Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's hard!

I don't usually write about very personal things on this blog; it's been more of a travelogue than anything. However, I'm sure people are curious what it's like to live in another country, to live in China. Like most things, it's complicated. There's good and bad. I love some things, I hate others. So, here is my attempt to convey some of my thoughts about my experiences so far. Today's post will be negative, and the next will be positive. They're going to be long, so prepare yourself.

It's hard!

In my post-graduate speaking and listening class, we listened to a radio piece by James Fallows. He was talking about his time living in Japan, and at one point, he described it as living "in exile." I had to explain to my students what exile meant, and that it implied that in some ways, his time living in Japan felt like a punishment.

I don't want to say that living in China is like being punished, because it's not. But sometimes, I do feel like I'm "doing time." Putting in time in China so that my Chinese will improve, and I can move back West and pursue my career goals. I am normally a pretty happy, content person, and that hasn't changed in China. I'm content with my life here. Sometimes though, it does feel like something I just need to "get over with" so that I can do other things.

Why does it feel that way? Lots of reasons. Small things, like fireworks going off at all hours, streets where everyone constantly honks their horns, or horrible pollution and litter everywhere (the rumors are true.) Blue sky days are a real rarity and treat, as most of the time everything is gray and monotone. Similarly, I get so tired of everything, everywhere being dirty and grimy! The air, the streets, the buses, the restaurants, my white clothes after I hang them to dry...

And, bigger things. Things usually termed "culture shock." It's really different here. I often catch myself thinking, 'Chinese people are weird,' and then I realize that no, Chinese people aren't weird. I'm weird. I'm out of place.

One of the biggest difficulties is also one that I have trouble talking about. It's a cultural difference, so it's hard to discuss without coming off as judgmental. People my age are often not mature in the ways that I am, having grown up in a very different manner. Chinese children and young adults don't have the same amount of choice that Americans do, so it tends to result in a different mindset and personality. Children usually don't have extracurricular activities they can choose among, nor do they usually choose their own classes, and they tend to have very little free time to spend as they choose. They don't usually choose their university, and surprisingly often, they don't even choose their major. Even at university, they don't choose most of their classes, and life is still pretty prescribed.

All this means that most Chinese people seem much younger than their years to me. If you were to meet most of my students, despite their being about 20, you'd probably guess them to be around 16, by American norms.

The biggest problem this creates is that sometimes I have trouble identifying with some of the other young people. I'm not really interested in watching Hanna Montana or shopping for Hello Kitty. This means it's been much easier to make friends with foreigners, even disregarding the language gap. I just have more in common with them - not surprisingly. It feels like a cop out sometimes, but it's just the way things are for me right now.

This is not to say all Chinese people are like this, but it is a definite trend that contributes to my "culture shock." There are, of course, cultural differences that I really like, but that's for the next post.

Another negative aspect to living in China, for me, is an obvious one. I am different. I am foreign. And I look different and foreign. No matter what I do, it's immediately obvious. Living in China as a foreigner is different from living in say, Australia, as a foreigner for one major reason: I am white, and blond, and tall, and I stick out everywhere I go.

This means that everywhere I go, on campus, to the supermarket, taking the bus, etc. I get stared at. Everywhere. Sometimes people even (quasi-surreptitiously) take pictures of me with their cell phones. Strangers often approach me with such conversation starters as: "Hello. Can I have your MSN?" (screen name.) "Hello. Can I have your cell phone number?" "Hello. Can you help me with my English?"

I shouldn't complain about this, because the inquiries are all friendly. But it's hard sometimes to have people look at me and think, not, "normal person," but "different" or "English tutor" or "walking, talking English dictionary." I am constantly approached by complete strangers who, often without any introduction, ask me for my cell phone number or internet screen name so that I can help them with their English, or just ask me to help them with their English right then and there. Don't get me wrong - I love my students. And I love helping them with their English, even in my spare time. But I have about 350 students, and when I'm just walking around, trying to buy lunch or go to the post office, I don't really want to help random people with their pronunciation while I walk. And I definitely can't be a private, free English tutor to every person who sees me and my blond hair walking by.

If nothing else, I have learned that I never, ever want to be a famous celebrity. I'm quite looking forward to a life of anonymity when I move back to the West.

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