Banana I may be, but growing up with Chinese parents and going back and forth to China over the years has nevertheless made its mark. I still feel very foreign here, but it is only when I am with my European friends who have had little to no exposure to Chinese culture do I realise that I am more Chinese than I give myself credit for. They are little things like being more skilled with chopsticks and using an umbrella when it’s sunny, and not flinching when I hear someone hocking spit, but it all adds up. The more time I spend here the more I adjust, and things of which I was aware and found difficult to accept before, such as a rather different concept of manners (see hocking spit above), I now barely blink an eye at.
The question of manners is a big one, as I am from England where manners count for everything. My behaviour is rapidly shifting into Chinese mode, in which when people push in front of or shove by me, I am no longer ruffled or affronted, as it is normal behaviour here; I just push and shove right back. My road-crossing behaviour has taken a dramatic turn, and I have less regard for my fellow human beings in general. With such a vast population, there are just not enough hours in the day to be courteous to everyone, especially as no-one is bothering to do the same for you.
On the contrary, Chinese culture is big on respect and courtesy, it just depends on the context; don’t expect to find loads of it on the street. Last week my friends booked a table at what turned out to be a very fancy (not to mention pricey) restaurant to eat some famous Peking Duck. So I might not frequent this kind of joint everyday of the week, but I saw nothing strange in the four ladies dressed up in qi paos lined up on the steps outside the restaurant who bowed us in and chanted a greeting, and did the same when we left. I found it vaguely amusing, but my friends (French, Spanish, New Zealander) were bewildered and found the entire thing absurd.
Food is a big one. There are loads of things I see in our impressive multi-storey university dining hall which I don’t necessarily know the names for in Chinese nor in English, but which I have either tasted or seen already, and which appear bizarre to my foreign buddies. I know what will be spicy (a rookie mistake my friends are making everyday and, being white folk who can’t take spicy food, suffering for), and nothing amongst the various colours and shapes and textures looks weird to me.
I don’t hesitate to shout across restaurants to get the attention of serving staff these days. During my first few days I tried to speak kindly and quietly to waiting staff, and they would literally look straight at me then walk on by. It’s like the opposite of England here; as a general rule, the nicer you are, the less people are inclined to treat you well; the more rude and abrupt you are, the more people treat you with respect. Though it’s not always like that. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been pleasantly surprised: shop staff sometimes even smile.
Of course there are some things I will never quite become accustomed to. It is never pleasant seeing people, particularly children, lying on cardboard sheets on the street, right outside the club where you’ve been spending a frivolous evening drinking and partying with your friends. Health and safety is not really a known concept here, and I am a little disquieted every time I pass close by an open building site where they are chucking around poles and planks and whatnot, not to mention trying to hold my breath to avoid breathing in whatever toxic chemicals they are using.
On the whole I, though not particularly precious before, am becoming rather a lot more thick-skinned and brazen in my day-to-day life. I’d blend right in if it wasn’t for my gargantuan height and red hair. And the fact that I can’t speak Chinese.