Traditional Greetings

After almost a month, I can find my way around kai fa qu, but as I walk to my school, the post office, the cheap vegetable market, the only store in town with refridgerated eggs, and so forth, literally everyone stares at me.

It’s what I wanted in my purple-haired past, but honestly I’m doing everything I can to follow local customs. I’ve learned not to say thank you when I get change (xie xie is for formal use only), I call older women Auntie, which is the proper address here, I remind myself that traffic lights are for decorative purposes only and that bumping people out of your way is the correct way to get to the bakery counter.

Even so, everyone stares and many people recognize me in town. I know because some people greet me, sometimes with a Chinese variation on Meg and sometimes as Lao Shi (Teacher). It’s like that scene in To Sir With Love when he’s at the market trying to buy some apples or something and he’s the only black person around and everyone who’s remotely connected to his students is like “Hello! Sir! How are you?” and he’s all “Do I even know you?” It’s like that, only instead of “Hello! Sir! How are you?”, everyone here says “Ni hao, lao shi!” and instead of “Do I know you?”, I’m all “Uh, ni hao… Wo bu ming bai! (I don’t understand!)” So actually it’s not like To Sir With Love at all.

I met another foreigner on the street last night, a German businessman (Was he handsome, or I am just developing a fetish for men who don’t stare at me like I’m a mutant freak?). I know the culture shock here is bad because we stood talking, him in German and me in English, for fifteen minutes or more, just to speak to someone we could kind of understand.

There is a mindset here that I just can’t understand. I have trouble just accepting that there’s no hot water, that the phones will go out for a day or more, that electic brown-outs are not a cause for giggling by candlelight. Deliveries never show up on time, and no one really expects them to do so. Paper is so valuable we even print tests on the backs of used sheets (well — I print tests on the backs of used sheets, because I’m weird American and I like to type things), but the staffroom is well supplied with dried seaweed, crysanthemum tea, candied fruit and coffee (see above re: “weird American”). I hate to sound negative, there all kinds of nice things I can’t understand either. I’m not sure what qualifies as an important occasion, it seems like anything and everything is a reason to eat and drink together. There is a complex and confusing system of gift-giving which baffles my mind but does involve an amazing haul for the foreign teacher.

Worst of all, I can’t understand Chinese jokes. Maybe it’s a translation thing or maybe Eastern humor is just too far removed for me to get it. I feel like I’m on some kind of Borg planet, but instead they’re all saying Assimilation is futile. Your attempts will be resisted.

It sucks even thought I know it’s a normal adjustment process, and I know it’s not just me. Two weeks ago, when we were walking home from school, the culture shock really hit Calvin. He responded to each staring face with a smile and the traditional British greeting “Cock? Bugger. Willy.”

This is me in my Young Party Members scarf holding Chairman Mao’s little red book. Of course, I can’t read anything besides the chapter numbers, but I’m trying to fit in here!

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