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It was Sunday at 4:30 when we got a call from one of the teachers, inviting Molly and I to go eat pizza in the mall (they think all people  from the US eat pizza.  When they think we are sad or missing home, they invite us to eat pizza.  While you and I know that pizza is hardly the national food of my homeland, Molly and I are still never ones to turn down eating our coveted and much missed “Western Food”).  We waited for a bus for forty minutes in -1 degree weather (several passed us before one was empty enough to let us on).  I was wearing a jacket and two coats, a scarf, gloves, and two pairs of pants.  Molly had a jacket and her coat, mittens that look like whales or sharks off of James and the Giant Peach or something.  Our toes were numb.

When we finally got to the mall the teacher was waiting for us outside – she wasn’t upset about waiting for so long or anything.  She knows that getting a bus is a task that takes time and persistence.  We went to Big Pizza, a pizza buffet that I think is owned by Pizza Hut, but I’m not sure.  Pizza here is a far cry from pizza in the US, though.  For one, they don’t really use marinara sauce.  Furthermore, pizza usually has a type of meat (ham, sausage, or shrimp – no pepperoni), vegetables (green bell peppers or onions), cheese, of course, and sometimes other things like corn or popcorn  chicken or noodles or cherries or something.  You can’t get just a cheese pizza.  Everything is some odd variation of a supreme pizza.  Aside: Mom wrote about Big Pizza in her Pizza Pt. 1 blog…that she has yet to write a Part 2 for…(or a second part to her Beijing post.  Frankly, I blame our very small group of regular readers – you all are far too nice.  Can I get more heckling, please?  I feel like these blogs would have been posted seconds after their first parts had more heckling been present).

At a buffet in China, you can eat one of two ways: the “American” way – you get your own plate, fill it with things you want to eat, and get a new plate if you want to go back for seconds – or the “Chinese” way – you get about seven plates filled with food, everyone picks off of each plate, and you eat everything on the plates whether you want to or not.  Getting a new plate when going back for seconds is optional.  We did a mixture of the two.  That is, Molly and I got things we wanted to eat and our more socially minded teacher friend got food for everyone.  We felt bad in retrospect for being so self-centered…but after the first few rounds of getting food for the table, she focused more on what she wanted to eat.

Aside: maybe when I first came to China I’d care more about doing what the predominant culture wants but I don’t care so much anymore.  For two reasons: 1) China is a melting pot much like the US.  However, instead of having people from many continents and nations, it’s a melting pot of all of the Asian subcultures that China has eaten up over the centuries (Hans, Mongolians, Manchurian Chens, Tibetans).  Someone once told us that there are general etiquette rules as far as using chopsticks and what to eat and how to eat, but ultimately, anything goes.  2) People know I’m different.  I stand out like a sore thumb.  And yes, I’ve bemoaned how much people stare and seemed shocked by my differences, but they still celebrate and respect culture here.  If I do something wrong, I’ve never noticed anyone being offended.  They’re painfully nice and polite (some do laugh if I say something wrong or misplaced).  They expect me to be different and sometimes I think it might be refreshing to see a new way of doing something.  I know I get a kick out of learning new things from them, hopefully sometimes they feel the same.

My general experience is that dinner is a meal to cherish in China.  Lunch is hurried and rushed, breakfast is done in private mostly, but dinner is done with family and friends and usually takes a few hours to complete.  Not because dinner is traditionally a five course meal here, but because dinner is when you talk.  A lot.  We started talking about college and how we got to where we were.  The teacher was surprised that we were able to take a year off of our college studies to come and live in China, even more shocked that our work here has little or nothing to do with our field of studies.

According to her, once you start University, you finish.  You cannot take a semester off or abroad.   In China, she had learned about her field of study – education – starting in her high school.  By the time she graduated from college, she had seven years of training in education under her belt.  Before she even went to college, she had the certification to teach a class of 10 – 12 year olds.  In order to start college, she had to quit that job.  In University here, you cannot have any focus except for school.  And to think I had a full time job and another part time job and struggled through my sophomore and junior years in the US (then again, that is basically what caused me to be so burnt out that coming to China seemed like a brilliant idea).

In her college, she would wake up very early on the weekends to get the library on time – otherwise there would be no seat for her to study.  She would stay there until 8 or 9 at night.  I don’t think I’ve set foot inside the library at WSU on a weekend.  And even on a weekday, it was never for more than two hours.  Granted, my study habits (or lack thereof) hardly represent the general population of students in the US, but I still doubt very few spend every weekend for ten hours a day in their library.

Furthermore, now that she’s graduated, she still has to work remarkably hard (in my opinion, compared to many jobs in the US) to succeed.  The school year in China is divided into two terms.  You know the break teachers get in between the terms?  Fifteen days.  Students get a month between each term (five months of school, one month holiday).  When she learned that in the US, teachers (in some school districts – I realize it’s changing and different on a state to state basis, and on a private to public school basis) get roughly three months off in summer, not to mention all of our public holidays and in-services and built in snow days.

To our teacher, China seemed to be moving very slowly towards progress.  She thinks that China can learn a lot from the US, and she thinks that Americans are hardworking, fast paced, and persistent.  While I can see how she can have that impression, I had to disillusion her of the idea that China is slow and unprogressive.  On the contrary, I know there’s been a lot of jokes made of our future overlords being the Chinese.  We’re terrified of their might, innovation, ingenuity, and relentless endeavors.  While we might feel they lack in more moral areas of human life and quality, we cannot doubt their incredible success as a nation (whether that be measured in terms of economic stability – their recent distress over the slowing of production and product demand from their numerous factories notwithstanding – or nuclear arms – which, if you read the news, has recently been counted to be more than we formerly estimated, and even that was sizeable – or even their progress in education is, I suppose, up to you).

While the things that once shocked me when I landed in China (the way they drive or the way they talk or their public health standards) may be less novel to me now, the cultural differences that I continue to unearth never fail to surprise me and leave me thinking.  In China, there is far less of a work-life balance that we all are so concerned with in the US.  Are our lives better because of it?  Are theirs?