Experiences in China

  • Adventures in Buying Lip Balm

               One day, the weather was nice and I had some time to kill, so I thought it might be nice to go for a walk. I guess I was feeling particularly adventurous that day because I decided I would turn my walk into a productive outing. You see, I had only recently moved to China at this point and I had foolishly forgotten to haul copious amounts of lip balm. Knowing the tube I carried in my pocket was on its last few clicks of usefulness, I wanted to purchase more before I forgot so I could avoid the annoyance that is an empty tube of lip balm (for some reason, that only happens when your lips feel as if they’ll crack within seconds if you don’t do something about it). Knowing I would be able to find some at the Lotus store near my apartment, I set out on what I thought would be a nice walk and a simple errand run. I had no idea how complicated the process would be.

              It’s not that I hadn’t bought things before – I had. Even by this time, I had figured out a rudimentary method of purchasing items by waving my hands around and gesturing for the cashier or random street vender to show me the price rather than tell me. Of course, all of these purchases would have been made so much easier if I was proficient in Mandarin, but I was unfortunately only able to utter a few phrases somehow useful in any situation other than the ones I found myself in. Still, while I knew buying things was a bit tricky when dealing with a language you’re unfamiliar with, I also knew I had overcome those obstacles before and I could do it again. By the end of the day, I had proven myself right, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered giving up on the whole idea of getting more lip balm in the future.

               What I hadn’t considered when I headed to the store to make my purchase was that buying small things that are easy to steal might be a more difficult process than buying things like street food and the occasional bottle of mystery drink (the most recent of which had been what I think was an attempt at lime soda). Finding the aisle where the lip balm was located, I knew I was in for what I optimistically thought would be an adventure. I stared at my various options – all secured by webs of rubber bands meant to warn off anyone who might want to steal such a precious item – while the employee assigned to hover in that aisle lurked behind me, slowly inching closer as if her presence was all I needed to suddenly comprehend the characters printed on the tubes in front of me. Feeling that familiar sensation of my Western notions of personal space being violated, I quickly pointed to a random tube of lip balm, hoping it wouldn’t be some weird candy flavor or have glitter in it.

               Always eager to help, the employee quickly did her job, stepping forward to retrieve what I thought would be the lip balm I so hastily selected. Imagine my surprise when I was handed a piece of paper instead. Thankfully, the woman could see that I had no idea what to do with the little slip showing the price of the item. Yes, I knew the next logical step in this process was paying for my selection, but I was used to a system where I paid for the items I had in my hands and then I could just carry them away with me. My lip balm wasn’t that simple. No, instead, the woman had to direct me to a cashier located just a few rows away where I could hand over the paper I was given.

               I thought I had it figured out at that point. I thought I would just hand over the right amount of cash to the cashier, and the woman who had first helped me would be right back with the lip balm I had pointed to. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Well, not exactly, but I did have to deal with a few more road blocks. The register I originally went to wasn’t working properly, which is a difficult concept to relay when there’s no common language between the two people standing at said register and the taller, decidedly more Western-looking one has no idea what she’s doing in the first place. Eventually, I was shown to another register where I was finally allowed to pay, but the woman who first helped me was no longer in sight and I was suddenly worried I would not get my lip balm and my adventure would have been for naught. I knew that was irrational though, and so I found my way back to the aisle where everything began.

               The lip balm lady was there waiting for my return. With all the enthusiasm you never find in a Western supermarket employee, the woman smiled and reached for the receipt I held in my hand. I was just confused – she had seen the events unfold around her, but she still needed to see my receipt. Too flustered by that point to care, and too aware of people staring (I hadn’t quite adjusted to that just yet), I handed over the receipt and hoped I would have my lip balm soon. When the woman began to pluck at the rubber bands guarding the specific tube I had chosen, I felt pride building within me. It was ridiculous, I know, but when she stapled the receipt to the lip balm’s packaging, I felt more accomplished than I had in a few days. I thanked her, and knowing I had achieved my goal, I promptly left the store, not wanting to risk any possible hassle that might come from me wanting to purchase something else that day. On the way back to my apartment, I discovered that my new lip balm was of a standard flavor, and I knew that even if it hadn’t been, I had experienced something new that day – exactly what I had come to China for. 

  • "Do you have a boyfriend?"

                “Do you have a boyfriend?”

                No, no I do not. And as soon as I hear that first question, I prepare to answer the predictable string of inquiries to come, most of which revolving around whether I plan on finding one or how I intend to do so. Within my first few weeks in China, I lost count of how often I was asked about my relationship status or how worried I was about finding a boyfriend in China. To put it simply, it’s really not on my list of priorities, but it was something that was almost always mentioned whenever I met – and continue to meet – someone new. Maybe it would have been easier to explain to myself why people seemed so curious if the questions were tainted with an attitude of “why is this woman working when she’s old enough to be married and have a toddler hanging from each arm?” That wasn’t the case though.

                Admittedly, these questions aren’t exactly new – I encounter them in the United States and even from other Westerners here – but there were stark differences in how I was asked and who was doing the asking. What was most surprising to me was the fact that the people more likely to ask were the Chinese women I met. As I mentioned already, I was expecting elderly businessmen to be the ones asking. I thought I would face a situation where it would be easy to identify the people who questioned my involvement in business and I could step forward and do that whole “do twice as well to be thought of as half as good” thing. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret a situation where it was predominantly the women who were asking me questions about my personal life. Seeing an opportunity to use that lovely liberal arts degree and think about a situation critically, I started paying more attention.

                I’d like to say I figured out all the social dynamics and so I can tell you what it is that makes China work, but I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. What I did realize, however, is that there is still an expectation that the women stay home and take care of the kid while the father works. What originally caused me some confusion was that I was surrounded by female employees, but I was forgetting the other factors: those women in the offices I met with were usually single. The ones who weren’t single had a whole house full of extended family to take care of any children.   The women asking me about relationships were those who were only planning to work in their job until they started a family. Thinking back, I realized I had never been asked those questions from women who had a family and were still working – they obviously didn’t consider it an “either/or” situation.

                Even once I started seeing more of the expectations many of these women had for their own lives, it was still difficult or me to wrap my mind around, however. I blame it on my own bias. I know few women who would be willing to become housewives, and I spent a good portion of my life judging those women who did desire such a thing. While my opinions changed over time thanks to a greater understanding of just how exhausting raising a kid can be, it was still difficult to adjust to an environment where the predominant view was that being a housewife was the most desirable option for a young woman. Thankfully, it was an adjustment that didn’t require me getting used to being questioned about whether or not I belonged in a meeting or looking over important documents. 

  • Chinese New Year

                Easiest way to describe my first experience with the Chinese New Year’s Eve celebrations: an American Fourth of July with more food, more fireworks, fewer safety measures, and just as much alcohol. At midnight, I stood outside watching people of various levels of sobriety light fireworks and I realized just how intense a fireworks display could be. I was used to the shows given back in the U.S. where there was only one major display within an area – nothing could have prepared me for being surrounded by hundreds of fireworks being set off within a thirty meter radius. With a smile on my face, I watched the colorful explosions around me, thankful that I had several days of new experiences awaiting.

                I’m almost ashamed to admit I nearly missed the impressive welcoming of the New Year. Well, it would be impossible to actually miss it here, but I did almost call it a night early. Yes, I would have still been witness to flashes and thunderous sounds of fireworks which escalated from their seemingly constant background noise to a festive apex, but it certainly would not have been the same experience. Surrounded by locals as well as fellow expats, I was actually excited for a holiday I had no personal connection to. Being in such an environment where I dodged falling debris as I watched the fireworks made me more curious about what to expect for the rest of the Chinese New Year.

                I was not prepared for the amount of food I would eat. I honestly don’t know if I could have actually been prepared. Massive amounts of food were presented on New Year’s Eve, but it never seemed to end. Granted, it’s not like this is entirely out of the ordinary for a Chinese meal, but it was amazing how much food was made despite the fact that Kunshan had essentially turned into a ghost town once the New Year officially began.

                As it turns out, the people who had been standing everywhere on the street lighting fireworks on New Year’s Eve vanished. The next few days were eerie in many ways as soon as I walked out the door. Streets usually full of pedestrians and honking vehicles were suddenly empty; almost every shop lining the streets not focused on selling fireworks was locked up. While I know those changes had begun a few days prior, it was as if Kunshan had become a ghost town overnight. For once, you could walk straight across a street and not have to hope a car wouldn’t hit you.

                I learned there were still plenty of people here, however, on the occasions I went with my family to the parks around Kunshan. When I thought there was no one left in the city, it turned out that they had just gone into hiding, reemerging only to set of more fireworks on days where it would lead to the advancement of their wealth and to walk around one of Kunshan’s many amazing green spaces. Personally, I was more entertained by their presence in the parks simply because those were the times when I gathered most of my memories.

                In my time in Kunshan, I have been stared at for being a Westerner, yes, but it wasn’t until the New Year when I was actually asked to pose for pictures with groups of teenagers and random middle-aged women. To be fair, it’s better than watching someone ten meters away from you try to “secretly” take a picture. It’s not that I hadn’t experienced the picture-taking before – I believe there is a picture of me in some house in the middle of China thanks to a visit to Hua Shan a couple years ago when I took a picture with a family from a town smaller than my current apartment complex – but it’s always a bit strange to have someone ask to take a picture with you. I agreed though, and just stood there with a smile on my face while friends of those standing at my side snapped as many pictures as they could. Once they had taken all they wanted, I went back to walking around and enjoying the sight of families taking advantage of their time off work.

                Unfortunately, a quick trip to Singapore prevented me from getting to experience each day of the New Year celebrations (although I can’t really complain since I was enjoying a vacation in warm weather). There were still many things I did get the chance to see, though, and they are things I will always remember. In the future, I hope to witness more of the celebrations, even if a week off work makes for a great excuse to travel. But, even if I missed a little bit of the week this year, I did gather enough experiences to make the few days I was present memorable.