Living in China: Different strokes for different folks

  • The Gratitudist
  • Wednesday, 26 Feb 2014

Dusk falls on the easygoing city of Xinyi, Jiangsu Province

A few weeks ago, one of my good friends at the Shaolin kungfu academy, Jacob was leaving the school to return to his home country of Denmark. I decided to accompany him on the overnight train to Beijing, where he was departing from.

We shared a quick chat at the station platform before the train arrived, and split up to find our separate carriages.

A few minutes after boarding, he crossed over to my carriage to get his laptop bag from me. I said I didn’t have it. He thought I was kidding. A horrific realisation slowly dawned upon us: the laptop had been left behind on the train platform! As Jacob buried his face in his hands, something told me that it was not foolish to still hope for the best.

Studying in China for the past seven months has been an eye-opening experience, both for things I was told to expect, as well as for things I didn’t expect at all.

For as long as I have been in this little corner of Jiangsu province, the locals have presented themselves as a ridiculously friendly bunch. Whether it be at a market, park, bus stop or in a train, as crammed and stuffy as it sometimes gets, it is normal to find them chatting and laughing together as though they are old friends.

Their friendliness also extends to my foreign classmates. When my classmates walk around town, they get pointed at, get asked for pictures (or sometimes photographed), and are very often greeted with a playful “Hello!” from children and adults alike. My face blends in more as a Malaysian Chinese, but my different style of dressing gives me away.

They try and ask me things about myself, but the local accent here is thick enough to cut with a knife, and bears little similarity to the more standard-sounding Mandarin I learn at school. The most amusing thing is that when I make it clear to them that I don’t understand what they are saying, they choose to either elaborate further in speech, or show me what they mean by flashing Chinese characters on their smartphones.

There are parts about Chinese culture that I have had difficulties adjusting to. Their public toilets are really “public”! And my first time using one is something that will go down as one of my most humbling life experiences. Then there is the free-for-all road junction/intersection culture, that may be single-handedly supporting all the pacemaker companies of the world. That being said, the only time drivers use their horn is to let people know they are coming. I have never witnessed an accident here, nor any sign of road rage. It is as though there is an unspoken agreement between all citizens to uphold the most organised of chaos.

Before I had packed my bags for China, my friends and family expressed their negative perception of this country, how people will try to make a quick buck off you, how they lack etiquette and decency. Perhaps the unscrupulous part applies more to the big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, where survival tactics are more obvious. I suspect that I am living in a more morally authentic part of China, where people come across as honest not to avoid being criminals, but because they are genuinely nice.

Sure, they like to cut queues and let their toddlers do emergency “business” on the pavement, but what is mannerly to me is an outcome of my own cultural upbringing, making it fair for others to have an outcome of their own.

On the train with a visibly distraught Jacob, I asked the strangers around my carriage in broken, limited Mandarin if they could help us out. A crowd gathered around in curiosity and concern, including a train official. With the help of an English-speaking local, Jacob and I found out that the laptop bag was safely found on the platform by Xinyi train officials, and already awaiting collection from their office.

A kind lady offered her phone for us to contact our headmaster to have him pick it up on Jacob’s behalf.

Recovering from the ordeal, I told Jacob that I could forget about something like this happening in Kuala Lumpur. He said the same about Copenhagen. It is ironic to have had people warn us about this country. There are different sides to all places, and I’m happy to be bringing back stories that a place as allegedly “shady” as China has so much more to offer.

>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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