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?


Eileen Huang said...

I smiled ear to ear while reading this post. It inspired me to do similar - it's still different because my husband has been in the states for 15 years before he met me. :)

The refill soda thing - haha. I can understand where he is coming from, though.

Katalin Toth said...

This is hysterical Rosie~ K

rosieinbj said...

Thanks guys! It happened so long ago now, but I still can't forget it. It's so funny some of the misunderstandings we've had in each others' countries.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed very interesting to see your own country in the eyes of a foreigner. I also experienced it when C. went to Spain last year, hehe.

The part about "why do they help if you don't know them" is kind of sad if you think about it. Does that mean it would have never happened in China? :/

rosieinbj said...

Hi Marta. Unfortunately, I don't think people in China help each other very much in situations such as this for fear of lawsuits. I don't know if you are familiar with some of the famous ones, such as an old person in Nanjing who fell down and later sued the man (Peng Yu) who helped her. In the US we have good samaritan laws protecting people from this.

Autumn said...

Very funny stories about kisses and refills.

I never thought about how much people in the US help out when it comes to car trouble. I jumpstarted a stranger's car the other day at the park, I've pushed cars out of snow back east, and never gave it a second thought. I didn't realize it wasn't universal.

rosieinbj said...

Autumn, I don't think it's common in modern day China. As I mentioned in my comment to Marta, there is a lot of fear about being sued and I think people are more apathetic to strangers and their troubles.

A poeng said...

Hi, Rosie
As I was reading about your husband's refill and cheek to cheek ILMAO. I don't mean any harm by the way.
your husband is a lucky man to have YOU.
I did a whole lot more embarrassing things not knowing a lick of American culture.
every time I look back what I did I just shake my head.
each country has it's own culture and way of life.

rosieinbj said...

Hi Al, I've done some embarrassing things here in Asia, too. In China, people are pretty forgiving, but in Indonesia and India I made some very poor fashion choices given the countries I was in and I can only look back and shake my head at myself!

Constance - Foreign Sanctuary said...

The fountain refill story is hilarious!

I have my fair share of embarrassing stories that happened in Taiwan. The things may be embarrassing at the time but they make for great stories when you look back on them.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, I know about the fear to help other people here. It is very unfortunate. Recently a lot of drivers are installing cameras in their cars because it seems some crazy pedestrians can run towards your car to cause an accident and extort money from you... WTF.

Yesterday in the hairdressers they had a small screen next to the mirror and I saw the weirdest ad ever. A young woman finds a crying girl on the street and accompanies her home. Then the girls asks her to ring the bell because she's too short and cannot reach it. The bell has electricity or something and the women wakes up naked in an apartment with 2 mafia looking guys that say "we paid that little girl to bring you here and rape you". Moral of the story: don't help people on the street. WTF, China.

Yang said...

Hello Rosie,

How are you? :)

Just found your blog via Speaking of China. We recently did an research about Chinese learning here:

Mind if I include your opinion and link back to your site?

Here's my email address:
(can not find the contact page:)

Let me know what you think,Rosie?:D Thanks and have a nice weekend!