Friday, July 20, 2007

What I WON'T Miss About China

In no particular order . . .

The net nanny. It’s been a pain to use the internet here, in part because my service provider is the university, and I think they have too many people using it. It was great when we first got here, because students were still playing and not working, but when the semester really got going, the internet slowed to a crawl. But the other problem is the Great Firewall of China. I never know when a website will be blocked, and it’s sometimes hard to know whether the internet problems I’m having are technology or deliberate blocking. Admittedly, most everything I’ve wanted to see has been available to me. But the fact that Blogger is blocked has been a real problem. It’s pretty odd to know that everyone EXCEPT ME can read my blog!

The heat. OK, I’ve already waxed eloquent on this subject. I won’t repeat myself. (Have I mentioned that it’s hot? Really, really, really, really hot? That I sweat all the time? That my children refuse to touch me anymore because I’m wet all the time? That I’m going to have to throw away all my shoes and my watch because leather really starts to stink when it’s been marinating in sweat all the time?!). It’s a good thing summer hit when it did – not having to deal with the heat is the only thing that really makes me happy to be leaving China!

The bank. Most of the time I can avoid Chinese bureaucracy; the bank is the big exception. Whenever I’ve had to actually use a teller instead of the ATM, my patience is sorely strained. I had to change money today since I needed more than the daily ATM withdrawal limit to pay for airline tickets. I gave myself 50 minutes before I had to be at Maya’s class to teach English. As soon as I walked into the bank, I knew that I’d be cutting it close. There were 4 people in line ahead of me, and only one teller. I was in line for 25 minutes before my turn for the teller. Surely 25 minutes will be enough time to change money, right?! Wrong! It took 30 minutes, two phone calls, looking at two different computer terminals, filling out 3 forms, stamping each form 3 times with a chop, counting the traveler’s checks (five of them) 4 times, counting the stack of yuan 4 times – twice by machine and twice manually, adding everything up twice on a calculator, AND THEN handing the whole mess over to a manager to do it all again! And this is at the Bank of China, which is THE bank you’re supposed to go to to exchange foreign currency. How in the world has China managed such phenomenal economic growth when the simplest banking transaction takes ONE HOUR??!!

The noise. The noise in China seems constant. I don’t know where you’d have to go if you were desperate for a moment of silence. And it’s not just that we’re living in the middle of a city. Yes, there’s traffic noise – but traffic is noisier here. The buses and trucks, in particular, are deafening. No one has ever heard of noise pollution, I guess. And then there’s the shops. You walk down a shopping street, and each store has music blaring, and each a different song, of course! Oftentimes there will be a person on a loudspeaker in the doorway, exhorting people to stop in. A salesclerk will be clapping loudly and rhythmically to draw the attention of passersby to the store. And everyone walking by is talking at top volume to be heard over the music, clapping, and traffic noise! Admittedly, some of the noise is fun noise – the girls loved it when the frogs started hatching or whatever it is they do, and we walked through the park to the sound of “ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg” every morning. I loved it when we first got here and I woke up each morning to hear the Buddhist monks at the monastery making noise to chase away evil spirits (now I sleep right through it!) And every night between 7:30 and 8:30 we hear a tenor singing opera (Western opera, not Chinese opera) and I STILL haven’t figured out where it’s coming from!

The smells. That traffic I mentioned? No one has thought to limit exhaust fumes from trucks or buses any more than noise. And then there’s garbage in the street, fumes from inefficient sewers, harsh chemical cleaners and pesticides, and who knows what else! And remember the heat? The Chinese don’t use deodorant, and you simply will not find it for sale here. The bad smells aren’t constant, but it’s a pretty rare day when one of the girls isn’t squeezing her nose closed and saying, “Stinky!” But then there’s incense wafting from the Buddhist temple next door, and the smell of fresh dirt and fresh vegetables in the market, and WONDERFUL cooking smells from the food stalls along the street, so it isn’t all bad.

The stares. Most of the time, the staring doesn’t bother me. It does bother, Zoe, though. And I admit sometimes, usually when I’m tired and hot and not feeling like being charming, it can irritate me, too. I try to remind myself that people aren’t being rude, they’re being interested. I’ll usually just look them in the eye, smile and say, “Ni hao!” They’ll dissolve into giggles and say “ni hao” back, and we’ll both feel good about the exchange. But sometimes you just don’t want to make the effort to make a good impression. It does feel like we’re on display all the time, and I want everyone to have a good impression of Americans and of Americans who adopt Chinese kids, and of Chinese adoptees, and that can get exhausting!

Spitting & picking. The spitting doesn’t get to me as much as the nose-picking does. I spend so much time telling Maya to get her finger out of her nose (one of her first phrases was “no pick nose!”) that I don’t much appreciate the role-modeling she’s getting on that front! And it isn’t just nose-picking – it’s the charming nostril clearing without aid of tissue (The first time I ever saw that trick was in a fishing village in Malaysia, where the whole town was built on stilts over the water. I figured it was something the villagers developed BECAUSE they were over water, and could handily clear their nostrils overboard, as it were. Little did I know then that it was common among land-lubbers, too!). Even when you know it’s just a cultural difference, it is a little disconcerting to make eye contact with one of the starers and have them lift their hands and casually pick their noses while we watch!

No ice. If I were to live in China permanently, I’d have to rig an ice maker with bottled water or something! I get really tired of filling up my little ice trays with bottled water, but it sure is better than nothing. I don’t mind that I can’t drink the tap water, or use it to brush teeth, etc., but it is a pain not to have an automatic ice maker. And that’s especially true since you can’t get ice much of anywhere in China (KFC is an exception to the no ice rule, and I admit to an addiction to their 9 Lives fruit juice which comes with ICE! I don’t eat at American fast food joints in China, but I’ll happily drink there!). In fact, most of the time in restaurants they’ll apologize if they think the canned or bottled drink they’ve brought you is too cold – I always want to say, “there’s no such thing as a too-cold drink!”

The crowds. We all know there are 1.3 billion people in China. What I find amazing is that all of them happen to be wherever I happen to be whenever I happen to be there! Whether at the park, the store, the bus, the street, the beach, there’s always a crowd. And if I’m trying to compete with the crowd – standing in line at check-out, racing for one of the few empty seats on the bus, trying to pass through narrow store aisles – I ALWAYS lose! The Chinese just have way more experience dealing with crowds than I have. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that when Americans try to get through crowds, we make ourselves small – we tuck in our elbows close to the body, sidle through with head and shoulders down, take tiny steps with our feet close together. We want to maintain our space, that large bubble that prevents us from getting too close to others in the crowd. Not so the Chinese – they make themselves BIG! Those elbows jut out, the bag or purse swings, no one worries about walking into or through someone else – it’s full speed ahead! No wonder I’m always outgunned!

Limited English reading material. This has been REALLY hard! I’m a voracious reader, and there was no way to bring enough to keep me occupied. But I thought I’d have a better reading selection from the international bookstores here – not so. I’m down to old issues of the New Yorker magazine – nothing like reading reviews of 3-year-old Broadway plays! I find myself fantasizing about Half-Price Books – that’ll be one of my first stops when we get back home.

Some of you might be surprised by what’s NOT on the list – squat potties! I admit, I’m as surprised as you are. I expected to REALLY hate them, but I’ve found they’re not that bad. It’s a bigger problem that there’s no toilet paper, because you have to plan ahead, than that it’s a squat toilet. And some public toilets can be dirty and odiferous, but that’s the case with Western public toilets, too.

Also not on the list – Chinese food and/or eating with chopsticks. I have never, ever gotten tired of eating Chinese food. There’s just so much variety, especially with vegetables. There are so many different kinds of greens, and many are known only in one province, so it isn’t at all unusual for the Chinese folks you’re dining with not to know the name of what they’re eating! Admittedly, I sometimes fantasize about a really good cheeseburger, but I haven’t missed Western food enough to go on a concerted hunt for it here. Part of it is that I love GOOD food, of whatever kind, and local food is more likely to be GOOD. And the chopsticks were rough at first, but now I can do pretty well with them. I know people must have been disgusted watching me when I first got here; oftentimes I had to use my fingers because I just couldn’t manage to pick up whatever-it-was with the chopsticks. And using your fingers to eat food is really taboo here (considering that picking stuff I mentioned before, is it any wonder?!). It’s interesting to watch people eat at KFC – they’ll leave the sandwich in the wrapper to eat it and hold the piece of fried chicken with a napkin rather than directly with fingers. And KFC will give you plastic gloves on request, and it isn’t unusual to see someone eating their lunch with those cafeteria-lady gloves on. All the fast food places also have sinks for hand-washing OUTSIDE the bathroom because so many people insist on washing hands before eating the food they’ll have to pick up with fingers (it’s also handy for pottying babies – today I watched two ladies holding their babies over the sink to go potty, rather than go into the bathroom and actually do it with the squat toilet! So don’t actually TOUCH the sink in China, ok?!)

As I took the bus to the supermarket this morning I was reminded of what I will miss in China. We passed Nanputuo Temple, with the incense-and-hell-money-sellers hawking their wares. The bus then wended its way through the old treaty-port part of town, and I watched old men sitting in front of a fruit market playing an ancient game like checkers. Another old man was preparing his tea in a tiny pot surrounded by even tinier cups. We passed a park where morning exercises were in full swing. We passed an old apartment building and I watched a woman hanging clothes on her balcony yelling down to her neighbor, also hanging clothes on her balcony. A grandmother pushed a toddler in a little kiddie car in front of the apartments. As we approached city hall and the business district, I saw a husband and wife walking along the sidewalk with their portable restaurant – she carried two huge metal pots balanced from a stick over her shoulder and he carried bowls and little stools no higher than 6 inches. When a lady approached them, they set it all down, regardless of the walkers around them, and filled a china bowl with what looked like noodle soup. They and the lady sat on the little stools in the middle of foot traffic while the lady leisurely ate her noodles. We reached shopping row, and old ladies returning from the vegetable markets vied for sidewalk space with young women in colorful cotton frocks and high, high heels, talking on their cell phones. The terminus for Bus 21 is the train station, where entire families sat patiently with their belongings in boxes and shopping bags and cloth totes and everything BUT suitcases, waiting for the train back to rural China.

This is what I’ll miss – people watching, life at a more leisurely pace, unusual sights around every corner, an adventure every day!


Kate said...


I am one of the 15000 who have stopped by to see what you and your wonderful girls are up to....on pretty much a daily basis. I have LOVED learning about China through you. Your humor, genuiness, and sense of fun that is comes through loud and clear in your great writing has been a treasure. What a wonderful thing to do for your girls and for you! I always admire people who make things happen and do what they truly want to do....and are one I admire!

Thank you for sharing your experiences, perspectives...and adventures with me!

mimifrancoise said...

It sounds like you are ready to come home. Not long now!

Wendy said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Kate. To some extent I feel like I see, hear, and yes, even smell China through the posts. Many of the posts bring back the sights, sounds, and smells and others leave me to imagine and really draw myself in.
This post is by far one of my favorites!

Dee said...

I am curious about the BO problem. I know in Russia it was really yucko when I was there, but I thought Asians didn't have BO? I thought they had far less body hair, so no BO? Am I just totally ignorant?

Nora said...

Thank you for sharing your adventure with me. I visit you almost daily after my two daughters (adopted Chinese) are fast asleep. Your writing transports me to another part of the world that I am so curious to learn about and understand. I admire you for making these past 6 months happen for you and your girls.

Thank you for giving me an adventure in China vicariously.


malinda said...

Wow, it looks like the net nanny might let me post a comment -- let's see if it works!

Thanks for all the nice comments, I appreciate it!

Dee, the BO problem is lesser for Chinese, but I guarantee it still exists! I love riding the bus with armpits in your face as the rider grabs the strap above your head. Whew!

Allen said...

Malinda, I agree with your observation on China. Hopefully they will change for better as China becomes more and more relevant on the world stage. One thing about Chinese, which is not uniquely Chinese, is that Chinese folks do not feel guilty. You can't make Chinese to feel guilty in order to get them to do or not to do something. If you really want them to stop doing some bad thing (e.g., picking nose), you will have to shame them. I have found that some other cultures, such as pan Arabic and other Asian, are just like that. As a Chinese, I feel one really bad table manner that Chinese have become so accustomed to is eating food right from the serving plate. Typical Chinese families don't use serving spoons. Every member of the family and even friends would simply pick up food from the serving plate with their own chopsticks or spoons. That's so easy to spread germs, not to mention depressing one's appetite. Hopefully as the world becomes more globalized, we can all learn from each other and become better people. You should be happy that you weren't teaching in China 20 years ago. :) And I won't get into details what it was like with nose picking and spitting then. China has improved a lot in the 20 years. Hopefully more changes will come sooner rather than later.

henna's hearsay said...

I love the list -- I've enjoyed following along becase we thought we would get to move to Xiamen with my husband's company. They decided it is going to be Singapore instead. I'll look forward to discovering my likes and dislikes in Singapore. Since I agree with your list, I hope that many of the dislikes aren't the same -- noise and smells especially! I'm also from Texas so I'm pretty sure the big city and all that goes with it is going to be a shock to the system.

I hope you and the girls savor the rest of your time there!

Kathy said...

Your post brought a smile to my face during this crazy day! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Was I with you when you had your Malaysian nose-clearing experience? must have been....... brings back memories. Lavelle

jeanette see said...

hi, i'm going to visit xiamen next week, and trying to read up abt the place, came upon ur site, i just want to tell u i have been enjoying reading ur blog, you write very well, its like u can get us glued to ur stories....