Have You Eaten Yet?

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Each culture has its own unique way of asking how someone is. In the U.S. you’ll hear, “how are you doing?”

In The U.K., it’s “are you okay?”

But in China, it’s “nǐ chī fan le ma?” which means, “have you eaten yet?”

Sure, there’s a way to literally say “hello” and “how are you?” in Chinese, but this key phrase inquiring about consumption is the most common expression. This just goes to show you how important the act of dining is in China. On any given night while passing by one of the millions of restaurants in Beijing, you’ll witness older, balding Chinese men with their shirts pulled over their bellies (on really hot nights) clinking glasses of beer noisily with their buddies. Their wives are gathered around the table, gossiping amongst themselves and munching on chuanr while the children run around the tables. Family dining isn’t just a meal–it’s a big ordeal. Typical Chinese meals consist of family-sized dishes that are meant to be passed around and shared. It reminds me of the way extended family members gather around turkey and mashed potatoes for a Thanksgiving meal in the U.S.

I found it so strange that everyone kept asking me if I had eaten during my first few months in Beijing. As soon as I learned the phrase Chinese, I didn’t stop hearing it. I was recently told by a Chinese friend that this question indicates that the asker cares about the askee and wants to make sure you are fed properly.

There is definitely a unique sense of bonding around the dinner table here that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how many times I ask my friends and family if they’ve eaten yet out of habit when I return home.

Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

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During a recent Chinese lesson, my teacher began explaining the sentence structure to describe going to a local theme park. My teacher, Amy, enthusiastically interrupted her own lesson to digress into a story, as often happens during her lessons. She asked me and my co-worker who is learning Chinese with me to guess how she gains free admittance into a local theme park. My colleague and I shrugged prompting her to explain further. She giggled and exclaimed, “It’s not just because I’m pretty! Well, I could get in for free because of that. But I also work as a tour guide and my tour guide license gets me in for free!”

I obligingly laughed along with my co-worker, but her point was pretty much lost on me after she declared she was beautiful enough to gain free admittance to a park. Amy is strikingly beautiful. She’s extremely petite with enviable cheek bones and a great sense of style. Her beauty is something that everyone in a room undoubtedly notices instantly. Although her blatant remark about attractiveness is common among Beijingers, it remains a cultural characteristic that still makes me uncomfortable.

Within just a month of living in Beijing, the standard of beauty was very apparent. Chinese people are, in general, naturally petite. If someone is overweight, they stick out like a sore thumb. There is an obvious admiration for people who are tall. I’ve been told that there are height requirements for men entering the military and that taller men generally are the most successful in business in China. There is also a general desire for an job that allows the comforts of the indoors. Farmers that work in fields and develop golden-brown tans are stereotyped as lower-class citizens.

Therefore, if you are thin, tall, and pale, you are automatically considered beautiful. This standard of beauty is as rigid as a Chinese gymnastic coach. There is no variety (as far as I can tell) in what the majority advertises as beautiful.

While I can see why they consider women to be attractive who are statuesque and slender with creamy white skin, it makes me wonder why they don’t seek diversity in beauty standards. Sure, the U.S. still has a long way to go as far as equality racial and size equality, but it’s refreshing that North American media praises women across a variety of racial entities like Sophia Vergara, Gabrielle Union and Reese Witherspoon. Not to mention the praise that women like Mother Theresa and Princess Diana received for holding such inner beauty that provided for the less fortunate. I don’t believe there’s one way to be beautiful and I’m happy to be from a country that doesn’t think so either.

So maybe I’ll spend the rest of my time here scratching my head at why everyone is seeking to attain the same look. Maybe I’ll continue to squirm uncomfortably at immodest statements about one’s own beauty. But I’ll know that my country understands me and my zany idea that beauty is not a cookie-cutter definition.

Sage Wisdom From A Man Named Bruno

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This past weekend I relished the opportunity to enjoy one of the most gloriously spring-like days we’ve had in a while. I know Beijing is not alone in this seemingly endless dismal weather, but I must say; the fact that every building’s heat was mandated to be turned off the day before a blanket of snow enveloped the city was simply cruel.

To say that I welcomed Saturday’s sunshine with open arms would be an understatement. It was one of those days where you couldn’t walk outside without smiling a little.

I met a few friends in the park with not much more on my agenda than soaking in as much sunshine as possible. Among one of the several new people I met was a guy from Uruguay named Bruno. We only had a brief conversation, but something he said stuck in my mind even a few days later. He was describing how he had lived in Beijing for a year and was planning on staying for a longer, undetermined amount of time. Someone joked about him wanting to learn more about why Chinese people spit on the ground the way they do and he smiled and responded, “no, I really just want to learn more of the Chinese language and get a grasp on the culture. I feel as though we are visitors here. It’s easy to think that something someone does is odd, but who are we to judge? It may be different to us, but I want to learn more about it.”

The way he said it was so free of judgement–of either the Chinese culture or the person mocking that spit is a common occurrence in public. It was one of the most open-minded statements I’ve heard since being here and sometimes I just need an obvious statement like that to remind me to be grateful of where I am and how much I get to experience while here.

My friends saving a kite from a tree

My friends saving a kite from a tree

That Time I Got Excited About Toilet Paper…

Parkview Green Mall--one of the coolest and most luxurious malls I've ever seen

Parkview Green Mall–one of the coolest and most luxurious malls I’ve ever seen

Last week my office building installed something that will change the future of my time spent in the office. Something that made me jump up and down and clap my hands. Literally. And then I thought, why the hell am I so thrilled about this? You’re probably thinking, hmm this girl is in China. This thing must be some cutting-edge technological device. Oddly enough, this thing is something that would be absolutely required in every single stall of a bathroom in the U.S., but here I am finding myself overtly excited about it.

The addition I was so enthusiastic about was a toilet paper dispenser that my office building’s maintenance workers had slapped right onto the middle of the bathroom wall. It wasn’t even in the individual stalls or anything (just think how elated I would be about that).

Basically, in public restrooms here, there is a ceramic hole in the ground that flushes. If you’re really lucky there’s an “above ground” toilet. If you have really hit the bathroom jackpot, there’s a toilet paper dispenser in the stall. Because of the lack of toilet paper, women are always carrying packs of kleenex with them…and it’s slightly awkward when men take toilet rolls with them.

This place that has some of the most up-to-date technology, but still hasn’t quite gotten down the whole toilet thing goes in hand with the vast contrast of Chinese culture. The smart phone loving, forward thinking side of China is represented with glittering skyscrapers and shopping malls filled with luxury goods while the traditional side is still glaringly evident. The hunched over, arthritis ridden man grilling your chicken kebab just outside of his hutong home still must walk outside each morning to use a public bathroom. A bathroom that doesn’t even provide toilet paper.

This is what remains so fascinating and, at times, frustrating. Beijing is a city of polarity and it’s compelling to see the culturally advanced part mix in with the traditional. Even if it does mean that I have to carry my own toilet paper.

Strange Spectacles Turned Normal in Beijing

I realized with surprise the other day that I have been in Beijing for almost seven months now. This means that most of my shock and awe at strange Chinese things has pretty much worn off. Now when I see odd happenings, for example, men squatting down outside of their front hutong door to brush their teeth in PJs, I don’t even double take. Here are some of the things that I realize should astound me, but have become just a part of my every day life:

1. Blatant disregard for safety to complete a job.

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2. Huge groups of people all eating one type of odd fruit or vegetable. Usually it’s not something as normal as a banana. Often it’s corn on the cob, a huge cantaloupe on a stick, or a sweet potato.

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3. Signs on the outside of bathroom doors alerting you of the toilet situation you are about to encounter.

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4. Makeshift medical practices. Blood pressure check, anyone?IMG_0602

 

5. Pronounced public display of affection between straight male companions. IMG_0686

 

6. The garbage man…on a bike.IMG_0747

 

7. Sketchy characters selling anything and everything on street cornersIMG_0762

 

8. People fiddling with suspicious items on the subway. (This might be an exception, because I was afraid about this one)

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9. Owning, and using, two phones at a time. My roommate uses three. IMG_0750

 

10. An old woman feeding cats by throwing food up onto a roof.

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Saving Face

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I had read plenty about the cultural tendency toward “saving face” before arriving in China. Now that I’m here, I definitely see the far lengths locals go to in order to avoid looking silly, uneducated, or unsuccessful.

This accounts for the frequent occasions I have enlisted the help of a local on the street to help me find a place and instead of saying outright, “I don’t know,” they ponder the location I have shown them on a map for several minutes. They, then, point me in a direction, whether they know it’s the correct way or not. They simply don’t want to be caught not knowing something. I have also heard scandalous stories of ex-girlfriends seeking extreme variations of revenge on the men who jilted them because of the shame they faced after being rejected.

Just recently one of my favorite colleagues told me in confidence that he was leaving our company. To my surprise, his last day was the next day. He explained that the company simply didn’t have enough work for him to do and he didn’t want to waste its time or money. He also told me he didn’t want any other people in the company to know about his leaving, so I kept quiet. A few days later, my supervisors explained why the company let him go. The discrepancy in stories led me to believe he was saving face by omitting the fact that he was most likely fired.

It’s interesting to see this tendency in action, but it also makes me wonder how Chinese people view me. I’m great at making a fool out of myself, and even more so while abroad. Professing how terrible my Chinese is, admitting my lack of direction, and wandering into areas I obviously don’t belong, then sheepishly retreating are all things I do daily. I’m either amusing the locals or reiterating a foolish foreigner stereotype.

The Year of the Snake

IMG_1244Another New Year’s Eve celebration?!

Apparently there is a second chance at a new year if you’re in a foreign country that uses a lunar calendar. Since China follows the lunar calendar, the first day of the new year was February 9.

I had heard comparisons between the grandness of Chinese New Year and Christmas in the United States, but from what I saw, the two are utterly incomparable. For starters, fireworks are the main attraction during the Chinese New Year (CNY) and last for two weeks. Two full weeks of completely sporadic, exploding chaos. Without any apparent restrictions on fireworks, Chinese locals buy huge boxes filled with fireworks and set the entire thing on fire, rendering any unsuspecting passerby subject to inflamed flying bits of firework remains. Yes, it’s a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time.

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My friends and I spent the frigid Friday night leading into the CNY wandering through the restaurant/bars surrounding Houhai Lake, staring in awe of the thousands of booming pyrotechnics, and narrowly avoiding the exploding boxes.

It is also a week of mass traveling throughout China, with millions (literally, 10 million) of Chinese families venturing across Asia to spend the CNY with their family in their hometown. With plans to travel to Hong Kong for the week I entered the CNY optimistic and excited for [another] new year.