A feeling of uncertainty gripped me like a strong hand as I suddenly woke up. Looking around I saw the yellowed white paint flaking off the steel framed windows in my bedroom. Then I heard the familiar sounds outside of bicycle bells, honking horns, and the bustle of people buying and selling vegetables in the street. I must have dozed off realizing it was only a dream.
I sat up and wondered in a strange way, what will it be like to return to the country I had left so many years ago. I often felt uneasy with the idea of leaving China and returning to America, in fact there was almost a sense of anxiety I would experience when contemplating its reality. How would I act in that familiar however foreign ecosystem? I knew in my heart that the day would show itself in not too far in the future. However, I had become very comfortable with my life in China over the past um-teen years. Sometimes I would hear other Westerners forewarn me of the dreaded “Reverse Culture Shock”. Some people who had only been away from home for three months or three years, which to me was only a drop in the sea, would exclaim of the difficulty they experienced re-adapting. I felt this looming fear of something I couldn’t grasp. I knew well what “Culture Shock” was all about, but when I started hearing people add the information “reverse” to it, I couldn’t imagine what this could possibly be like.
After fifteen and a half years in China, I made my second jump between cultures. I returned to America, leaving China the country that had been my home for over one-third of my present lifetime. Now, I know about “Reverse Culture Shock”!
Did You Say English?
At first, I felt awkward using English on a daily basis expressing things that wanted to come out in Mandarin. My mindset was geared to Chinese more than English and certain words did not come to me in English without straining my brain, as they say in China. I would consistently draw a blank, halting in the middle of sentences just wishing the person that I was talking to could understand Chinese. Sometimes, I already found myself with Chinese just ready to jump off my tongue, then having to stop myself and make a point to keep it in English. Not only once have I opened my mouth, when to my surprise and to the person in front of me, I blurt something out in Mandarin, sometimes not already realizing it myself, wondering why the person is looking at me so strangely.
Reading signs and placards became a lesson in comprehension. The first impression versus the second thought: my first reaction driving past a street sign that read “Private excursion”, was to surprise why someone would ever name a street “Private excursion”. The yellow street sign flanked with the letters “XING” method “Crossing” to the average driver and pedestrian, however in Mandarin phonetics that combination of letters is distinct “shing” which can average “OK”, “sounds good to me”, “walk”, and a many other assorted things depending on its context. No matter how hard I try I can’t stop my brain from reverting to Chinese each time I see that sign.
One day, in an conceal office somewhere waiting for a clerk named Cheryl, I was sitting and looking at her desktop box boasting a label; “Cheryl’s inbox”. I laughed to myself as I pondered how they could ever get her in there.
When I called in to cancel a telephone answering service the woman on the other end retorted “I’m sorry to hear that” in response to my request to cancel the service. I fumbled with my words as my head spun not able to find a correct response until we both broke out laughing. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she would be sorry to hear that!
Listening to the radio was an moment realization that I am not the same person I used to be. As soon as the announcers begin to hit on the subject of Mondays and Fridays it reminds me that here, in America, we despise Monday and worship Friday. In China no one has any concept of one being any better or any worse that the other, and it certainly is not anything that becomes a valid conversation topic, or a restaurant for that matter. Listening to radio ads reminds me that to have a Mother-in-law is a social dilemma in our culture, in the ad they had her placed in a list of things to keep distance from. In China the mother-in-law is respected and she has certainly not become a social pun.
Never have I been so aware of how much we say “excuse me”, if I think like a Chinese I can’t figure out why we are saying it either. Remembering back to when I first arrived in China, I was taken aback by people asking me why I always say “excuse me”. Now, after unlearning to say it I’ve begun wondering why we say it so much myself. What it comes down to is that it is a cultural pattern that we have grown up with and heard our parents and society regularly remind us to use these expressions, we are taught that it is socially correct.
One day, as I went to get a napkin in a coffee shop I walked up behind a woman who was turning around in front of me. She turned to see me walking right up behind her and closest broke out in fierce apology, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you….” At this point, I didn’t know how to react correctly and simply didn’t realize she had done anything wrong, I just nodded and got my napkin.
Maybe, my sense of space has shrunk and I am intruding into boundaries of personal space that I no longer have a concept of. In China, there is no real sense of personal space. Everywhere you go you are rubbing shoulders, and other things, with 13 million warm bodies. If you had to say you’re sorry every time you turned around to see someone just behind you you wouldn’t already have time to say much more than excuse me. The way they see this in China is really very simple. If you are my friend then you understand me and I don’t need to say excuse me, otherwise I am acting as if you are not my friend. Our friendship covers all the bases. The only time it would be necessary to say, dui bu qi; or excuse me (which literally method “I can’t lift my head” and carries a stronger meaning in Chinese) is when you have wronged me. however if I don’t know you from the man in the moon then I don’t owe you any apology. It may sound harsh from our cultural standpoint but it truly works very well in China for the reason of time management, as mentioned above.
Along the same lines as excuse me comes thank you. After my return home my family commented that I don’t say thank you enough. Of course, in China if you say thank you too much they will think you are shallow or rather, not considering them a true friend. The only time someone really says thank you is when he or she really method it (that is what my Chinese friends would say to me). But what consists of really meaning it? To them it is when you have gone out of your way to do something for me. It’s nevertheless a cultural thing! We would say “when in Rome do as the Romans” the Chinese would say “When you go into the countryside do as they do”.
Eeny Meeny Miney Mo…
The amount of decisions that the average American makes in one day is overwhelming. Just think about it, going into a restaurant to order a simple meal is a job in itself. White, wheat, sourdough, or rye; French-fries, home-fries, baked, or mashed; ranch, honey-mustard, oil & vinegar, Caesar, or thousand island; scrambled, poached, over-easy, over-medium, or sunny side up; small, medium, or large and already “jumbo”! We are making decisions on a minute-to-minute basis. The choice of this brand or that, this color or that, this designer or that, in China milk comes from cows, eggs are fried, and chicken is meat, no ifs ands or buts about it. The choices aren’t enough to cause a person to go blank in the dairy aisle trying to decide what brand of milk or which percentage of what is best for them.
Strumming a Tune for Angus
One day, while browsing a bookstore in Boulder, Colorado I saw a small plastic bag of replicated coins from the Qing dynasty on the counter. Now, this is something that was familiar to me and I was disinctive to know if the woman behind the counter knew what they were so I asked. She retorted bluntly that she had no idea what they were and that she only sold them. Engulfed in the romance that these small coins caused to well up in me I began to recount to her how I had found three of the original coins while tending sheep on the Mongol grasslands. I went on to proportion my memories, as in my mind I raced back to Inner Mongolia. Suddenly, I took a step back to reality seeing the situation and realized that this woman must have thought I was just another nut on the street talking about things that she couldn’t already image and didn’t care the least about. At that I decided to conclude the conversation. As the Chinese say, “dui niu tan qin”, you are only playing music to a cow, and cows are not connoisseurs of music!