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Farewell Middle Kingdom...

Popularity 8Viewed 3063 times 2015-6-30 10:27 |System category:Life| Chinese, Culture, language, travel, goodbye

When I started this adventure in China almost 5 years ago I had it in my mind to make sure I learned the language, enjoyed the food, made friends and travelled the country I was in as often as possible. Sadly, I didn’t dip into that bucket list often enough to accomplish a few of those items in there.


My in-China travels were few and far between and look like this: 

Harbin, Lindian, QiQihar, Wangkui, Wudalianchi, Beijing, Xi’an, Amuta.

A sorry return for the amount of time I lived here unfortunately and I only have a lame excuse for this. With holiday periods coinciding with that of the general population, touring China always seemed to me a chore although once I was where I wanted to be I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is really no valid excuse because the Chinese train, bus and plane system is pretty good. I can lessen the disappointment, however, when I look at how much I travelled in the Philippines and Thailand instead and as a foreigner one must travel back home occasionally.


Language: Well, learning Mandarin was an abject failure but being caught up in trying to be an outstanding, passionate teacher turned out to be far more time consuming than I ever thought it would be. I cannot hold a conversation in Chinese, that’s for sure, but know enough to get around and manage to do simple things by myself, without an assistant or an interpreter. I remain very unsatisfied with my feeble attempts to learn the language because this environment of living in China is very conducive to learning faster than if you are in a classroom.


Food: The food here is pretty good. No complaints. The diversity is mind blowing, not only from Province to Province, but also from restaurant to restaurant. Going to a restaurant on your own, ordering and reading menus is the big turn off for me. I would say that 90% of my restaurant meals were taken in the company of Chinese friends who took me out, ordered for me and engaged in conversation best they could. Solo trips to eat out were confined to eateries that advertised their menus in pictures. By the way, many, many restaurants did this so maybe it wasn’t just me that struggled with menus written in Chinese characters. For would-be travelers from the west, be aware – the food in Chinese restaurants in China bears no resemblance whatsoever to that served to you in Chinese restaurants in your own country! True!


Friends: Over the years I obviously made a lot of friends with a big ‘but’. I question the motives of some of the locals who befriended me to get free English lessons or to gain a bit of ‘mianzi’ (face) by being seen hanging out with a foreigner. When I first started making friends here through teaching I was overwhelmed with the friendliness of the people but they disappeared from my circle as quickly as they came. There are a number of reasons for this and I am not saying that all my Chinese friends are shallow. I have a number of very good friends here, friendships that started with teaching English but transcended to a different level. We will always remain in touch.


The language barrier is number one reason for not being able to maintain long term friendships. It’s as difficult for them as it is for me to hold meaningful conversations in a non-teaching atmosphere. The exchange of feelings, emotions and thought-provoking ideas are solid foundations for making close friends.


The cultural differences can be another factor where neither party really understands the mindset of the other. I found myself at times mentally shaking my head in astonishment and puzzlement when I heard people say certain things while on the outside I smiled and nodded assent, saying I understood. I didn’t and I still don’t sometimes. There are occasions when I simply think: You are WRONG! I never criticized Chinese culture but admit to not completely understanding it. In the meantime I have my own ideas on how they think and why they think it. Chinese are quick to remind foreigners of their 5000 year old history and while I agree it’s a long and at times wonderful one I totally disagree that anything from that long ago exists in the psyche or the behavior of Chinese people today. However, I do firmly believe that the way they think today can be traced back to 2200 years ago. The governing styles of the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang and that of Chairman Mao Zedong are very similar and have left their mark.


When I travel to other countries I find a marked difference in the way foreigners are treated there compared to here. Is China a racist country? Oh yes! Indeed! But before being over critical or condemning this blatant racism you have to be aware that the China we see now is only about 30 years old. When you close your country to visitors from other countries then you are denying yourself the diversity of culture, food, language, understanding, knowledge. The government and the people are aware that they must change and they are fast tracking cultural development by loosening travel restrictions quickly and by becoming a bigger player on the international scene. But they better not think they can buy their way into being embraced by other countries. It’s not that easy. Countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, to name a few, have had tourists visiting them for years as well as westerners settling there to live so these countries and their people are far more in tune with western cultures and races.


My stay in China has been nothing short of memorable but I know it’s time to move on when I start getting easily irritated by things that two or three years ago I thought were quaint and humorous. Stories of experiences and adventures will continue for some time to come. I depart China on July 20th.   Zàijiàn  再见

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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