1. Be like a Zen Master.
After a trip to the Post Office in Guangzhou my Canadian friend exclaimed “5,000 years and the Chinese can’t wait in a straight line!” This is the wrong way to go about things. It doesn’t pay to get angry here in China. In the movie “Shanghai Knights” with funnyman Jackie Chan, impatient American Owen Wilson tries frantically to open an ancient vault. After a number of valiant attempts Wilson gives up. Jackie Chan says “The vault will open when it is ready to open”. It is what it is. Forcing an issue does not help at all. It is hard for a foreigner to see the Chinese reasoning process behind many of their decisions in China….and why their decisions often take so long.
2. Family and Education are #1
The Chinese word for “nation” is comprised of two characters -国 meaning “country” and 家 meaning “family”. This is a nation of families. During the Chinese New Year holiday (known as the Spring Festival) all Chinese are expected to make the trek home- no matter how near or how far away from the family. Like homing pigeons, Chinese hop onto every plane, train or automobile available to go home. Family comes first. Everyone else is an outsider. And what is the #1 priority of the family? Education. There is an old Chinese saying about education – “studying is like rowing upstream, if you don’t work hard you will fall behind”..How serious are the Chinese about their children’s education? Dozens of parents wait outside the kindergartens front gates at the end of each school day in every city and village in China- often to wisk their kid away to an English language center and/or piano lessons. Small towns have traffic jams at night.due to the high school kids getting out of class. at 9 or 10 pm. Families sacrifice a lot to ensure their child’s success in and out the classroom.
3. “You can’t change China, China will change you”.
This was the advice from a foreigner who has been living in China for over 30 years. A fascinating country with 1.4 billion people and a 5,000 year history. 92% of the Chinese population is Han Chinese. China has been open to the West for only last 35 years. Even with the mass migration to the urban areas and the wealth of the nouveau riche…real change won’t happen overnight…China will change you though. Like the constant drip of water wearing down a rock- if you stay here in China long enough- you will know how to use chopsticks, drink Oolong Tea and speak Mandarin. (*There is no guarantee you wlll become thin like the Chinese but you never know..Stay away from McDonald’s and eat some rice.)
4. “Everything is possible, nothing is easy”.
This was the second comment made by a foreigner during a CCTV interview with a foreign man living in China for 30 years. To a foreign teacher, the Chinese are 1.4 billion potential students who need to learn English. To a businessman, the Chinese are 1.4 billion potential customers who need their product. . To a missionary, the Chinese are 1.4 potential Christians who need religion in their life. Whatever your hobby or vocation- the time is now to act upon it. This is a time unlimited growth in China and for you too. Englishman Dominic Johnson-Hill started out in China as a young backpacker. Ten years later he is a successful entrepreneur with his own clothing line called “Plastered 8” and has a television show. Bring your dreams and give them your best shot- you won’t regret it.
5. You are a LAOWAI.
Laowai is the word the Chinese use for foreigner. Lao means “old”. Wai means “outside”. Depending on the tone of voice and the inflection used by the Chinese the term .laowai can have a negative connotation or it can be a term of endearment. No matter how long you stay in China you will be an outsider to a certain extent. At first you might feel like a white platelet floating along in a never-ending sea of red platelets. It takes awhile to find your personal “comfort zone”.
There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to being a laowai. To some Chinese – you are a celebrity deserving of unlimited attention and praise. Young Chinese might ask for your photograph on a daily basis. Your ugly mug could end up on a billboard or in a magazine. Take for instance ,a young handsome couple American couple Michael and Katie. They were asked to show up at a kindergarten. They never took the job at the kindergarten yet their picture is on the front office wall for all the Chinese parents and students to see. Older Chinese may not speak English and have had very limited interactions with foreigners – and want to keep it that way.. It may take some time to break down the cultural Great Wall of cCmmunications with the older Chinese.
6. Expect to make mistakes.
As a laowai, it is inevitable that you will make a “cultural faux pas”. You can’t possibly know all the correct social norms and proper behavior for every situation you encounter in China. Let me give you an example: I was teaching Chinese engineers and businessmen at a Fortune 500 company in Shenzhen. During a roleplay/ dialogue dealing with foreign currency, I took out some fake Chinese paper money that I bought at a local print shop. Some students jumped out of their seats. Others ran for the exits. (I had no idea that the phony money was use for Chinese ancestors on tomb-sweeping day. I was embarrassed and ashamed.)
7. Learn Chinese.
I know it sounds cliché- but the more Chinese you learn the easier your life will be. Do you like acting? If you never learn spoken Mandarin, then you will have to become both a performer and mime- a modern-day Charlie Chaplin. If you never learn to read or write the characters, then every block of characters looks like a confusing Chinese Eye Chart of hieroglyphics. Is there a best way to learn Chinese? Only you know the answer to that question. The best way to learn Chinese is what suits your individual needs and learning style.
8. Culture Shock never ends.
China can be like a never-ending house of mirrors.. There is always something new, different or unusual in China that is going to surprise you.. This is my 8th year in China and I am still shocked and awed on a regular basis. I was visiting the Shaolin Temple.last summer .and I came across a barbershop. Outside the barbershop there was a box of flashlights marked “LED. Find Scorpions”. As I picked up a flashlight, the barber/hairdresser came out to greet me with a bucket of live scorpions. I wondered if Medusa would appear from her salon complete with snakes in her hair.
9. Expats come in all shapes and sizes.
This is the Wild Wild East. Young and old…rich and poor….expats are flocking here to fulfill their personal “Chinese Dream” like the California Gold Rush of 1849. Back in your hometown your friends are probably about the same age and social status. When you become an expatriate, a Friday night dinner with other expats might look more like a meeting of the United Nations. Chances are there will be quite an age gap too. I was out with 3 American buddies the other night in Jilin Province ages 62, 50 (me) 26 and 24.. Here in China we are just foreigners and expats. Back home in America most people would think “What a nice family. There’s a father and his son and daughter with Grandpa. Awwww.”.
10. Confucius still matters.
2000 years later…and Confucius still matters. You might see Chairman Mao’s picture on all the money here but it is statues of Confucius that are on full display on college campuses. After all, in China Confucius is known as the “first teacher”. Confucius and Confucianism is the “face” that China likes to show to the outside world. Over 100 countries have Confucius centers.. The number of Confucius centers continues to increase rapidly as more and more foreigners want to learn more about Chinese culture. As of 2010 America had 64 Confucius Institutes in 37 states. In 2011, former Chinese president Hu Jintao made of point of visiting the Confucius Center in U.S. President Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago. Many Chinese still believe there is only “One Mountain, One River and One Man” in China. The “mountain” is the majestic Mount Taishan, the “river” is the picturesque Yellow River…. and the “man” is Confucius. Confucius is still widely quoted in the East and the West. Confucius once said “A journey of 100 miles begins with a single step”. More and more foreigners are taking that first step everyday.
See China. There is more to China than Shanghai, Beijing and the Great Wall. Go see the “real China” – the hutongs, the villages. the temples. Stay a week. Stay a month. In the West we would say you need to “stop and smell the roses” – which means to slow down, relax and enjoy the beauty all around you in the Middle Kingdom.. In China – they have a saying for those who don’t stop and smell the roses. Those who dart around from place to place while on vacation are merely “viewing flowers on horseback”.
Be a modern day Marco Polo and follow the real silk road from Xi’an to Urumqi to Kashgar.. Beijing’s “Silk Street” with its faux Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermes products will still be there when you get back…you could probably get the same products online…and cheaper.. (*One bit of advice if you do go to the market. Look at the price. Offer half or less. Walk out the door. If they are interested, they
11. The days of Foriegners telling the Chinese how to run their country are long over.
(EDITOR's note...This is me re-writing and expanding a bit more on what Jeff originally wrote.)
Sure, there are things some of us don't like about China. These can range from trivial affairs, through to historical and contemporary issues. Whatever the issue, and whatever the opinion, it's important to remember we are guests in this country. Stay away from sensitive issues - It's disrespectful in any country for guests to criticise and complain about their hosts. If your Chinese friends want to discuss issues, let them bring them up, otherwise, just avoid them all together.
Jeff Walsh lives in Siping and teaches English at Jilin Normal University.