Do you know how to cross the street?

22 Dec

A Chinese friend told us a great story the other day that has stuck with me ever since.

Charles (his English name) had recently arrived for a summer program at UC Berkeley when he went for a walk in the neighborhood surrounding the school. He waited for the light to change to red, the walking signal to alight, and then began to cross the street. Halfway through he noticed a large truck approaching to make a left turn in front of him. He immediately froze in his path, waiting for the truck to barrel past. But instead of driving, the truck came to a halt in the intersection. Charles also stuck to his spot, unsure of what the heck was going on. Everything remained at a standstill until the driver finally rolled down his window and shouted Are you going to walk? It was then that Charles realized that the truck was waiting for him to cross first.

When I heard this story I laughed because I understood how years of darting out of the path of vehicles could result in a deep sense of surprise at having the right of way. Expats in Hangzhou (including me) often complain about the crazy drivers here, and the terror of crossing a large intersection with buses, taxis, electric scooters, and so on roaring at you  and weaving within arms length of crowds of pedestrians. I appreciated Charles’s story not only for its funniness but for the fact that it spoke to the topic of culture clash and the altered habits that accompany this change.

A common topic at language school has been that of habits, hobbies, and traditions. I think that they write it into the textbooks because they think that talking all of the differences through will suddenly make us all a little more aware of each other, and therefore more at ease. But do hobbies and traditions bring us together or push us apart? Sometimes I find it frustrating when my Chinese instructors ask me what we like to do for Christmas or birthdays in the US. It’s not always easy to be so far away from familiar faces and settings during days that were previously laden with traditions. But I’m starting to realize that there’s something worth considering when it comes to the subject.

More than any other place before, China has challenged the habits that composed my everyday life in Minneapolis. A lot that was familiar in Minnesota became so habitual that I didn’t even realize the way it steered my life. At first (and still occasionally) differences really threw me off—more accurately, they upset me. It was always the little things. Why does the market have tape but no dispenser? or Why do the Chinese write their address in the opposite order in the opposite place on an envelope? or Why do Chinese people spit bones on the table? Suddenly I had become a sort of stuck-up ambassador, complaining from my democratic throne about the inefficiencies of this backwards country.

I found myself shocked with how quickly being placed in such an unfamiliar country could occasionally transform my voice into that of some colonizer I’d read about in an undergrad lit course. I’ve learned over the past four or so months that the essential antidote to the grating effect of new and different experiences is to give up the fight—that, and forget the way you did things back home. Most places here don’t sell what you’re looking for because nobody does what you do. Many times I found myself ready to scream, feeling like I’d been personally insulted by the fact that women in Hangzhou don’t use tampons or crochet hooks or blonde hair dye or tomato paste. All I can do is take what I see, buy what’s on the shelf, eat what’s on the menu, and leave it at that.

There are some hobbies, however, that I have managed to sustain across the ocean, and I find a strangely deep solace in them. After a few determined searches I finally tracked down some wool yarn and I’m making myself an emerald green scarf. I’ve also managed to circumvent the Chinese preference for “white coffee” (consisting mainly of powdered milk and sugar—instant) with the help of friends and family who have sent us the real stuff and a Vietnamese coffee filter. I may not have milk in my coffee anymore, due to the fact that we have no refrigerator and the milk here tastes eerie, but that damn cup of black coffee is the highlight of my morning.

Above all, there are four essential hobbies I’ve managed to keep:

  1. Music: No matter where I stand or sit or walk, when I listen to my beloved Charlie Brown Christmas album or latest American release, I am home.
  2. Writing: Although my internet connection is shoddy (WordPress is blacklisted here—damn you, firewall!) and my VPN stopped working during the Chinese “election”, I still have my computer, journal, and email to find some release.
  3. Reading: I limited myself to three books in my suitcase. Lucky for me, there are a few bookstores in Hangzhou with English sections!
  4. Boyfriend: I’m here in China aren’t I? In the end I had to lay it all down to stay with the person I love, and I can’t imagine life here, or at home, without him.

Although I mourn the loss of things such as the ability to shop enjoyably, communicate with strangers, or snuggle up with a book/computer at Spyhouse during a snowstorm, the balance of life is fair and I inevitably gain new interests. Because most of my previous sources of amusement have been curtailed, I’ve tried new things. For instance, Instagram is apparently the only social media site that works on my Chinese phone. Relaying my journey through pictures is fun and different. I’ve also adopted an interest in Chinese paper cutting, which can yield surprisingly awesome visual results.

When I start to think about this Christmas and New Year and how different it will be on the other side of the globe, I find solace in the fact that the absence of old traditions fashions new ones. In the spirit of the new, I’ve decided to go to Hong Kong and spend the holiday there. I will miss my family, but I will also have a memorable Christmas full of rich new experiences. I hope that you too can enjoy the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the new this season.

Happy Holidays!

3 Responses to “Do you know how to cross the street?”

  1. Megan Kadrmas December 22, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I think pedestrian right of way is a uniquely American thing. Also, I’m happy to read an update from you, dear friend. It sounds like you are settling in slowly and still finding the humor in the differences. I’m also far from home on Christmas, and would love to Skype with you if you have the time. Email me! Love and miss you always.

  2. Brennan December 22, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    How true. Reminds me of when your uncle-cousin Jeff and I ventured to Dublin. We brought our bicycle gear thinking we’d rent bikes and tour about. We soon discovered merely crossing the street in a country of reversed traffic was sufficiently hazardous and abandoned our two-wheeled plans in favor of more local culture.

    Nice to hear you’re holding what’s dear and adjusting to what’s new, Mc. Also good to resolve the mystery of the gone-missing Vince G. CD. Can’t wait to hear about the Hong Kong adventure. Safe travels and Merry Christmas – Love, Dad. Best to BF, please

  3. McNally David J. December 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    Keep up the good work Mckenzie. Reads like you are enjoying your time in China. Hope you had a chance to taste another countries culture during the holidays.
    Best to you and your work. B & D McNally

Do tell.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: