The combination of the trip home and a visit from Anne Baughman has caused me to reflect a bit on the time that David and I have spent in China. I just read David’s post from our first trip to Beijing, and can still recall the totally different perspective with which I saw this city. Everything seemed like a confusing mystery, but I have to say that David did a pretty incredible job orienting himself with so much uncertainty.

We have been here for almost a year and a half, and our impressions of the country have certainly changed in many ways. Almost nothing is shocking anymore…at least about Beijing, and it gets more and more difficult to maintain a fresh and objective eye with which to write the blog. I have received a few comments that the beginning of our blog was really the most interesting, and I have to agree. Mostly I think it was easier to present the fascinating things in China when everything was new. Now I see a lot of things on a daily basis that I’m sure would blow your minds, but I have seen them so many times that it has become commonplace in my mind.

Although part of the essence of this blog is our personal journey, growth and transformation, I still hope to use it as a tool with which to illuminate Asian culture in comparison to our Western home. With that in mind, I am trying to re-discover my outsider perspective on Beijing.

The thing about China that fascinates me even more than the food is the language. I don’t know why, but I never assumed that Chinese would use the same general thoughts and ideas in their speech as in other languages. I guess my perception was that because the language was created so many years ago, the whole concept of communication would have evolved differently. Stupid of me to assume that language doesn’t evolve with society, but that was my perception. Sure, there are different colloquialisms and expressions, but in general you can translate speech using the same ideas of a word. To illustrate my point, I never assume that words like “yet, because and still” would be used in the same manner to express different states of happening…but more or less, they are!

Other than tones and characters, a major difference between English and Chinese is that the Chinese use WAY less words. If brevity is the soul of wit, the Chinese must be the masters of wittiness. This (and the lack of conjugations and tenses) accounts for much of the perception that English-speaking Chinese speak like cavemen. I recently read a funny article that said something to the effect of:

The way a Chinese person says I want to take a cab: Da di qu.
The way an American says they want a cab: I think I would like, if it’s convenient and not too expensive, to call company to send a driver to the corner of my apartment and the store around eight pm or a few minutes before, to avoid rush-hour and get there quickly if that’s ok.

I have also racked my brain to think of a few funny Chinglish phrases that make a lot more sense now that I have a vague understanding of Chinese:

-If I ask, “Why?” in the classroom, students will often respond, “No, why” instead of “No reason” because in Chinese “Bu Weishenme” or “No why” is a perfectly acceptable response.

-Almost all Chinese people know how to say hello, bye bye and Oh my god! Which is apparently a phrase from English that they simply love. Children also say “Oh my ladygaga” quite a bit, hilarious and kills in the classroom.

-Although the use of America and American is very similar to the translation of this noun to adjective in Chinese, it poses huge problems for the Chinese. They are always mixing up these words and have also been taught the word “Americ” with no “a” at the end for some unknown reason.

-Despite being brief with words, the Chinese love to add extra syllables to the end of words. I can’t even blame this on the differing sounds of pinyin and American letters, as my three year olds would even pronounce d-o-g “dog-guh” and c-a-t “cat-uh”…and many more

-What’s your name is also NOT a common greeting in China. Often if I ask a child what his name is, he will look quizzically at his mother and wonder why I’m asking such a strange or private question. Fortunately I have had some parents reply (In Chinese), “It’s OK honey, that’s just what foreigners do!”

Despite the fact that we haven’t been serious about studying Chinese, David and I have picked up quite a bit of the language through listening, repeating, and looking up words when needed. It was so cool to speak with Chinese tourists and Chinese Americans this summer while visiting DC. It seems we kept running into Beijingers, and it’s awesome to think that this could be possible for the rest of our lives.

I also wanted to recount a story from back in Tangshan that I’m not sure I have shared on the blog. I was tutoring a smart, seventeen year old girl for her IELTS exam (the most important English exam for foreign students) and asked the practice question, “Name someone you admire and why.”

“Hitler,” she immediately responded, “because he was a great, powerful leader that many people followed.”

Shocked Erin explains, “While this is a thorough answer, I do not think you should say it for your exam.”

“Why?” asks perplexed girl.

“Well, the people testing you probably don’t have a favorable opinion of Hitler. In fact, most Americans probably think he’s one of the most evil people in the world and you don’t want to offend anyone during this exam.”

“Oh, ok. Let me think then.”

A quite shocking example of the differences in respect for leaders that is accepted and taught in schools. Chinese students are generally brought up to revere Mao, Hitler and Stalin for their charismatic natures and leadership ability, which is quite a unique perspective for Americans.

Also, after reading Evan Osnos’ article in The New Yorker (a GREAT piece on traveling with a Chinese tour group to Europe) and participating in Chinese-led tours with the Jacobs and Anne, it seems that tourism Chinese-style is dramatically different. First of all, tour guides seek to control and regulate their groups in a way that leaves no real room for deviation from the set schedule. Our general perception of customer service and listening to the needs of the traveler are thrown out the window in favor of trying to create an air of importance surrounding the tour guide and delivering on exactly what the tour offers and nothing more. Secondly, tour guides are not able to discuss aspects of near history that shed a less-favorable light on China. While Emperors can be bad-mouthed to a certain extent for being sexual deviants or not treating people fairly, the same rules do not apply for politicians. Additionally, the “Three T’s” are simply not discussed, and it’s my understanding that the employment of tour guides is state-supervised, they can be relieved from their duties for talking about such issues. Thirdly, Chinese tours often highlight the progress of modern China much more than the exceptionally long and innovative history. Although Americans often come to China hoping to see relics of China’s great past, they are often met with skyscrapers and examples of how quickly China is modernizing as a world-player. Young tour leaders know their history, but cannot understand why Western tourists are much more interested in the hutongs and construction workers using man-powered tools than their futuristic cityscapes. The truth of the matter, in my perspective, is that “old China” really doesn’t play a part in the modern life of big cities, which is why it’s so hard for tourists to find an authentic examples of its existence. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but its not the kind of experience you and uncover from a tour bus or a young Chinese guide. I can’t tell you how perplexed many people are when I tell them that I came to China for the experience and the culture and not the money. In that case, I would have been gone long ago!

Well, if you got all the way through that, I’m proud. Hopefully you learned a bit and will continue to read on as we continue to answer the question, What is China all about? To appropriately compliment the theme of this post, the photos include the more traditional Chinese culture of markets and a man who sources antique tea pots in Anhui province, and a few fancy events that we have attended around the city.

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