|My 2nd Apt., downtown Nanjing.|
You can find Part I here. As of last week, I’ve been in China on a consecutive tour-of-duty since December 2001. This posting cover memoirs of that first year.
My flight landed in Shanghai and from there a driver was supposed to take me to Nanjing. After coming out of the gate in Shanghai, I didn’t see my driver. He was to have been there with a sign.
Nobody was there. I sat with my luggage, huddled in a chair; just staring blankly ahead while various drivers came up and accosted me for rides.
I waited close to 1 hour… nobody. At this point I was a bit nervous; keep in mind, back in 2001, if folks spoke English, you couldn’t tell it. It was not like today where many folks may have a slight proficiency in English, especially in the international service-oriented facilities.
I eventually figured out how to make a phone call (had to buy some kind of prepaid cash card that you stick into the payphones…that tells you how dated this was). I called my new boss in Nanjing and he told me the driver should be there.
The guy showed up in less than 10 minutes. He had been there waiting for me, but he forgot to take the sign out of his pocket was the excuse I later heard…. This kind of weird excuse would typify the kinds of weird excuses I’ve heard in the manufacturing business now for 9 + years; it hasn’t gotten any better…
Once we entered Nanjing, we stopped and picked up a 3rd guy; he worked for my company and was going to accompany me to enter the apartment and help with my luggage.
After midnight, I finally arrived to my apartment in Nanjing. The apartment was on the 5th floor of a complex and after the long walk from the car to the apartment, hauling a year’s worth of luggage (no elevator), that guy who helped with my luggage asked me if I wanted a drink of water. I thought, “Definitely”. I was parched, hadn’t drinking anything in hours and my mouth was full of cotton from the nervousness and all the new experiences, sights and sounds I was encountering.
The guy handed me a cup of piping hot, close to boiling water. That was sort of a symbolic gesture that was telling me, “You’re a long way from North Carolina, country boy”. Where I’m from folks normally don’t drink water hot. They would consider water w/out ice cubes to be hot. Holding that cup of piping hot water in my hands, I thought two things. “Why the heck did he give me hot water?” and “It’s going to be a long year”.
From there on out, my life was complete bedlam. To say I experienced culture shock would be an understatement. Everyday I was completely blown away by what I was seeing and dealing with. I thought I handled it nicely though; wasn’t scared (although there were scary times), wasn’t lonely or didn’t miss family, was just….mesmerized. Blown away. It was a growth-oriented bedlam, a helpful chaos that was purging and growing me.
Until you get out of your comfort zone and really see how other people live, you really have no idea; no idea about life, no idea about the way the world works, and if I may be so bold to say, no idea about your own self, where you come from or what you think you know. I know that is debatable but going abroad for an extended stay, really opens your spiritual capillaries.
Things that were immediate areas of difference and strangeness in 2001:
|It's crowded: Nanjing's pop. is over 7.7 million|
The crowds: everywhere is super crowded. Not just busy; but crowded and chaotic. Hong Kong is crowded, but not chaotic. China is crowded and chaotic.
In the States for example, there are basic rules of public behavior that most people follow. Here, it was and still is, sort of “do as you please”; if you feel like spitting, hock away. If you finish with that coke bottle, just toss ‘er on the ground. Why wait in line when you can just all crowd up to the counter and shout at once?
The staring: in 2001, you couldn’t go anywhere without being the center of attention. This has changed quite a bit in the big cities, but is still the same in the smaller cities (every time I go to my wife’s hometown, I’m treated like a rock star). In 2001, for example, while eating in a restaurant, you could have multiple tables making you the focus of their whole meal. Sort of like dinner theater. Not only were you providing good visual entertainment but they would commit out loud about your actions, your movements, what you were or were not eating etc…
|If you're not Chinese, curiosity will reign. |
"You're different, of course I will stare" is prevailing attitude.
The staring has decreased quite a bit, especially in the large tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. But in Suzhou, where I currently reside, which is a mid-tier city, I can still look up at any given time, whether in store or restaurant and find someone thoroughly in awe of my every movement.
Food and available brands in the grocery stores: Obviously I had to get well adjusted to Chinese food. I’m not talking about the Chinese food you eat in you home country, but I’m talking about real Chinese food. Most foreigners who live in or come to China, still eat the foreign-safe, sanitized Chinese places…I’m talking about the greasy-spoon hole-in-wall dining facilities where back in 2001 you could eat a full-meal for less that 2 USD.
Also the available brands in the grocery stores were the international brands you can find today. I remember openly weeping for joy when one convenience store close to my house started carrying Snickers candy bars.
This is getting lengthy and I don’t have much of an idea how it sounds…will write more later. Would appreciate any comments or feedback and will reciprocate.