The adjustment this radically different culture was harder than I thought it would be in expected and unexpected ways. I was prepared for the squatting toilets and lack of paper products, including napkins, toilet paper and paper towels. Ironically, even though my arthritic knees protested strongly during the trip, it was totally manageable on my last day. You don’t really need to know any details of my struggles and adjustment, but it was interesting that being forced to really exercise my knees actually helped heal my normally protesting joints making me decide to add squats to my normal stretching routine.
I think the hardest adjustment for me was the hard beds and very thin pillows. The bed we slept on for most of our stay felt like a cross between a box spring and sleeping on the floor. I took to referring to it as my “plywood bed.” With my arthritis and very bony body, I finally layered all of my clothes as well as extra quilts that were in the room underneath myself, using my raincoat as a prop for my pillow and managed to mostly sleep through the night. After a good stretching session, most of the aches and pains that plagued me during the night were dispelled. If I go back, I am wrapping my dulcimer in memory foam. 😏
I had been told in advance that we might be stared at. What I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of those stares with a seriousness that bordered on aggressive scowling. It took me a little while to realize that it wasn’t aggressiveness or anger but just part of the culture. For example, during my teaching at both schools, many of the teachers, administrators and parents had that same look. At first, I worried that they were displeased with my work. It caused me to be more nervous than usual and falter slightly. Although it threw me at first, I’ve done enough performing in those types of situations where I’ve even been heckled during gigs that I was able to ignore it and just do my job. After each class or presentation, those same scowlers raved about how wonderful it was and how much they were learning, including the Board of Education members who visited one morning. I was able to apply that to the stares I got out on the streets as well.
I also had my picture taken more than any other time in my life. All of the teachers wanted photos with their classes, various administrators, the visiting teachers from around the region and Board of Education members, even random strangers on the street wanted photos taken with me. I inadvertently denied one man who asked for my photo only because I didn’t understand what he was saying. I shook my head saying, “I don’t understand.” He took it to mean that I was saying no to having my picture taken. After he disappeared, my friend explained what he was requesting.
Another thing that took me by surprise, but shouldn’t have, was the language difficulty. I was led to believe that most of the workers in the cafes, restaurants, stores and hotels in the city of Beijing would speak English and that most of the signage would be in both English and Chinese. The first issue was that I wasn’t staying in Beijing as I had originally been told. Secondly, although I have a translating app for my phone, it only translates one way. If the other person I was trying to communicate with didn’t also have access to translation, which was often the case, I couldn’t understand their reply. However, although a little cumbersome, it was very helpful for having conversations when they did have it. I also did a lot of nodding and smiling and used a lot of hand motions and facial expressions to get by. If it looks like I will be going back, I plan to take a class to be able to at least understand some simple but important phrases.
In addition to the sound of the language, Chinese has its own characters that look totally unfamiliar to me. When I visited Europe, even when I didn’t speak the language, the letters were familiar enough that I could often guess or at least get some kind of idea what the signs said. This was not true in China. It was even a little disconcerting when I returned home and, driving from Hartford, I noticed the signs in English and was taken aback for a moment. It was also odd hearing mostly English being spoken around me in Toronto and Hartford. I’d gotten used to seeing and hearing Chinese in only two short weeks.
One of two other things that I was ready for but didn’t encounter was a lot of pushing and shoving. I was told that because of the large population, the Chinese people don’t have the same concept of personal space. In my short two-week stay there, if someone bumped into me, they always excused themselves, or at least it sounded like that. I was also ready for a lot of talking that sounded like anger but didn’t hear that either. When my friend and I commented on the absence of emergency sirens, we were told that “the Chinese people like peacefulness.” It certainly seemed that way to me. The other thing I expected was a huge amount of pollution. I had bought myself a filtered mask and only used it once. When we saw water trucks on the roads spraying a fine mist, I thought at first that they must be spraying the trees with some kind of pesticide and was able to ask a new Chinese friend. It turns out that they spray water to keep the polluting particles from blowing around. It also kept things fresh on those very hot and dry days.
The pedestrians all follow the crosswalk lights religiously. I never saw anyone jaywalk, and both the crosswalks and the traffic lights have a lighted timer letting you know exactly how much time you have to make it across the street, through the light or how much time until the light changes. I never encountered anyone running red lights or racing across the road which I attributed that to those numbered lights. My experience was that of a very cooperative traffic and pedestrian flow.
The most inspiring thing I encountered was the overwhelming sense of respect everywhere I went. As a teacher and an elder, I was probably awarded more respect than some others, but I saw it everywhere. The Chinese people always made sure I had a seat, held my arm every time I got in or out of a vehicle and insisted on carrying everything for me. My first full day in China, I was taken to a children’s park and then the zoo. It was a Sunday afternoon (International Mother’s Day) and both places were filled with children and their adults, both parents and grandparents. I never saw a single adult raise their voice or talk harshly to a child. I also never saw a child misbehave. In the schools, there were a couple of kids who I could see were pretty spirited, but they did what they were asked to do without question. I’m sure there are many negatives to this too but, as a teacher, it was incredibly refreshing.
At first, I thought I’d had enough and wouldn’t necessarily want to return, though I did make friends there. Now, that the brutal plane travel is behind me, and I’m recovered from it all, I think that I would like to go again. One of the friends I made invited to go to her village in the southwestern part of the country to see the countryside. That was something I wasn’t able to do this trip, so that is very appealing. And, she is a musician offering to teach me one of their traditional instruments. How could I possibly say no to that? Anyway, I rarely say no to offered opportunities.
I also felt safe everywhere I went. There were cameras everywhere, security checks and gated communities with guards posted at the gates. I know that the government is very repressive and many of the people unhappy and dissatisfied. As a visitor though, it was a huge relief to never be worried no matter what time of the day or night I went out. No one locked up their bikes or scooters. If a crime is committed in China, there is an incredibly harsh punishment. I'm sure that fear as well as respect plays a part in my sense of safety but, as an older woman, it was a nice change for me.