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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!

The Modern Friendemic – The Decline of Real Friendship in Minneapolis

11 Jun

You're gonna be big, kid--real big.

When you (and the majority of your friends) choose to go to college 45 minutes away from your hometown, you do a pretty good job of sidestepping the necessity of making new friends. I may have made friends during college and occasionally at past jobs, but where are those people now? I have a vague idea of their relative geographic location, but I couldn’t tell you much else.

It’s been a while since I fled the coop, and in the past 5 years or so I’ve spent a lot of time considering friendship, facebook, and the Twin Cities. What I’ve discovered is that it’s really hard to make new, close, “real” friends in Minneapolis. Everyone seems to be well contented with their own current social life, and in no rush to make additions.

During my search for new friends, I’ve experienced a distinct pattern:

Stage 1: Complacency/Comfort. I LOVE my old friends and we have so much fun.
Stage 2: Growing Pains. A bunch of my friends (or I) decide to relocate for a while – just where did my social life go?
Stage 3: The Pep Talk. I’m determined to make new friends. This involves a fervent attempt to talk to new people in Minneapolis and make plans with them.
Stage 4: The Let Down. If I manage to arrange a “first date” with someone (including the obligatory Facebooking “friending”), I either get blown off or make it to the “first friend date” where I experience a live and painful social nosedive due to lack of enthusiasm/mutual interest.
Stage 5: The Return. I continue to spend time with my lovely, understanding, old friends with whom I share a lot of history and opinions, but, I still occasionally hanker for new faces and perspectives.

Where is the friendship chemistry, Minneapolis?

I used to blame myself for not making enough new friends. Did I have some sort of inherent disability to meet new people? But the more I got to talking with others, the more I realized that my struggle to make new friends in Minnesota was not an exception—it was the rule. Especially when speaking to folks who’ve relocated from out of state, it’s apparent that “Minnesotans don’t make new friends.”

As a Minnesotan myself, it’s not hard to recognize the strange cliquiness that occurs here in the Cities. Identifying people from out of state is a snap because they’ll actually talk to you, despite the fact that you are a stranger. And as for all of these “great friends” we consider our besties—admit it, the majority of them are from grade school.

Now, before you find yourself in a huff over my outrageous claims, I’ll admit that there are some unique individuals who’ve managed to rise above the status quo and befriend some new people. But I bet you $5 that most of these new friends aren’t from Minneapolis—that’s for damn sure.

Is this friendemic specific to the Twin Cities, or is it part of the larger worldwide shift in friendship we’ve seen as of late?

According to Stephen Marche of the Atlantic, the average number of close confidants of a person has been in steady decline.

Marche states that in 1985, “only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only 1 confidant.” Scary stuff, right? One in four of us (or more) feels as though we have no one to talk to about life’s biggest challenges.

Why is it that we “Minnesota Nicers” don’t make room for new friends? Is it our cold, closed, Scandinavian attitude?  Or is this friend stagnation we’re experiencing actually reflective of larger shifts in social interaction suggeted in the Atlantic?

Is this what it's come to?

Marche explains that the internet and social media may be to blame for the degradation of modern friendships. Last month’s copy of the Atlantic overtly points an inquisitive finger in the direction of social networking sites, its cover asking in bold, blue text, “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”

Marche urges readers to differentiate between the social networks of the past and today. Modern communication and the internet may have grown our web of connections, but these connections are shallower. Suddenly, we exist in a world of distinctions between “real friends” and online friends, and these digital connections are “interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier…”

This screen-based way of life is more isolated, and therefore often lonelier:

A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to the major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.

It makes sense that we share less face time due to screens and social media. As Marche outlines, “We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds our less meaningful and less easy.”

In today’s market, you can even rent a friend or husband or mother by the hour to help you feel socially secure and deal with your problems. Wha?!

The size of our physical social networks is in decline, with the mean size of networks of personal confidants shrinking “from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004,” as Marche explains.

The allure and offerings of the social network phenomenon culminate into a contradiction between growing close and growing apart, a incongruity coined the “Internet paradox”.

The question at hand: Does modern communication technology bring us together or break us apart?

When it comes to understanding the reason why Twin Cities residents are irked by the idea of forming new friendships, I turn to Marche’s exploration of Facebook’s appeal:

“The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status update, pictures, your wall.”

Real friendships, whether old or new, are a lot of work and involve a certain amount of clumsiness and room for error, unlike your glossy, seemingly nonchalant wall post.

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