If China confuses adult foreigners, what about their kids?

Jessica and our oldest had this conversation this morning:

L: “Mommy, do you remember when you were talking about how Daddy was born in the horse’s ears?”
Jessica: “What? Can you say that again?”
L: “The horse’s ears…Daddy was born there. And you said that I went to the hospital and was born in the cow’s ears.”
Jessica: “Are you telling silly stories again, L?”
L: “Mommy, no! You said it!!! I was born in the ear of the cow!!!”
Jessica (pieces finally colliding together): “Oh! L, I said you were born in the YEAR of the cow. And Daddy was born in the YEAR of the sheep. And Mommy was born in the YEAR of the horse. And K was born in the YEAR of the dragon.”
L: “Are you sure I wasn’t born in the cow’s ear?”

A then a few minutes later from L: “Are there really dragons?”

For more stuff along these lines, try these topics:

kinpagoda If China confuses adult foreigners, what about their kids?

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.

20110629 02 How to do cross cultural transitions right: Build a RAFT

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.

tckcover How to do cross cultural transitions right: Build a RAFTYou’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.

Reconciliation
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.

Affirmation
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.

Farewells
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.

20110629 101 How to do cross cultural transitions right: Build a RAFT

Related stuff:

So you want to make a difference in China?

Good luck. ;)

scalping2 So you want to make a difference in China?honking2 So you want to make a difference in China?

Here are four quotes from three different centuries. The first three come from Jonathan Spence‘s To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960 (1969).

spencechangechina So you want to make a difference in China?Jonathan Spence on education in 19th century China:

It was particularly hard for a foreigner to enter the educational sector. To the Chinese, education was the key to social harmony and political stability: from the Confucian Classics, hallowed by a tradition reaching back over two thousand years, the young learned obedience, morality, and the norms of acceptable behaviour. On the basis of their study of the Classics, they participated in ascending levels of examinations for the civil service. Success in these examinations opened up prospects for a career in government, the major source of wealth and power. To introduce new subjects — such as Western philosophy, languages, or natural science — was to threaten the basis of the Chinese state. Innovation, accordingly, was vigorously resisted. [Spence, 129]

FryerJohn So you want to make a difference in China?John Fryer, missionary/educator/translator employed by the Qing dynasty, on learning Chinese:

It was all a question of time and tenacity: “Most foreigners who come to China have the notion that in a year they will master the language. They get a teacher, and pound away vigorously for a week or perhaps a month and then give up in disgust.” Accordingly, they made ludicrous mistakes which negated all their endeavors. He told his cousin of hearing a missionary in Shanghai trying to tell his Chinese audience that “Jesus is here also”; the missionary, muddling his tones and aspirates, succeeded only in assuring the puzzled listeners that “Jesus is inside shaving his head.” “If I could have my way, not a single missionary should say one word in public till he had lived with the people and studied the local dialect of his mission station at least five years, and passed an examination. Just imagine the ridicule which such people bring to Christianity.” [Spence, 145]

Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s man in China,” on his failure:

I came to China to fight for an idea. The dream of accomplishing world revolution by freeing the people of the East brought me here. But China itself, with its age-old history, its countless millions, its vast social problems, its infinite capacities, astounded and overwhelmed me, and my thoughts of world revolution and the fight for freedom, in China became an end in itself, and no longer a means to an end. My task was to grasp the situation, to start the great wheel moving, and as time has passed it has carried me along with it. I myself have become only a cog in the great machine. [Spence, 202]

borodin3 So you want to make a difference in China?

BBC commentator Martin Jacques on understanding China (quoted by Dr. Brent Fulton of ChinaSource.org):

Last year Martin Jacques, a BBC commentator, put it well when he said, “The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China – not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.”

jailbird So you want to make a difference in China?

(And of course we have lots more quotes and reviews of China Books and DVDs.)

“A pile of loose sand” and civic consciousness in China

Read Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China (2004). Plenty of important insights to be gained from this book, particularly since “evil cults” have been in the news again and Johnson does a great job illustrating why and how certain groups can be so brutally persecuted. A related insight that I find interesting is the challenge of developing “civic consciousness” among ordinary Chinese.

“A pile of loose sand” and the lack of Chinese civic consciousness
In the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen famously referred to the Chinese as “a pile of loose sand” and apparently saw nationalism as the solution:

For the most part the four hundred million Chinese can be spoken of as completely Han Chinese with common customs and habits. We are completely of one race. But in the world today, what position do we occupy? Compared to the other peoples of the world we have the greatest population and our civilization is four thousand years old; we should therefore be advancing in rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.

That was almost a century ago. Today, China suffers from nationalism overload, yet the same lack of civic consciousness still plagues domestic China. Consider these comments from award-winning journalist Ian Johnson describing late-90’s China:

wildgrass A pile of loose sand and civic consciousness in ChinaA friend of mine liked to argue . . . [that] the crackdown showed that Chinese actually didn’t care much about each other or the discrepancy in what they saw and what the [authorities] did. There was no solidarity with the persecuted, unless they were family members or personal friends. It was like the traffic accidents that one sees in big Chinese cities — crowds gather only to stare; almost no one stops to help. No wonder [the authorities] could hold on to power so easily, he said. It doesn’t have to divide and conquer its enemies; they are divided of their own accord. I had to agree with him, because I rarely encountered a person who got really angry about the way [the authorities] treated [the persecuted] adherents. While some far-thinking people saw the campaign as unjustified and cruel, most simply shrugged and wondered why people bothered to stand up for something they believed in. Concerned with their daily struggles, they couldn’t understand why [the persecuted] believers insisted on exercising publicly. “Why not just exercise in the living room?” was the most common response I got when I asked about the repression… [pp. 288-289].

For more about the specific persecuted group referred to above and a similar group, see these links:

Cross-cultural living and the desire to be intimately known

Guest post! Cindy is one of the very few 100% fully bi-cultural people I’ve ever known. She originally wrote this in Facebook, and after reading it I asked to repost it here. I think it connects powerfully with everyone, especially those of us who live far from home, and most especially with Third-Culture Kids who aren’t really sure where ‘home’ is.

Let’s get to know each other

by Cindy
I had a conversation with my girlfriend about the hypothetical situation of whether we should remarry if our husbands died. I know my married girlfriends have had this conversation too, don’t deny it people. Her response was how hard it would be to have to get to know another person as intimately all over again.

Truly one of the greatest gifts in relationships is to be understood by another person. And trusting you will be accepted and loved in spite of the intimate knowledge. However, the process from acquaintance to intimacy takes time. It takes time to tell stories, to react to circumstances in life, to laugh and cry together, to argue and disagree, and then to make up. These experiences build layers of trust and loyalty and compose the patches of material that make up friendship. Through time we weave our lives together and enter together into the depth of relationship that allow us to be known by one another. And we are created to long for that depth. To be deeply known.

The trouble is, then we move. We pick up and move to another town. Or in my case, across the freakin’ ocean. I grew up in a small school where my friends were like my brothers and sisters. We were that small and that close. At graduation we scattered literally all over the world. Our new communities didn’t know our collective history and we had to start over from scratch with the storytelling and the laughing and crying and all that relationship building stuff. Then we’d move again. And start all over again. It’s no wonder people who are forced to move around a lot, like military families, have intimacy issues. It’s simply too exhausting.

Each time we enter a new community, that new place shapes us, molding us into someone different. When I left Wheaton, I was starting to question some of the conservative elements of my beliefs. Fuller helped introduce a broader spectrum of theology and how to incorporate doubt and criticism into a vibrant faith. In a sense, there was a Morrison Cindy, a Wheaton Cindy, a Fuller Cindy, a China Cindy, and a back-to-Taiwan Cindy. As time went on, the world changed and so did I. In the moving river of life, people who stepped in along the way journeyed with me downstream without the knowledge of who I was before I became who I am. Like a diamond, we can only reflect light off of one surface at a time even though we are made out of many facets.

The potential for misunderstanding is alarming. In our limited perspective, it’s too easy to make judgments regarding a person’s comments without a fuller understanding of their background. Wheaton Cindy would be appalled at some of the theological slants of back-to-Taiwan Cindy, and Chinese Cindy cannot hardly stand American Cindy most of the time. The complexities of our biological, cultural, mental, and spiritual identities is what fuels the psycho-therapy economy. And yet there exists inside of me the desire to be wholly known. The impossibility of somebody understanding the nuances of every past experience, every hat I wear, every idea and action and word I exhibit, doesn’t stop me from trying.

So I tell stories. I share my reaction when stuff happens. I laugh and cry. I argue and disagree. And I make up. Then I listen, not only to stories but to the stories behind the stories. I try not to jump to conclusions about people because I don’t know where they’ve been upstream. I look for the other faces of the diamond that make up each person I encounter because seeing only one side is not satisfying. I lean deep into the relationships around me to know and be known. It’s what I was created for.

I’m Cindy. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s get to know each other, shall we?

Lying, “Lying” and Mainland China [Updated 2x]

“Lying” isn’t just a cross-cultural communication pot-hole between Chinese and Euro-Americans, it’s a crater. Conflicting communication styles result in Westerners sometimes thinking their Chinese counterparts are lying even when they actually have no intention of deceiving anyone. The Americans get the (long-standing) impression that the Chinese are devious and deceptive, while the Chinese, who weren’t intending to deceive anyone and were merely being polite and gracious, are annoyed to no end at the simplistic and judgmental Americans.

But there’s another side to Mainland Chinese society, where ethics are simply a non-factor in decision making. Mainland Chinese lie and deceive reflexively in many aspects of their daily lives and relationships; it’s routine, accepted, expected and generally considered unavoidable. If you’re straight, honest and genuine, people will think you’re simple, naive and stupid. Corruption is endemic in every layer of society, and it is common for it to taint thesis papers, resumes and job applications, personal ads, and communication between spouses, parents and children, employees and employers, clients and suppliers, etc.

factory girls Lying, Lying and Mainland China [Updated 2x]This is the China revealed Factory Girls: the post-Communist, unapologetically amoral, full-on materialistic free-for-all China. It’s a social world where everyone seems to automatically, reflexively lie all the time about everything to everyone else, including parents, boyfriends, coworkers, bosses, clients, employees and potential spouses. This is deliberate deception, not mere non-literal communication. Here’s one of many examples:

Married men who pretended not to be were the number-one dating hazard of Dongguan… In a place where people lied reflexively for work, deception naturally seeped into personal relationships. Lying was often the pragmatic choice because it got you what you wanted. Eventually your lies might catch up with you, but few people thought that far ahead.

Chunming had her own rules for such affairs. No one should get hurt, and neither side should make demands. “Of course, I’d like to find the right person and get married,” she told me. “But since I haven’t, it’s fine to be with someone you don’t love. You can still enjoy your time together. You can still rest your head on his shoulder when you’re tired and feel a sense of security.” [p.350]

So Mainland China presents outsiders with a cross-cultural communication double-whammy: a relatively high reliance on nonverbal, “high-context” communication, and generations of people raised in a corruption-saturated society in which deception is routine. You can find both aspects of Chinese “lying” in the posts below:

  • Caging a Monster (by Murong Xuecun)
    “In my country, there is a strange system that rewards liars, and with the passage of time, people have become accustomed to lying. People lie as naturally as they breathe, to the point that lying has become a virtue.
    [...]
    “In this system, people only care about short-term profits. In this system, not following the rules is the rule, and unscrupulous means are the only means in government and business so only the dirtiest players emerge victorious. In this system, everyone is a criminal so no one needs to repent.”
  • Chinese “Lies That Bind” (Frog in a Well)
    “because they live in closer and longer lived groups, Chinese are more focused on the social consequences of a statement than its literal truth. [...] these differences cut two ways. To be “free” or “independent” can also be “irresponsible,” “lonely,” or “selfish.” What Chinese call “harmony” can be “conformity” or “repression.” American “straight talk” can be childish, reckless, or self-righteous, and Chinese “sweet talk” can cover up realities until they fester.”
  • Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends… (The Lingua Franca)
    “In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.”
  • Dumb Americans (Seeing Red in China)
    To many Chinese, Americans don’t have xin-yan (心眼, meaning, literally, eyes of the mind; or figuratively, calculating, wily), they trust what you say, and they believe you are doing what you say you are doing. For that, they are dumb.

    …to speak your mind straightforwardly, to defend your position forcefully, and to uphold what you believe without compromise, are all signs of childishness. A lot of Americans, alas, fill that bill.

  • Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them? (China Hope Live)
    “Interpersonal communication ‘with Chinese characteristics’: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication”
  • To “lie” or not to “lie” (China Hope Live)
    “If you stop to think about it, there a tons of common situations in English where we use words to mean what they don’t actually literally say, but to us it’s “obvious” in those situations what the intended meaning really is. Our delivery, the context, and our non-verbals all speak quite loudly and quite clearly, so clearly that we would never think of such instances as “lies.” Sarcasm is only one kind of example.”
  • Free Advice – for you and your Chinese friends (China Hope Live)
    “If you’re a Westerner with Chinese friends, or a Chinese person with Western friends, you probably ought to read this. It’s from the end of Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, which is co-authored by a Chinese and a Western scholar and easily the single best-all-around book I’ve read on the subject so far. They should force-feed it to all China-bound Westerners, in my opinion.”

The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto

 The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghettoAside from personal motivations, character, attitude, and general posture toward China and Chinese people, this is the one decision that enhanced our China experience more than any other single thing we did during our first two years in China: we moved out of the foreigner ghetto and into the most average-looking Chinese neighbourhood we could find.

(If what follows starts to sound culturally patronizing, just hold on… I saved that part for the end.)

Welcome to China! the Foreign Bubble

When we first arrived in China with next-to-no Mandarin or knowledge of our city, the organization that helped arrange our visas and school placement also arranged our apartment: we had a prearranged flat in a complex occupied entirely by foreigners where the manager had good English (back in the day this was the only place foreigners were allowed to live in Tianjin). It was super convenient, especially for China newbies who are usually high-maintenance. From the standpoint of an organization facilitating foreigners’ language school placement it was ideal. But for foreigners interested in China and Chinese, it sucked.

Ditching the Laowai Ghetto: hunting apartments armed with Chinglish

We’d come to China to study language and culture, and we’d decided before we even arrived that we’d be moving out of “洋人街” ASAP. It was inconvenient for language practice, and besides, going to a foreign country and living unnecessarily isolated from your new city’s regular people seemed really lame. So after about two months of classes we took a vocabulary list of apartment words, a map, and went and squinted at the scrawled 汉字 on the papers tacked to boards outside the little first-floor rental agencies tucked away in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

We knew what we wanted: an average neighbourhood (“average” as defined by locals, not foreigners) with a lot of outdoor community life and an apartment we could tolerate and that our neighbours, teachers, and local friends wouldn’t feel strange in. Surely, we thought, that isn’t too much to ask. Foreigners from one of the international schools told us we wouldn’t find “anything” (read: “livable”) for twice the price of what we eventually paid (also twice the price of what they said was the average Tianjin salary). We went with what our teachers told us instead, quickly realizing that foreigners can spend years in China and still know next-to-nothing about it.

 The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto

Of course it was awkward pointing at a circle on a map and mispronouncing vocab words to rental agents who had maybe never talked face-to-face with a foreigner in their lives, but we managed to have three apartments shown to us. I wanted the first one, but the landlord balked when he discovered we were foreigners (that’s when we learned what “他有事” really means). The third location was perfect — better than we’d hoped. We incurred some 关系 debt because we had to ask a local friend (the boyfriend of a fellow foreigner) for a big favour to come with us to the contract negotiation and signing. It went smoothly, so we borrowed an electric 三轮车 and moved in.

The Benefits: people, people, people

Rather than bring local Tianjiners into our cultural space, we wanted to meet them in their own world where they were more comfortable. The single biggest benefit that living in this kind of neighbourhood gave us was exponentially increasing our daily opportunities for interaction with average, mainstream locals more on their turf than ours. We couldn’t come or go without speaking to someone, and usually more than one. The old boys club that hung out on the bike repair corner regularly included me in their Chinese chess, outdoor meals, and teasing. Families would invite us into their homes on the various big holidays. The only person we met in that neighbourhood in two years who had any amount of English — besides one charming but mentally handicapped man who would yell “I love you!” at us — was a university student three floors down who became a language exchange partner. It was a laid back but crowded, active community where language practice opportunities with everyone from laid-off factory workers to university professors were immediately available in excess of what we could handle. Those neighbours taught us more about China and made China more interesting, alive, and lovable to us than any books or classes ever could. Even on the worst days, we never regretted our decision to live there.

 The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto

A few months after moving in our teachers, in their more candid moments, would sometimes confess that they felt extra awkward and distanced when visiting their foreign friends’ apartments for two big reasons. First, the furniture, decor, food, and even the way they were received as guests all felt foreign. Second, although the foreigners were taking a step down in living standards, to the Chinese their apartments just screamed wealth and economic privilege. In addition to the unavoidable language and cultural barriers, these foreigners, through their lifestyle choices, were emphasizing another gulf of distance between themselves and local Chinese: economic disparity.

The Downside: our economic elitism

The economic privilege in which most of us were raised (speaking globally here) gets us in two big ways. The first is largely practical, physical, external. The second is intensely personal.

Physical Annoyances & Inconveniences
My mother would be appalled if she saw that apartment. The whitewash was peeling and rubbed off on your clothes. The kitchen was the size of a closet. The toilet was in the shower and the exposed plumbing both precarious and temperamental. The sewer gas that came up the drains in the evenings smelled so bad it woke us up at night until we devised an overly complicated water-bottle-in-a-plastic-bag-hung-from-a-nail method for mostly-sealing the bathroom drain (plumbers don’t do U-bends in Tianjin).  The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghettoThe windows let all the coal dust in and the layout of the place didn’t make sense to us. The electricity often shorted out and we had long extension cords running everywhere. There was only enough hot water in the winter for fast showers. I wore a toque to bed the week before they turned on the heat. In the words of younger versions of my little sisters: it was totally ghetto. But we would choose to live there again, no question. It was totally worth it. That apartment was slightly better or slightly worse than those of our neighbours, depending on the neighbours, and close enough to what they knew that our Chinese friends and neighbours felt much less awkward when they visited than they might have otherwise. I mention these things to give fair warning: if you aim to move into an average Chinese neighbourhood chances are you’ll be getting an average Chinese apartment. Count the cost, because not all foreigners are willing to pay it. Also, the neighbourhood and apartment described here, while unremarkable for that district of Tianjin, is still probably well above average for most places in China.

Uncomfortable Personal Discoveries
(Warning: confession/soap box/rant/sermon ahead.)
Whether it’s right or not, what’s a huge step down in living standards for the average foreigner is normal for the average Mainlander. If that embarrassing, awkward and unfair economic truth makes you feel uncomfortable and maybe even vaguely guilty, I promise I know how you feel, but I don’t apologize for bringing it up. That’s what we get for being the economically elite six percent of an otherwise much-less-privileged world. Keeping the hoi polloi at a distance so that we’re less poignantly reminded of this stark economic reality and our consciences are less likely to be called out does not make it any less real — but living in an average urban Chinese neighbourhood makes it harder to avoid.

If you’re a thinking, reflective person at all then living significantly below the comforts you’re accustomed to brings special challenges.  The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghettoBasically, you begin to discover how much of a pampered, manicured, whiny, elitist snob you are who has tragically confused unwarranted privileges with basic entitlements. When you get genuinely frustrated and upset about how sub-standard everything is, then you can enjoy the guilt that comes with realizing that you can’t handle what’s more than good enough for most of the world; for thinking that living more like the majority of the world is such a big sacrifice for which you should get some sort of multiculturalism medal. And when you’re in a good mood and those physical inconveniences aren’t annoying you as much as they would the average foreigner, then you can hate yourself for actually feeling proud of the fact that you deigned to lower your living standard closer to that of the global average, for thinking you’re better than all those other foreigners, and — last but certainly not least — for being so patronizing to the local Chinese.

The silver lining, I guess, is that living this way also creates ample opportunity to contemplate lifestyles that respectfully transcend economic divisions while still being honest about who we are and acting morally with our affluence given the economic disparity in the world… Anyway, that’s a big tangent I maybe should have saved for another post, but it’s part of our experience, so I’m leaving it in.

Gearing up for Location #2

That old apartment with its neighbourhood comes to mind today because right at the moment friends in Tianjin are securing an apartment for us for when we arrive in a couple weeks (we had to let the old one go when we left for Canada). When friends are doing us this huge favour we obviously don’t want to be picky, and with the baby we won’t be as mobile or tolerant/flexible as we were before. I’m also only on a year-long contract, so I don’t know how likely we’ll be to move after we arrive. The photos they sent make this second apartment look several notches above the first. I guess we’ll see…

Fun Chinese Apartment & Neighbourhood-related Posts:

Related “Living in China” posts: