Monday, August 3, 2009

A little about Chinese customs and lifestyle

Pictures: 1. Some of Susan's class at the Old Summer Palace Park. 2. Class at Mutton Stick restaurant. 3. Mutton Sticks!

Chinese people live and work in community. I think Communism was easily accepted because for centuries the culture had been to work together for the common good rather than individual success. In our program, the first thing we tried to do was to build our class into a team. In just a day or two we were all family -- even if we couldn't remember every one's name. We had 28 students (Paul had 22) and the evening we first met, most of my class decided to go out for Mutton Sticks. The "English only" environment began the next morning and it would be the last time the students could leave the campus for three weeks. Since mutton sticks are a regional minority speciality, most of the students had never heard of them.

Mutton sticks are prepared on a bamboo skewer by threading two thin strips of mutton (mature lamb) with a small chunk of fat between. They are then seasoned with a spicy rub and grilled over charcoal. Bread is seasoned and grilled in the same way and it is very delicious. It would not be unusual to eat 10-12 mutton sticks along with bread, boiled peanuts and edamame (immature soybeans) for a meal.

In addition to a sense of community, there is a very different sense of space in China. Personal space as we know it in America is unknown in China. Instead of about 18 inches, People in China are comfortable as close as 6 inches apart. This means that people feel comfortable squeezing past in very confined spaces. If you want to get off a bus/subway car, pushing is perfectly acceptable -- and sometimes the only way to get off. One time a group of Americans was going to church when three of us got off and waved good-bye to Ray, who didn't make it because he waited for a lady to get out of his way. The Shanghai subway at rush hour is difficult to imagine. The way cars are packed make sardines seem comfortable. It is almost difficult to breathe and more than once we saw a briefcase stuck in the door as one last person tried to get smashed in.

In addition, physical contact between women and sometimes between men is normal. Women walk arm in arm or hold hands regularly. It was amusing to see two younger American team mates walk hand in hand down the street while shopping, which in China, it has no meaning other than a sign of affection. I felt honored when my students took my hand or arm while walking on campus.

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