transit and transitions
MY TIME IN CHINA
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.
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?
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.
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?
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!"
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
O: When your eye latches on to a beautiful woman, is her phlegming
off a turn off?
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!
O: Are the Chinese as tolerant of foreigners as Canadians are?
Are they racist, or merely xenophobic ad extremis?
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).
O: Did you feel safer walking the streets of Suzhou, a city of
10 million, than Montreal?
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
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)?
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.
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?
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.
O: Are Chinese women as obsessed with fashion as we are in the
West? If not, why not?
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.
O: In most 2nd or 3rd world countries, western men are prized
by the local women. Is this true in China?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
of Part I