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Culture Shock

Today I hit a breaking point.  Last time I came to China the culture shock hit me hard right away and then it slowly faded away, only once in a while causing me to get homesick around the holidays.  This trip is different.  The culture is tough and intense sure, but it’s no more of a shock than, say, downtown La Paz, or impoverished towns in Peru.  But this time the cultural differences are slowly chipping away at me, probably because I’m traveling alone and don’t have anyone like Ren to flip out to.  I like to think of myself as someone who keeps their cool; I generally have a rule that in stressful situations I stop, and then try and do what I think James Bond would do, but the constant staring, smoking, and spitting have worn down the 007 exterior and exposed a grumpy old man.  No joke, I just wrote that line and a white cat is walking in front of me holding a mouse in it’s mouth, a big one, and I’m listening to Massive Attack’s “Inertia Creeps.

It’s been building over the last few days but today it started with me sitting in the common room studying Chinese characters.  I was deep into it and I felt a soft breath on the back of my neck, I turned around to see two Chinese right behind me, like reallllllly close to me watching me write.  I freaked out.  “You can’t stand so close to me and scare me like that, it’s fucking terrifying.  Ok?”  But that’s the thing about those reactions, no one understands what you say.  This is very frustrating, but then you see that slight window of opportunity in the distance where you realize that you can say anything you want when you get mad, and no one will understand a thing.  When I walked down the street today every time I saw eyes following me I took off my head phones and asked them what the hell they were looking at.  The real fun happens when you talk real quick in American slang but say it all with a smile on your face, that way they just assume you’re being friendly and they nod and smile back even though you just told them to have inappropriate relations with their mother.

The spitting.  The goddamn spitting.  It’s not just spitting, everyone, ok?  It’s like they’re using every muscle in their throat and mouth to suck up all the mucous that ever dared to escape down their esophagus and sinuses and punish it by giving it a public execution on the ground.  Did I say ground?  Oh, well that’s just some of the time.  The spitting is usually followed by the blowing out of all nasal passages just incase their breathing canals weren’t clear enough.

The smoking.  A new study says that if smoking isn’t curbed, half of all Chinese will die from smoking related causes.  Instead of cigarette packs being labeled with dying babies and pictures of rotting gums, they’re used as a canvas for beautiful gold embroidered calligraphy.  I can’t walk down the street without getting constant secondhand smoke.  Everyone smokes.

I’ve had a wonderful time here in Chongqing, I’ll write about how incredible my friend Ming Yang has been to me and all the delicious things I’ve eaten here, but I feel like saying this now.  Tonight we went to see a movie, one of my favorite things to do, and EVERYONE’S phone was out the entire time and the person next to me was having a lovely conversation with someone on the other line.  I started to lean over to say something but Ming Yang took my arm and told me that it’s ok.  The final straw was waiting for the subway car to come.  Chongqing has wisely put in platform screen doors in the subway for public safety – like in most air-trains (the MTA has also considered this but the cost of installing them is more than the amount of money they’re sued for every year by people dying or being injured from falling onto the tracks.  It’s true, you can look it up) and the man next to me spit a nice mucous ball on the clear platform door.  And then he looked at me and smiled, you know, because I’m a foreigner.  “Are you kidding me, dude?  Why would you do that?  Now I have to look at that!  Why couldn’t you just spit on the ground, or just not spit? That’s disgusting!”  I lost it.  I flipped out at him.  Luckily Ming Yang was there and calmed me down.

I walked back to the hostel from the metro.  It was a chilly, rainy night tonight.  The streets were wet and slippery and there weren’t many lights to guide my 20 minute walk home.  To get home I have to walk through a street market that’s bustling during the day, but at night it’s a wasteland.  Rotting vegetables on the ground and people squatting in alley corners, it looked like some futuristic sci-fi setting.  There was a pick-up truck filled with bags of grain in the back.  The bags were enormous, I think my arms would barely reach the ends, but a few shirtless men bent over, spread their arms out and another man would load the bag onto their backs.  These men were old.  Really old. Older than my father or at least this life of labor aged them that way.  The biggest culture shock of all in China? watching people pushing 70 do brutal physical labor all day.  It’s not immigrants or ex-cons sweeping the streets all day, it’s old Chinese women who can barely stand up straight weaving in and out of your legs with a straw broom.  Step by step these men made their way over to the shop and then went back for more.

Tired of listening to spitting?  Can’t concentrate on your movie?  Try weighing 90 pounds when you’re retirement age and lifting a ton of rice for $2 a day, Jim.

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