August 1, 2008

Pregnant Aliens

First things first: having chocolate chip cookies for Saturday breakfast kicks ass. 'Nuff said.

I really like explaining things to people, answering questions, and helping them understand things. (On various occasions when I was younger, I have contemplated being a high school teacher.) I've found that, here in China, I get a chance to do this a lot more than I did back in the States. A couple times a week I get a chance to explain American culture, grammar, idioms, customs, viewpoints, etc. On the subway home I was talking to a co-worker about how the wedding registry system in America works (because he's getting married next year). I talked about how it's sort of a no-no to give cash as a gift (which is the custom in China, cash in red envelopes called hongbao), because the recipients might feel hurt that you don't know them well enough to pick out something specific, so the registry system is a good go-between.

Also here in China I've occasionally seen co-workers coming around and giving small treats or candies to everyone in the office. This is the custom when someone gets engaged.

That's just one example. I remember the hour spent in the cafeteria going over the checks & balances system and the various levels of government (local, state, federal, etc.) And of course that meeting I held to explain the rules of baseball. I spend the most time explaining various custom/culture things to my tutor, who I think has less formal education than my co-workers (where a Master's is the norm) but who paradoxically, because she works in an international school, has more exposure to expats (mostly young British and German kids though) here than even I do. Last week I drew her a small map of Austin to explain where my pictures were taken.

And if I like explaining things, I really love hearing:

1. How customs/cultures/attitudes are different in China vs. the US. This one is obviously a separate post on its own. One of the biggest differences is that Americans/Westerners are so much more individualistic than Chinese/Asians. Yes that's a cliche that I'm sure you're all aware of, but it really hits home when you live in China and see the ways that people act here.

That's why it freaks me out to see a Chinese guy with facial hair (!) Yes, that is an extreme rarity here. I've actually started seeing it more and more among my immediate co-workers, like, some of them will go 2 - 3 days without shaving, whereas when I got here, they were clean-shaven all the time (like most of the men in China or at least Shanghai). I like to think this is a result of how I do things, like I'm rubbing off on them, because I definitely don't shave every day :-) But I don't know if they did that before I got here.

Another example comes to us by way of the Olympics. Chinese are being instructed on things not to ask Western visitors, such as:
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Salary
  • Political preferences
  • Religious preferences
  • Physical ailments/health
  • Marital status
  • ...etc...
In the US, these topics are taboo among strangers. Imagine striking up a conversation with someone and, 5 minutes later, they ask you how much money you make or if you're a Christian. I dunno about you, but I'd find that a tad odd. I'd think my interrogator was either selling something or recently returned from living under a rock.

We have our bubbles of polite interactions, dammit, and we don't like it when someone intrudes on that. Just talk about the weather and be done with it! I'm going back to my hobbit hole ...

But in China, these topics are par for the course among strangers/recent non-strangers. They serve as a way to show someone that we're interested in them and what's going on in their life. People I know only slightly will ask me how much I paid for my shoes. Taxi drivers ask me if I'm married or have a girlfriend. It's a little strange, but I know what I'm dealing with. If that happened in America, I'd be a little weirded out. And I am here also -- but I know where I am. I'm in a country that regards these questions as, like I said, expressions of interest. Plus I'm an outsider (an alien, as I'll explain later), so I don't mind. I have to expand my bubble a little bit here, or, just not mind so much when someone else comes in uninvited.

Another example is pregnant women. My first tutor (and mutual acquaintance of my current tutor) is pregnant, which is why she's not my tutor anymore. Eh? Because apparently Chinese husbands like to exert control over their pregnant wives, you know, keeping them safe and out of harm's way and what not. So traveling on the bus or taxi or metro, breathing in all those fumes and risking accidents in traffic each step of the way, in order to increase some white kid's knowledge of Chinese is out of the question.

Now notice I say "exert control". That's how I, as an individualistic (and reasonably progressive-minded) American, see it. But her husband probably wouldn't see it that way. They would see it as the latter -- keeping their wife and unborn child safe. Now I'm not saying that he keeps his wife locked in a closet -- far from it. I'm just saying that in that situation, maybe he wanted her to cut down on extraneous, unnecessary, and potentially harmful activities, like traversing Shanghai during rush hour in order to teach a white boy Chinese. But to me, with my Western individualistic/progressive attitude of everyone having a right to their own opinion, it seems like control. After all, I see pregnant women in America out all the time, doing normal things like everybody else. But of course I understand wanting to keep your loved ones out of harm's way.

Which viewpoint is right? Is there an answer to that question? Probably not. How does my former tutor feel about this? I have no idea -- I haven't talked to her but once since she quit (although I did exhort her to play my demo CD for the baby. Years of research have proven unequivocally that techno helps fetuses grow and develop.) But it's interesting to learn about, and that's really my point here. There are tons of other things like this.

2. What people think about the US, from the outside. Yes, most of it comes about as a result of America's foreign policy. I had a great discussion last night with 2 Scottish guys and a Danish guy about the upcoming elections. They said that Europeans in general are ecstatic over the fact that Obama is the nominee and might win. (Of course, I am only talking to expats who, by nature, are brave (or "something") enough to journey to Shanghai for whatever reason, so they have an international perspective/"broadened horizons" in the first place, and I'm sure that's definitely skewing what I hear. But still. The point remains.)

I talk about this and other things about the US a lot. And in return, expats (and even native Chinese) will offer opinions/examinations about their own country for me. It's really great. I feel like I'm getting to see the US through the eyes of others, which is a fun experience. Definitely don't get to do that much in Austin. Unfortunately though, because I don't drink that much, I contribute to the perception that Americans can't drink for shit. So, to all you American alcoholics that are reading this: I apologize for of lowering our national image in the eyes of others :-)

It's a lot of fun. And it balances out the amount of time that my co-workers and others spend explaining Chinese grammar, like the difference between 都 and 所有.

Luckily I get to explain things for a living, too :-)

In other news, I got my residence/employment permit yesterday. So I am officially a 外国人 (wai guo ren, "foreign person", although on the cover slip it says "alien").

And in other-other news, my team and I are going to karaoke today. These places are open 24 freaking hours a day!! And because they have private rooms, they definitely have a tawdry reputation here, too, at least some places do. But of course we're going during the day, so it's all on the up-and-up. I knew I couldn't escape China without doing this at least once, so, I'm kinda resigned to my fate! Hahaha. If I see anyone in there with a camera though, I'm going to politely kick it across the room for them ;-)

1 comment:

Nicole said...

On the topic of behavior towards pregnant women in China, the limit to one child per family might be a big factor in overprotectiveness. Hell, they've only got one chance to get it right. Not saying that we don't take prenatal health seriously in the West, but we're also not quite at the level of air pollution that Chinese metropolises have. It'd be interesting to see how rural Chinese treat their expectant mothers as opposed to urban Chinese.

What's the local perception of the Chinese government reinterpreting their deal with the international media regarding the types of stories that can be put out during the Olympics?