Recently watching Whisky Tango Foxtrott (great movie btw, Tina Fey, you are my hero) and all this talk of the “Kabubble” inspired me to take a close look at myself and how my behaviour has changed after three years in China and…what would you call it? The Bebble? The Beijubble? I’ll have to work on that. Anyway, without much ado, here are the main ways in which being in China and with a Chinese husband have changed both my thoughts and actions.
1. The Value of Family
When I was 18 I couldn’t wait to get out of Germany and see the world. I was never a person to miss home easily when there were so many wonders to be discovered. Being in China has changed my outlook in this regard at least a little. I would now consider moving back to Germany, a country I had thought I had turned my back on forever, partly because it would mean being closer to my family. Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental. But mostly it’s China. The importance of family here and the value placed on it has increased the value I place on my own family in my life. Tough to my husband’s dismay that doesn’t necessarily relate to a number of his more…shall we say interesting…relatives. And while we are being honest they are probably the main reason I appreciate how normal and drama free my own childhood was.
Career-wise I think moving to China was both a blessing and a curse in disguise. Having had little practical experience in journalism, I would have never been able to find such work in the UK. China gave me a start into written journalism and then the opportunity to work for the country’s largest broadcaster. To be perfectly honest the main reason is my Caucasian descent, which in the past equaled unimaginable opportunities in China (as more talented people flood into the Land of the Dragon this trend is starting to shift). Being able to speak the local language also helps of course. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that now I have tasted blood and want to stay in this line of work – and I feel I am entitled to pursue this career dream – something I would never even have dared consider back in Europe. It won’t make life easier, that’s for sure. But if it works out, it will be a whole lot more fun.
Being in China, a communist-run country, has definitely changed my views on the world. It has enabled me step out of the fairly limited discourse that exists in the West, including such broad statements that communist leadership is straight out of hell or Chinese people have no freedom of expression whatsoever and see that the truth is a little bit more nuanced than that. I do know that even so much as suggesting that there are some things the leadership in China aren’t bad at is probably as disturbing to most Western ears as the comments I get from countless Chinese who hear I’m German: “Oh yeah, Hitler. Great guy!” But it just takes a simple look at Chinese high speed railway infrastructure, which I maintain is among the best in the world, to realise they must be doing something right.
Ironically, although I wouldn’t call myself the biggest fan of certain political realities, my more favourable opinion of at least some aspects of China’s policies often means I automatically get pushed into the “Defender of China” role. Hello, I am DOC, the latest super hero on the block. JK. Or am I? It is quite frustrating to see how just mentioning the idea that maybe there are also positive sides to something that is seen as Satan’s spawn in democratic and individualist cultures always ends up with me sounding like a propaganda machine.
Growing up in the West I was such a lazy eater. What I hated most was dealing with any food that needed to be “handled” in the slightest way before stuffing it in my mouth. Peeling prawns to me was some kind of cruel joke. What? I’m meant to work for my food? Preposterous!!
In China, unless you want to miss out on some of the best dishes, you can’t afford to be such a choosy chewer. Peeling the hull (is it a hull? Or skin? Or armour? Who knows!) off a scampi with my bare teeth and chopsticks is now the least of my problems as I enthusiastically munch away on splintered chicken bones and suck meat out of little crayfish legs I have sardonically ripped off the poor creature.
No more mashed potatoes and creamed soups. Three years in China mean I get down and dirty when it comes to dinner time. Right down to the bone. My mum must be so proud of me.
There was once a time when I could hardly imagine that planning a holiday two days in advance and deciding what to do on a weekend on that actual weekend would ever occur to me. In traditional German fashion I was on track to become the Organisator. Hasta la vista, baby; but at 3:30pm exactly please, and no minute later.
In China life just isn’t like that. I can’t help but chuckle with amusement when my mum (an honorary German of almost 40 years) is non-plussed at the fact that our plans change more often than our underwear. As you can imagine this makes planning a Sino-German wedding akin to walking over a patch of glass shards. If you are not a yogi master, you are going to get hurt. My mum calls it chaos, we prefer to think of it as flexibility. It’s the only way to stay sane. I plan to write more on cross-cultural wedding escapades soon. Let’s see how long that lasts. Oh, time to change my underwear.
It wasn’t till I was out at dinner with some “old outsiders” (Get it? Get it? If not, look up Laowai) that I noticed how drastically my small talk has changed. When a colleague mentioned they recently purchased a new item, my first question was not what colour, what model or any technical specs but rather “How much?”. “You’re so Chinese, Laura” was the exasperated answer and with a flash of surprise I realized they were right.
I do not feel ashamed to ask people for their salaries anymore – probably something I need reign in when back in Europe. Does this automatically mean I am money obsessed or that the pink papers with Mr Mao’s glorious features are the only thing that matters to me? I wouldn’t say so; but I do appreciate Chinese realism concerning finance. I mean, call me cynical, but what’s the point of having your dream career if at the end of the day you can’t even pay the rent for a fridge-sized flat. We tend to like to pretend back in Europe that money doesn’t matter. It does folks. Deal with it.
I know, I know. It’s the obvious one but still I think it deserves mention. No matter whether it’s 40 or -40 degrees outside, every Chinese restaurant will serve you free HOT water, always. In the office and at every single “water cooler” in the country you have the options of either tastebud-scorcher or “cold”, and by cold I mean room temperature. It’s to do with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the idea that hot water cools you down.
During my recent trip to Germany I found myself bordering on a breakdown at the fact that getting at plain hot water was about as easy as trying to climb Mount Everest in high heels. It just ain’t gonna happen. Now, it might have been the placebo effect but I genuinely felt miserable for the first few days and I put it down to mostly a lack of hot water. Certainly not jet lag or airplane induced cold.
Especially being in an intercultural relationship forces you to be more accepting of behaviour that doesn’t conform with your own culture. If it doesn’t, I’m guessing the relationship won’t be lasting very long.
It is easy in such a relationship for both sides to overlook how accepting your opposite has actually become of your cultural quirks, because to you they are totally normal.
Point in case: I think the moment of revelation of just how much my accept-o-meter has risen occurred when I returned from a trip to Germany to find that my MIL had gone through the entire flat and rearranged everything. Including my underwear. Now I have discovered through much discussion that this a) is not necessarily exclusively a Chinese MIL phenomenon, there are other cultures and households where this might happen, and b) the male species finds the idea of mummy in law folding their undies and rearranging their entire closet not that unappealing.
Maybe I’m just a territorial German b***h but I can assure you that I think I deserve an award for biting my tongue so hard it almost ended up being my dinner. I am convinced that 90% of my European friends would have gone batshit crazy at what can and would be considered a gross invasion of privacy in many a European country. Ironically it’s not the first time this has happened. But that’s a story for another time.
In the meantime, keep calm and rearrange the closet. But only once MIL is gone.
Well, this is all I can think of for now. How about you? How as your accept-o-meter changed since you have been in China? And how many crayfish can you take apart in one minute? Would love to hear your stories!