Monthly Archives: September 2014

Saving Face

No one likes to look foolish or lose face in public but here in China they take saving face to a whole new level. They are very concerned with saving face, not only for them but for other people as well. Well, many people tell white lies in America to save face for themselves or others but Chinese people often play the avoidance game rather than face issues head on. For example, if you ask a Chinese person for directions they just point you in the wrong direction or give you false directions rather than saying they don’t know. This is a traditional Chinese way of approaching things so I didn’t really expect it to impact my study abroad life as much as it has.

As many of you know, I opted to live in a home stay. The night we met our host parents, we were all gathered in the activity room. We were all whispering our last minute worries, tapping our feet, hugging each other goodbye, pacing a bit, fidgeting with our clothes, and doing a lot of nervous grinning. When my name was called a middle-aged single Chinese woman stood up to claim me. We hugged, introduced ourselves, and then took my luggage out to the car. She had an apartment about a half hour from BeiWai (the Beijing foreign studies university and the school we study at here). I unpacked all my luggage (when did I acquire so much stuff?) and made myself a home away from home.

The next day, John pulled me into our student lounge and said, “I have something to tell you. You can’t go back to your home stay.”

“Excuse me?” I replied in disbelief.

“They don’t have a hukou. We have to pull you out of there immediately,” he said.

I was speechless. You see, in America anyone can live in an city or state you want to. That’s not the case in China. The hukou system created by Mao restricts the places Chinese people can live. A hukou is basically a residence permit. It registers your place of birth with the local police and labels you either rural or urban. You can only receive free social services in the place where your hukou says you live and if you move to another city you must get a temporary work or residence permit. If you don’t, you are living there illegally. For this reason, I have to register myself at the police station with my host family so the Chinese government knows where I am staying. Since my host family didn’t have Beijing hukou, they couldn’t register me with the police and so I would have been in China illegally. I have no desire whatsoever to be arrested so I moved back to the dorms temporarily. My host mother didn’t talk to me about it. She didn’t want to embarrass me or her by talking it so she just played the avoidance game. I only knew about it because one of our teachers called to talk to her and she (luckily) told him.

IES eventually found me another home stay. I now had a host father, mother, and a little brother. He was thirteen years old and learning English. I stayed with them for a couple weeks before another of our RA’s pulled me aside. “I have to talk to you about something,” he said as he sat me down. “Your family is emigrating to America next week. They want you to move out in two days.”

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t believe it. This had to be the universe telling me I was destined to live in the dorms or something. True to form, my host family didn’t tell me anything about it. They only told my teacher who told the RA who told me. When they saw me packing up my stuff, my host mother actually did explain some of it to me (my host father got a job in America). My host father gave me a phone call and apologized for it. This was the most plain speaking I’ve experience from Chinese people about situations like that.

So now I am back in the dorms with a Chinese roommate. As soon as she met me she gave me a huge hug and introduced herself. It was super sweet! We don’t have opposite sleeping schedules so far, we don’t have different living styles, and we have a mutual respect for each other’s space and time. She is more willing than older Chinese people to speak honestly with me on a lot of issues; I’m glad for that. I appreciate straight forwardness to a point. I have high hopes for my current living situation and anyway, third time is the charm, right?

Bonus: We hiked to the highest point in the Great Wall! IMG_20140914_061116

Another Chance

I thought I’d planned for living with a Chinese family. I’d been living in the ASH (Asian Studies House) with Chinese international students, I’d been taking Chinese, and I’d already been to China to visit. I thought I knew what I was getting in to. All my preparation certainly helped prepare me for my Chinese homestay, but nothing could have taken all the surprises out of it. Trying to list them all would be ridiculous so I will try and give a brief overview.

  1. Food and eating in general

Food in China is about as big a deal as it is in France, maybe even more. They will cook wonton soup (with a hard boiled egg) for breakfast, often drink tea in the middle of the day, will juice a fresh watermelon for you just because you are studying, will get up to make you (just me) breakfast at 6 am in the morning, etc. It’s staggering (see picture below for reference). One word of advice though. In China, saying “I’m full” in Chinese (wǒ chī bǎo le) does not stop the flow of food.

After eating practically 15 dumplings, I tell them “I’m full, thank you.”

“Eat a little more,” they say. “You can eat just one or two more.”

“No, I’ve really eaten enough,” I reply.

This exchange repeats two or three times before I take refuge in my room. If I don’t stand firm against them, I will come back to America bigger than I left.

Mid-Autumn Festival Dinner

Mid-Autumn Festival Dinner

Also, did you know that they don’t really talk during dinner? Instead they leave the TV on, and we all watch it together. We’re all too busy eating to speak much anyway. Even so, meal time is family time. I guess the mutual enjoyment of the food is the bonding. Nevertheless, when someone is done eating they can just get up and leave the table. There’s no asking to be excused and no staying until everyone is finished. It took me a while to fall into this habit, as did the habit of using tissues when we eat instead of napkins. It’s not that they don’t work; it’s more that I have to use about three times as many of them.

2. Home life

Bare feet in a Chinese home is considered rude and dirty. You must wear pool type sandals in the house all the time. When you shower, you wear shower shoes. There are never shoes out of place because they all get left at the door. I’ll admit that I occasionally forget this, especially right after I wake up. Hey, what can I say? I’m tired in the morning.

As for the laundry, the washers are pretty much the same. Dryers, on the other hand, simply don’t exist. Everyone, from old Chinese men to college students, air dries their clothes and linens. Sometimes it takes two days. In the winter I’ve heard it will take even longer. It’s not a problem, as long as you plan ahead and don’t wait to do laundry until you have no clothes.

3. China in general

Honestly, the water problems are more troublesome than the air (no matter what the news sites say). I can brush my teeth with the tap water, shower in it, and wash my dishes, but I can’t drink it. You either have to drink boiled water, have a water filter (which my family does), or buy huge water tubs (which IES has). It’s when we go traveling that it’s such a pain. Water may only be about 8 kuai ($1.20) a bottle, but buying them so often adds up.

In another vein, on the subway and the bus random people will come up and talk to you. The bus is .4 kuai per ride ($.06), the subway is clean, efficient, and cheap, and there are stalls with amazing street food on practically every block. In the morning, the parks are always filled with people who are doing Tai Chi, playing musical instruments, and working out on the public outdoor exercise equipment. There is always something to see, something to do, someone to talk to, and something delicious to eat.

Beijing, and China, are giving me a once in a lifetime experience. I’m not just here to learn Chinese; I’m also here to learn about myself and the culture I come from. It’s like uncovering a part of myself that I never knew existed. I’ve always known I was Chinese born, but it wasn’t until I got to China this time that I really started understand it. Now I get the chance to see what it would have been like to grow up here. It’s a chance I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.


As I arrived at my departure gate in the Seattle airport, I glanced around and did a double take. I was almost completely surrounded by Chinese people. The few other Americans who showed up for the flight were being observed fairly closely. I scanned the people nearest to me and realized that I was not drawing the same kind of attention. It puzzled me but in the face of an exhausting 12 hour flight it fell to the back of my mind.

Then on one of my first mornings at IES I went out to find an ATM. John, one of the RA’s,  had taken me the day before but I, as many people can attest, don’t have a really great sense of direction in places I’ve only been a few times. Needless to say I got really lost but up until I passed the same apartment building three times no one looked at me twice. Old women doing Tai Chi, old men smoking, students buying breakfast, people running in the early morning air and until I started to actually look lost they more or less dismissed my presence.

Did I not look American? The last time I was here every Beijing person was able to immediately brand me a foreigner but now I seem to be, well, the norm. They looked at me and saw that I looked like a typical young Chinese college student and then went about their business. I was, for the first time in my life, part of the majority. I’m used to being one of those diverse people in America, primarily by virtue of my ethnicity and looks; in China, I am one of millions of black haired brown eyed Chinese. Even my height is normal. Only my tanned skin is the outward clue to me being a lǎowài (a term for foreigners).

Interestingly enough the Asian stereotype from home exists in a similar form here. Because I look Chinese (because I am), every Chinese person I meet thinks I’m a native…until I open my mouth and speak that is. My ability to speak Mandarin well plummets when someone asks me a question that sounds like gibberish to me. “对不起, 我 是 中文 学生. 我 听不懂” (I’m sorry, I’m a Chinese language student. I didn’t understand what you said) I respond. Then they do one of several things: smile knowingly and then start talking about me in Mandarin as if I don’t speak any, look very confused, or give me a disapproving look. They don’t really get the idea of a Chinese looking person who can’t speak perfect Mandarin, or other Chinese dialect. That’s the confusion bit. The other two reactions stem from that Asian stereotype again. As someone who is ethnically Chinese, I am expected to have perfect Chinese and when it is clear that I don’t, they judge me for it. Just like in America, assumptions and expectations are placed upon me based upon nothing but how I look ethnically. So while I don’t get blatantly stared at or get my picture taken by random passing strangers like me American looking friends, I stand out in a different way. I admit it’s a very strange thing to consider. As a result, I made a new goal for myself this trip. By the end of my stay in China, when someone asks me a question thinking I’m a native I will speak well enough that they will still believe it when they walk away.

Bonus picture: Me leaving for the first of my two flights to China IMGP0262