China: The initial experience.

I’ve been in China for two months now and the months are mixed in the lessons that they have brought, the reactions they prompted and the reasons I remember them, but they are all bricks on this path I’m walking to the other side of being able to say “hey, I lived in China when I was 22!” Because I have a lot to say, I’ve set-up the structure here, so you can skip to what you’re actually interested in reading about:

-Part 1: The 4 phases of culture shock.
-Part 2: The people I’ve met and work with.
-Part 3: Learning to speak and eat Chinese.
-Part 4: Poetry things.
-Part 5: Is God in China?

This post is more focused on my personal experiences here, but I’m aiming for the next posts to be more focused on China as a place. I hope you enjoy!

 

The four phases of culture shock:

1] The honeymoon phase. To be honest, I think I may have skipped this phase completely. I never came to China with stars in my eyes, but rather with a mission; to learn Chinese and do my career a favour. While those are wise choices, I have had to actively look for things to love about this place – they’re here, just not so easy to find- and for a while the feeling of leaving my heart behind was close to overwhelming.

2] The negotiation phase. Ahh, yes. I know this place well. This is home to that part inside of me that just loves to be angry and moan and get frustrated at everyone and everything. That little monster had a field day with me, everyday, for as long as I was willing to feed it. It’s really difficult being somebody who talks as much as I do and having people look at me blankly and say shi ma?- what? When I’m just trying to order a bottle of water.. or coffee (don’t get me started on how difficult that can be). In short, I stepped off the plane and was almost instantly annoyed with the people, the culture, the language, the place. For a while I kept asking myself “what possessed you to come here?”.

3] The acceptance phase. This happened gradually and with the help of my bible (more on that later). I started counting my blessings. For instance, my apartment; it’s so, so nice. I still can’t believe how blessed I am to call that place home. I prayed that I wouldn’t be stuck living in some cement block surrounded by cement everything. I live in one of the nicest parts of Linping- there is a small lake across the street, attached to a magnificent park which has a newly opened tea garden nesting in its heart -where I happened to stumble just at the right time to meet the right lady to invite me to try some of China’s more traditional teas and styles of drinking them. Suddenly I saw the light; China is filled with kind, patient, caring people. Slowly I started to look around and (occasionally) I liked what I saw.

4] The mastery phase. Aaaand here I am (most of the time). These last two months have been a ride and a half, but this place is so beautiful in many ways and I’m excited for this adventure that I have embarked on! I don’t know what’s coming or where I’ll have been in a week from now, But I’ve shifted my goals somewhat: I am here to learn the language and explore the country. I know where the pandas are, I know where the tigers are, I even know about the stone gardens in Kunming and the mountain range that inspired the director of Avatar to design that world as he did. All that’s left is to grab a bag and go!

 

The people I’ve met and work with:

In general, my experience of Chinese people has been that they are very kind as a nation. One of my first experiences here involved sitting in the park during my first week in China, ambitiously trying to count to 10 in Mandarin, when an elderly man walked up to me, smiled and helped me with my pronunciation for each word. Eventually he said a phrase to me in Mandarin which I repeated. He sad it a second time, more slowly and, assuming I had not pronounced it correctly the first time, I repeated it a second time, just as slowly. After a few more back and forths with this one phrase, he decided to write it in my book. I smiled and nodded at him in thanks. He smiled, and went on his way. Interested to find out what my new sentence meant, I asked a colleague at work, who laughed and then wrote out the translation. The sentence that I’d kept repeating was this: Ni shi na li de? which translates to “where are you from?” ahhhh the embarrassment! In my mind’s eye I went back to some of the expressions that had touched that old man’s face and now I see that a lot of it was patience gently folded between some lines of confusion. However, it was just one of the many ways I’ve become accustomed to as being “the way” to learn language; try, fail, get up, laugh, try again and (usually) fail again, but this time a little wiser in doing so.
I’ve met all sorts of people, especially in the context of poetry: I’ve become involved in a group here called the Hangzhou Writers Association International. This has been a ball of light for me on the days where China feels like a dark and lonely place. There are 4 South Africans (myself included) at the school where I work – It seems that while China spreads across the globe, South Africa is slowly infiltrating China- The people I work with here are pretty cool and as much as I’m not the office-job type, I enjoy the dynamic in our staff room. I’ve especially grown to love a small handful of fellow teachers and I’ll share one experience with them that I think I’ll always look back on with a smile:
Summer course was finally over. 6 weeks of non-stop work. 1 day off a week for six weeks of up to 13 hour working days had drained us all, but we held our cool with swagger. The achievement ceremony (AC) was over, we had presented our classes to the parents and done our ridiculous dance for their entertainment (as if taking all our sleep for the purpose of readying their children’s performances was not enough to appease their desire for a show. Nay, we too had to don a hula outfit and pretend to enjoy swaying our exhausted selves from side- to- side). Now came the time for a celebratory nap- or so I thought. Sneakily, a few eager souls decided to book a room for one of the most popular Chinese past-time activities; KTV. I found myself swept up by the conspirators and an hour later, six of us were in a smallish room furnished with a couch, two tables, 3 suspicious-looking microphones and two television screens. In-case you haven’t already guessed: KTV stands for Karaoke Television. Yup, I found myself enjoying a cool cider in a Karaoke suite and it didn’t take much before we were all singing our hearts out and dancing to the likes of Despacito, Thriller, and random Chinese hits. One of my favourite moments of the evening was when one of the possy, a Chinese colleague who speaks almost perfectly accentuated English and looks a bit like Elvis, belted out every word to Billy Joel’s Piano man. If our lives had depended on his passion for the lyrics, we would all have been saved.
We go on team building events with the other EF schools in Hangzhou (there are 8 of us in total) and my first one was heaps of fun! We were told that we were going rafting in a valley two hours away, but in typical Chinese fashion; this was only a fraction of the truth (the click-bait). I didn’t mind, because although rafting only took an hour of our day, I thoroughly enjoyed the hiking and zip-lining that preceded it. First, we did the hike, which took us past a small temple where people pay to bow down with a couple sticks of incense. The temple was “guarded” by a huge tortoise on the one side, and a giant bell on the other. Moving past the temple we found ourselves at a waterfall, where we were told not to swim, but the more we pushed that boundary, the more we were cheered on by the same people who had prohibited it! By we I’m referring to myself and two other lads who struggled with the idea of not going for a mid-hike swim in the heat that seems to permanently blanket China. Next we took a convenient slide down the part of the mountain we’d just hiked up (China is all about convenience), and climbed a good few steps to the top of the zip-lining hills. Something that my rafting-partner pointed out was how angular Chinese mountains are and how they stand out from mountain ranges around the globe. The zip-lining viewpoint was a great place to observe this phenomenon; It was beautiful. The zip-line was over quickly and then we headed to the rafting, which was a tonne of fun (and slightly painful), but also full of natural beauty (I should point out that this trip was the first time I saw clean natural water in China).
These have just been some of the highlights which keep me going and wanting to explore this very interesting country.

 

Learning to speak and eat Chinese:

I’ve hired a tutor that I go to see every two weeks in a café on the Yuquan campus of Zhejiang University. This has been a healthy something for me to spend time on in-between working and being stuck at home (because moving to China is very expensive and it takes some time to catch up with the cash you’ve lost). I think the Chinese language is fascinating! I especially love the characters and am able to have (and write) a basic conversation. This phase of learning a language can go two ways (and it usually tries out both): You’re either in a state of constant frustration and lack-of confidence, especially when it comes to speaking, because you’re so aware of how foreign you sound when trying to community and even when you’re sure you used the right combination of words to order coffee this time people still look at you like you’ve said something ludicrous. The truth is people are usually just shocked that a foreigner is speaking Chinese, or they have picked up on your accent and are trying to filter through your odd way of pronouncing their words. Push through. Tell yourself that daily and progress in your linguistic prowess is soon to follow. I am enjoying the linguistic journey. Some points of interest: In China, people don’t use the commonly known ni hao ma? Like we use how are you? They usually just ask if you’ve had anything to eat!
The food here is good, though I’ve struggled when it comes to cooking for myself. The problem is walking into the shops and not knowing what anything on the shelf is, especially since most things on the shelf in China are not on the shelf back home, so they aren’t visually identifiable either. That being said, food is very cheap here, so it’s not unwise to just buy a meal from a small restaurant every day. Chopsticks are great, I’ve even bought my own set! One of my favourite foodie things here is Jiaozi – dumplings, though they are quite difficult to make (I’ve had a few failed attempts already). Another is flower tea. I love, love, love flower tea! It’s just so delicately balanced in flavour. Mmmmm.

 

Poetry things:

I already mentioned that I’ve gotten involved in a poetry group that’s based in Hangzhou. I’ve also had one of my own poems recorded, I Am an African. It’s cool to be able to carry on with what I love, even if it’s in fulfilling a different role to what I’m used to. http://www.hzwa.wordpress.com is the site you can go to if you’d like to check out what’s happening with all the poetry projects I’m working on. I’ve just become the new web master for their blog and I’m excited for all the potential that it holds! I cannot post my own poem online yet, as it is being entered into a competition that’s based in Minnesota (Button Poetry)and one of the pre-requisites is that it’s an un-published entry, but once it’s out there I’ll make it known to the masses!

 

Is God in China?

This is a question that weighed on me quite heavily before I left South Africa. The answer, of course, is yes, but I think there is more required by the question than just an off-hand yes or no. God has certainly been with me in China and I’m grateful for the peace that knowledge has brought me when I’ve felt on the edge of a deep sadness or panic. I do my bible readings, listen to Christian podcasts and journal my spiritual walk, but when I leave my apartment, my Christian safe-bubble (in a sense), I’m affronted by the intensity of sin around me. There is a trend of drug-taking, casual sex and complacency in the rhythm of life here. How do you walk through a room cramped with dirt and come out clean? Sometimes that’s how it feels and it’s a difficult thing to navigate- especially when that same navigation brings me to a mirror where I can see some of the dirt starting to dust my skin. Then it’s back to my safety bubble where I scrub and pray and it all starts over again. I met another Christian two days ago, but we were parted before having the chance to exchange contact details and there it was again: loneliness. A different kind of loneliness that echoes the verse: “where two or more are gathered in my name…” so I look at the mirror again and wonder if my reflection counts.
Before this gets too depressing I’ll get to the point: I was wrong. Sin may be all over, but that is the nature of people: We are a sinful race, that’s why Jesus came, that’s why He died and that’s where thoughts should turn when the sin in the world feels overwhelming. Frankly one needn’t look at the world, only at the story of his/ her own life to see a tidal-wave of sin, but that’s the thing: Sin is everywhere and God is everywhere too. He is with us in the darkest and lightest places (and all the medium-lit ones). There is a deep hope stirred in with that truth.
So, maybe a more inclusive answer to my headline-question is this: God is far more everywhere than sin and sin is in just about everything. Maybe you don’t like that answer, maybe I won’t like that answer in a month from now, but as it stands that is my full attempt at honesty.
To conclude: I am thankful that my China adventure is becoming a God adventure too. My faith here has grown and deepened, and I am more aware of the importance of my spiritual welfare than I have ever been.

 

That brings me to the end of my first China update. I’ll be back with another in a month or so.
Until then, zàijiàn!

 

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Beasts I’ve known

One day, when you are brave enough to dive so deep that darkness becomes part of the landscape, that’s when you will find my fears. They drift about in hopes of colliding into someone or something they are strong enough to digest. Friends, they are almost always strong enough. Love is a catapult shooting soldiers into the darkness, soldiers equipped to hand-grenade fears, but they rarely know where to aim. Aim at me I plead. So few take the challenge, but preciously I guard them, like a heart trying  to protect its sentiments from the mind.

Hate is not the opposite of Love, Fear  is. Hate and Love tend to co-exist like a tree tolerating a vine, but Fear suffocates, it makes Love feel like the enemy, it psychologically dismembers and reassembles a disturbingly low reality of self-worth. Hate explodes, Fear cripples from the inside. Hate is a broken limb, Fear is cancer. Hate is slapping a friend, Fear is never daring to have one. Hate is a relationship, Fear is loneliness. Hate lives, because Love was there first. Fear stops Love from taking its first breath.

It takes courage to overcome Fear, real adrenaline-filling, heart-stopping, breath-hinging courage. I’ve learned to talk them down, but eventually every feeling needs acknowledgement. At some point, I find myself looking at those hungry beasts drifting in the dark.

We know each other well,  I say and throw a Love-grenade.