Sunday, April 19, 2015

Cultural Differences: Chinese in America

I enjoy reading about other people's experiences living as a foreigner in Asia, particularly in China. But so rarely do I get to hear about what it's like for Chinese people living in western countries. A few of my Chinese friends are currently living abroad and I love hearing their opinions and reactions to living life in the west. It makes me see my own culture in a whole new light. It sometimes even allows me to appreciate some aspects of western life I take for granted.

When Ming and I went to the US, back in 2007, some strange and funny things happened. The way Ming interpreted and saw the world was very different. I guess this can mostly be chalked up to different customs and culture in the US and China. I found some of this misunderstandings adorable but also enlightening. I thought I'd share three that I'll never forget.

1. Kissing
When we first arrived in the US, we stayed with a friend of ours, K, for a week. While at first glance, you might assume K is a born and breed American, you'd eventually realize she is not. Her family is from Hungary, where she was born and spent most of her childhood. Of course, many of their customs and habits are more Hungarian than American. For example, in Hungary, hellos and good-byes are accompanied by a two-cheeked kiss. K's family were naturally avid givers of the two-cheeked kiss and we quickly learned to play along, always meeting and greeting with lots of kisses.
Ming, security guard, M&M, and I in NYC; 2007

Fast-forward a week or two later, to when Ming was meeting my cousin, B. (Do you see where this is going?) He approached her, seemingly going for a hug, but before she knew what hit her, he gave her the two-cheeked kiss. She looked over at me in surprise and laughed, "So this must be how they do it in China?"

"No," I replied. "That's how they do it in Hungary."

I later explained to Ming that in the US, a handshake or hug is standard greeting procedure. In most circles, a kiss is reserved mostly for lovers, occasionally for parents or grandparents, but very rarely for your fiance's cousin.

2. Free Refills
When I first told Ming about free refills, he could hardly wrap his head around the idea. "So you can buy a drink and just keep refilling it? As many times as you want?"

"Yes, that's the idea," I confirmed.

us with Usingers sausages, downtown Milwaukee; 2007
"Why would anyone ever leave when they could sit and drink soda all day?" he asked in earnest.

I curled up my nose, "Because that's disgusting and most people have other things to do."

Once we arrived in the land of free refills, Ming had already gotten used to the idea. He was no longer that impressed. But he did usually go for a second cup of soda when the opportunity arose.

One day we went out to eat at a diner with my grandma. The waitress came around, asking if we'd like refills on any of our drinks.

"Oh, yes!" Ming told her. He then stood up and started following her behind the counter. I watched in amazement. Not sure what would be more awkward, shouting for him to come back or letting him fill up his own glass, I finally decided just to let him go. The waitress, who I probably have known since birth (my grandparents loved taking me to that diner), let him do his thing. I don't know if she was as flabbergasted as me or wanted to be polite.

When he came back, my grandma and I looked at each other. Who was going to explain this one?

"Um, Ming, when the soda fountain is behind the counter, you can't serve yourself. The waitress will do it for you. Customers can't go back there."

He took it in stride. He wasn't embarrassed. He was just happy to have his refill. It's all about the little things in life, right?

3. Stuck in the snow
Where I'm from in the US, it snows. It snows a lot. In the winter they have to fill up the parking lots of supermarkets with all the extra snow--there's nowhere else to put it. Everyone owns snow shovels, but many have snow blowers, some have snow plows. It is essentially to stock up early on salt. Snow tires and blankets are a good idea for the car. But even with the best preparations, bad things still happen. People get snowed into their homes, slip on sidewalks, and spin off the road. And when such a problem arises, you are almost guaranteed someone will help you, most often times a stranger passing by.

Nearly every winter, I have gotten my car stuck in the snow. It seems almost inevitable. And every time, someone took the time to stop and help me. One such situation occurred when I was out with Ming, downtown by the courthouse, getting our marriage license. We couldn't get out of our parking spot due to the snow. First a random woman stopped to help us, then a man joined her. Ming and the two passer-bys pushed the car while I hit the gas. Within seconds, we were freed from the parking spot. Easy enough, but something we couldn't have done alone. Ming hugged (thank goodness it wasn't a double-cheek kiss!) the man and the woman, thanking them before they walked away.

He got in the car, "How do you know them?" He asked.

"Know them? I don't know them. . . " I answered, a bit confused.

Then he looked confused. "So why did they help us?"

"Because that's what people here do," I explained.

It made me think. It was awfully kind that they stopped and helped us. Wisconsinites are nice.

Has anyone every made you see your habits or customs from a different viewpoint?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

First First Birthday Bash: Zhua Zhou and Smash Cake

William's first birthday

Growing up, I didn't get a birthday party every year. In fact, I didn't get a birthday party most years. Now that I'm older, I get why my mom planned it this way. Birthday parties are a ton of work and if you aren't careful you will spend each year trying to outdo your last year's self while your children become less appreciative and more entitled. I've realized it's a slippery slope that may ultimately lead me to a nervous breakdown in a pile of crepe paper. No thanks.

Would you like some cake?
The situation in China is ideal for me, since birthdays aren't that big of a deal. As with Christmas, I am free to celebrate how I want. Ping has always gotten dinner, a few gifts, and a homemade cake for her big day. Nothing excessive. And I promised myself William's birthday would be equally as low-key. He's turning one for Pete's sake. It's not like he's going to remember it! This was all the practical side of me talking.

with mom
Then came out Mrs. Sentimental. . . . But he's turning one! This only happens once! And if we're really being honest, celebrating isn't really for his benefit, it's for ours. We deserve a cake and a couple of beers to celebrate that fact that we kept a tiny baby alive for twelve months without killing each other. So it was decided. Sentiment and beer won. First birthday festivities there would be, and not only that, they would happen twice. Such is the way in a country that can't decide which calendar to use--Gregorian (western calendar) or lunar.

First up, today, William's western birthday which I consider his Real Birthday (sssh, don't tell Chinese grandma). That falls, every year, on April 16th. Easy enough. But then there's his "Chinese birthday" which falls on the 17th day of the 3rd lunar month. Good luck figuring out when that is. I know this year it will fall sometime in May.

For his Real Birthday, we (I) decided to do a little East meets West. We were going to incorporate the centuries old Chinese tradition of zhua zhou (抓周, zhuā zhōu, meaning something along the lines of "first birthday grab") with the not-even-decade-old American tradition of the smash cake. Zhua zhou? Smash cake? For those unfamiliar, let me tell you more. . . .

William taking a break from zhua zhou

East: Zhua zhou is an ancient Chinese tradition that dates back to, well, I don't remember. As with pretty much everything in China, it has a long history that has evolved. In the past, zhua zhou was a big deal and believed to reveal an infant's personality traits and predict his future career. Today some people still do it, but just for fun. To practice zhua zhou, you set a number of select items in front of the baby, either on a tray or on the floor, and see which one he favors. Each item symbolizes a particular trait or career. William picked up many of the items, but he preferred the mandarin orange and a spoon. Much to his father's disappointment, he showed zero interest in money. But that's okay, because he still made a very wise decision in picking the mandarin. The Chinese word for mandarin orange (橘, jú) is a near-homophone for the word auspicious (吉, jí). Picking the orange is obviously very lucky. The spoon symbolizes a love for food and a possible career as a chef. For more information on zhua zhou, there is short but informative article here.
Cake and Smash Cake
West: Smash cake, I suppose it is pretty self-explanatory. You put a whole cake in front of your one-year-old baby and watch him smash it, smear it, and maybe even eat it. It's ridiculous and wasteful, but ultimately adorable. Plus, everyone's doing it these days. Some people buy elaborate cakes and hire photographers to choreograph the whole event. Though I would like to, I won't make fun of these people since I essentially did the same thing.

William's cakes were made by my incredibly talented friend, Miao Miao, who is the owner of Giraffe Cafe in Chengde. I gave her free creative reign over the cake decorating and she did not disappoint. The big cake (for the grown-ups to eat) features a horse banner, since William was born in the Year of the Horse. She also made a decorative William look-alike surrounded by gold ingots (元宝, yuánbǎo, a symbol of prosperity in China). Miao Miao also served as our photographer.

William's zhua zhou

William's Second First Birthday will be, as mentioned, in May. We won't be doing too much, most likely a lunch or dinner with family members which seems to be a pretty standard practice where we live. I hope to post some photos for that as well.

What about you? Do you celebrate any interesting birthday traditions? Have you ever celebrated a birthday in a foreign country?

cake smashing


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Speaking up for elephants

Ming and I visited his cousin recently. On the table set a Buddhist-style necklace, somewhat similar in design to the one pictured below. I don't know much about this type of jewelery, but it's widely popular around China, particularly with men. My husband generally doesn't wear this sort of thing, but he likes holding it and turning it round through his hands, like one might do with a rosary. These sorts of necklaces and bracelets can be made out of anything from cheap plastic beads to jade to walnuts (the Chinese seem to have a national obsession with decorative walnuts). Unless you are familiar with them, it can be hard to judge the value of such an item by looking at it. Personally, I can't tell the different between a 10 yuan (US$1.50) bracelet or a 10,000 yuan one. Anyways, it's not really my style. But Ming holds a keen interest.

photo via Taobao

"Is this made from real elephant tusk?" he asked his cousin, upon spotting the necklace which was made most of dark beads but featured a large ivory colored piece.

"Uh, no, that thing only cost 30 yuan," he admitted sheepishly.

"My co-worker got one in Thailand, made from real tusks," Ming said, as if boasting on behalf of his colleague.

I inwardly cringed. I hate this sort of thing. I really do. I'm not usually one to take a hardline stance on issues. I like to fence-sit, play diplomat, see both sides. Not only that, I do readily admit, I am a carnivore. I also have no qualms with people hunting (deer hunting is a rite of passage where I'm from). But when it comes to the killing of exotic or endangered animals for decoration, medicines, or show-offy menu items (shark fin soup, anyone?), my blood kinda boils. I had to speak up.

"People shouldn't buy that sort of thing, they have no quality of character!" I exclaimed quite suddenly, passionately. All eyes turned to me.

"Well, if it's just one person, it's not such a big of a deal," Ming's cousin reasoned.

"But the problem is everyone has that thinking. And one person becomes all of China," I explained, "The African elephant is killed all the time for its tusks. At this rate, soon none will be left."

The room went silent. I don't know if I stunned them with my sudden outburst, but I didn't care. The discomfort in the room was better than me saying nothing. After we left, I asked Ming if he thought I offended them.

"I don't know," he replied, "but you were right in what you said." He put his arm around me.

I know it takes a long time to change people's mindsets. Issues like these, that some people actually dedicate much of their time and energy to, seem odd and pointless to many Chinese. What does it matter? They are just animals. What can I do about it anyways? I am just one person. But things are changing. I know they are. When I talked to some of my teenage students, I can hear the concern in their voices. They worry about the environment and wildlife. In Beijing, I have also spotted ads by International Fund for Animal Welfare, trying to get the message out to the masses. Here's one such ad:  

photo via

The top four characters, which aren't fully written and seem to be splattered with blood, are "Elephants, Tigers, Bears, Humans." Under the characters, it asks, "If elephants are without tusks, tigers are without bones, bears are without gallbladders, what are humans without? Humanity?" It then urges people to say "no" to buying of such wildlife products. Putting this sort of message out it the first step in getting people to think, to talk about wildlife protection and preservation. And it does it much more eloquently than my diatribes--hopefully soon there will be little need for them.

What about you, are there any issues that you feel passionate about? Are there any practices you've witnessed in other countries that bother you?

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Having a Baby in China: One Year Later

William on his birth day.

William is just a week away from turning one. While I'm somewhat ashamed to admit it, there were times when I longed for this. I couldn't wait for him to get a little bit older, a little bit stronger, a little bit more independent. The past few months, I let go of that feeling. I've enjoyed him as he is, not too expectant of the future. Time really has gone by quickly. The past year has been hard though, perhaps the most difficult of my life. I knew being a mother would be challenging and it is, but the true challenge has been adapting to motherhood while living in China. I have learned a lot. Here are some of the things I've learned:

1. I'm not as open minded as I thought I was.
Admittedly, I was somewhat aware of this fact coming in. I knew I wouldn't be open to do everything The Chinese Way. I still struggle with this one. Does that make me closed-minded? Or does it just make me human? It doesn't matter, if I hear the phrase "When in Rome. . ." one more time, I might strangle someone.

William, 100 days
I have compromised on some issues, such as allowing William to drink water from birth (a Chinese practice that is not supported by western doctors). I attempted postpartum confinement. I haven't been so keen on split-seamed pants and spoon feeding Prince William his every meal. I have been downright skeptical, even hostile, towards Chinese doctors and medicines, as many of their claims seem bogus. I maintain that my son did not have diarrhea from my breast milk (tainted from my drinking of cold beverages). He did not break out in hives because he was left "crying too much." I could write at length about my frustrations with the Chinese medical system, but I rather not dwell too long on that.

2. Nothing goes as expected.
This is a given when living in China. It's also a given when raising kids, especially small ones. Put the two together and unless you have the patience of a saint, there may be times you'll be ripping your hair out. For better or worse, William's birth was nothing like I had imagined. Preparing for our trip to America was not without difficulty. But there were also times when things went surprisingly well, like when arranging his household registration, getting him vaccinated, and taking his portrait.

William, 4 months.

3. My Chinese may never be good enough.
I think some of my struggles stem from the fact that I don't fully appreciate or understand traditional Chinese culture and thinking (a problem even modern Chinese have), but it's also a language issue. Living in a small city, I don't have the luxury of western hospitals or English speaking doctors. My mother-in-law knows four words in English (hello, no, out, banana) and even my husband's English is lacking, especially when it comes to baby and medical related vocab. I've tried my best, fumbling by, now knowing Chinese words for things such as placenta, polio, episiotomy, and pacifier (there is a pretty extensive list of pregnancy related vocab that can be found here). But it's still never enough. I always feel like the language is passing over me, leaving me in the dust. I suppose one day the kids will be fluent enough that they can help smooth out some of the gaps.

4. My relationship with my mother-in-law is a precarious thing. 
William, 6 months

I've said it before and I will say it again, my mother-in-law is a great woman (despite using the phrase, "When in Rome. . ." a few too many times). She was never around much before the baby was born, but with his arrival I've spent countless hours with her. We have very different parenting styles. She is a helicopter (grand)parent, while I'm more of a free-ranger. While she has the best of intentions, I am, at times, overwhelmed by her constant hoovering and pampering. In some of my weaker and uglier moments, I have lost my temper. I may have even done some yelling (you might too if you weren't allowed cold food or drink, chocolates, or coffee for months on end). I think the situation is improving as William is getting older, but I still find myself having to bite my tongue daily.

5. Everything I thought was normal, is seen as weird or wrong.
 Breast pumps? High chairs? Disposable diapers? Frivolous crazy talk.

Letting the baby crawl around? Letting him put something, anything in his mouth?   Letting him eat with his hands? The insanity! That's not sanitary!

Allowing him to cry, to fall, to feel the slightest bit of discomfort? You can't be serious.

6. What homesickness really feels like
It was never that hard for me to be away from US. . . until it was. Feeling homesick was completely unexpected and a feeling that I haven't fully been able to shake this past year. I am, in some ways, grateful for it. Now I feel more confident that we are nearing the right time for us to leave China. 

William, 9 months
7. We are celebrities
For many foreigners, being showered with attention is not uncommon in China. Some people bask in the limelight, others would rather just blend in with the crowd. Myself, it depends on my mood. But strangers don't care about my mood. I might be out, having My Worst China Day Ever and people will freely comment on how my son is under dressed. We may be chased down and asked if we are Russian. A crowd may gather around us, pointing, commenting, and asking questions. I try to take it in stride. Sometimes their interest makes me happy, as the alternative could just as easily be contempt. There are those who hate seeing foreigners, people who despise mixed race families. Fortunately, these types of people are very rarely found in China. Most Chinese adore children and are particularly curious about foreign or mixed raced ones.

As a final note:
To anyone reading this who is planning on having or raising kids in China, be prepared for challenges, some obvious, others may be less so. Try to be patient with yourself and with your partner. If you can, try to learn a little bit about the culture and whatever you can manage with the language. Be realistic with your expectations and be honest with yourself--what customs and beliefs are you willing to compromise on and what is non-negotiable? My situation and struggles may be vastly different from yours. If I were an American man married to a Chinese woman, living in Beijing, I probably would have a total different experience raising my kids in China. But no matter what, it's an adventure!

Are you raising your kids abroad? Or is it something you would ever consider doing?  
William, nearly 12 months

Friday, April 03, 2015

Germans vs. Chinese: Part 4 of 4

Some of the diagrams below illustrate similar points to other diagrams. Maybe a bit of a repeat. But I don't want to leave you hanging, so I'll go ahead and post them anyways.

16. Who's The Boss?

photo via WeChat

I think this one may relate back to how Chinese people may, at times, downplay their own importance. On the other hand, westerners may sometimes appear overconfident or self-aggrandizing. These concepts of self and how they relate to authority varies across cultures. In China, there is generally a great respect for authority. I think many authority figures are put on a pedestal. They are fawned over, sucked up to, revered, respected, wined and dined. In my own country, most people like to view others, even those in a position above them, as more or less their equal. I think a perfect example of this can be found when compare our countries leaders. President Obama puts himself out there--he is on late night talk shows, throws the opening pitch at baseball games, and isn't afraid to be seen in his daily life. He wants to seem like an average guy and these kind of image attracts voters. In China, the leaders personal lives are quite hidden and who they really are is shrouded in mystery.

17. A Day at the Beach

photo via WeChat

This one needs little introduction. Westerns like to suntan; Chinese rather hide under a parasol. On a related note, a friend of mine once visited me in China. At the time she was living in sunny (rarely rainy) California. One day, as we were walking down the street in Beijing, we passed a woman hiding under an umbrella.

My friend turned to me and said, "Now I finally get it!"

"Get what?" I asked.

"Why I see umbrellas sitting outside so many places in California," she explained. "They are parasols for Asians who want to stay out of the sun!"

Yes, one of life's greatest riddles solved. . . why anyone in California would need an umbrella.

18. Streetscapes

photo via WeChat

There are a lot of people in China. That's obvious. But it becomes even more obvious if you take a stroll down a main street (particularly on the weekend). People are EVERYWHERE. I like it. One day, when I was back home a few years ago, I was walking around downtown Chicago. It was eery how quiet it was in such a large city. Hardly anyone was out on the street. I missed the hustle and bustle of (tiny, little) Chengde.

19. Two cents

photo via WeChat

As with problem solving, sharing one's opinion can be done in a rather roundabout way in China. Words can be said without being spoken. Ideas subtly hinted at. Or you may be led to believe a person thinks one thing while in fact, her view is wholly different. Americans, like Germans, are quite direct. Some people with try to present an opinion diplomatically, but usually there is no mistaken what the opinion actually is. How great is that?

20. Little Emperors

photo via WeChat

I view my children as a (wonderful) part of my life, but not exactly the center of my life. Often times in China, children are the heart of the family. They are doted on by parents and grandparents alike. You can argue that a grandparent's job is to spoil her grandkids, but this becomes problematic when said grandparent is around nearly every day (as in my case) or lives with the child. Since many kids are only children, it's easy to see how they can become spoiled rotten, earning the nickname "Little Emperors." No thanks. I've been working hard to make sure that doesn't happen to Ping or William. Becoming a grown-up is hard enough without having to realize that you aren't actually the center of the universe.

What do you think, do these accurately portray the differences between German (western) and Chinese culture?