Essays from the Far East: Attitudinal Shift

The China in Context study abroad trip has been transformational for me in the sense that I have found myself slower in the judgment of others and a well of patience in foreign contexts. I tendentiously avoid being one who (unfairly) casts condemnatory personal judgment in my everyday discourse, but upon my first arriving in China, I was perhaps more critical than I should have been. Initially, my homesickness colored my experiences; I hated everything. In some respects, I maintain these first impressions of being alien, of discomfort, etc. yet I have accustomed myself to them, as opposed to resisting them. Incessantly exposing myself to these discomforts has given me a deeper understanding of the mechanisms and assumptions underlying the modes of my seemingly irrational, uncomfortable, and at times unlivable ways of life. While I still feel as though I would not want to live again in China, I value the merits of such a society as well as some of the perks I might wish to bring back home with me.

The initial negatives are of primary interest to me, because a new–perhaps lesser–country than one is used to is a breeding ground for the mosqitos of despair. To better deal, my attitudes toward effortful endeavors–work, volunteering, etc.–have shifted. For instance, in China, the cities we’ve often visited have appeared on the outside to be very rundown, dirty, disorganized, and unpolished. Guilin, at first, seemed like a very uncomfortable place. The beautiful mountains were overshadowed on more days than not with frequent torrential downpours and overcast skies. The sidewalks were cracked, and you couldn’t step five feet without a stone giving out to a puddle, soaking your shoes. Chengdu was even worse at first—there was far less immediately visible community—as the city’s scale was so much bigger and yet the people seemed less active on street sides. It felt empty, polluted, and enormous. I remember thinking, How could anyone call this place home? Xi’an was a smog-magnet, which appeared to be dominated by a false sense of maintaining history. Yes, there was the wall, but apart from that, it just seemed like one ugly maze. Beijing was so much less surreal than the glorified images that Google showcased. And so on, and so forth—I don’t particularly enjoy dwelling on negativity.

In short, I allowed myself to find the flaws in the places we visited instead of taking advantage of their uniqueness. But looking back, Guilin was indeed beautiful, especially on its drier days: The Muslim noodles shop near our hotel became something of a regular spot for me. Whereas I was initially quite hesitant to invest myself in any of these places, I could easily see myself finding lamien back home. As our stay lengthened, I noticed that Chengdu had a lot more to do, a lot more to see, and quite a lot more life to the city than I initially thought. That experience taught me not to so quickly assess a city by its facade, to delve deeper, to ask questions about what to do and where to go, and follow the locals. Xi’an was indeed a bit of a letdown for a place with such a long historical stretch of culture, but again, I was looking at/for the wrong things and ignoring the positives. Our hostel was really cool, and very close to a stretch of localized bars that were quite active each night. There was a brilliant strip of Muslim food, shops, stalls, and overall fun. The Great Mosque and the City God Temple had some distinct features that I couldn’t hope to find back home—perhaps anywhere else in the world. Beijing, on the other hand, seemed like a monolith compared to the other three smaller cities we visited, and when it wasn’t the NYC-like image I had conjured, I found myself a little let down. But we had a great time, saw some incredible structures such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I realized we weren’t in Beijing to be dwarfed by skyscrapers, we were in Beijing in order to experience things that we couldn’t anywhere else in the world. I think my view of why I was on this trip took a while to shift, but once it did, it changed my perception of my surroundings almost immediately.

In terms of some other negative perceptions that have changed, I was initially really turned off by the people of China. In general, people’s public etiquette, such as mopeds honking their way through areas that are obviously intended for walking, people not moving out of the way for each other on the sidewalks, occasionally noticing a baby defecating in broad daylight, cigarettes blown in your face in the bathroom, etc. really got under my skin at first. To someone who has not dealt with these realities frequently throughout their life—and if they have, the offending party is simply “rude” or a “jerk”—this can be a very jarring experience. The mopeds tearing through sidewalks still bother me, but I now realize that this is simply the way people get around. It is, more or less, efficient. It is not my place to place boundaries on where people can drive and where they cannot. The honking that I once found so startling and even offensive, I now hear as an almost courteous “excuse me!” Even the chaotic traffic has become navigable. I find myself blending with the locals, catching the signals of when to cross a street or wait my turn. I prefer the traffic system back home, and yet, I haven’t seen a single accident during my extensive time on the roads in China. In contrast, I see a car wreck maybe once a week back home; obviously, there is merit to be found here. As far as people moving out of each other’s way on sidewalks, that hasn’t really gotten much better. But I’ve found ways to subtly signal my body language one way or another, so as to avoid these awkward and infuriating standoffs. Additionally, I have just taken it upon myself to scoot out of the way in general. As a result, for some reason, I’ve noticed people returning the favor, so to speak. It might be different than back home, but the regard for other people is certainly still there. And even six weeks in, babies letting loose on a street corner hasn’t gotten less shocking, but I certainly haven’t seen it other than twice in Guilin.

According to a thread I was perusing online, these complaints of mine are most prominent in the south. That would make sense as to why I haven’t seen it as much, but there is certainly some baby butt floating around out there from time to time. The cigarette-in-shared-spaces annoyance was the hardest for me to get over, but I realized that I was being a little more ethnocentric than I was willing to admit. That is, smoking isn’t unique to China. I have to take into account that, until quite recently in America, smoking was as/more commonplace in public spaces, restaurants, bars, etc. Gladly, this is no longer a very mainstream feature of going out in public; there are patios and other designated smoking areas in America that I take for granted. Even further, our smoking rates are probably not much lower than China’s. Again, there is no room for me to pass judgment on a culture that I have so little inside knowledge of.

The amalgamating factors of being thrown into a very different way of life made it a lot easier to feel self-righteously justified in flaring up at such personal inconveniences. Dealing with these personal boundaries hasn’t been easy, but I certainly have noticed a more patient state of mind emerge in being here. I hope to carry these attitudes back home with me to deal with other, inevitable, uncomfortable situations I encounter in America.

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