an excerpt:

“Identity Crisis” by Michelle Chang, 17.

Being Taiwanese American is supposed to give me all the benefits of two rich, vastly different cultures, when in reality, every cultural influence from either side makes it impossible for me to be accepted by the other. Everyone who is Taiwanese considers me American. Everyone American considers me Taiwanese. It’s like standing with one foot planted on the side of a crack that continually widens with time. For every time I thought I actually belonged to either side, there have been five times when I’ve felt entirely lost, bereft, and on my own. When I begin to feel comfortable in one environment, something brings me back to reality. I don’t fit in anywhere.

“Do your parents encourage you to speak your opinions?”

I sit listening to the teacher in an orange chair in the warm classroom, half asleep from yesterday’s grueling six-hour gymnastics workout. Leaning over the desk with my head down in my arms, I try not to attract attention to myself; I am content to listen to, but not participate in, the discussion of a book. Slightly interested, I hoist my head up to watch the other students’ reactions. Of course, the ones whose parents have encouraged them to form opinionated minds are the first to respond.

Someone answers, confidently, “My parents were extremely oppressed and not allowed to voice their opinion, so they try to encourage me to always say what I think.”

Well, then, that was profound, safe, and politically correct. Intelligent, creative, thoughtful answers like these scream, I’m trying my hardest to let you know that I see everyone as an individual and I know that everyone is equal. Their preposterous self-righteousness makes me want to laugh, but instead, I put my head back on the desk and close my eyes.

I consider the question, too, but what could I say?

“Well, actually—no, not really. My parents’ opinions were suppressed; therefore, they silence mine as part of traditional Asian beliefs. I supposedly have no opinion, because as my parents’ daughter, I have no right to an opinion.” Besides, according to my parents, it’s not right to talk about personal, family matters. And now I’m wide-awake. My teacher’s question has reminded me once again of my inner conflict: I don’t belong here or there.
The generation gap that separates teens from their parents makes communications difficult; in my case, it’s more than twice as bad, not only because my parents are extremely conservative, but because they’re extremely conservative for even for Taiwanese parents. They seem to think that they can raise us exactly the way their parents raised them in Taiwan; the fact that we’re living in the United States a quarter century later apparently means nothing to them. Even though I was born here, I go to school here, and I spend eleven months of every year here, I’m supposed to be 100 percent Taiwanese. Clearly, it doesn’t work, and it’s obvious that I don’t belong in Taiwan. Regardless, they continue to try to make me into something I’m not.

Imagine being unable to lock (or even close) your door for any reason, ever. Imagine being punished for listening to WILD 94.9 radio, not because of the sex and violence contained in the lyrics, but because the music is a sign of how “American” you’ve become. Imagine being treated as if you were less important in the family because you are a girl and because your last name will be lost when you marry. Imagine having to listen constantly to sexist, racist or homophobic ranting and getting punished for expressing an opposing viewpoint. Imagine a place where staying silent when you disagree is not enough; you must vocally agree and submit to their power. Imagine having to follow a course of action that will lead you nowhere, simply because your elders are always right—even when they’re wrong. Imagine living in constant fear of being disowned by your family were you to do something wrong. Imagine having you entire life plotted out for you without your opinion or consent. Any deviation from a prescribed path is impossible.

Imagine all this, living in a country supposedly built on liberty and equality for all, while going to school in a supposedly open-minded environment, where independent thought is encouraged. The home environment inevitably has an impact on everything else, especially school. For instance, how can I participate in class and present opposing views when it’s expected that, at home, I shouldn’t have an opinion at all? How can I choose my own classes, my own path, make my own decisions, when my parents have already made them for me?

Living in the U.S. has instilled me with more American than Taiwanese values; I think we should develop strong, personal opinions and foster creativity. I believe in freedom, equality, and nondiscrimination, wherever these issues might be problematic. Unfortunately, for me, my parents have been more successful than they know in inscribing certain Taiwanese values ideas in me. I feel uncomfortable talking to anyone about my personal problems, or even presenting my own ideas. I’m never happy with anything less than perfection. I see things skewed through the window of my own experiences…

If you’re interested in reading more about Chinese American and Asian American identity, I found these worth reading for the cross-cultural angle:

On the blog, there’s more about Vancouver, our own reverse-culture-shock experiences, raising a foreign kid in China, and Chinese parenting