Friday, February 5, 2010

You don't have the right of way.

Several years ago, I was teaching a group of visiting scholars from China.  It was the first time most of them were in the US, so I asked them what some of their impressions were.
One man told me that he was amazed that cars stopped for pedestrians and bicycles.  He told me that in China no car would stop if a pedestrian or bicycle stepped into the street.
I tucked that piece of information away as something interesting and now that I live in China, I consider it to be the first lesson that must be learned here.  Despite the fact that cars and buses are outnumbered by pedestrians and cyclist, the bigger vehicle has the right of way.  It's an important survival lesson but also a great metaphor for living in another country or simply a great life lesson.  You don't have the right of way.
Some time during my first few weeks here, I was riding my bike to language school with some friends.  Cars were honking at us and I told my friends that I felt like flipping them off.  I don't like being honked at and in China, people honk all the time!  Later a friend helped me understand that honking is a way of saying "I see you" and "Be careful."  Re-framing that helped me change my attitude and let go of my itchy middle finger (just being honest here).
There are things that you get used to very quickly here.  The crowds.  The noise.  The wedding fireworks in summer.  After a while, you stop noticing people staring at you.  Being surrounded by a language that you don't understand.
You quickly learn how to hail a taxi, the best bike routes and what bus goes where.  You choose to think positively about things that are different.  Squatty potties?  Great for your thigh muscles.  No TP in any restroom?  You only forget to carry it with you once.  No Caffeine Free diet coke?  Well, there is Coke Zero which isn't too bad.  There is no frozen pizza (well, we found one once but it had mystery fish on it) but there are fast and wonderful cheap restaurants everywhere.
There are things that are really hard here, things that are hard to accept.  Dogs and cats are rarely vaccinated, spayed or neutered or trained.  We've had to tell our daughter to never touch any animal.  Ever.  People smoke everywhere here.  What do you do when your taxi driver lights up in the taxi?  Riding a bike here can be a game of chicken as people ride straight towards you and don't veer to the right (which is our cultural expectation). I had a bus tap me in an intersection when I had the green light.  Taxi doors open up in front of us.  I've been shoved hard on a bus...and I'm honest enough to say that twice I've shoved back.
Language can be hard and exhausting.  I've told my students for years that the burden of comprehensibility is on them.  I still believe that but it is so hard!  There are days when I simply don't want to go the the market to get meat because I don't want to talk to the butcher.  No prepackaged meat here.  Purchasing anything requires communication.
Today is a great example of how exhausting it can be.  I needed a haircut.  My American friend has successfully gotten her haircut at a salon near her home. After language school, I rode my bike over there.  I foolishly thought that I could get a quick haircut and get home to get ready for a trip we are taking tomorrow. The culture lesson that I will need to learn over and over again is that there is no "quick" here.  Everything takes twice as long or more.
So I practice my vocabulary with my language teachers and felt pretty confident I could say "I need a haircut" "Shorter in the back and longer in the front."  I walked in and successfully communicated my need for a haircut and was told to wait and that they would call me.  I was pretty proud of myself for communicating and understanding.
So I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I watched many metro-sexual men cut and perm hair.  I saw makeup applied on pretty women.  The place was packed.  After an hour, I gave up and left.  I was hungry and just flat out of time.
Why was the wait so long?  Here's the thing.  I don't know.  I don't think it was because I was a foreigner.  I think it simply was the way it was.  The exhausting part was that I just didn't know why it took so long.  I think they were just busy.
Paul needed a tie for a speaking engagement that he has.  He rode his bike over to the nearest Wal-Mart type store.  No ties.  He rode over to a large shopping area that has hundreds of small shops.  No ties.  He asked a salesperson about it and she said that not one shop there carried ties.  He needed to go to another part of town where they sold ties.  Why no ties in any of these shops? They just don't carry them.
We don't have the right of way.  We don't have the right to ask people to accommodate us.  We are here to learn and serve.
So how do we do it?
Language.  We work hard at it.  Language is key.  We are in language school 15 hours a week and work with language helpers in the afternoon.  Then we do homework. There are days when the relentless correction of our teacher's is overwhelming.  It's very intense but necessary at this early time in our culture.  
Sleep.  We need more sleep here.  Sleep gives us grace.  Sleep makes us patient with others and ourselves.  Sleep is crucial.
Laughter.  Not the kind of standing outside the culture critiquing it laughter.  But true laughter.  A lightness that reflects fruit of the spirit.  We have always believed that laughter was holy and we believe it even more now.  In language class, I've accidently pronounced two words as obscenities.  I have to choose to laugh and move on.
Prayer...need I say more?
We don't have the right of way in this new and wonderful world that we live in.  There is tremendous freedom in following that and receiving the gifts that living in a new culture brings.


Anonymous said...

Your posts are so interesting. Keep 'em coming! Have fun in Hong Kong!

bevLY said...

yes, language... and FOOD are the key to the culture. :)

you have SUCH a good attitude, sandy. can't wait to see the plentiful harvest from your labor of love! :)

Tanya said...

Major culture shock. A lot of what you said is what I don't like about Los Angeles, either ....

I am really enjoying your posts on life in China.

God bless you all.

Donna said...

You have a great attitude. Me? After almost 3 years in China, I still curse at the squatty potties.