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Culture shocks
singapore sunset
Toilet door gaps. Yeah, that's a weird thing. But, odder than that: flushing paper down the toilet. It has become such a reflex to wipe and then dump the paper in the trash, I started to panic at the first toilet I sat down on where there was no trash can beside it.

People eating with their hands. After 6 months in a place where people eat everything either with chopsticks or directly out of a bag, watching people's hands get dirty and seeing them lick their fingers really makes me squirm.

(That said, I also haven't gotten used to the Chinese spitting out bones, husks and pits onto the table.)

Overweight white people. Coming back to North America from Europe the girths are disconcerting. Coming back from China where even the (few) overweight people are much smaller than me, it's like arriving in Brobdingnag.

On a related note: portion sizes. I ordered a sushi lunch special. There were something like 16 large pieces - twice as much as I expected. J asked me worriedly if it would be enough. Her "bento" was a foot-long serving tray. It's grotesque.

Being asked for a credit card. In Europe (or Germany, at least) they are used rarely. In China it appears they skipped credit cards altogether and use mobile payments for everything. Here you're looked at funny when you say you don't have one, or that you prefer to use cash.

Being offered a parking spot. Since when did hotel rooms come with parking spots? Why would anyone voluntarily drive a car on holiday? To a city?! I'm so very far out of the car owner lifestyle I can barely comprehend this is a thing people do.

Peanut butter. Peanut butter is fucking great. Of course it's sold everywhere in the world for home consumption but only in North America can you order it in breakfast joints on a bagel.

Bars. Oh lordy I missed proper bars. Bars where you can walk in at a respectable hour and drink alone and not feel obliged to bring friends or play drinking games.

Tap water. I can drink it without boiling it first. I can drink anywhere, for free! What luxury!

But also: ice water. What is with ruining a perfectly good glass of water with a half ton of ice?

Kindness. There is something nice about having a "sorry war" when one person inconveniences the other. It's nice that cheerfulness is considered an asset in the service industry. Chinese are polite, but not very kind. Europeans are neither polite nor kind. Kindness isn't necessary, but it really is nice.

Diversity. China is a diverse country in theory. Different regions have different languages and cuisines and cultures. Domestic migrants face similar challenges to international migrants elsewhere. But even still, almost everyone is Chinese. It's not a country that has ever welcomed immigrants. Toronto feels like a global city. China's cities, aside from Hong Kong, all feel Chinese. I forgot what it was like to see the rest of the world around you.

I go back tomorrow. I am glad I took this trip; it felt like both a holiday and a homecoming. But it has also left me feeling fat, bloated and a little ashamed at the decadence. Not that the Chinese nouveau riche are any better, but at least they have the excuse it's all relatively new to them. The developed world should know better. I expect more. I expected more from myself, coming back. Three crippling hangovers. Coney fries. Really?

Today I am going to visit my favorite place in Toronto: the island. It's almost free (just a ferry ticket) and there are no shops there, no bars, no food, just some bicycles and cottages and a Great Lake. I need to take a walk and remember this place is more than just a monument to colonial excess with potable water and peanut butter bagels.

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From one who is quite UNtraveled out of the USA, this was an incredibly interesting read. The small nuances between cultures is fascinating. Made me think about a lot of things...

I've always thought that the kindness you speak of in the service industry was a means to get a higher tip. It doesn't always feel kind - it feels manipulative, though is surely better than rude. I also always thought that politeness is potentially superficial, but with the addition of kindness, it is more genuine.

I didn't realize how much distinction there is between various Chinese cultures. I wonder if some of that has been created due to political divisions over the eons, and they became separated. Interesting their lack of inclusion for non Chinese / Asian cultures. I mentioned elsewhere about my lack of education about Asia -- could it be the same thing with them?

Ha - I'm with you on ice in water. I like water cold, but - Damn - with ice it's too cold!

Yay for peanut butter on anything! I'd really miss it if I couldn't get peanut butter on a breakfast bagel!

Yes - I appreciate parking spots with hotels - ESPECIALLY in the city. You're right - - this is a car culture, and because of that, the USA (with the exception of a few cities) doesn't nurture public transit like other cultures do. Especially in rural country, a car seems a necessity. If I was coming into the city from a rural spot, there might not be public transportation to get there, necessitating a car. Americans also routinely travel with too much stuff, making public transit awkward. I sure do :( I'll add one more thing ... I am personally scared to death of driving in a city center, so - I long to have decent public transportation. Parking garages and lots are a poor use of land!

You're right ... we are fat! And, imo, things you mention are a good amount of the cause: like portion size, and the car culture. Public transit would force us to walk more! I noticed that those who live in NYC (and that is one city where residents routinely walk to get places (and / or take a cab or bus), most people are a lot more fit, and when walking, they clearly walk very briskly. Portion size I blame on the restaurant industry, and (this is crazy) the size of plates. If we're given a larger plate, we just "must" fill it up! Humans are very programmable and can be fooled into eating more to feel full. Also -- I think the use of chop sticks might slow down eating in comparison to using western eating utensils. If you eat slower, you will feel full after eating less.

Finger food: fried chicken - and yeah ... then you lick your fingers. Thinking on it, there is so much finger food here....

And, lastly ... I DID NOT KNOW about the toilet paper habits. I'm happy here. :)

Glad you had this trip -- glad it was a good one -- and especially glad that the visa thing worked out! Hope you enjoyed the island. I looked it up on a map and I think I know where it is. :)

Goodness me, what a long comment. Thank you!

I think you are right that a big part of kind service workers in America is due to them seeking a tip, and perhaps that has overflowed into Canada too. Still, i even found people like front desk staff and ticket vendors were kind to me, which left me a little flummoxed after spending so long in countries where service comes with a growl.

I sometimes feel bad bringing up the weight of (North) Americans, because i know it's a sensitive topic over there. It's unfortunate it's considered a little impolitic to talk about, especially given it's such a major cause of illness and death. The sad news is that over the last decade or two things haven't improved - in fact, the rest of the world has been "catching up" to America!

I have read articles that blame everything from high fructose corn syrup to dining out vs cooking at home, but to be honest i really think it is the two things you identified - an inactive lifestyle and portion sizes. Especially the latter is so easy to get used to. The human body can survive and feel "full" with an airline-dish sized serve, but i too remember living in Canada and feeling like i needed a mountain of french fries (and free bread!) to get my money's worth.

I don't want to blame the restaurant industry, exactly, though. One thing i've noticed in China is that you can go to fine restaurants where they will serve you way too much food. The difference is the culture of not finishing that food. Here you show off your affluence by allowing ordered food go to waste. Perhaps that's easier because everything is served "family style" for sharing and not on individual plates? Conversely, if you go to a budget restaurant the servings are much smaller but people tend to finish. I certainly wouldn't mind if American restaurants served half the amount of food for half the price! Then again, i guess that might be your point - then the restaurants would only earn half as much from each table.

On the diversity in China thing, i think the biggest contributor to the current diversity in Chinese cultures is poverty. When your family is too poor to travel and everyone you know is a subsistence farmer, it's not surprising that each village has its own customs. I think these differences are rapidly melting away and in a few generations will be gone altogether. This was a big goal of the Communist Party in Mao's era, but although he tried to homogenize the country through universal education and a Soviet-style planned economy, it seems that the real great equalizer has been the Deng era market economy and more recently the internet and smart phone revolution.

I wonder if, once China becomes more confident and unified in its "Chinese identity", they will feel more comfortable allowing migrants from other countries to make up a larger percentage. Currently the demographics are something like 91% Han (with several different linguistic groups), 9% indigenous/ethnic minority and 0.1% immigrant.

Edited at 2018-01-22 09:01 am (UTC)

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