Here is a list of the biggest differences in culture between China and America:
1. Public restrooms are typically holes in the ground. And you have to supply your own toilet paper, which is sold in small packages, much like tissues. And usually you are not supposed to flush the paper, but instead throw it into a trash can.
2. Pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way – even if you are in the crosswalk and the light says you may go. And cars who are making right hand turns do not look both ways and will not watch for you in the cross walk. The lights here count down until they change, so when a car is at a red light, and the countdown is at about 4 seconds until the light will turn green, the car just goes.
3. There is a high respect for others when interacting, even in simple exchanges like at a cashier. If someone gives you something with both hands, you must take it from them with both hands, like money for example.
4. Every single animal, and every single part of every single animal, is eaten.
I think the most surprising thing about the students is how well behaved they are. When there is a class of 55 twelve year-olds, I would think it would be a catastrophe every day. But students are respectful, mostly, and seem to be eager to learn. I have a couple trouble classes in Guoliyuan, with students who constantly talk over one another, but this is a challenge I knew I would face. Mostly I try to embarrass the bad students. I make them stand up in class and give answers in English, and won’t let them sit down until they get it right. This actually only works some of the time. Other times I will go and stand directly next to the student who is talking. But I’ve only had to do this a few times, and I am greatly appreciative that the students are so happy to have me there.
And speaking of being happy to have me there, I love all the love I’m getting from them. When I get to school, students rush to say hi, and now that I’ve had each class at least once, they will greet me by name. They give me presents, want me to sign my name in their English books, want me to draw them pictures, some have even asked to touch my hair, or ask me about my eye color. At times I feel like a circus freak, but they are all so sweet and innocent, eyes wide and so curious, all I want to do is talk to them, and help them learn as much as I can.
In class I have the students participate as much as I can. I have been told my teaching style is more ‘relaxed’ than what they are used to… well good. Students seem to be very shy at first, but I try to coax them out of it by being informal, and I think it works.
I see way too many students to have ‘favorites’ but there are a few students who have repeatedly visited me in my office, or who I’ve noticed are particularly gifted or eager to learn English. Of these is a little dimpled girl named Lina who looks exactly like a Chinese Violet Affleck (Ben and Jen Garner’s daughter). She can understand most of what I say, so she acts as an interpreter to her friends, and she’s only 12. Lina and her friend Annie gave me the Chinese name of Bai Huh, which means Lily. Another girl, Case (she pronounces it Casey), raises her hand at every question I ask to the class. She’s very sweet and has freckles all across her nose and cheeks, which is considered unattractive in China, so I think she really liked it when I told her she is beautiful.
And speaking of names, I swear the best part about meeting these students is seeing the English names they have chosen for themselves. You can tell which students have done their homework, some have even Googled American or English names. I have a lot of Annies, Matts , and Lilys, but I particularly like when I get ones like Monkey, Whisky, and Blue (seriously). Or boys who give themselves girls’ names, like Rhonda, or girls who give themselves boys’ names, like Bill. Other students take words in Chinese and directly translate them, so I have a couple Sweets, and Candys. Overwhelmingly, students will choose names from their English books, with names like Helen, Nancy, and Mike. But the book also has Chinese people, whose names are just spelled in English. So students will choose the names Liu Tao, and Gao Shan, and I have to explain to them that those actually aren’t English names… The absolute best though is when a student may already have an English name, but has no clue how to spell it. Today, I had a girl whose name was Jenny, but she spelled it in the pinyin way (the alphabet way of spelling Chinese characters, which has little correlation to the phonetic sounds of our words). So to her, Jenny was spelled Zhe Ne.
Though I may not want to make a career or a life out of teaching children, these little guys have opened up my eyes to a lot of things. I’ve had to adapt my lesson plan to fit every class. I teach the same material to each class in each grade, but must change the level of difficulty and the pace to fit the abilities of the students in the class, which I don’t even know what that is until the moment I get there. I’ve had to think on my feet, make changes quickly, and find ways to simplify things I thought were already simple. The students appear to trust me, and understand me, and want to listen to what I have to say. Everyday I’m challenged, find something to laugh at, and I’m extremely humbled by the students’ excited responses when I enter the classroom.
School bathrooms are literally two rows of short cubicles with no doors, with water running in a trench through each cubicle with a hole at the end of the row. So to use the bathroom, you hover over the trench, go about your business, throw your tissues (that you provide yourself) into a wastebasket in each cubicle, and get out. In America, I don’t think this would pass any type of sanitation regulation, but in China, it makes more sense because you don’t actually touch anything in the bathroom. No door handle, no toilet seat, no paper roll, no flusher. Which actually does make a lot of sense… and come to think of it, I haven’t been sick once since getting here. But, despite the rationale, I haven’t quite gotten used to it.
At each school I have been given a desk, where I can sit in between classes or during breaks. In the first few weeks I was here, I would come to school to find little presents on my desk from some of the students, like pictures they drew or little candies. The teachers at each school are extremely nice and gracious, if not a little afraid of me. Many, especially at Guoliyuan, are shy to speak English to me (or cannot speak to me, and vice versa – for now), so most of the day is spent smiling and nodding to each other, or saying small things like ‘ni hao.’ At the Experimental school however, the English ladies have taken it upon themselves to be my personal Nantong tour guides, social calendar planners, food connoisseurs and shopping partners. Most of them have very good English, and it hasn’t been a problem understanding each other… they help me with my Chinese as well. Sometimes I feel a little suffocated or impatient (as someone who likes to be as self-sufficient as possible), so add that to the list of things I’m learning to adjust to.
The students have 6 classes a day, three in the morning, and three in the afternoon, with many breaks throughout the day which lasts from 8 AM to 4:15. The students all do exercises together every morning for a half an hour after first or second period. They jog around a track and do simple stretches and jumping jacks. Some of the teachers told me that students are tested on physical fitness even at the college level, so the importance of it is instilled early on. It also warms the students in the cold months, and teaches them discipline. I think it’s a good idea. Students have another half hour break after the 5th period, where they are free to play outside or in the classroom, or do homework, and there is 10 minutes between each period. Students stay in the same classroom all day, but take different subjects, sometimes with different teachers each period. Subjects include math, social science, Chinese, English, art, music, gym, science, and computer studies, much like a school in America.
Lunch time is two and a half hours long. Students eat lunch provided by the school in their classrooms, and everyone eats exactly the same thing. It is usually some type of meat with vegetables, boiled lettuce, cabbage, or another kind of greens, a dumpling or piece of meat of some kind, and always rice and soup. The food is delivered to the classrooms by the kitchen staff, and students are responsible for dishing out the food, and cleaning up after themselves. After they’ve eaten, students are free to play again, and after about an hour the music sounds for “quiet time.” Students study or rest in their classrooms, or go to teacher offices for extra help on schoolwork. After quiet time, students have about a half hour to play again before classes resume.
Also, twice a day students do eye exercises for 3 minutes. These exercises consist of massaging different muscles around the eyes and relaxing. It’s probably one of the strangest things I’ve seen, but seeing how many of the students and teachers need glasses, I think it probably makes sense. I have no idea if it actually works.
To say the least, the schools themselves in China are more different from American schools than I had anticipated. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pissed about there not being heat in the middle of winter, or there not being doors on my bathroom stalls, but as I learn more about the city and the people here, where people come from and the students’ families, and the Chinese government and education policy, I realize I should shut up, wear a couple extra layers, hold it till I get home, and recognize there are more important things here.
Besides obvious factors like genetics, Chinese people are skinny for a couple reasons. First of all, they are extremely body and weight conscious, which really surprised me considering how much food they appear to cook. But I’ve seen a pattern… One of my friends at school, who is thin, told me she has been ‘fat’ ever since her son was born. One of the mothers of a student of mine, who is thin, told me she was on a diet for the past two weeks. And my teaching assistant for my private lessons, who is my age and is about 4’11’’ and 100 pounds, told me her university checks her weight and fitness, and she is “worried.” And of course second of all, students start exercising everyday at school in the first grade.
So it’s true what they say, Chinese people love karaoke. Karaoke bars, or KTV as they call them here, are e v e r y w h e r e. And they aren’t bars, they’re little rooms with a TV and couches that you rent for a few hours, so you can sing comfortably in front of just your friends. I have been to KTV 4 times now, and each time I noticed the same thing. Everyone is good at singing. Literally everyone. And not like Taylor Swift good at singing, but at least like Pink or Lady Gaga good at singing. So of course you like it when you’re good at it. Even the men have all been good singers. They choose ballads to belt out, and if they sing songs in English, my friends choose ones like “When You Believe” the duet by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston… like seriously???? Which also makes it super embarrassing when they make me sing… not to mention I always choose songs sung by men because I can’t even attempt to sing high notes (apparently I sing Backstreet Boys the best).
The fun thing about being a tall blonde American in Nantong is everyone wants to invite you for dinner all the time. What I miss out on by only being able to cook Ramen and oatmeal in my dorm, I make up for by being taken to homes and restaurants for various meals several times a week. And I try everything they put in front of me. Which I learned to be careful about, not because the food is strange or gross, but because then they literally will not stop putting food in front of me. It is customary in Chinese culture to leave food on your plate, because it means that there was enough, so often my friends and hosts order a ton of different dishes, and if we don’t finish, it’s no problem.
I’ve had all types of rice and noodles, fish, pork, beef, duck, and all parts of the animal, including pig skin, which is actually really good. Insert joke about delicious footballs here. The way they prepare vegetables is actually amazing, and my new favorites include lotus root and stewed cabbage. The Chinese are creative with cooking, using many different ingredients, garnishes, and sauces. Everything tastes very fresh, and it is… you can choose which fish you want to eat when you see it swimming around in the tank at the restaurant or grocery store. The only complaint I have about the food is that usually the meat has bones. Fish has tiny sharp bones that you have to be really careful not to swallow, and everything else you’re supposed to pop into your mouth, suck the meat off, then spit the bones out. I have trouble with this concept, but usually the food tastes so good it doesn’t even matter. And as someone who is obsessed with soup in everyday life, I’m in heaven in China. Most things are cooked with a broth, and soup is served at every meal. Usually I have no clue what it is I’m eating, and more often than not there is no English translation, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say you have no idea what you’re missing by eating American Chinese food, which is nothing like the real thing.
There is really only one thing I’ve eaten that I really hated… the English translation is ‘100 year egg,’ and it’s a fermented duck egg. It’s black, blue and dark yellow in color, it’s hard boiled and been buried in salt for a while, and you’re supposed to dip it in aged vinegar. The first time I encountered this just so happened to be my first day in Nantong at Jimmy’s house while I was slightly hungover…. I felt like I was on candid camera or something, like they were just seeing if I would actually eat it. And eat I did, and eat it I will never ever ever ever never again. The worst part is I didn’t finish it, and left the remainder in my bowl, with the smell of it wafting up into my nose for the rest of the meal.
The other thing I’ve been hesitant about is the street meat. I’ve tried just a couple varieties and wasn’t particularly impressed, so I’ve been keeping my distance. It always comes on a stick, and sits in hot water until you pick it up and put it in a cup to take with you, and you rarely know what it’s made of. I’ll put not getting sick off food here in my win column and be satisfied with at least making an attempt at eating like a local.
Soooo, no one here speaks English. Many people have never met an American before. It’s a little frustrating to go from being extremely self-sufficient in Boston (and wanting and liking it that way), to relying on others to do everyday things. I can say simple sentences to get me by, like to ask for water, to order, to pay for something, etc, but I can’t read or write a damn thing. So when I go to a restaurant or a coffee shop, I can’t actually order, because I have no clue what anything on the menu is. My friends from school and Jimmy are happy to help me out, though they’re probably using me to better their English. Kidding.
I ride a bright blue men’s speed bike around town and to school every day, which if I could see myself, I probably would think it looks pretty funny. And even funnier is that it rained about 3 days a week for the first month, so I wore a yellow poncho with a hood when I rode around. I get stared at constantly but I’ve learned to ignore it and just go about my business and usually I don’t even notice anymore. Except when I hear someone exclaim “maiguoren!!(American).”
I live in a dormitory at a middle school in the center of the city, which is pretty nice because it’s safe, I don’t have to pay for it, and it’s comfortable and convenient. It has two bedrooms, with two full beds each (you know in case any of you folks want to come visit… hint hint..) a small sitting area/kitchen with a fridge and a microwave, table and chairs, and all the cups and bowls I need already supplied. I have a washing machine, but no dryer, so I hang my clothes like every other person here. But I feel a little strange about literally airing my underwear in public on the racks in front of my dorm, so I keep it all inside. And in a case of Alanis Morissette-sized irony, I have the biggest and best closet I’ve ever had in my life, with about 4 articles of clothing to hang in it. My bathroom is pretty average, with a normal toilet, and a semi-normal shower that works some of the time. When it doesn’t, I wash my hair in a basin-sink that doesn’t have hot water, which is fun. I may sound like I’m complaining, but it’s actually been really nice living simply. Like I said, I don’t pay for this place, so I’m grateful, and I seem to be living just how many of the Chinese do. And as they say, when in Rome…
Grocery shopping is literally laugh-out-loud funny. I make a game of it. The game is: try to figure out what everything is, and where to find what you want. And don’t be wrong, because there actually might be black beans in the middle of what you thought was an innocent muffin, or those crispy things are actually dried chicken feet. And I don’t mean to knock Chinese food…. I’ve actually had some really amazing stuff here. But grocery shopping is literally a process, so I go as often as I can to enjoy seeing all that it has to offer. (I also really enjoy grocery shopping at home, so I guess the sentiment is the same here). Also, if you like Ramen noodles, there’s a whole wall of different kinds of Ramen, and it’s even cheaper here. This is fun too, figuring out what the flavors are. Last week I chose wrong and my head almost exploded in fiery anguish. I now know the character for “spicy.” One awesome thing about the grocery store here is the produce section, though it is easy to get any fruits or vegetables you want at street vendors, who have the best apples I’ve ever eaten.
I haven’t really been shopping much, though there are clothing stores and malls everywhere. 1, because I don’t know where the good stuff is yet, 2, because I don’t know where the cheap stuff is yet, and 3, because compared to Chinese people, I’m pretty huge. It’s funny, because I don’t really feel “Amazonian” (thanks for that one MOM) or anything, I just feel like I’m a different race, which I am. A different, taller, wider, race. I guess I don’t feel so bad, because my friends comment that my face is thinner than theirs. But then I explain it’s because of their awesome cheekbones, and then they say something about my big eyes. In the Chinese culture, it is customary to refuse a compliment, which gets pretty exhausting because the conversation just goes round and round.
I’m really enjoying my lifestyle here in Nantong… riding my bike is actually really refreshing. I mean nothing warms you up on a 30 degree day like riding a bike 5 miles. Not joking, I’m sweating by the time I get to school. But in all seriousness, as I said before, I live simply. I’m not connected to my phone or Facebook all day, I think hard about what I do and say, and really notice and appreciate the kindness of those around me. Every day I wake up and I know I probably will see, hear, or experience something I never have before, which is an incredible thing. Sorry guys, but I’m not homesick yet!