For my first few weeks in China I looked dazed, confused, and offended (probably from the rancid sewage wafting off the streets). I walked around wearing nervousness and discomfort on my face, which seemed to make people even more wary of helping the foreigner. Eventually though, I learned to smile and nod at everyone, partially as a way to make up for my inability to communicate in their language, but also as a way to seem more approachable. My smile put them at ease people tried to speak to me even if they only knew a few words.
It was rare to find a person in China who understood the phrase “What’s up?” but I often found people who could say a couple words or carry on a conversation for a few minutes in English. I learned to speak at an uncomfortably slow pace, but it meant that I could have a real conversation. By pronouncing every “t” and “d” that I usually slurred through in everyday speech and pausing for breaks, we were able to talk about more meaningful subjects like feminism and public education. Even saying a few words like nǐ hǎo (hello) and nǐ jiào shénme míngzi (what is your name) in Mandarin made locals more interested in speaking English with me.
The longer I stayed in China, the more I learned about the One Child Policy, communism, corruption, and other controversial topics. The more I listened, the more I realized that my limited knowledge as an outsider meant I couldn’t offer meaningful commentary on China’s political and environmental situation. Sometimes people were interested in my opinion, but I had less to say than I did when I was back in America — full of assumptions and judgments.
Instead I got really good at talking about the weather.
The Chinese care little for those who look down on others. Through watching my hosts, I learned to be more attentive and polite to receptionists, waiters, and other service people. Most people in China come from humble origins and respect others who work hard, no matter what position they’re in. I was used to getting by on a quick glance and a smile, forgetting people’s names and faces almost instantly. Although I was still terrible with names, especially ones in Chinese, we had more meaningful and interesting interactions, making my trip more memorable.
Adventurous eating isn’t my strong suit as a traveler. But at the insistence of my Chinese friends, I explored foods that would normally make me gag — like escargot from Pizza Hut. Sometimes we ate dishes of noodles and soups filled with plants or animals I couldn’t recognize. Overall I came out liking more authentic dishes like Peking Duck, Chow Fun, and Xiao Long Bao, no longer satisfied with fried rice and orange chicken. But I still draw the line at fish heads, chicken feet, and pig tongue.
In America, we often to try appear different, assert our individuality. We get obnoxiously drunk, make a ruckus on the subway, and cause scenes in public without getting more than dirty looks. However, sticking out in China isn’t a good thing. And, as westerners, we already attract a lot of attention.
So I learned how to be more like everyone else. I put away my lax California uniform of tank tops and flip flops. I ordered fewer taro buns and milk teas from the Taiwanese pastry shops so I wouldn’t seem like a fat American. And I tried to be more humble by deferring compliments about my height, perfect teeth, and killer dance moves in an effort to appear more self-deprecating, which is hard for someone with an ego as big as mine.
Back in the States, it could take me a couple days or even a week to respond to texts or emails, but I quickly learned that kind of timeframe doesn’t work for the Chinese. As soon as I met someone new, they wanted to connect over WeChat — and they seemed more interested in texting over the app than talking face to face.
After missing a few lunch dates and karaoke outings, I learned that you need to stay attached to your phone and respond immediately, if you expect to have any friends at all. If you ignore someone for more than a couple days, they’ll probably forget about you.