I am back in Canada, back to the ridiculous standard of living I enjoy in what is the best of all nations on this planet. Don’t bother to argue. Canada and I are in a honeymoon phase right now and I won’t be dissuaded.
For the month of July 2017, I lived in northeast China, studying at a university in the little-known city of Harbin, which is twice the size of the biggest city in Canada. By now, my experiences with China and Chinese are bigger than a single blog-post or Instagram feed. They are more like a book–nuanced and complex. When I look at the Instagram feed (find it at jennylquist) I used to curate some what I encountered on my latest trip to China, I’m afraid the overall impression might be a bit too negative, too “other.”
So in the spirit of fairness, positivity, and unity, I bring you a list of things about China that are actually better than what we have here in the West.
- Hailing Waiters – The relationships Western diners have with their servers—it’s weird. It’s a complicated game where servers try to guess and perfectly time diners’ needs while diners try to stiffly and silently catch their eyes, getting huffier and huffier when things aren’t perfect, everyone wondering what it might all mean for the fraught practice of tipping at the end of the night. In China, when a diner needs something, she waves and calls out. The server expects it and doesn’t get worried or offended by it. The communication is direct, uncomplicated, and effective. It’s better.
- Over-dressing – Fancy dresses, shoes, and accessories are worn in China because they are fun and beautiful–no other justification needed. Where I was staying, this seemed to be more common for women than it was for men (head to South Korea for guys in suits for no special reason). Fancy dressing is not something Chinese women age out of either. In fact, the frilliest dresses on the street are worn by auntie-aged ladies. No one in China seems to have any idea how old I am and when I tried on one of these dresses in a store—a silk shift dress for $20–the clerk asked if I was going to wear this auntie dress myself. 当然自己穿！I bought a pair of pointy-toed gold shoes to go with it.
- Bathroom Mysteries – Not since I last toilet-trained someone have I talked as freely about bathroom issues as I did in China. It really is strange that in the West the perfectly normal, sometimes medically important movements of toilet fluids are still taboo. Being able to talk about it openly is a more genuinely human way to behave. “I’ll be downstairs right after I finish pooping,” a 20-year-old man texted me. Sure, fair enough.
- Love Songs – The last hour of formal Chinese instruction I had at the Harbin Institute of Technology was spent learning love songs to sing at the end of semester concert for our classmates. They were overwrought and awesome—all about crying and being wrong and loving too much. During our long, long day of airport delays on the way home, my traveling companion and I amused ourselves singing what we remembered of them, using them as an emotional safety valve for a harrowing, exhausting day.
- Proper Use of Air Conditioning – In the West, especially in the hottest parts of America, air conditioning is used to transform interior spaces into refrigerator units. It wastes an obscene amount of energy and can lead to people stuck indoors dressing up in layers of warm clothing to counteract the air conditioning. In China, air conditioning is meant to make interior spaces not cold but merely warm. They’re usually set around 25 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a pleasant summer day–rather than at 19 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a colossal Target store in Phoenix.
- Russia – When traveling in Asia (and in Europe, where my son lives) it’s remarkable to realize how pervasive the Russian language and Russian people are in the countries bordering their own. In Beijing and in the north, people trying to guess my nationality usually guessed Russian first. An elite Russian high school student can function in Russian, English, and often another language such as, yes, Chinese. So…yeah.
- Kitchen in the Front, Party in the Back – It’s not uncommon for a Chinese restaurant’s dining room to be in the back of the building, meaning diners get to walk through and see all the ugly truths of the kitchens where their food is prepared. If there’s an overflowing garbage can covered in flies, or a live turtle living in a plastic box right on the food prep space, we’re going to know about it and have no one but ourselves to blame for the astounding bathroom story we’ll wind up with later.
- Public Transportation – In my home town, riding the lacklustre subway costs just under $4. In north east China, riding the clean, flashy subway cost about 20 cents.
- The Welcome Applause – In China, applause comes at the beginning of the performance to get the performers psyched up and feeling welcome. There’s no daunting, expectant silence as they take the stage.
- Drinks in Bags – Instead of selling drinks to-go in tippy cardboard drink trays, Chinese cafes hand them out in slender plastic bags with handles. We can carry more than one without spilling or getting wet from the condensation on the sides of the cup. I hereby call out the cardboard drink tray cartel that is holding this back in the West.
- Scale – In the West, at five foot one inch tall (about 155cm) my height is that of a child in the sixth grade. In China, I’m fairly normal. I sail right under low hanging staircases and doorways, and I can always find shoes in my size. Back home, many shoe stores don’t even order merchandise in my size.
- Talking to Strangers – Homes tend to be small in China so cities are planned with shared outdoor living spaces where people come together to sit, talk, eat, play, sing, and dance. This fosters a culture where people accept the nearness of strangers as part of normal private life. They initiate conversations, stare, scold, speak their minds even on personal topics. The look of my transparent Irish skin provoked a lot of advice from strangers on how to take better care of my body. It was invasive and strange but I was touched by it. I felt loved and important when I heard it. I felt like I was being allowed to become part of something.
The reason I went to China was to learn, especially to learn its language. I don’t think one language can be better than another but what I love about Chinese is how different it is from every other language I know anything about. Chinese isn’t just a new language to me, it’s a new mental faculty–one that also exists in the minds of a billion other people. After all these little details, what, in the end, is better in China than in the West? I am. I am more human for having been there and I hope I have brought that home with me to my family, friends, and country-people. Not everyone’s journey will pass through China—or anyplace in particular–to make them who they need to be. But mine does, and I am so grateful.
This was just fabulous to read Jenn! You have such a gift in being able to express and paint a perfect picture when you write. I loved this. When we took our four kids (14-23) to Ghana, Africa to volunteer for a summer I came home with so many similar thoughts and feelings but putting them in writing was impossible. It’s something you simply have to experience. Or so I thought.
I loved following your instagram while you were in China. Every post was so interesting and thought provoking. You not only have a talent for the written word but for taking just the right photo – ones that spoke far more than the traditional ‘thousand words’.
Thank you for this!
You are a darling. Thank you!