Dongbei, the region composed of three provinces in the very northeast of China, was particularly well-represented in our company for some reason none of us could figure out. A blunt, sometimes rough-around-the-edges people even by Chinese standards, Dongbei-ren (“ren” means people) have stories of icy winters, growing up without a phone in the house, coal- fueled air pollution that stains white coats, and potentially deadly bar fights. Dongbei-hua is a gruff sounding language, and the Dongbei-ren sound VERY different from Suzhou-ren when they speak Mandarin. Even if you only know a handful of words or phrases, you will soon be able to tell the difference.
The “arrr” ending to all words in the Beijing style always made some of us foreigners snicker; we were just so used to hearing the sing-song southerners add a cutesy “ah” sound to the end of words instead. People from Dongbei and Inner Mongolia sound like pirates, we decided. It’s not exactly the Chinese version of a “posh” accent, but then neither is the Taiwanese style of speaking – one woman asked my Taiwanese/Chinese/American coworker “Are you a gay?” immediately upon meeting him. (China isn’t exactly politically correct on most social issues, and communication is either indirect hinting or brutally blunt.) Poor dude, it wasn’t fair that we always snickered at his distinctive Taiwanese way of speaking Chinese. It’s alright, though – the British and Australian and American coworkers were giving each other crap about accents and dialects as well. So much cross-cultural learning going on.
The people of China are very dear and are often willing to go out of their way to help a stranger. They bundle their children up against the cold as if they’re going to catch their death from a cool breeze, and they put the food into their mouths well into elementary school sometimes. Racism against Chinese people is common everywhere in the world and I have no tolerance for it; behaviors like “rudeness” or “loudness” or “no personal space” are cultural differences that are not perceived as rude within China, so I don’t think we outsiders have any business taking that kind of thing personally.
In “Shadow of the Silk Road”, Colin Thurbin quotes Central Asian people groups such as the Uighers as saying that the Han (majority ethnic group in China) have no soul. That’s untrue, of course, but there are reasons why they say that. I think part of it has to do with the helpless tendency to keep ones head down and look the other way when something wrong or unfair is happening in society or the workplace. If you know anything about what happened in China during the 20th century, then you know that the Chinese people have learned the hard way that minding one’s own business can be a matter of life and death – or at least prison. It’s really hard to make deep friendships in China. Guarded on the outside, warm on the inside is a good generalization of the people. Presenting a perfect mask to the outside world is so valued that you can consider yourself lucky if you catch wind of anyone’s private problems. People are quicker to trust a friend to make a huge financial purchase on their behalf than to hear any personal information about their life without using it against them.
Whenever I left China for a vacation abroad or a home visit, my heart would sink at the thought of returning. Other expats reported feeling it too. I knew it would never be home. In the airports I would reluctantly go to the China counter and hear the language on the overhead with distaste, an uncomfortable sinking feeling of “I don’t want to go back.” Sometimes it feels like life itself has been sanitized and regulated out of Chinese society, scrubbed away with that same dirty mop that the elderly use to polish the floors of the shopping malls. A special blend of chaotic and organized, dirty and spotless, full of people and yet not always full of life.
Yes, Big Brother is uncomfortable. Yes, China often feels like it’s missing something. I still deal with lasting health effects from air pollution. I also think back on my time there with a lot of fondness. The smiling faces of the students, the peaceful parks, the hordes of motorbike drivers bundled up in rain gear…it was a home, and a good one.
(The red paper sign on the door in the picture above is a New Year’s good luck sign. Everyone buys a new one at the time of the Lunar New Year and then leaves it up all year until the next New Year celebration.)
(This post was taken from my drafts folder from well over a year ago. If I hadn’t written this stuff down at the time, I probably would never have thought to do it later as my impressions faded. To all fellow writers – and humans! – let’s keep on sometimes remembering to journal mundane stuff as well as pertinent thoughts whenever inspiration strikes.)