Bridging the cultural gap

This summer I spent 5 weeks living in China learning Mandarin. At least, that was my job description. In truth, I spent 5 weeks making memories to last a lifetime, learning and using Mandarin to survive living in China, and formed relationships that I hope will stay with me for a long time.

As I immersed myself among the Chinese, I experienced quite a few “culture shocks.” I had come prepared for the smog, but not the intermittent drops of liquid that could fall from awnings and windows at any time. Nor for the relative lack of Western toilets and showers (although I guess I ought to have seen that coming)… Even more interesting was the flouting of the cultural “rules” that I did anticipate, such as overly modest clothing, minimal PDA and more English speakers. We had been warned that Chinese did not like short shorts, tank tops or flip flops, but I think the younger generation has gotten the best of the older norms and wants to wear what they choose. The frequent sightings of PDA were also shocking as that was something we had been told was highly frowned upon. Since we discovered that it was not, it became sort of a game for my classmates and I to point out all instances of PDA. It has also been interesting to see how many couples match clothing and/or accessories over here. Hygiene is also not as strict in Beijing as in the U.S. Babies pee through their slit pants on the streets while vendors sell even skinless fruits on these same streets. I do enjoy however the immense availability of fruit here, even though I didn’t buy any. There are some little differences that also come about because of a difference in resources. For example, toilet paper is not flushed here because the water pressure is not strong enough to handle it. Also, nobody drinks tap water; water is either boiled, filtered (if you’re lucky), or bought bottled. Another major cultural difference, this time between specifically my home area and Beijing, is how easily accessible everything is either by bus, subway or taxi. In those ways the city reminds me of New York and its transportation freedoms.

Aside from the differences I saw culturally between China and the US, because my classmates and I came from all over the states, we had some interesting differences as well. I anticipated all my northern Phillips Academy classmates to not say y’all but I wasn’t aware that chocos (a popular sandal like the original Teva) is popular/heard of only in the south.

Regardless of these differences, Beijing really grew on me. I don’t think I’ll ever fully “embrace” the ever present smog, but I surely embraced most of the differences. And the differences between us didn’t keep my classmates and I from getting really close. I guess you could say we’re closing the gaps, one adventure at a time.


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