Friday, September 28, 2012

Confessions of China Living

I wish someone had told me, before I moved to Shanghai last year, to be careful to not let China make me a meaner person. I had thought that I had adjusted well. I had learned the width of the narrowest opening between two people that I could weave through on a crowded city street. I learned to accept the smaller dimensions of personal space here, but not give it up for the obnoxious, privileged young Shanghainese women who will cut you in line. I learned not to cross at crosswalks and how to judge the likelihood of a car hitting me by its distance from and the speed at which it is going. I accepted the fact that horns were going to blare at 3am, and have even begun to be able to sleep without earplugs.

I learned to survive, but I mistook my accumulated survival skills as signs of my emerging cosmopolitanism. This is what it is to be an urbanite! I thought. I am tough-skinned, competent, and worldly!

But in actuality, I was slammed by the thrice-as-forceful wave of post-graduate life, city life, and Chinese life all at once. I can't separate the three, can't ever figure out whether my feelings and frustrations are the natural reactions of a newly minted independent adult, those of a space-and-quiet-loving girl whose prior contact with cities up till now had been day trips into New York and Philly, or the result of coming to a Chinese city.

I no longer want to deny it, no longer want to cover it up with euphemisms. China is impatient and judgmental and unforgiving, and in my struggle to survive here, I've absorbed a lot of that into myself.

It's easy to internalize a lot of frustration in China. That's what happens to a society led by a government that doesn't allow freedom of speech. It only takes one bus ride in Shanghai to get a pretty thorough gist of what makes me angry here. As the bus pulls to the curb, middle-aged men and single-minded young mothers push shuffling old women out of the way to be the first onto the bus. The bus drivers slams the doors shut as soon as you step on board, barely avoiding catching the back of your shirt in its wheezy path. Slouching young men with artfully arranged bangs sit in the courtesy seats and bury their heads in their iPhones or iPads, determinedly ignoring the thin-wristed, white-haired little old ladies who cling to the side of their seats and struggle to stand upright as the bus driver lurches in and out of traffic with his hand permanently pressed against the horn. The man desperately missing his sixteenth cigarette of the day on his short bus journey groans and shudders and jerks his head and hacks up a thick gob of spit into the single, tiny, overflowing trash can. Oh, traffic lights? A mere suggestion. The thing that counts down the seconds until your light turns green? Obviously an indication that traffic is supposed to go when there are still 4 seconds left of the red light to go. If you get to your stop and the bus is crowded, which is often, it becomes a game of push and shove, see how many people you can bang with your overstuffed purse on your way to reach the door. The concept of letting people off the public transport vehicle before new passengers board? A mere concept, rarely put into practice.

A trip on Shanghai's public transportation illustrates the selfishness and inconsideration of a nation that adopted capitalism while still held in the thrall of communism. Knowing this, everything in China becomes suspect. The smiling, well-made-up waitress who serves you at dinner may be secretly resenting your white-collar job and accompanying salary. You buy a cheap watery beer for 40RMB at a pub that tries to evoke European legacies and feel guilty that your one beer could feed for one whole day one of the many beggars, often deformed or missing limbs from factory accidents, who sit in the streets. You become suspicious of every price given to you at the local market, wondering if the seller isn't trying to gyp you out of a few more yuan despite his already reasonably low price. Silence does not indicate contentment, but rather decades of pent-up frustration at inequality and corruption.

No community is perfect, but I never thought that I'd lose so many of the things I used to like about myself--listening skills, objectivity, concentrated kindness--so quickly, in this environment. It took almost a year's worth of unhappiness and regretful meanness on my part for me to realize that I don't like much of who I've become. So, starting now, I will strive to be more aware of when I'm being mean, and to resist the easy temptation of sliding into meanness. I will also write more about China, my travels, and my thoughts here. I haven't written as much about my life abroad as I had expected to mostly because I'm really unhappy with many things about it. But if writing about it will be my catharsis, then I'm going to. I'm going to put the truth out there, because I'm still an American citizen, I'm still a reluctant leader of humanity, and the truth cannot be denied.


  1. Wonderful. Knowing this about you is great from an insight perspective. China is real and sounds sad in some ways because of how its residents seem so unforgiving, so relentless. It's good that you have decided to not let it change you - after all, we should have control over who we are, what we chose to be.

    I look forward to hearing more about China, Steph. I hope there are some parts of it that are surprising you in good ways. All of us back here in the states - and abroad - are rooting for you. :)

  2. Acknowledging these things is the first part to changing yourself. You see t therefore you can improve. I can't wait to hear more.

  3. You *should* keep writing these posts, because the whole time I was reading I was like, "Gosh, I wish this were a New Adult novel on the post-grad life/on conforming to the culture and people around you/on well-articulated, confident truths about society and personhood/on living in China."

    Go Steph, go Steph!


  4. Super insightful and good to know since I'm thinking about going to a college in a large city. I also agree with Gabrielle Carolina!

  5. That was my experience when I was in Shanghai. Like John The Bookworm, I'm rooting for you, Steph. Be who you are!

  6. This was fascinating to read. I had similar experiences when I spent a summer in Kenya. You may have to be tougher to survive daily life, but I think it will make you a more compassionate person in the long run. You notice the poverty and care about the people. Also, the best thing about being a writer is that all experiences, especially the bad ones, are good material. Later you'll find the humor in it too. There might be a memoir in it or material for a novel. And of course your work is helping students get to the USA. That is good. Hang in there.

  7. This is interesting to me, because I have considered going to teach in China. My best friend is from Hong Kong and when she lived in Shanghai for a few months for work reasons, she really didn't like it and it put me off - if she felt alone, even though she speaks Mandarin and is Chinese, imagine how I would feel.

    However, being a city girl myself, I can tell you that some are the things you describe are just city life and not specific to China. For example, people on the bus in London act in exactly the same way. A friend of mine couldn't travel on public transport when she was pregnant, because no one would give up their seat for her. There's limited space for pushchairs (I think you call them strollers in the US?) and it's not unheard of to see mothers get into physical shoving matches as they fight for the last space.

  8. Sorry to hear about your experiences in China -- I hope you're able to hold on to the things about yourself that you like. I've had several friends who went to China after graduating and most of them hated it there.

    I'd disagree with TG about it just being city life, though. I think every city has a different personality. I've been to cities where I had good experiences with public transportation. And in Taipei, where I live now, people are pretty good about letting people off first, waiting in line, and giving up priority seats. At least good enough that it hasn't ever been a source of frustration for me.

  9. You are experiencing culture shock...I lived in Tokyo for 8 years and had similar feelings. You eventually come to terms with some things, most long term ex-pats there end up in a sort of love-hate relationship with it.


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