Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Germans vs Chinese: Part 3 of 4

 On to the next set. . .

11. thyself
photo via WeChat

I'm not sure how to interpret this.  In the west, we see ourselves as bigger than we truly are? Chinese people minimalize their individual significance? I suppose Chinese people, especially the older generations, are quite modest. I don't know about Germans, but the stereotypical American is seen as large and loud and loving the limelight. However, I think the way one views her/himself depends a lot on personality and I'm not sure about making sweeping cultural generalizations on this point. What do you think?

12. individualism vs. collectivism
photo via WeChat

This aspect is shifting. Although not long ago Chinese could be seen as collectivists, I feel like the situation is evolving, especially in urban areas. While being a team player is still very important, people aren't as connected to their work unit as they once were. Supporting and helping family may be more common in China than in some western countries, but modern day Chinese are becoming more indpendent. From what my husband describes, the sense of community seems to be diminishing. In my opinon, this is also a problem in modern American society.

13. beating around the bush
photo via WeChat

In America, it's common, especially when doing business, to tackle a problem head-on. For the Chinese, a problem is usually tackled so carefully that it may appear that no one is dealing with it at all. I've struggled with this at times. I'm still working on the art of trying to get to the point with out getting to the point. Sometimes I still have to ask Ming to try an translate people's action for me. “My student's mom has said they are on vacation the past couple weeks. Do you think her daughter is still going to study with me?” I once asked. “No, honey. They just feel bad telling you she won't.”

14. the line up
photo via WeChat

The only cultural difference that has the power to turn me from a kind, mild-mannered Midwestern girl to a seething ball of rage—the queue jumper. Lack of lines are also a drag, but I've worked a lot on my technique and have gotten pretty good at dealing with them. Push to the front, use your elbows when needed, stick out your hand, and yell out what you want. I hate it, but I can do it. I have seen some progress in the line former department over the years. The Beijing subway system has somehow managed to crack down on crowded and pushing with a fair level of success. People generally stand in line at places like McDonald's and the supermarket, yet somehow lines often fail to form for the bathroom. Hopefully the situation will continue to improve, as I see lines as the cornerstone of a civilized society. 

15. Guanxi
photo via WeChat

It's not what you know, it's who you know. In China, networking is important. Sure, that's true pretty much anywhere, but here it's taken to a whole new level. Ming has a few hundered phone numbers in his address book, because you never know who you might need to call for a favor. I, on the other hand, have about 30 numbers and tend to delete anyone I haven't talked to in over a year. The concept of guanxi is essential to making it in China, as with all the bureaucracy and competition, it's near impossible to accomplish anything without knowing the right people. And knowing them often isn't enough. . . expect to provide a handsome gift or dinner. 

What do you think, has there been a recent shift in cultural norms in your country?  

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Germans vs. Chinese: Part 2 of 4

 More fun comparisons. Let's see, shall we?

6. Enjoying retirement
photo via WeChat

In the west, you get old, you get a pet. In China, you get old, you may get a pet, but the center of your universe is your grandchild. Most Chinese have to retire early--I think my mother-in-law was fifty at her retirement. Since it's common for both parents to work, many Chinese grandparents use their retirement years largely to help raise their grandkid until s/he starts preschool.

7. Scrub a dub, dub
photo via WeChat

I've always been a night showerer, which made the transition into one aspect of Chinese living easy. I can now truly appreciate the sanctity of the nighttime shower. After a long day out and about you get pretty dirty, this is particularly true where I live these days--the wind whips around dust, sand, dirt, and garbage. You come home and you take off you "outdoor" clothes and switch to your "indoor" clothes (often pajamas). You wash off well or shower before hitting the hay, keeping your bed clean and cosy. Zzzzzz.

8. Life's little annoyances
photo via WeChat

This is one I've never gotten good at. When you're unhappy and you know it, your face surely shouldn't show it. Well, unfortunately, my annoyance and anger usually shows quite clearly, but this is poor form in China. I'm not sure if it's an aspect of saving face or just good etiquette, but in any case, I stink at it.

9. Punctuality
photo via WeChat

Germans are known for being very punctual. Most of my American friends and family are pretty good at being on time, but there are those that are routinely half an hour late (or more). I'm not sure what to make of the Chinese clock here. Maybe it varies regionally, but in Chengde people often come early. And when I mean early, I mean early. I've hosted parties and have had people show up an hour(!) before the start time. Where I come from, this is poor form. I've talked to some of my students about it and they explained that Chinese people think it's polite to come early and help the host get ready. What that really translates to is come early and watch the host get ready.

10. Transport Trends: Then (1970) vs Now (2000's)
photo via WeChat

In the decade I've been in China, I've seen the Chinese fall hard and fast for the automobile. During my first year, no one I knew had a car. Now nearly everyone does. I remember, living in Beijing in 2006, when I work up early enough to experience rush hour, I'd see the bike lanes brimming with bikes. There were parking lots for bikes everywhere, but then slowly, the bike racks were done away with; whatever room was available was needed for cars. Traffic is horrible and we are now all choking on exhaust fumes, but it sure is a lot cooler than riding a bike. Unless you live in the west, where in many cities, bikes are making a comeback.

Have you or do you live in another country? Are there any customs you found particularly easy to adapt to?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Germans vs Chinese: Part 1 of 4

This time, a fun post I found on WeChat that illustrates the cultural differences between westerns, i.e. foreigners (specifically, Germans) and Chinese--shown in fun diagrams. German habits and customs are displayed on the left (blue) and Chinese on the right (red). As an American, I also find them pretty spot on. For those who live or have traveled in China, they are mostly self-explanatory. I'll make a few notes on them for those who might not understand the meaning.

1. Three meals a day:
photo via Wechat

Cold meals, such as cereal, salads, and sandwiches are not traditionally eaten among Chinese. Most Chinese people prefer to eat their meals hot and they will often eat quite large meals for breakfast and lunch. Where I live in China, porridge, noodles, stuffed buns, and even stir-fry are common breakfast foods. My family tends to keep things simple though and we usually just have a western-style breakfast of bread, yogurt, and eggs. Sandwiches and salads, however, are something I have to dine on alone.

2. Beauty is only skin deep:
photo via Wechat

I've always hated my fair skin. I was teased about it most of my life, called names like Casper (the ghost). . . then I came to China, a place where my skin tone (though not my freckles) is appreciated. Tans are not prized here and women will usually do whatever they can to avoid one, including hiding under a parasol all summer and using skin whiteners.

3. Volume control:
photo via Wechat

One thing most people notice when they first get to China is the noise. It is a noisy place and many Chinese enjoy the din. There is a word in Chinese, rènào, which means 'lively' or 'bustling with noise.' This is seen as a positive and evokes images of a loud, healthy, happy family.

4. Vacation style:
photo via Wechat

This is one aspect of modern Chinese culture that amazes me--people with their cameras. Though a recent phenomenon, many middle class and wealthy families own very expensive DSLR cameras, costing hundreds, if not thousands of US dollars. I've noticed that they spend most of their vacations hidden behind said cameras. In fact, one day I was strolling around lovely Beihai Park in Beijing, passing the Nine Dragon Wall, and overheard a tour guide speaking to her group, "Take a picture here. This is really the only thing worth seeing in the park. After you get your shot, we'll head to the bus." What an unfortunate way to spend a vacation!

5. Dining out:
photo via Wechat

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of China, the lazy susan. When you eat out with a large group, it's common to reserve a room at a restaurant. Where I live this is free of charge though nicer restaurants may require a minimum purchase. Most rooms are equipped with large, round tables on top of which sit a lazy susan. This is great for eating family style, as Chinese meals typically are eaten. It also allows you to see (and toast!) all your dining companions.

What about you, are the customs in your country more similar to Germany or China?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A final good-bye

I am hesitant to write this. I'm afraid of writing about something too personal, making myself vulnerable, touching upon a taboo topic. But the words are there, so I will write them.

I haven't dealt with death a lot. I'm not experienced in it and its nuances. I realize now what I always knew but didn't quite comprehend—that death comes in different ways. I wrote briefly of my grandpa's passing, which was sudden though not surprising. With my grandma, it's been much different. To know someone you love has been handed a death sentence is like having a constant cloud hanging over you. I've been waiting, each day slipping by with a slight feeling of dread. More than once, since I flipped my calendar to the month of March, I looked and knew the day was there in front of me, staring me in the face. It was selfish to hope it would be later rather than sooner. I didn't want to let go. Though I knew she was suffering, a part of me clung to the belief that as long as she was here on this earth, nothing had really changed. While I knew in my mind it was impossible, in my heart I hoped she would get better.

My grandma passed away on Saturday. The permanence of it means I must finally admit to myself that things have changed. With her goes a little piece of me. I feel guilty in my grief. Ming tried to comfort me, saying he knows how it feels because he lost his father. I told him that it's not the same. It isn't. To me, losing a parent who has not lived past middle age is a devastating loss. I can't imagine enduring the pain and unfairness of it. But losing a grandparent, one that lives a long and healthy life, is not a misfortune. I couldn't let Ming compare his loss to mine, because his seems so much greater. Still, it hurts to lose someone, no matter how old they were.

I hope I can age as my grandma did. She remained active, walking a mile every day, up until the last few months of her life. She was able to drive past her 90th birthday. And until three weeks ago, she was living in her own house. I know she was in some pain in her final weeks, but she was healthy most of her life. In fact, after my mom was born she didn't see a doctor for over 50 years. I think she was lucky in many ways, so I want to try my best to celebrate her rather than mourn her. Right now it's difficult, but I think each day it gets easier.

Her funeral is today and, being in China, I won't be attending. I am okay with that. I was able to see her last month and say good-bye. I'm grateful for the time I had with her and that she was able to meet both my husband and son. She will be missed.

JLM 06/09/24-03/21/15

Sunday, March 22, 2015

internet hoaxes

I got my first email address when I was in high school and it wasn't long after that my inbox was piling up with chain letters, hoaxes, and spam. I remember one particular tale, perhaps you might have heard it too, that cautioned against having your kidneys harvested while on vacation. Yes, traveler beware, you may be drugged and later find yourself in a tub full of ice sans a kidney!

As we matured as internet users, my friends and I eventually stopped sending these type of emails to each other. The only person who still sends me chain mail is my dad, but those are usually of the harmless variety—mostly containing picture collections of adorable puppies or wonders of the world or perhaps an off-color joke about Hao Long is a Chinaman. Of course, I can still find a lot of garbage online if I go looking for it.

I don't have to look too far. Thanks to WeChat, I'm exposed daily to what I fear is mostly misinformation, fear-mongering, and hoaxes. I try not to fall victim to it, usually opting not to click on any of the myriad such “news articles” posted on my feed. Against my better judgement, I clicked on one such article today. Coming from the mother of my Chinese friend who recently had a baby.

“A five-year-old girl has liver cancer. Could the culprit be snacks? Whatever you do,” it cautioned, “never, ever, feed these things to children under five!!!” I couldn't help myself. I had to know! I had to scroll down!

Number One: Instant Noodles. Okay, this is a given. No one should really eat instant noodles (good old ramen noodles, as known to any US college student). They are garbage, if delicious. Next on the list: gelatin snacks. No more jello for the little ones if you care enough to stop them from getting cancer! Other no-nos included sausage, cookies, ice cream, and potato chips. All pretty much junk food, but, in their defense, sausage and ice cream are both major food groups where I come from. Sure, kids and adults alike shouldn't eat a lot of any of these things, but to suggest a young girl has a life-threatening disease thanks to her parents letting her indulge in snacks like this seems both cruel and far-fetched.

The warnings about food on WeChat are endless, no thanks to the constant food safety scandals that plague modern China. But the scare tactics don't end with questionable food. Beware of your favorite high tech item—the iPhone. Did you know that if you use your phone while it's charging, you run the risk of being electrocuted? I have to admit, I momentarily fell for this one when I opened the link I received from Ming's aunt. The photos were quite convincing. 

beware of a charging cell phone!

But then I thought about it for a minute. Wouldn't I also run the risk of getting electrocuted by my Macbook when I use it while it was charging? That couldn't be. After some digging (a quick google search), I found that this hoax is an oldie, dating back over a decade. Turns out, the chances of getting electrocuted while using a charging cell phone are next to none. If you are curious, check it out on snopes.

This is all a bit concerning to me, mostly because many Chinese people do rely heavily on social media for news and information. In fact, I recently read a Time Out survey that found that it is their primary source for news. Most westerners tend to get their news from a variety of sources. But with state run media and a heavily policed internet, most Chinese don't have the luxury. Instead of watching BBC news and reading a Newsweek, many of my Chinese friends and family are doing what I did back in high school. . . unsuspectingly forwarding hoaxes to everyone they know.

What do you think? Is this sort of thing harmless or a problem? Have you ever fallen for an internet hoax or scam?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Work without pay

William wearing Ming's winter work hat

I recently read another blogger's eye-opening post on what it's like to work for a Japanese company. Basically, it sounds awful and made me feel really grateful that I've never had the displeasure of working for a Japanese company. It also made me realize that, after a decade in China, I don't even have any concrete experience working in a Chinese company. I spent some time working for the local high school when I first came to Chengde, as well as working for a foreign-run educational company while in Beijing, but I've never been an actual salary(wo)man.

Since I have such little experience, I can't write a lot about what it's like to be a foreigner working in China. I can, however, detail the frustrations of what it's like to be a foreign married to a working Chinese man. I prefer not to divulge my husband's exact job, but let's compare it to a US postal worker. It's the kind of job in which you are employed by the government and serve the people. It's the kind of job that leaves little room for promotion but lots of stability and security. And as with most jobs in China, it's also the kind of job that means your time off is not necessarily yours do with as you please.

a class where I taught high school in Chengde, 2005
My brief stint as a high school teacher did reveal the former, but at the time I was young and optimistic enough not to care. I happily agreed to last minute English department dinners, spending the weekend judging English competitions, and tutoring my boss's friend's daughter (for free! Though at the end of our sessions I was given a knock-off Louis Vuitton scarf so it was almost worth it). Now that I'm older and more schooled in life, on principle I don't find this sort of slave labor acceptable, though maybe I should as it seems pretty much part and parcel of working in China.

My husband has it much worse than I ever had. Most of my mandatory work extracurriculars were pretty entertaining. Despite my current grumpiness and displeasure towards working off the clock, I could probably be talked into more departmental dinners. The exotic food (think 1000 year eggs and chicken's feet) and baijiu always puts some color into an otherwise mundane day. Ming doesn't get to have fun, free meals. Instead, he often has to sit through boring meetings on his day off. He has to go to Beijing for various reasons, all of which I won't list off here, but most recently he's been summoned there for three days to undergo his annual physical.

This is extremely irritating for a number of reasons. Firstly, I find it ridiculous that they require all the workers to go to Beijing to have a physical when it could just as easily be done at one of the hospitals in Chengde. My husband and I have a list of theories why they must trek to Beijing--most likely, the higher-ups at his job have some sort of guanxi (relationship) with that particular hospital. I wouldn't be that bothered about him going to Beijing though, if he were being paid for it. He is not. The time he spends there is time he would otherwise spend at home with his family.

I also get upset that these sort of things pop up at the most inopportune moments, often last minute, with no regard for prior plans or engagements. As will be the case this year, last year Ming had his physical in late March. I was nervous about him leaving as it left me home alone, in a foreign country, with my grade school-aged step-daughter, 9 months pregnant. This year the situation isn't quite as dire, though I do have plans for March 29th, the day, we have just been informed, of his physical. Luckily, Ming managed to convince his boss to move up the date, but it will mean he has to use one of his vacation days for the trip (again, extremely irritating).

The annual Beijing physical is just an example of what goes on. Ming has had to leave nearly once a month for much of recent memory. And the situation is even worse for many workers. Most of my students' parents, especially their dads, are gone frequently. In many of their families, it seems like the dad is away on business more than he is home. Some kids frequently stay with grandparents because their parents are both out-of-town for work. I know my situation could be much worse, but I sometimes get hung up on the unfairness of it.

What about you? Have you ever felt like you were overworked or underpaid?

Monday, March 09, 2015

Back from the USA

Willam and Ping at Zoo Atlanta

We've been back from the US for over two weeks. The trip back was much easier than the trip there. William had grown up a lot in the five weeks we were away. He was less fussy and fell asleep more easily. I had a lot more travel-with-baby experience under my belt which made me more confident. I also had a very hellish trip down to Atlanta (never again Spirit Airlines, never again) which made any subsequent travel, even a 14 hour flight from O'Hare to Peking, seem like a piece of cake.

I'm over the jet lag. I've readjusted to eating Chinese food (though I still miss eating the luscious desserts, myriad cheeses, and microbrews of my homeland). I am, more-or-less, back on track. But being back in China is hard. I knew it would be. I miss the freedom I had in America. I was able to mother my baby without the input of random strangers, without the constant fussing of my mother-in-law, and without my husband's frequent anxiety. For the first time, I truly felt like a mom. It was ten months over due.

Ping experiencing Lake Michigan
And it wasn't just the freedom I loved. I reveled in the convenience. As a mother, I can now truly appreciate the wonder of drive thru banking. While I'm embarrassed to admit it, we also cruised the Starbucks (and McDonald's) drive thru a few times. The ease of transporting a baby in a car was awesome and he was safe and sound in a carseat (which have yet to catch on much in China). I also could opt for a stroller over a sling. I don't have this option when I go out alone with William in Chengde as I can't get out of my apartment building alone with the baby with a stroller. I'm not strong enough to carry a 25 pound baby plus 25 pound stroller down six flights of stairs. Even if I was built like the hulk, there is an obstacle course of cars parked on sidewalks, gravel roads, and steps everywhere we go. In the US, you get ramps! elevators! stroller parking! It was a nice break from having to psych myself up for any outings, like I tend to have to do in Chengde.

William and Ping at World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta

As for our itinerary, we spent most of our time split between my hometown of Milwaukee and visiting my best friend and her family who live near Atlanta. We also took a little road trip with my dad and visited my brother's family in Minnesota. I took the kids to a lot of cool places, my favorite being Georgia Aquarium and Ping's favorite being the World of Coca-Cola (where you can try hundreds of sodas from all over the world! You can't put a price on that!) tied with Minnesota where she got to experience sledding, ice fishing, and doing donuts on the middle of a frozen lake. I couldn't have asked for a better trip. While I realize returning to the US to live will be full of many challenges and can't be compared to a five week visit, I am more certain than ever that we will be moving back before the end of this year.

Sleepy William and Silly Ping @Starbucks on Valentine's Day