Lessons in navigating culture and traffic

I’ve been in China for almost 6 weeks now (!) and I’ve been in Tianjin for almost a month. I’ve settled into my daily routine, I’ve learned hundreds of new words in Chinese, and I’ve seen Incredibles 2 twice. Every day, I have class from 8:30-10:10, and then I spend the rest of the day studying, going to tutoring, napping, attending 二胡 class, deciding where to eat for dinner, changing my mind, regrouping, re-deciding where to go to dinner, and scrambling to finish my homework after spending too long at dinner. Weekends are for shopping, exploring the lively urban life, and checking out cultural spots.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Not now, not ever. Not even when peds have the walk signal and all cars have a red light. You especially need to look out for scooters and motorbikes which seemingly appear out of nowhere.
  2. Little kiddos in China wear ass-less chaps so they can easily pee anywhere — train station trash cans, street gutters, into a water bottle in a movie theater — you name it. That’s that on that.
  3. Instead of trying to Google Translate an entire menu, and working to decipher which grainy picture matches up with which price, the best way to order a meal in a restaurant is to just ask. Generally speaking, asking the restaurant owner to just bring their best chicken dish, best veggie fried rice, best pork dumplings, etc, will yield much better results than ordering an eclectic assembly of dishes whose description only made a little bit of sense to you.
  4. Even though most food is pretty cheap in China, western food means western prices. That means when the nostalgia for Starbucks or spaghetti kicks in, you’ll have to be willing to fork over a pretty penny to satiate that craving.
  5. People wear masks to keep the polluted air out of their lungs, but will happily lift the mask up to take a puff of a cigarette. But then the masks goes right back on. You know, because it’s important to protect your lungs.
  6. The advice from the study abroad office about “don’t wear your Wisconsin gear out and about, so as to not stand out as a foreigner” doesn’t really apply to a white person in China. Whether I’m wearing my badgeralls or not, I think Tianjiners can tell I’m not Chinese.
  7. People are always, without fail, excited to meet Americans, especially Americans who speak Chinese. A lot of people take pictures of us to commemorate the occasion.
  8. I love 饺子。
  9. There really is such a thing as English-speaking privilege. Despite the fact that there aren’t a lot of foreigners living in Tianjin, there is English everywhere. A lot of restaurants have their menus in English, all subway and train stations have everything in English, advertisements in malls are often written in English. Movie theaters play movies in English with Chinese subtitles. Walking around shopping centers, everything is so westernized — advertising is westernized, stores are designed to look characteristically Chinese with a western twist, and restaurants love to seat Americans at highly visible tables to highlight that their restaurant appeals to Westerners. In a country with such a rich, longstanding history and culture of its own, it’s interesting to me that “Western characteristics” can such a strong selling point. In a place like Tianjin, which doesn’t have a lot of diversity to begin with, the commitment to cross-cultural marketing is fascinating, when in the United States, which is very diverse, and does have direct access to understanding of so many other cultures, we don’t make constructive, understanding, sensitive use of cross-cultural marketing. In that vein, it’s clear that what companies go for isn’t actually cross-cultural marketing tactics — it’s white marketing tactics. In China, white marketing and advertising is much more common than I would have expected, which only made me consider the over-prevalence of white marketing and advertising in the United States. These thoughts aren’t fully formed yet, and I haven’t reached any conclusions about this topic just yet, but I do know that there’s nothing like getting an “outsider’s” perspective of your own culture — in this case, leaving the United States has given me an interesting and new perspective of the United States.
  10. China’s urban public bikes are way better than any public bike companies in the United States. They cost 1 kuai for a 30-minute ride, and you can pick them up and drop them off anywhere — there’s no need to find the nearest bike rack. But remember what I said about pedestrians not having the right of way? Cyclists don’t either.

I have a lot more to learn, and a lot more to see, but the summer is flying by. Next week, we get a break from classes and I will spend a week traveling and sightseeing in yet undetermined cities (remember my first post about my consistent failure to plan ahead?). I can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer has in store for me, and to see what else I can learn from this country.