Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 5, 2017
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Gary Olson
Howard Richler
Oslavi Linares
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editor
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

transit and transitions



Andrew Martin is a qualified educator and ardent blogger from Montréal, Quebec. Although he has travelled parts of Europe and Asia somewhat extensively, he has only managed to visit Toronto for the first time last month. He gets bored easily, has a hard time falling asleep, and is still waiting for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reunion; preferably on Netflix. He keeps a blog, humbly titled The Pride of Suzhou.

A & O: Let's start at the beginning. You're out of school a couple of years, looking for adventure, you're passionate about teaching, why China, as opposed to Zimbabwe, or Tierra del Fuego? We're you fed up with Dinner #3?

Andrew Martin: Well, first off let me tell you I was by no means a Sinophile. My passing interest in Chinese culture was mainly relegated to Kung Fu movies and fast food. I came upon China as a teaching opportunity after my UK working visa expired and I was forced to leave England. I loved England, by the way. Anyways, my choices were between taking a job in Azerbaijan or China, and so I chose what I thought was the more exciting option. I figured it would be a good experience for me to live as a minority for a little bit. Also, the idea of experiencing deep culture shock appealed to me. Looking back now, I realize how naive I was.

A & O: Help us locate your school. How far from Bejiing? Name and population of city? Climate peculiarities. You were met at the airport. How long did it take for culture shock to hit? And was the shock agreeable or disagreeable?

Andrew Martin: The culture shock began right away. I was hired by a so-called international school and was led to believe that it would be a diverse and dare I say cosmopolitan environment. The school organized for a private taxi to pick me up at about 10 o'clock at night to take me to my new home in Suzhou. Foolishly, I thought the school would send a bilingual driver. That was not the case. At this point, the only Mandarin word I knew was ‘nihao,’ which came in handy right away. It was a two hour adventure from Pudong airport in Shanghai to Xiangcheng District in Suzhou (Jiangsu Province). It was raining hard, and we were swerving in and out of lanes on the highway, as the Chinese do, without signalling. We were in the middle of a monsoon, half our wheels were submerged in water, and I was worried that the splashback might bring water into the car. At this point, I was so exhausted from the travel (I don't sleep on planes), that I was falling in and out of consciousness . . . every time I would wake up, I'd be alarmed by the crazy driving I saw all around me. In China, it seems like unless you're constantly moving between lanes, you're not doing it right. Somehow, everything flowed rather well, despite the nonstop honking (which I never did get used to). I arrived at around midnight, with all of my luggage, and was confronted with the school guards whose job it is to open and close the gate. Again, knowing that I was at an expensive international school, I expected the guards to know some simple English. They spoke no English. Even so, they walked me through campus, in the dead of night, up to the teacher dorms where I was given a key. Now it's the middle of summer in Suzhou, the heat and humidity are oppressive, even at night. I was carrying my luggage past the guardhouse, all sweaty and tired. The school campus is designed to look like a castle, and it's lush with greenery. There were vines dangling from archways and bats flying above our heads. In the morning I would notice the moat that surrounds the school grounds. When I got to the dormitory, the first thing I heard was a dry papery rustling sound. I looked to the wall and saw a gecko climbing along the hallway. Another foreigner was coming back from a night out and saw me struggling with all of my stuff. "I saw you trying to speak English to the guard earlier," he laughed, telling me that he did the same thing the day he arrived. Anyway, he offered to help me and directed me to room 405. After getting in, I collapsed on the bed, still sweating, and stared at the ceiling and thought "What the hell have I done with my life!"

Beijing is in the north of China and I was living in the south. Because we were technically in the south, it caused problems when the weather was cold. Apparently, the government has decreed that schools (and I assume many businesses) in the south can't waste energy on heating during the winter because the south is meant to be warm. So during the winter, even at 6 or 10 Celsius degrees inside the building, everyone is forced to wear sweaters and winter jackets both in the classroom and in the office. Sometimes, every once in a while, we were able to turn on the heaters -- but this was strongly discouraged as the Chinese believe heaters (and aircons) to be bad for one's health. So instead, whether it was the freezing winter or the hot summer, they would open all the windows in the office and in the classrooms to let in the ‘fresh air,’ which was anything but fresh. Most of the time, the air is heavy and dark with pollution. This fact did not deter the local teachers and other staff from obsessively opening the windows all the time. Again: culture shock factored in. There were often covert office skirmishes between the foreign staff and the Chinese staff. As soon as the Chinese teachers were out of the office, or happened to be at a Chinese-only meeting, the foreigners would rush to close the windows and turn on the heating or air conditioning (depending on the season). Obviously, the Chinese are way more acclimatized to their weather than we are.

Suzhou is an ancient canal city in Jiangsu Province, and is sometimes referred to The Venice of the East, which I think is totally ridiculous. It was the silk hub of China for a while and attracts a lot of (mostly Chinese) tourists. It's quite lush with many beautiful trees and flowers, its most famous being the fragrant Osmanthus trees. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 10, 658, 000 people -- but this is somewhat misleading as it also includes many suburbs and places that are outside of central-Suzhou.

There is an old part of town, which is marked by ancient city walls and many gates which used to keep out intruders. Inside the city walls, people mostly live in hutongs, which are the old courtyard style houses which bring to mind classical images of Ancient China. There is also a massive sprawling New Town called SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park) which looks very impressive and futuristic. This is where many foreign companies set up their businesses, and it is full of really well maintained factories. Outside of SIP you see more of the rundown type factories that many associate with Asia. I chose to work in Suzhou because I thought life would be quieter and more authentic than in Shanghai. Also, being a big city, I was hoping that Suzhou would be foreigner friendly, with easier access to English services. Beijing was out of the question for me because it looked to big, too busy and far too polluted.

A & O: In the West we hear that everyone spits on the streets, women included, and that everyone slurps their food. Fact or fiction. If fact, do you get used to it after a while?

Andrew Martin: Slurping is absolutely part of their culture. From what I understand, it signals to the cook that you are enjoying your food. Other fun aspects of dining in China include the way one hollers at the waiter or waitress. Rather than doting on their clients, it’s up to the guest to make the first move and demand service. Also, from what I saw living in Suzhou, white rice is served after a meal to sort of cleanse the palate. In my area, people didn’t mix their rice with their dishes as is the case with Indian or Thai food.

A & O: When your eye latches on to a beautiful woman, is her phlegming off a turn off?

Andrew Martin: Spitting is another part of the culture . . . it goes back to the beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine about keeping phlegm out of the body in order to maintain optimal health. Many people spit, including the female teachers in my office. I never got used to it. I’m a horrible foreigner, I know. Most other foreigners in China get used to it after six months. Not I. Having said that, there are many people, mostly upper middle class who don’t spit. They are the ones who insist that there is no spitting in China. PLEASE!

A & O: Are the Chinese as tolerant of foreigners as Canadians are? Are they racist, or merely xenophobic ad extremis?

Andrew Martin: Although there are 56 different ethnic minorities in China, the country is dominated by the Han, who at first glance give the impression that China is one big monoculture. Despite the rapid and impressive development that’s taken place after Mao, the country is still very isolated. Part of it is due to censorship by the government, who limit access to foreign/western media. Another part of it is pride. They are very proud of their civilization and culture and are just fine doing things their way, thank you very much. There isn’t a very strong curiosity about other people. For example, when most Chinese tourists travel, they go to buy foreign designer clothes and take selfies. The curiosity doesn’t go much further than showing off to friends and family back home (the same can be said for western travelers too, I’m aware).

A & O: Did you feel safer walking the streets of Suzhou, a city of 10 million, than Montreal?

Andrew Martin: China is the safest place I have ever been to on Earth. I don’t know why, exactly. Part of it is the fact that the government still uses capital punishment, and that crimes are heavily punished. Another part of it is cultural. For example, I noticed that the men seem very gentle compared to western guys. When I’d go out, I would notice a lot of western guys getting crazy and boisterous and sometimes physical, whereas the Chinese men didn’t seem to display as much aggression. Again, I want to state that these are my naïve and highly subjective observations.

A & O: Are the Chinese a religious people? Are they a God-fearing people, meaning they believe there will be real life consequences if they disobey their god(s)?

Andrew Martin: Good question. Their history of communism would suggest that they are athiests, but it’s not that simple. You’d be surprised to know that Christianity is growing, and from my apartment I was able to see a very modern church with a big neon cross which lit up from across the lake. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting to see. Otherwise, there are many Buddhist temples where people go to make offerings and make wishes. The temples are very impressive, and I became quite enamoured with the striking silhouette of the pagodas. Also, Confucianism is massive in China, as Confucius himself is pretty much synonymous with traditional Chinese culture. He is used to explain away all kinds of social behaviour, including negative ones, like refusing to intervene when a stranger is visibly hurt in public. I also want to add that while many people, Chinese or otherwise, like to say that Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion, I disagree. You see people bowing and burning incense to honour Confucius just as much as you see them bowing and burning incense to Buddha or other local pagan deities. A lot of Confucian or Buddhist objects are meant to bring good luck. All this, to my mind, points to religion and not philosophy.

A & O: Related question, in your view are the Chinese morally superior to us in the West, meaning they conduct their lives more in accordance with the Ten Commandments?

ANDREW MARTIN: First off, that is a very loaded question. What I will say is this: the Chinese, at least traditionally, value family above all. Community or society isn’t as much of a concern. Conversely, in the west, we really care about the way we present and conduct ourselves in public, almost moreso than at home with our families. On that note, China is undergoing a lot of soul searching right now, as there have been many cases of public apathy in the face of horrific events. The most popular example is the death of little Wang Yue in 2011. She was run over by two vehicles and was essentially dying in the street over the course of several minutes (maybe more). At least 18 people were seen walking past her, ignoring the dying child. There are many more instances which I could list off one by one to describe for you, but I think that story is the most poignant.

A & O: Are Chinese women as obsessed with fashion as we are in the West? If not, why not?

Andrew Martin: Let me say this: my school secretary used to arrive at work dressed as a hip-hop princess, with baggy pants and a trucker hat. I don’t know whether she thought it was how middle class western women dressed, or if she just liked the hip-hop style, but all I know is that it was pretty amusing to the foreign staff. I’ll tell you what they are obsessed with though: their smart phones. They’re also obsessed with the idea of London and the idea of Paris. As well as selfies. Selfies all day every day.

A & O: In most 2nd or 3rd world countries, western men are prized by the local women. Is this true in China?

Andrew Martin: Western men are definitely fetishized in China. They are used as props and marketing tools. They are also seen as gateway tickets to a better life in the west (where there is less pollution, better education, and smaller population). More generally, they are simply seen as being ‘cool.’ I also got the impression that western men were seen as hyper sexual and aggressive in comparison to Chinese men. To get a real understanding of how we’re perceived you’d have to ask a Chinese person, however, the chances that they would tell you the truth are very slim. Culturally, they are taught and expected to save face, which means steering away from controversy and strong opinions that might rock the boat. It’s not too different from how some western men like to admire Asian women.

A & O: We hear a lot about the ubiquity of opium, that every corner has its den? Talk to us about the presence of the poppy in China. Personal experiences if any.

Andrew Martin: Opium? Really? Maybe in the 19th century, but not now (as far as I know). Drugs are illegal, and it’s extremely risky to partake in that kind of thing. Sometimes the government will turn a blind eye to westerners taking drugs recreationally, but I doubt they turn a blind eye to Chinese people taking drugs. For the record, I have never done drugs in China, so maybe I’m not the best person to answer this question.

A & O: You don’t seem particularly enamoured by the people, you don’t like the climate, the air is toxic, you’re deprived of many of the amenities of life, why did you sign on for another year? Are you a masochist?

ANDREW MARTIN: I would never ever say that I don’t like the people. All I will say is that the culture is too different from my own for me to live there comfortably. The people are very sweet and good natured. If you can speak even a word of Mandarin, they will light up and endear themselves to you. Strangers often try to befriend you by asking for your social media details, and many also like to take pictures with foreigners. At first I felt like a bit of celebrity, but then, after the novelty wore off, I felt more like a freak show. It does get better, for most people (being stared at or approached by strangers in public). I should also point out that public behaviour varies in context. If you’re in the middle of the foreigner district in Suzhou (SIP), or find yourself in Shanghai, you probably won’t get stared at very much. But if you find yourself amongst the locals in a second or third tier city, especially in the more working class areas, then you will probably get stared at. This is doubly true if you work in the rural areas. I’ve heard stories of locals reaching to touch (or even grab) people’s arm hairs. Again, these are extreme cases -- but they do happen.

End of Part I

 Photos©Andrew Martin



Email (optional)
Author or Title












Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


Help Haiti
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2016 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 05-16st, (514) 844-2172
Montreal World Film Festival
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis