Tuesday, January 27, 2009

China vs. America

Here are a few things I’ve already noticed about Chinese culture that are different from American culture.

People can’t drive here. When back home we say Boston drivers suck, compared to drivers here they’re angels. Traffic laws do exist, it’s just that no one really bothers to follow or enforce them. If you’re driving too slow, cars will swerve around you to get ahead, even if the road isn’t really wide enough. On some of the more rural roads there aren’t even lines painted on the road, so cars going in both directions just stay on their general half while avoiding people riding bikes or motorcycles on the side. Pedestrians don’t really have the right of way like they do in America. If you’re crossing the street, cars won’t stop for you-you have to stop for them or risk almost getting run over. When you want to stop for some reason, you just pull over on the side of the road, regardless of the traffic conditions, and if you want something on the opposite side of the road you make a U-turn into oncoming traffic. It’s ridiculous. Granted, I’ve only seen Shangdong province so far which is much more rural than Beijing, but I don’t think it’s any better there.

Television is much different. In the US, television is run by many different media sources like ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, etc. They broadcast what they like according to ratings, and have many different kinds of shows like medical dramas, crime dramas and such. In China, television is run by CCTV (China Central Television), a state-run media corporation. Everything broadcasted by CCTV is subject to approval by the government and boy do they approve some really weird stuff. There are Chinese soap operas which, like American ones, are terrible. They have some crazy Asian game shows that look and sound really trippy, and they have some other channels that mostly broadcast people yelling at each other and overreacting. There’s also NBA. They show replays of Houston Rockets games because China loves Yao Ming. All in all, I don’t think the Chinese are nearly as attached to their televisions as Americans.

Whereas back home my parents yell at me if I’m hungry right after a meal, in China they  worry if I don’t want more food. They keep suggesting that I eat this or that, and they get concerned if they think I’m not eating enough. When eating a meal, I eat until I’m full and then some. If I stop eating for more than a minute or two, someone’s there to offer me more food. They only stop once I tell them “bao le” or “I’m full”. At that point they seem convinced that I’m not just rejecting food to not impose.

Fireworks continue day and night for the Year of the Ox. In America around Chinese New Year, some of my Chinese friends will tell me happy new year (xin nian kuai le 新年快乐), but I’ve realized that the way we celebrate it in America pales in comparison to how they celebrate it here. For one thing, the government specifically makes home fireworks legal for the holiday. That means that everyone lights their own fireworks, which is so much more fun than watching organized ones. The Chinese have a different sense of danger too, and we’ll only stand a few feet away when things explode and make really loud pops. The Chinese did invent gunpowder after all.

In and Around Shangdong

Currently I'm in Shangdong province celebrating the Year of the Ox with my host family. We're a few hours south of Beijing, and it's a much more rural area than Beijing. The drive down the highway was mostly like an American highway, except that all the trees were the same type, and there weren't that many of them so you could see miles upon miles of brown earth stretching everywhere. The signs on the highway are in characters and either pinyin or English, but the English very often doesn't make any sense.

When we got here, I was greeted enthusiastically by my host grandparents, who are constantly worried that I'm hungry so they keep shoveling food on my plate. My host brother has one younger girl cousin (he calls her his sister. since the One-Child Policy took effect, they call all their cousins brother and sister), who can speak a little English but is very shy of me so she keeps to herself around me.

Yesterday we went to a supermarket in the city nearby (I don't know the name). According to my host mom, it's a rather small town, but in American standards it's a large city (the whole province has 90 million people, so all these terms are relative). When we went into the supermarket, the first thing I noticed was how much variety they have. It's a far cry from the stories you hear about stores in truly Communist nations. There were about 30 different kinds of chips alone.

Today we went to a Confucian temple in Confucius' home town, Qufu. It was fairly nice, and our guide was amazing. He spoke English well enough for me to understand him, though it was heavily accented. He told me lots of information about the different gates and pillars we saw, about how they were built in 1230 and partially destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I didn't really pay too much attention to the bulk of the historical stuff.

Tomorrow I think we're heading to Jinan, the capital of Shangdong province. After that, I head back to Beijing for a day or two before embarking on another week and a half long trip with the other Newton kids. Basically, since I got here until February 10, I won't stop moving. It's a nice change from my life back in Newton. Here are some images of the city and the supermarket. I have pictures of the temple, but my camera battery died and I think I forgot the charger. Very smart.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chinese New Year

For the New Year, I drove down to Shangdong province with my host family. The drive was about 5 hours long, but I don't know where exactly within the province I am. We arrived at my brother's grandparent's house. Everyone is very nice and hospitable. The way they show you their hospitality is by shoving food onto your plate. It's very nice, but eventually I can't eat anymore, but I feel bad so I take a bit extra.

These are some pictures of the fireworks we lit for the Chinese New Year. Everyone lights their own fireworks and everywhere all you hear are loud banging noises. There are several different types of fireworks, from these kinds here, to these long sticks that shoot out flaming things, to cylindrical boxes that shoot out the kind of fireworks they have in America on July 4. 

Here's the feast we had for the new year. The only things I recognized were shrimp and strawberries. I'm still getting used to real Chinese food. It's not as sweet as American food.

Oh, and I forgot to mention before that I can see the whole blog, so feel free to post comments directly on the blog. If this changes, I'll let you know.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

First impressions

I'm in China!!!! It's very cool.

My apartment's on the fourth ring road, which is about a 30 minute drive from the Forbidden City (according to my host brother). We arrived a few hours ago, and surprisingly I'm not terribly tired. The flight was 13 hours, incredibly long. I didn't really sleep, but at least it's over with now.

My host mom speaks English very well, which is good, at least right now. My host dad speaks very little English, mostly little phrases he learned from my host mom and brother. Eventually, I'll ask both my host parents to speak to me only in Chinese, but I've only been here a few hours, so for now some English is good.

I have my own room, and it's a little smaller than my room at home. The bathroom was very different. There are two rooms. The first one has a sink and a mirror, and the second one has the shower and the toilet. The shower is just a movable shower head, not like the fixed ones in America, which I was expecting. What I did not foresee, however, was how complicated taking a shower would be. I turned the water on easy enough, but it came out scalding hot, and I burned my hand not once, but several times. Then, once I got it cold, it came out freezing. After about 15 minutes, I finally was able to keep the water lukewarm long enough to actually wash myself. Here's the second problem. I couldn't figure out what was soap. I ended up just using shampoo (at least I'm pretty sure it was shampoo) on my entire body. For something as simple as a shower, it sure was damn complicated.

My first impression of Beijing was incredible. As we drove closer to the city center (the airport's near the 6th ring road, even further out than my apartment), I saw more and more high rises. When we got off the ring road, I saw lots of little shops, like the kind you see in Chinatown. In fact, it seemed less like China and more like gigantic Chinatown. The one weird thing I saw was a man riding a bicycle, carrying several large bundles behind him. It looked rather funny.

I'm off to dinner now, more posts to come...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Goodbye, America!

So, it's around 12:30am on January 23. I'll head to the airport in about 7 hours or so, at which point I'll say goodbye to my parents. We're stopping in Washington DC before flying to Beijing, and there will probably be a layover. When we board that second plane, it will be a mere 14 hours before we're in China. It's all very strange.

Although I can't say I'm excited for the longest flight of my life (both literally and figuratively), I am definitely excited for what will happen when the flight is over. I will be in China, a land I have wanted to go to all my life, and I'll be there for a long time.

These last few weeks, everyone has asked me if I'm excited. Of course, I say, why wouldn't I be? But the truth is, there are several emotions pulsating through my veins. Excitement, apprehension, anxiety, and nervousness to name a few. I am worried I will miss my friends and family, and the comfort that comes with my routine in Newton. But the greater truth is that while I feel all these emotions, at the same time they all make me even more excited to leave. I know it will be an amazing experience, and I think that's what's driving me to feel all these things. So, in just a few short hours, I will board that plane, and when I do, I will leave behind not only my friends and family, but also the comfort of home. And that scares me. But it also is exhilarating, and I can't wait. I am going to try to catch a few hours of sleep now, and then I'll be on my way. The next post I make here will be written in China. Goodbye everyone!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog! This is my first blog, and I'm excited to see what happens.

So, let me give a short introduction as to the purpose of this blog and what I'll be blogging about. On January 23, 2009, I will travel to Beijing, China. I will be there for exactly four months (until May 23), and I will live with a Chinese family. I'm going as part of an exchange program between the Beijing Jingshan School and Newton South/North High Schools. This exchange program dates back to the late 70's, and is the oldest of its kind in the US. As part of the program, I'll live and go to school in China, immersing myself in the language and culture. 

My previous experience with Mandarin Chinese* is non-existent before I joined the program, and I only began learning in June 2008. This means that in the beginning, I anticipate being completely clueless of what's happening around me most of the time, as well as enduring frequent headaches. I think it's a small price to pay to live in China.

In writing this blog, I hope I'll be able to inform you of my experiences living in China and experiencing its culture firsthand. I've always wanted to go there, and I think now is the perfect time since China is emerging onto the world stage, especially after the 2008 Olympics.

Feel free to read and make comments on what you read here. Enjoy!

*Mandarin is the official dialect of China. Cantonese is mainly spoken in Southern China, and is the language of many ex-pats from Hong Kong and Macau. There are also hundreds (probably thousands) of other dialects spoken in various other regions throughout China. You can check out the Wikipedia article on Chinese here.

p.s.-I'm not sure I'll be able to view the entire blog in China due to censorship, and if I'm not, I don't think I'll be able to view comments. So in that case e-mail them to me at marcusrichard@verion.net. Otherwise, make them here. I'll post it once I'm in China.