Little laowai, big Chinese market — Qingdao, China

Chinese market laowaiOur daughter on one of the bridges crossing Licunji 李村集,Qingdao’s biggest traditional market.

friendly Chinese marketIt’s a friendly crowd, but not overly so. Foreigners almost never come here, but we draw very little attention.

Cross-Cultural Perspective 101: the feeling is mutual

It’s a matter of perspective, you see:

“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.

More about where to poo:

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.

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

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 my host country.”

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.

Foreign Baby in Tianjin Pt. 2 — a rock star in the family

Have we ever seen this woman before? Nope. And did she just come up, start touching our kid’s face and try to make her smile? Of course!

This is routine whenever we take L out for walks. A friendly stranger or two (or ten) will often stop to try and make her smile, and that often involves touching. Younger people like the girl in these photos tend to be gentler than middle-aged and older women, at least in our experience. We have some neighbourhood committee ladies who talk so loud when they’re trying to get a reaction out of L that they make her scared; they pretty much yell in her face, but not intentionally — that’s just how they talk all day long. Those kinds of folks also tend to play a little rougher with the way the pinch legs and touch cheeks.

Obviously we don’t let the general public manhandle our daughter, but since it’s so expected that any friendly person can play with a stranger’s baby, and since “foreign dolls” (洋娃娃) are such an attraction, we try to be as accommodating as we can while still protecting L. As you can see, she likes it sometimes.

I’ve only had to directly physically block someone’s hand once, when a woman who honestly looked like a KTV prostitute tried to stick her finger in L’s mouth on the Beijing subway. People don’t understand when you bat their fingers away, but there’s no way I’m letting random people stick there fingers in our daughter’s mouth, regardless of whether or not they’re dressed like a xiÇŽojiÄ› (小姐)! Same goes for anyone who seems like they might be too rough. I use as much finesse and tact as I can, of course (we indirectly block people all the time), but obviously we’re willing to cause offense if we have to to protect our daughter. Those kinds of situations are very rare, however, and most people are great, wanting to coo over a baby like people do anywhere… just maybe a little more so.

Other stuff about having a foreign baby in China:

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

Aside 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.

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.

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 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. Basically, 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:

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