“This ain’t Mexico, dude”… Or, how to enjoy the ravishes of Culture Shock

Posted: January 25, 2008 in Uncategorized

合理咯 [pronounced ni-hau] from China,

I’ve been here 6 days.  Put simply, Beijing.  Is.  Insane.

I’m now subsiding in a city of roughly 15 million (although that’s the Chinese government’s guess, soooo…) and I can communicate verbally and in a written manner (in at least some sense) with about .025% of them.  The language barrier isn’t a barrier at all; it’s a frickin’ wall… it’s not like Mexico or Italy or France where I can stumble through with broken fragments; I truly have no method of communication other than the 12 or so phrases I’ve picked up, and even then, it’s basically a one-way thing.  Ever try to read a Chinese bus schedule?  No dice.  This is hard, but it’s not what really makes being here difficult… what’s rough is the truly amazing cultural divide that, at it’s core, is completely transparent.  The fact is, the last 3 to 5 generations of people here have pretty much been taught their entire lives that China was/is the center of the universe, and that The West has basically robbed them of their rightful throne, while in the west, we’ve had an equally biased view of China as a whole.  While the implications of this are understandable, the nuances and pure irony of alot of it are easily lost on both cultures… and the divide is enormous.  The “facts” and the propaganda flow on both sides of the Pacific, and ignorance, fear and hate seems to flourish.  I cannot possibly describe the look on peoples faces as I walk down the street; I’m something of a spectacle here anyway because of my height (I’m told, at least) and responses to my presence tend to vary from:

a) Hatred for the White Devil
to
b)  ADVANCED Hatred for the White Devil
and, occasionally,
c) a smile, then chuckles and conversation I can’t possibly understand (some of the kids yell “HALLOO!” which is pretty rad I guess)

Shit.

It’s not all like this, though… and that’s the dichotomy that’s hard to grasp unless you’re here.  For every 6,000 people who stare and glare and curse and spit at me (only happened once, but damn), there is one person who will pretty much try their damnedest to move the fucking earth to make my stay here as awesome and inviting as possible.  An excellent example is my plane ride over here (a mere 12 hours and 13 minutes — just enough to get to know someone!), when I was sitting next to a nice lady named Anna who immigrated to the US in 1994 and has since started an exporting company to bring servers, routers, miscellaneous Cisco garb and other networking equipment to China.  I used to sell that stuff wholesale for a living, so we had some good starting ground.  She was going back for business, and upon hearing that I was alone and didn’t speak a damn word of Mandarin, her eyes opened wide… “you’re crazy”, she says.  I shrug and smile (what else can you answer to that?  I mean, I’m already on the fucking plane…)  So she pulls out a pen, and proceeds to write her home phone, cell phone, email, website, business address in Beijing, and business address in SF in my notebook, and says, “When you have trouble, give me a call — this place will be hard for you.  You have friends meeting you at the airport, right?”.  “Kind of”, I replied, explaining that my buddy here, Bill, said he “might meet me at the airport”.

Bill was, in fact, not at the airport when I arrived.  Dude is busy; whatchagonnado.

Then she learned I didn’t really even have a place to stay that night, as I am, in fact, dumb.  So she whips out the cell phone, calls her friend who owns a hostel here (which is,  oddly enough, only a 20 minute walk from Bill’s place, making it convenient as all hell in a town this big), and says “50 a night” to me while on the phone.  I’m like, “50 dollars?” and she replies “No, 50 RMB”.  I do some quick math in my head… shit, that’s like $6.80. Kickin’ rad if you ask me.  Then she casually mentions that “my driver is picking me up from the airport — we’ll drop you off wherever you like”.

Damn.  Woman doesn’t even know me and she’s goin’ all personal assistant on my ass… pretty amazing.  I’m actually hanging out with her and her family later tonight.  There’s talk of duck.  I’m stoked.

While I was packing for this trip, my buddy Ace was over at my place.  We’re chilling in the basement, crumblin’ erb, and I’m rattling off all this “what about this, what about that” shit, as he’s been to SE Asia before and therefore an expert as far as I’m concerned.  Eventually, he just looks up and says, “shit, man, just pack your wits… just bring your brain, and you’ll be fine… some people don’t even bring that, and they’re fine…”.

Each day I’m here, my entire viewpoint shifts a bit; now, I’m just starting to grasp real, actual, interpretive knowledge to chew on.  There is so much to learn here, it boggles the mind… and the best part is (at least while I’m in Beijing) that I can sit down with Bill, an economics major and very intelligent human overall and have 4 hour conversations going over what I’m finally starting to see…  I’ll barely be able to scratch the surface.

My whole plan seems… off.  I was originally planning on taking trains south through Datong and into Xi’an (spending no more than 20 days in China altogether), then flying into Vientiane or Bangkok airport, sitting on the beach where it’s 85 degrees and sipping Singapore Slings for 90 cents.  While this is still technically on the agenda… what the hell am I gonna learn there?  I mean, I know I can see the sights and absorb the culture somewhat and meet the locals and (miracle of miracles!) even communicate with them (more) easily… but this place is insane, it’s changing, and it’s all happening right now.

The air here is basically soot, the overcrowding is insane, the food is cheap and generally delicious but pretty homogeneous, most people who act nice are just trying to cheat and scam you, I can’t talk to anyone, none of the bookstores I’ve stumbled across yet have English sections, the best whisky here is Jack or Beam (and even that is usually fake or watered down), the cigarettes are crap (at least they’re only $1), the guys sneer at me, the girls won’t even make eye contact most of the time, everyone is spitting and littering and yelling and pissing all over the place, most of the other westerners here are either kids or just plain fucking idiots who basically just insult the locals as much as possible 99% of the time (not to their faces, obviously) and think of China as their goddamn sandbox or something just because they have super-currency, the music is generally awful, squat toilets are truly evil, and (surprise!) sewer gas smells the same everywhere in the world.

Being here is fucking hard… and I’m getting addicted to it.

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