Fresh off the plane, it starts with alienation. Back in 2008, it started here for me (Though it did not end there).
After the initial romance of getting up and flying to China, the massive folding over of buildings on top of each other, the amazing food everywhere, the sweet and endearing locals, the bafflingly low cost of living – all wear off… After that, you’re left with a series of realizations which begin to accumulate like the morning after a night of heavy drinking when you slowly piece together all the stupid things you’ve done.
Here I am. I’m living in a roach infested, crumbling, unfurnished, not even close to up-to-code apartment that has zero storage space, horrible insulation, floods when it rains, and overlooks a literal river of shit. I can’t find things in the supermarket, nothing is vegetarian, and everything has MSG. People run away in terror when I try to speak Chinese with them. Getting to work is either a suffocating bike ride through the smog with drivers who don’t give a shit that you’re there (if they even notice), or a battle royal for a seat on the bus or subway (if you can even elbow your way on). The ESL companies I work for don’t seem to care about educating their students as much as selling courses; and from the outdated, incorrect, mildly offensive study materials, to the prehistoric computers, copy machines which still hasn’t been approved for a new purchase of toner, and scheduling F up after scheduling F up – it shows. I feel alone and scared.
I worry that even if I could face the humility of returning back home after so short a time, I couldn’t afford the ticket anyway. All the people I care for are on the other side of the globe and it looks as if I’ve made a kamikaze dive into the middle of the ocean and am now drowning. So I try to build a new community (Keyword – “try”).
Friendships are patronizing and after the millionth “You’re Chinese is so good,” I start to doubt their sincerity. Dating is a joke as I’m infinitely more experienced than every local I date. Sex Ed is non-existent, and the LGBT community is outright attacked by the government. The legal system doesn’t support tenants (let alone foreigners). And all the veteran expats just seem to laugh and dismiss my concerns.
I make a list of serious shortcomings about my company’s management to share with my boss’s boss. He patiently let’s me discuss them with him, after which it become painfully clear that no changes will come of the conversation.
I plan on a two year max in China. Yet, somehow I plod on past it.
The alienation turns to a subdued cynicism.
After years of no one coming to fix my wireless, correct my textbooks, or effectively managing my class mishaps – I become my own troubleshooter. I scour the interwebs for solutions to video playing codec incompatibility on proprietary software, I learn when it helps to give an extra check for last minute schedule changes, and I build a veritable ark of supplementary soft and hard copy classroom materials, games, and presentations.
The things that bugged me still bug me. But I’ve learned to grin and bear it. I feel myself blending in with the beleaguered masses who’ve learned no one will stop for them so why stop for anyone else? I’ve corrected my Chinese to find work arounds for when certain communications fall apart. Plus, I’ve mastered the art of the Chinese lesbian dating apps – My urgency and panic have abated.
At the same time, I've begun to discover late night barbecues, international forums, and boundless travel opportunities. Yes, it sucks. But it's worth it.
I’m by no means confident that I made the right decision in coming to China, but when a wide-eyed fresh off-the-planer comes to me nearly crying, I have a list of tips that at least help make existence more bearable. I’m stunned when someone calls me a veteran for the first time.
Eventually, I “make it” and the cynicism turns to compassion (albeit unbalanced).
After four years, I accept the position of Regional Teacher Trainer at my company and find myself counseling hundreds of teachers struggling with the animosity I once felt for China. At such times my first instinct is dismissal.
“They all compliment my Chinese after I say ‘Ni hao.’” It’s so insulting.”
Yes, but in China it really is uncommon for foreigners to speak Chinese and speak it well. They mean it as a genuine compliment, as encouragement to continue your studies, and even to express gratitude for honoring their local culture enough to learn a few words. They know learning a language isn’t easy. They stress about learning English for years and still likely have no confidence. When they grew up if they tried to speak English and made a mistake, their teacher would berate them directly. Isn’t it amazing that so many people want you to feel welcome and encouraged as you come to a strange land and try to tackle something new?
“Nothing works in the office.”
It’s true. With 20 million people living in this city alone, making a working bureaucracy is nearly impossible. Did you know that when you tell your manager to order a part for the projector, he tells the receptionist, who files a formal request with the Center Director, who approves it, sends it to Shanghai, where it is processed, eventually approved, then sent back down the line to the Center Director, who can then make arrangements to purchase the equipment, and for IT to install it? And all of this is dictated by the federal government’s meticulous requirements for registering expenditures for tax exemption. Look how many people and how much work is going into helping support you teach quality classes. Look at how many people care about your success and the success of the students. In the mean time, let’s look at some things to do in your class when you have IT problems.
“The people here are so rude and inconsiderate.”
I know it can seem that way. Did you know that more than 90% of this city didn’t exist 40 years ago? It’s flooded with people who literally came from the countryside sometimes without flowing water and usually with no access to public transportation. Have you ever seen photos of the first Americans riding an escalator? They looked terrified and didn’t know what to do. For many people here it’s the same thing.
Plus, it’s important to realize that our definitions of “rude” don’t necessarily translate here. Want to gift a clock or open a present in public? – Super rude. But it’s just not the culture you’re used to right? Same thing here. Shoving and public defecation? – The subways have no public restrooms here. Sometimes families are forced to wait hours with their babies as they travel from their home town with no breaks. Spitting? You say that’s rude. In Guangzhou they have a saying, “Live in Guangzhou one month, eat one brick of dust.” Spitting can sometimes be necessary.
I tell myself I’m being helpful, but I see my teachers leave with the same disappointed expressions I once had in their situation.
Still more years pass and I become something else
I’m no longer a walking almanac of Chinese cultural information ready to educate another ignorant foreigner. But I’m also no longer the cynical “Guilo” outraged when things in a barely 1st world country don’t work like I expect them to. I realize that I can help people with my soundbites of wisdom, but by and large it’s not my job to “help” anyone deal with cultural shock in either direction.
Instead I try to play the role of listener, mediator and micro-problem solver. I seek out the obstacles that have the easiest fix and support people to make them. It may not be revolutionary work, but it’s the work that can actually have a positive effect for all. I know it may sound like a defeatist position for a trainer to take and certainly education can (and should) be utilized to the best of our abilities. But as my trainer once taught me of training – At best you understand 80%, you’re able to teach 60%, they hear 50%, understand 40%, accept 30%, try 20%, and succeed with 10%. Yet in the end, only 5% is retained long term.
The moral of the story isn’t that teaching is pointless. The opposite – we should endeavor harder to make sure an ocean of 5%’s add up to something meaningful. But while we wait, we need some patience for the 95% at any one point other people don’t get. And by the way, 95% of the lessons other people want to teach you are well beyond your grasp as well.
By and large people will continue to be influenced by the cultures and upbringings they grew up in, and few will ever “graduate” from them (and even then never fully). So the best I can do is listen to the new ones complain about their “China days,” listen to the locals about those privileged tourists, and drop crumbs of compassion for both sides to both sides when I can.
In the process of trying to identify with everyone, I find I slowly identify with no one. No culture is perfect and I still have plenty of complaints about the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. But I also understand that we are not ourselves. We are the sum of the myriad historical, political, socioeconomic, ethnocentric lineages we hail from. We don’t get to escape our biases. We just get better at recognizing and accommodating for them.
In the meantime, my heart dwells in both cultures – celebrating the gems and sighing at the failings of each. I don’t imagine I can bridge the gaps, but I live here now and still relish the chance to tell a story of both my homes.