Secret Time: When I first visited China, back in October, I kind of hated it.
Japan had been easy and fun, but my first few days in Shanghai were a confusing, draining mess. The city was loud, crowded and dirty. Nothing made sense to me: not the clouds of smoke hanging everywhere, not the odd smells creeping around every corner and not the motorcycles zooming at murder pace down the sidewalks. It was all so much muchness!
Although there are a ton of well known tourist attractions in China from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors, you are very much on your own when it comes to tackling the day to day challenges like ordering dinner or crossing the street- yes they are both serious challenges. You can pretty much throw out everything you thought you knew about cultural mores; spitting in the street? A-ok. Cutting in line? What line. Staring at strangers like they escaped from the zoo? Of course.
It’s really stressful at first, to have your whole world view tossed out on it’s ear. You can’t understand China. Some parts of it are just not comprehensible to your puny Western mind. And that’s okay. What China ultimately taught me, is that it’s okay for things not to make sense.
Back in college I minored in anthropology. One of the major issues we talk about when discussing different societies is cultural relativism- viewing a different culture through the framework of your own. To really “see” a culture, you have to separate yourself from your preconceived notions and really embrace the place you’re in. This is of course, much easier said then done.
In China I felt like I was constantly veering out of control because I didn’t know what was going on. I’d try to reason WHY people were driving on the sidewalks, but there wasn’t a reasonable answer, at least not one I could understand. In order to enjoy China I needed to totally re-adjust my mindset. The key was, instead of getting frustrated with the situation, to embrace the anarchy. To understand there were things going on outside of my control or understanding and just enjoy the ride. Kind of like a 12 step program.
After I started making an effort to embrace, and find humor, in the chaos things got easier. That’s not to say things still weren’t frustrating- sometimes just going grocery shopping seemed like a Herculean task, but more often than not I was able to shake my head and say “Oh, China.”
One day, I successfully took the bus downtown and back all by myself- navigating confusion and crowds, somehow, against all odds finding my way. As I sat in my hard-earned seat, I smiled as I realized I was actually going to miss China… and I wanted to come back. The thing that’s so addicting about China for so many is that while it’s not easy, and it’s often frustrating, it’s definitely exciting.