China Is Like Gwen

Living and working in China is an adventure.  There is so much to learn and there are so many cultural differences it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.  I am sure the same would be true for anyone moving to any new place, at least to an extent.  At first being here was often “in your face” shocking.  It has become easier with time but still, there are some things I may never get used to.  For example, how is it that a  5,000 year old culture hasn’t figured out the whole “standing in line” thing?  Oh, and I am sorry but it will NEVER be acceptable to let your toddler take a dump at the top of the escalator in the city’s most popular department store.  Go ahead and snicker, but I swear it happened to me last Christmas.  I had to do a jig in order to dodge baby, momma and turd as I reached the third floor landing.  The most interesting part of that scenario?  I was seemingly the only person who even noticed the kid had dropped trou!  The whole public pee and poo thing here is outta’ control.

I am not a big Seinfeld fan.  Jerry by himself is OK but the TV show was kind of lost on me.  That being said, I do remember one episode where Jerry begins to date a woman named Gwen.  Jerry first met the beautiful Gwen at a party, subsequently asking her out.  When he meets her the next time, at a restaurant, it turns out she is two-faced. You see, sometimes Gwen looks great, other times she’s plain butt-ugly; it all depends on the viewer’s angle and the lighting.  That’s kind of like China for me.  In some light it is an amazing place and then in other light … whoa!

One of the things I have had the most difficulty adjusting to is the total lack of planning anything in advance.    It usually just doesn’t happen, at least not here in Liuzhou.  Most folks don’t make their plans for more than a few days in advance.  I see it everyday with my students (they have raised procrastination to an art form), but it’s not just with the youngsters.  In the past week alone I can think of at least 5 examples.

Tuesday morning I received a call from the Foreign Language Department and was summarily told we would be having our long-awaited welcome banquet, on Wednesday evening.  One days notice!  Yep, the President of Liuzhou Teachers College would be welcoming the new foreign teachers (Jo Ellen and myself) to the school and all the foreign teachers and some key faculty members would also attend.  Never mind that school began September 1st and that we’ve already been teaching at the college for three and a half months.  It doesn’t even matter that the semester ends in three weeks and that Jo Ellen will be back in Cincinnati by the end of the month, perhaps never to return to China.  Still, really?   One days notice?  We had been hearing rumors of the get together for months but after such a long time I thought the “welcome” banquet was probably just not going to happen.  That really would have been fine with me.  After my 6th or 7th China banquet I realized the experience, whatever the occasion, is all too similar.  That’s not to say identical mind you, but there will be the obligatory speeches and food.  Sometimes the food is pretty good.  During and afterward there will be endless rounds of toasting this and that.  Sometimes the beer is cold, more often it is not.  Anyway, THIS TIME, I had not made any plans and I didn’t need to juggle my schedule to accommodate the short  notice.  No I hadn’t made any plans, because at the time I received the banquet call on Tuesday I did not yet know I was going to be given Thursday off.

In fact, the entire province was to be given the day off in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of The Guangxi Autonomous Region.  I found out about said Thursday holiday, early Tuesday evening, yes, two days notice.  The actual anniversary date of December 11th  had been announced quite a while back, but again, it wasn’t until Tuesday around 6PM that I learned about the Thursday holiday.  Now this would have been huge for me had I known in advance.  I already have Friday, Saturday and Sunday off and don’t have my first class until late Monday afternoon.  I could have traveled somewhere, in fact, definitely would have traveled somewhere had I known!

This kind of thing with the planning no longer actually surprises me, in fact, even though it is still bothersome, now I mostly shrug my shoulders and do my best to roll with it. As we were strolling to the restaurant for dinner Wednesday evening, the college President mentioned another banquet to be held next week.  He invited us to attend but of course, no one cold tell me the exact date and time! Maybe we’ll find out Monday.

The Liuzhou Foreign Affairs Office will have its annual Christmas – New Year’s get together sometime soon as well.  Each year the Foreign Affairs Office pulls out all the stops and invites the few hundred Laowai in town to a big holiday bash.  THIS is a pretty good party and I am actually looking forward to it.  I only wish I knew the date! No one at my school admits to knowing the date or even the location of the big cross-cultural extravaganza.  I am fairly certain it will be held before Christmas.

I was also told this week that some of the young Chinese English teachers would like to come and observe one of my classes.  No one could explain why they might want to come and when I asked if anyone could tell me when exactly, I got the puppy dog head tilt.  You know,  the puppy head tilt, that thing a dog does when it hears a whistle?  Yeah that look.  As if to ask, why would you want to know “when”?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the “Welcome” banquet was actually a nice time.  It was a small intimate occasion, the food was good  and the beer was indeed cold.

The weather in south China continues to be amazing.  Sunny days, cool nights with no humidity for weeks on end now.  It doesn’t feel much like Christmas but hey, after last winter, I’ll take it.  I’ll try and write more over the weekend about some projects I am working on.  Maybe I’ll take the camera out for a walk as well.


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~ by Expatriate Games on December 13, 2008.

11 Responses to “China Is Like Gwen”

  1. The Seinfeld episode with Gwen is “The Strike”. It aired during the final season in December,1997 and is also the episode that introduced us to Festivus!

  2. What is it with the pee and poo thing??? There is a Chinese girl who works in our office, who just had a baby. One of our Chinese licensees sent a congratulatory present of baby clothes..all with the hole cut out in the pants so that they can do “you know what” any time and any where… I asked another friend (Japanese) who is living in China right now and she said she sees this this with toddlers? babies?? I think I can put up with a lot of things…but that is the ONE thing that would probably throw me off completely!!!! You deal with it well!

    • I see public urination everywhere here, from the smallest of children to old men (and the occasional old gal). The defecation thing is admittedly rare but you WILL see it from time to time. It has been explained to me that many of these folks come from the countryside, so they don’t know any better. Maybe there is something to that, after all, China has changed so rapidly and old habits (centuries old) can be hard to break. At some point though wouldn’t you think the more educated folks would take a stand? I live in a very nice hi-rise apartment building in one of the nicest areas of the city. In my complex’s center courtyard I can see kids dropping their drawers nearly every day. I watch them from my balcony, (boys and girls) and they often just stop where ever they are at the moment and let it fly. Unabashed little girls squat, squirt and resume their games. I also watch as the parents and grandparents say nothing to correct the behavior. This is happening in a small city of 1.6 million. Having said all that, I am rarely repulsed anymore. Adaptation? Probably. Assimilation? Not yet but I would never say never! When in Rome Liuzhou…

  3. So glad to hear that you are enjoying warm weather in Liuzhou. In Seattle, the cold air from Canada is coming in and we’ll be lucky to get above freezing within in the next week… coldest weather in about 18 years. So, sit outside at a nice cafe and have a cold beer for me! And yes, don’t you just love the split pants and the kids doing their business wherever. I don’t think I could get used to it either.

  4. Michael, I can empathize very deeply on this issue. I spent a semester abroad in West Africa many years back and of all the crazy things I encountered and learned to deal with, the one thing I could never get used to was how excruciatingly laid-back everyone was about time! My OCD American sense of schedule can’t take it. I also have a strong need to know. . .when, where, why. . .all those crucial wh- informants. I don’t know if you will grow accustomed eventually, but my sympathies are with you!

    • Yeah I am getting more used to it as the days go by, truing into months, then years. Maybe it’s a good thing for me. A woman I know once told me that I had to make a plan to make a plan.

  5. So it’s like impromptu living in China! Rather exciting. 🙂 You sounded rather pissed at first, but I think you’re finding everything very charming there already.

    • Not pissed, that’s not the point I was trying to make. With tongue firmly in cheek, I was hoping to illustrate a few cultural differences that may lead one to frustration. I am not sure exactly what you mean by already, as I have been her for a while now, but some things, no matter how long I am here (pooing and peeing) are definitely not charming. Conversely, some of it is for sure. I love my adventure in China, just trying to point out that it is not always easy to adapt to the cultural changes. I am sure the average Chinese person relocating to the US would have their own cultural adjustments to make!

  6. Hi Michael, this is James Yeung from flickr. Interesting read. I must confess being a Hongkonger, I also find some of the cultures in the Mainland difficult to understand or adapt to. I can understand the examples you raised.

    The difference between the cultures of East and West sometimes can be unexplainable. I was just wondering why a goose liver paste can be an expensive French meal appetizer while cooked pig intestines or chicken feet we have in China are often despised by the West as being disguisting?

    • Well James, too be honest I find the goose liver equally, if not more disgusting than chicken feet!

  7. Good point. I guess in my perspective, doing your toilet thing in public is quite common place. Seriously, you should come to the Philippines. But that doesn’t mean I am in favor of it. I hate it, in fact. But I can’t do anything about it. Like what I said–very common place.

    Charming–about not planning in advance, hahahahaha.

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