Dominic does it again; another absolutely brilliant submission, this time about the cultural differences that one would experience when visiting China. These essays were originally published to aid the students of a major Canadian university, who were on their way to study in Tianjin. However, their relevance, with respect to understanding life in China, is paramount. And humorous, to say the least. I've experienced a lot of this myself, especially the staring part.... So, without further adieu, let's get into it. doc
The Traveler's Cultural Compendium for China
This pamphlet is a humble prophylactic attempt to alleviate the shock that a Western traveler will inevitably encounter when confronted to a total and sudden immersion in a different cultural milieu. Even those of you majoring or minoring in East Asian studies, who ironically spend your days studying Chinese culture, history, society and so forth, are undoubtedly ill-prepared for a direct confrontation with the juggernaut of difference which is China. Here are some of the most incongruous idiosyncrasies that were reported by students who participated in the program in recent years:
Please consult your Lonely Planet guide for a detailed and engaging piece on the subject. Mainlanders seem to have no aversion to staring and pointing at people if the latter should arouse curiosity (let's put a few in a New York city subway after dark and see what happens). They will consistently sit next to you on buses, trains and so on, and stare at you, sometimes commenting to their friend on how ridiculous and out-of-place you look, or how "yellow" your hair is. Occasionally, individuals will form a circle around you and observe while you eat, read, or simply rest. This situation can degenerate into the "no-help circle" in which people will refrain from helping a person in need if the interest and fulfilment of just staring supersedes their impetus to help. A few years back, a group of 20+ onlookers gathered to point and chuckle at a student getting his life threatened by an enraged pipe-wielding cab driver. Free Tip: wear a mask to travel incognito.
Speaking of cab drivers, accidents aren't a major thing in Mainland China. While I was in Inner Mongolia, an oncoming car clipped our vehicle and ripped off a mirror in addition to scratching the side. After an awkward moment of hesitation, both drivers continued on their merry way. If an accident should eventuate minor injuries (which usually occur in bicycle collisions), the usual practice is to pay off the party that claims the most serious injuries. Free Tip: bring lots of money with you when you ride your bike. It's hard to argue a good case when you're in level one Chinese.
Potential Business Partners
Many Mainlanders seem to firmly believe that all Westerners in China are businessmen or women. It is extremely common for strangers to walk up to you and ask you to become their business partner. They will even invite you to meet their family and suggest you import undisclosed numbers of mysterious packages into your country. On the train from Tianjin to Beijing, one gentleman proposed to establish a physics research institute in Canada with me. I tried to tell him that I am completing a BA, but it did not seem to deter him. If any of you are interested, I still have his card. Free Tip: as soon as somebody reaches for a business card, tell them you have diarrhoea (la duzi) and run like the wind.
You've been waiting in line for over two hours in order to buy train tickets, and when you finally get to the counter, the clerk will rudely tell you that "there ain't none left" (mei you). Whether or not you get train tickets usually depends on whether or not the clerk likes your hairdo. Prices may also fluctuate in accordance with other variables such as the colour of your shirt, your height, etc. You might have no other alternative than buying tickets on the black market at double the price (they are real tickets, rest assured). A percentage of the profit would then find its way in the pocket of the intransigent clerk who refused to sell you the tickets in the first place. Free Tip: Before asking for the tickets, buy the clerk some flowers and tell him/her how radiantly beautiful he/she looks today.
Etiquette and Feminine Grace
Confucianism has left an indelible mark on Chinese society. Even after fifty years of communist rule, the elaborate etiquette of past tradition has persisted. However, some things have slipped through the cracks. Spitting is a common occurrence in China, even for distinguished ladies. Spitting at the diner table and expectorating phlegm is all good. Note however, that you should never pass people on the right when riding your bike: that is the side they usually turn their heads to when flinging out a loogie (in a memorable incident, my friend got hit in the face with one). Couples and good friends can pick each other's noses (in public) and during a meal, if you should encounter a bad piece of meat, feel free to remove it from your mouth with your fingers and nonchalantly chuck it to the ground. A knock on the door means, "I'm coming in" rather than "May I come in?" (quite embarrassing when you're coming out of the shower). Free Tip: when in Rome, do as the Romans do--I had a good time taking my shirt off (I'm a guy) at the diner table when the temperature got too warm.
The Cabby Dialect
Cab drivers in Beijing and Tianjin claim they speak standard Mandarin, yet no one has ever been able to adequately decipher their utterings. The cabby dialect remains elusive and enigmatic; separate degrees should be awarded to those who master it (cabby level 1 is currently being considered for approval as a McGill course). Free Tip: when involved in a conversation with a cab driver, nod "yes" at everything he/she says. Should the cabby get irate, quickly and discreetly change your "yes" nod to a "no" nod.
The Chinese have a system by which they can count to ten using only one hand. Beware! In Henan province, "ten" is represented by an extended middle finger pointing up to the sky. If someone tells you that an article you wish to purchase is ten kuai, don't take it the wrong way. Free Tip: Have fun! Tell everybody that you see "its only ten kuai
Urinating and Defecating
Outside the large cities, public toilets (aside from lacking bowls) seldom have divisive barriers between booths; in fact, there are no booths, just holes in the ground. On a field trip, I found the sudden urge to relieve myself. Once I was in the bathroom, my language professor, who shall remain nameless, came in and suggested that "we go together"(women yiqi qu). Without finishing my business, I got up and darted out of there. I must have somehow insulted my professor by declining his request since I got a rather dismal grade at my next quiz. Free Tip: get used to it or suffer the consequences- you might find it useful to know that bladder infections caused by long-term abstention from urination can be treated and constipation may be induced by eating large quantities of rice.
Sorry to disappoint you guys but in Mainland China, when two girls hold hands, dance together, gaze into each other's eyes, and cuddle, it simply means that they are friends, nothing more. Friendship is expressed in a very physical manner. The same applies to men (yes, they hold hands, dance together, and cuddle). Free Tip: for all you eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, make friends with many members of the opposite sex.
The Beer Equation
If any of you enjoy an occasional beer, you're going to love China. Beer is actually cheaper than water. The standard bottle (which comes in a 700ml format-that's almost a litre!) costs between 5 and 15 kuai (1 to 3 Canadian dollars). Just to accompany a meal, I would typically have four or five bottles. The reason I could do this every day without joining the local AA chapter when I got back home, was because the alcohol content is ridiculously low in comparison to our rugged Canadian beers. In our free afternoons, after endless hours of complex mathematical and logistical calculations, my friends and I produced an equation which succinctly simplifies the confusing alcohol ratio between a 330ml Canadian beer and its 700ml Chinese counterpart: one Canadian beer is roughly equivalent to 1.7 big Chinese beers. Free Tip: beer is cheap; try brushing your teeth with beer or taking beer baths (your pores can absorb it!). Act with reserve however, when you encounter the notoriously potent bai jiu.
"How to have fun using a minimal amount of brain cells"
So you're going to study in Tianjin. You might think you'll be continuously busy with classes, activities, studying and a whole new culture to discover. Indeed you will be but alas, you'll be so overwhelmed with stimuli that your natural autonomic reaction will be to do nothing at all. Indeed, I remember the countless hours I spent in the sweet and indulgent numbness of slumber during my first couple of weeks at Nankai-that is before I actually structured my schedule and filled it with less intellectually demanding things than "discovering a new culture" or learning a language. Four hours of class doesn't seem like much but it's actually more than what I spend on studying per week at McGill. The following is thus a series of things to do if you find yourself saturated of the blissful nirvana of learning or actively interacting with a people who can't really understand half of what you're saying (even though you speak their language-something to do with the "four tones").
1. I don't really need to tell you what the number one non-intellectual most enjoyable pass-time is.
2. On campus, the bored student can always participate in extra-curricular activities sponsored by the program. However, calligraphy, Beijing opera, cooking, and even wushu classes require some degree of mental activity and a minimal cost (about $2 CAD each week for each discipline) . Nankai also offers a scenic campus, which is a nice place to ride your bike, and a little pond-like reservoir, convenient for sun-bathing or fishing (mainly frogs-you can "make them" smoke and watch them explode). About five minutes from the dorms, you can also open a can of whoop-ass on the local basketball courts or pump some iron with the homies at the penitentiary-style gym. That's about it for the campus.
Ten to Fifteen minutes from Campus (by foot, bike, or taxi)
3. On the left of the alley directly opposed to the University's side gate is an internet café (which serves no coffee). This café has more computers available than the one on campus, and the prices are roughly forty percent cheaper. Aside from checking your email and replying to the annoying logorrhoea of estranged girlfriends (or boyfriends), you can spend hours playing classic PC games such as Starcraft and build up your Protos to exterminate those damn Terrans.
4. On those lazy Sunday afternoons, you can ride your bike ten minutes south from Nankai and spend some time at the (in)famous Tainjin zoo, located within the area known as "Water Park" (Shuishang Gongyuan). Animal rights activists please abstain from visit. The creatures are housed in postwar cement bunker-type dwellings, and on hot days, the only source of hydration they have is their own sweat or pools of urine. An interesting experience nevertheless. Be sure to check out the racoon-dog, a weird hybrid probably genetically engineered as a weapon against the West during the Cold War. The zoo also has a cage full of cats, but if time is of the essence, you can see that at the crazy lady's house in Westmount. You should definitely swing by the panda exhibit: the big bear is quite delightful and less depressing than the other animals. In the same compound as the zoo, you can find a City Fair or theme park of sorts, but that Ferris wheel looks like its been around (and around and around) since the Industrial Revolution…probable gratification for those suicidal types. The park reportedly has some go-karting, but I wasn't able to locate the facilities.
5. If you're the spiritual type, there's no place like China. Despite the recent Falun Gong crackdowns, freedom of religion is still a (relative) right in the PRC, ensured by the 1978 Constitution or some other important state document issued on a similar date. There are many temples (Buddhist, Daoist, Ancestral, Confucian) in Tianjin ,but most of them are dilapidated and visited by old people with no teeth and incomprehensible accents. For the cream of the crop in Tianjin temples, don't miss the Da Bei Yuan, a state-sponsored (and unfortunately far--15 minutes by cab) first class operational temple. It's a relatively large compound, and the street leading up to it is wonderfully decorated by small shops selling incense, those annoyingly fashionable Buddhist rosary beads, and various statues. For maximum bang for your buck (entrance is 10 kuai) visit the temple on a service day (usually Sundays) or festival day ( somewhere around June 15th and July 7th). I liked this place so much I tried getting ordained there in order to become a full-fledged monk, but they rejected me on the basis that I was white. I'll probably go back if I ever get jaundice.
6. Another fine area to consider is the "Old Chinese City", just north of the overhyped Food City, cordoned off by Beima lu, Nanma lu, Xima lu and Dongma lu streets. The old city is about a square kilometre of traditional working class habitats, mostly grey and red in coulour, with makeshift shops and artisanal "galleries" pouring out of any narrow window or doorway. What makes this part of town particularly charming are the tiny and unbelievably crowded streets--actually alleys, that intersperse the one-storey dwellings. If you're lucky, just as you navigate past a bunch of hyperactive school kids and negociate a corner, you'll encounter those magnificent (hidden?) alley markets, ripe with colours and smells and bustling with life. Venture into Central Tianjin (around and south of the Antique Market) and you can see the vestiges of colonial occupations and Western concessions. While they are quickly disappearing due to the onslaught of white-tiled blue-glass structures, the Baroque, neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau pearls of architecture remain a defining and enthralling feature of Tianjin's cityscape.
7. If you need a taste of back home, then you should stop by the Isetan department store. The store is Japanese owned, but in it, you can find a plethora of Western products. However, this is where most of the stuff that never sold at K-mart five years ago gets shipped. Especially in the garment department. Get ready to re-visit the early nineties as you can purchase vintage Championship Chicago Bulls shirts and those horrendous fish net-style baseball caps. The food court and ground floor are pretty decent though, but if that doesn't titillate you, the area around the department store is Tianjin's avant-garde shopping scene. Right to the left of the Isetan (when you're coming out of it) you can find "European street". Various shops and ice-cream parlours line the street, which culminates with a big Western-style cathedral. Right in front of the department store is a flea market of sorts, where you can get imitation clothing (no big names…go to Beijing for that) and pirated music CDs. Most CD shops will sell "original" copies in the storefront, but with some persuasion, you might get them to lead you to their back alley shop, where you can get the same CDs for about a buck a pop.
8. If you ride your bike for ten minutes going left, up the street which intersects Nankai's side exit (not the one with the Zhou Enlai statue, the other one, on Weijin lu) you'll encounter the overpublicised Food street or Food City. I didn't put this in the food section because the restaurants aren't worth eating at: the food is the same as all over town, but the prices are astronomically inflated. However, the building's structure is interesting and it is well worth a little stroll through its refreshingly spacious bowels. While chewing on some fried-sesame twisted-dough-cake-thingy ( which is about the only thing you can get for cheap in this place), you can witness the spectacle of various caged animals, amphibians and insects awaiting slaughter and consumption. Sorry to disappoint you, but the facilities are quite clean and sterile, so don't expect a freak show (check out Guangzhou's night market for that). The hanging donkey penises are always a popular attraction; you can pose with them in a picture for a heart-warming memento. The block immediately surrounding the food complex is also interesting for those who wish to witness the effects of unemployment. Tea houses and snack shops surround Food City, and more often than not, their patrons spill out onto the street for animated (sometimes political) discussions, chess games, or gambling. This usually draws throngs of onlookers which adds to the carnivalesque atmosphere already in place. A few blocks west of Food City is the famed Clothes Street (where do they come up with such inventive and creative names?) where you can get cheap dregs and a multitude of textiles…not really worth it if you ask me.
9. The antique market is yet another exaggerated wonder of Tianjin. The folks in the Lonely Planet really flip out, stating that "that antique market is the best sight in Tianjin even if you're not into collecting second-hand memorabilia" (277). First of all, nothing beats the racoon-dog, and secondly the market, which principally unravels along Shenyang Dao, sells first-hand memorabilia. You can get pictures of Mao, little red books, opium pipes and old dishes, none of which originally came from the Cultural Revolution. People might tell you that all the items for sale at the market were confiscated from bourgeois land-owners and counter-revolutionaries during and prior to the Cultural Revolution, but this is just a ploy to bait the unsuspecting tourist. Reliable insider sources have told me that ninety percent of the objects are manufactured at local industrial complexes a few months before they hit the market (except for books and pictures) and that they are purposely produced to look old and beat up. Then, the merchants hike the prices tenfold stating that this chopstick belonged to Sun Yat-sen and that toothbrush was Chang Kai-shek's. Be warned. The fact that most buyers are out-of-towners should tell you something…do you ever eat at a restaurant where there are no Chinese people? The antique market is still a nice place to leisurely walk through, especially on Sundays, when you can realize the extent to which ripping off tourists has become a profitable industry.
10. Last but not least is ancient culture street (gu wen hua jie), lining the Hai river. This street is one of the most lively in Tianjin, constantly filled with tourists (both foreign and local), over eager merchants, and lazy flaneurs. A rough equivalent would be St-Jacques in Old Montreal. Traditional Chinese buildings have been recreated to give the street more panache and there is even a small Tianhou temple close to the central carrefour. This is where you should get all the typical Chinese gifts you want to bring back home. Gong Fu swords and spears, Chinese chess and Mah Jong sets, Chinese name seals, calligraphy brushes, paper, and paint, and even traditional clothing are all on sale for easily negotiable prices. If you have long, dirty hair, some merchants might also offer to sell you some hashish. The street is probably most famous for the wonderful Chinese painting scrolls (guo hua) its merchants sell. Always slash the asking price by fifty to sixty percent, or even more if you feel you can get by on your charms. Most mid-size scrolls should be bought for around 100 kuai. Unless the painting is over two meters long or tall, do not pay over 500 kuai for it no matter what. At that price, you can buy one from a respectable dealer in an upscale gallery. With some common sense and a little research you can avoid getting taken. Remember to ask if the painter is by a master or a student. If the it is the latter, ask who the master is--it makes you look more knowledgeable and less likely to fall victim to a scam. Although it is distinctively kitsch, ancient culture street is among the best sites in Tianjin as the street's undefinable dynamic liveliness (capitalism perhaps?) and traditional revivalism enraptures all who set foot on it.
- Written by: Dominic