I have now been in China for almost seven months and I think it’s time for a review of my time here thus far.
First up: culture shock update. I’m really not sure what stage of culture shock this is. The last stage of culture shock is meant to be “The feeling that everything is fine. The stage where the visitor has adapted to the culture and in some ways is embracing it as their own.” Whereas I have an overwhelming sense of everything being fine, and I have adapted to the culture of my immediate environment, I am definitely not embracing it as my own. In fact, I am more clear than ever that Chinese culture is not my culture and that there are significant cultural gaps between me and the Chinese people who I know and interact with.
As for my experience of and interaction with Chinese culture, I find myself at something of a standstill at the moment. My opinions of the culture as represented in Kunming seem to be divided into two categories: the things I like and feel that I always will, and the things I can’t stand and feel I may never be able to accept. Among the things I really like:
- the food (even though it makes me ill at least once a week)
- speaking and listening to the language (by this I generally mean Mandarin, even though my skills are still lacking, and even though the Kunming dialect regularly flummoxes me)
- my coworkers
- the beauty of Yunnan
- the professional opportunities I am being afforded (and the sense of wide possibility that China offers Westerners)
- the feeling that I am involved in truly progressive work in a very conservative society
The things I can’t stand mostly relate to living in a country with an authoritarian government (the lack of freedom of information, for instance) – these things may seem abstract, but in fact they bother me every day. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are some common habits of many Chinese people that bother me, such as constant smoking in enclosed spaces, and spitting. Again, I know that seems a little nuts that these things rise to the level of bothering me so seriously, but at the moment I can’t seem to help it.
I am also deeply bothered by the seeming indifference of average people to the welfare of strangers (which may relate to a civil society in its infancy, but is disturbing nonetheless). This is really not a joke: I have several friends who have seen people die under cars in the street while passersby did nothing, or perhaps stood by to watch. Society as I experience it here is pretty dog-eat-dog; it makes me feel edgy about even the people I know and have good relationships with. I have the sense at times that if anything were to go really wrong here for me – if I became very ill, were injured or were caught in the middle of civil unrest, for instance – that I would be very much on my own if RP were not around.
In general, life at this point seems very normal – even luxurious, at times. I have a regular life here; I work, I have good friends. I go shopping and do laundry. I also eat at great restaurants for cheap and take exciting trips to other places.
I find that Kunming, as a large city in a middle-income country whose national language I can speak, is not a difficult place to be a foreigner. People do stare at my Western face and shout “Helloooo!” at me every day, but I live at the same standard as a middle class Chinese person and am not usually treated as some foreign goddess, as might be the uncomfortable case if we lived as expats in a very poor country.
I try to remember that my time here is limited – I purposely try to remember the strangeness of things, to travel to new places and have real conversations with strangers, so that I don’t normalize my experience here so much that it passes me by.
And finally: during the orientation for my fellowship last spring, we did the classic grade school exercise of writing yourself a letter that will then get mailed to you later on. I have yet to receive the letter, but I remember the goals in it that I stated. Here is a rundown of how they have gone so far:
- Finally be comfortable speaking Chinese professionally: B+. I’ve gotten a lot better, but am still only basically competent in Chinese at work. There is much room for improvement, and far to go until being impressive
- Initiate at least one project in my job of which I take ownership (i.e. impress my boss): A-. This is not really a problem; I’ve got more projects than I know what to do with. Work is stressful, but is basically going well for me at the moment.
- Take interesting trips, at least one without RP: A-. I admit that this goal could have been a little more specific, but I went to Burma in October, am going to Laos in February, and India in April. I would love to do some traveling within China, but don’t have specific plans at the moment. Having not done a significant trip without RP since meeting him, I thought it would be good for my sense of my own competence to do one without him (achieved: Burma).
- Make at least one real Chinese friend, with whom I only speak Chinese: F. I do fail on this one so far; I don’t have any real friendships with Chinese people conducted in Chinese. To be totally honest, I still value my social time as being somewhat removed from Chinese culture. I admit that it is a relief, that operating in Chinese all day at work is tiring. I hope to grow out of this stage.
In other (not particularly unexpected news), I have informed my fellowship program and my boss that I will be staying for another year beyond my initial contract, meaning through July 1, 2011. So I guess things must be going well enough, right?