I moved to a small city in China five months ago. Before my big move I had traveled three weeks in China, so I was a little prepared for the major cultural differences. But, after five months I still haven’t figured out what a lot of social behaviors mean in China.
Teaching college-level English students can be enjoyable, but also a bit lonely. There are only a few other foreign teachers and not many expats living in my city. Chinese people my age meet each other only through friends not in public. For fun, post graduate students enjoy singing karaoke in private KTV rooms, playing video games in Internet cafes, shopping, drinking at home and eating out, all unlikely scenarios for introducing new friends. So, most of the time I try to make friends with my students. But, there is always a boundary, they are my students, I am a teacher and not living the life of a student alongside them, and I’m also not from their culture. Luckily, some of my students have pushed past those boundaries with me and I have some I consider friends. Here are a few cultural differences I have noticed as well as situational experiences that I encounter as a white girl.
People are not shy about asking for favors, just last week a student I hardly knew asked if I could keep a few pounds of fresh fish in my freezer for her, people who aren’t my students ask me every so often to help them with their English, sometimes for hours, and plan a party. In turn, it is accepted that you can ask for a favor in return of equal or greater value, this is called guanqi. People stare at me, a lot, sometimes in a friendly way, less often not and sometimes people stop and stare blankly. People have asked to take pictures with me, especially when doing something outlandish like jumping off a bridge into the ocean. People baby me, which is good and bad, good because I am forgiven for any social faux pas I commit and bad because sometimes people try to remedy a situation they don’t understand.
In my city people don’t make much noise in the streets, there’s no dancing, acting loudly or goofy in public, that behavior is reserved for a private setting. This is difficult for me because I love to make a show of myself. There is also not much opportunity for dancing and bars are unpopular. Most of my students enjoy soft music and the girls are the shyest and quietest people I have ever met. But, they aren’t all quiet, a lot of boys and girls are naughty and hilarious. Everyone’s ego seems lower, sing in front of your whole class? No problem. My students will show off their skills in the appropriate setting without trying to show off, but simply to entertain. And they’re not embarrassed if they mess up. And be prepared you will be video recorded. I have had pictures and videos of me unknowingly taken and sent to me.
If you ever do anything in contrast of the status quo, in my city it’s even quite surprising to people that I, as a girl, drive a motorbike, you will meet words of dissuasion. This is not because people are consciously trying to keep you from happiness, but because they lead more cautious and modest lives and are nervous for you. Most of my students are only children and their parents are very protective of them. They are also expected to support their parents, so unlike me, who only has to worry about making enough money to support themselves and someday children, they have to worry about making money for their parents as well. Therefore, traveling can seem like a dream beyond reach for most of them.
My students generation is experiencing a rapidly changing China, they don’t associate themselves with China of the past, they are becoming more independent and outgoing. But, if they kept their humbleness it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the world.