Culture Shock - Living in China is truly an experience of a lifetime
This post was written by Abby Hiatt. Abby is the daughter of Seth and Paula Hiatt, co-owners of Mayday Games. Abby, and the Hiatt Family, lived in China for five years. They moved there when Abby was 13-years-old and she graduated from high school in Suzhou China, where the Abby and the rest of the family lived. Abby now attends Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where she is majoring in Accounting and minoring in Chinese. She continues to keep up her Chinese and lives in a 100% Mandarin immersion apartment with five other young women, where they are forbidden from speaking English or even watching or listening English TV! Phone calls in English must be taken outside of her apartment!
We thank Abby for her blog contribution providing insight into what it was like relocating to a such a foreign culture as a teenager and we wish her luck at BYU!
I didn’t always love China. We ended up moving there for my dad’s manufacturing business and only planned on staying a few years. I still remember when we first landed. It was a chilly, humid night in October 2011, and I was only thirteen. We left the comparatively bland familiarity of the airport in Shanghai and ventured into the wilds of a freeway where cars and trucks listlessly drifted from lane to lane and traffic rules were optional except under the watchful gaze of the cameras. Crushed into a van too small for our family plus belongings, my youngest brother at the ripe age of nine, was crowded onto my mother’s lap and suddenly desperate to find a restroom. It was our first test, and my mother forbid the obscene game of charades she could see brewing, but here was the trouble: how to communicate our plight to our Chinese driver.
“WC? Toilet? Restroom? Bathroom? Loo? . . . Dad’s phone has a translator, we’re saved!” I said.
My first Chinese rest stop, and there it was: a turkish toilet, better known as a squatty potty. Until that moment I did not understand that the word “stench” could be an action verb. Imagine, 1.4 billion people and one unwashed squatter. I covered my nose, realizing I’d packed Nikes, my iPod, and deodorant, but, sadly, no one had warned me to bring a gas mask. Five minutes later I was back in the van lathering in hand sanitizer, feeling a bit scarred, but determined. Two hours later I dropped into my new bed in Suzhou, China. It was hard as a rock and squeaked like a mouse. I admit I was disgusted and ready to go home after only a few hours.
The next day, jet-lagged and hungry, we launched into the brave new world of grocery shopping in a land where we could neither read nor speak. Who knew a grocery store could boast a hundred checkout lanes, and easily accommodate a football field with fans, or that the meat section could have so much in common with a pet store? They had tomato, fish, and seaweed flavored 2 Pringles, and the cookie aisle smelled like urine where a toddler in traditional open bottom pants had passed through and left his mark.
We needed everything for a family of five, from milk to a toilet plunger. Shoppers openly stared at our overflowing cart, curious to see what the foreigners were buying, and shocked that anyone would be buying so much in one day. Some stopped to take photos with us, while others slyly sneaked shots from behind their packages of fungus and chicken feet. In such a big store you would have thought it would be easy to find any food you can imagine, but alas the salt, MSG, and sugar were on the same aisle and looked exactly the same, only differentiated by incomprehensible Chinese characters. The bread was too sweet, unlike the beautiful cakes which tasted like damp sponges; the eggs were brown, and many of the fruits and vegetables looked familiar, but not quite familiar enough for certainty. At first we lived on Swiss Miss hot chocolate and peanut butter because the labels were mercifully in English.
A few weeks later I started my new school, which wasn’t such a different story. Unlike most foreign students in China who attend international schools, my parents put me in a Chinese high school with an English program, a much harder road in every way. On my first day, I entered the school; I found myself to be the only blonde in a sea of black hair. Students crowded outside the windows of my classroom to get a look at the foreigner, and I felt like the exotic attraction at the zoo. Hearing my classmates bubbling through their conversations in the halls was like listening to an entire orchestra fall from a truck, clacking and clanging along.
School started at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 5:30 in the evening, which left me exhausted and homesick every time I would trudge home from the bus stop just in time for dinner. However, the quirks of the school helped me stay awake. Boys made toast in the back of the chemistry class, and I would be distracted when flies would get trapped in the toaster, which amplified the buzz. One day I walked onto school grounds and found every surface covered in frogs, hopping around oblivious to the equally oblivious students.
School was strange, but six months later marked a turning point for me because I began to see my Chinese classmates as individuals, rather than a collective mass. I upped my Chinese tutoring hours from two to six hours a day because I wanted to communicate, to find out why the boys made toast in class and whether the frogs were going to be a recurring side show.
As my Chinese improved, so did my friendships. The day I found the fish eyeball in my rice, my first reaction was horror, but my friend told me I was lucky, changing my perception of rice that could look back at me. The same classmate later explained to me that the frogs would return as the rain flushed them out of their hiding places. Eventually the croaking was as familiar as the school bell.
My classmates taught me about the clear layers of socio-economic classes in China. My dad was always looking for “real” China, or the China experienced by the common people. He made sure we left our cozy expatriate bubble and explored the nooks and crannies of our bustling city to give us a chance to meet and talk to all kinds of people. There was a specific market we loved about fifteen or twenty minutes away from our house, but an entire world away. It wound haphazardly through alleyways lined with cut-rate vegetable sellers, butchers, and strewn with dead fish who had leapt for freedom from their water tubs only to die a horrible death by drowning in the air. Old women grabbed our arms and stroked our hair, marvelling at the beautiful whiteness of our skin. By this time we were long past holding our noses and had come to appreciate the kinds of conversations we could have with old women from the countryside. We loved it.
A few years later my classmate, Crystal, and I were on the bus when we passed the alleyway market. Excited, I pointed it out to my friend.
“We’ve been there,” I exclaimed in Mandarin.
She looked at me, confused. “You like to pretend to be poor?”
On that day I realized I was lucky my dad likes to explore and that my parents insisted I enter Chinese school. I am so glad I was able to see the poorer side of China that my classmates never go to experience. Maybe there’s something to getting an eyeball in your rice after all.
As my Chinese improved, I found myself not only looking at what people did, but also asking for the reasons behind their actions. I rejected some behaviors, but others I embraced as better than behaviors I had grown up with.
Five years after we moved to China, I was out with friends one night. We were out eating dinner at a hot pot, which is a type of restaurant with a boiling pot of soup in the middle of rectangular tables, where raw meats, vegetables, and various dishes would be cooked. My chopsticks darted into the boiling soup, looking for the long white vegetable that tasted a little like cheese in the tangy tomato cooking pot. The cheesy vegetable actually turned out to be pig intestine, but I didn’t care at that point. As I triumphantly pulled out two simultaneously, I watched as my classmates Howard and Calvados competed for one of the most notorious hot pot staples, the slippery quail egg.
Looking back I could never have imagined sitting there with fifteen of my closest Chinese friends around a hot pot. The assorted vegetables, noodles, and dumplings that were currently cooking in the middle of the table were bobbing up and down as multiple pairs of chopsticks darted through the mixture, scouting for pigs’ blood cubes, intestines, and various vegetables that I’ve never heard of in English.
As I looked around HaiDiLao, the popular hot pot restaurant in the top floor of a skyscraper that overlooked the downtown bustle of Suzhou, China, I realized how far I had come in understanding and ultimately assimilating into Chinese culture. I realized, as I looked around at the other restaurant goers, clamoring around their own steaming tables, that I love it here, that I felt completely comfortable. As I listened to their conversations, I felt proud of my ability to make sense of the foreign language, as well as make jokes and comebacks in it.
As the night continued on to karaoke singing at a KTV down the street, I knew that I would never be able to forget China or Chinese culture. Thinking back to the first time I went to KTV, I remember being frightened by the ear-drum-shattering volume and voices, the smell of cigarettes that ultimately permeated the air despite the warning signs everywhere, and the foreign songs that all sounded like a Chinese rendition of a Taylor Swift breakup. Now I knew the words and was singing along, asking the servers to empty the ash tray, and posting about it on my favorite Chinese social media site, QQ.
I may not have belonged in China in the beginning, but now China and I go together like two eyeballs on rice. I’m glad I gave China a chance, or I may not have realized I was a ‘Chinese Born American’. You may not now it, but there more blondes in China than you think.