For the past 8 months I have been living in Jinan, 1 of 160 Chinese cities with over 1 million inhabitants, in this case 7.1 million and is situated 440 km south of Beijing. Like many Chinese cities, it has grown exponentially in the past few decades with the adoption of capitalist policy, exhibiting a stark contrast between modern, faceless cityscape – plazas, clubs, malls and fast food restaurants typical of any western urban area – and a Chinese architectural base, with traditional courtyards, temples, ponds, pagodas, and old-fashioned housing arrangements. This contrast even extends to public social interaction. In one sense there is a vastly more outgoing culture than I am used to in London; throughout the city’s streets and squares there are open air dance classes, games of Chinese chess watched by passers-by keen to offer advice and outdoor exercise equipment in which anyone from a child to the elderly can (and will) work out. People smile or stare at you, start random conversations and chime in with opinions such as how a bus driver should turn a difficult corner. Yet this gregarious side is juxtaposed with harshly impersonal social interaction and an unhealthy obsession with technology. A lingering image in my mind is of a mother, father and child at a restaurant, fully immersed on their respective smartphones, not once acknowledging each other during the meal.
A noticeable difference is the lack of multiculturalism and diversity compared to that of European cities. I have yet to encounter a non-Chinese person apart from restaurant owners, immigrant students or teachers! In Harbin, a city similar in demographic, I saw the rarest of sights: some English speaking foreigners. I stopped in my tracks and gawked, curiosity overwhelming any notion of politeness. Catching sight of myself at that moment, I understood the Chinese instinct to stare at foreigners; they certainly stand out! Perhaps it is due to China’s sheer size compared to the proximity of so many different culture and nationalities, where immigration is facilitated and people from different nationalities mingling is an everyday sight. As foreign anomalies ourselves in China, my friends and I are met with genuine interest and admiration, contrasting the current political climate in Europe, where foreigners who don’t speak the language, understand the culture and take local jobs are met with annoyance at the very least.
I believe that this stems from western culture being placed on a pedestal in the minds of many Chinese; wealth has immense importance in modern China, so the perception of western countries as richer is significant, as is the media fuelling romanticised stereotypes of their societies. An example is the average Chinese person’s first ports of call when discussing England: Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street. When asked what British schools might be like, they essentially describe elite (some might say archaic) British boarding schools such as Eton. Imbibing such stereotypes means a Briton of Indian descent like myself is puzzling, and I am often questioned: “there are black people in England?” It also means that most people’s curiosity and attention are directed towards white foreigners. This is not to say my experience isn’t positive as I receive a lot of friendly gestures, but when alongside white friends I am quite tactlessly ignored as questions are poured onto them. I don’t feel this is malicious, more so natural in a culture so unfamiliar with foreign people that deeply embedded racist stereotypes are used to navigate new interactions. Still, it is a fact that whiteness is a standard of beauty in China with a deep rooted history, bolstered by exposure to western films and music. All cosmetics in China are geared towards looking more Caucasian, from eyelid surgery to whitening products and even leg extensions. In the summer the intense fear of getting darker is on show; people are fully clothed, sporting hats, scarves, sunglasses and umbrellas with no bare skin. My students were absolutely flabbergasted when told that such things as ‘fake tan’ or tanning beds even existed!
As foreign anomalies ourselves in China, my friends and I are met with genuine interest and admiration, contrasting the current political climate in Europe, where foreigners who don’t speak the language, understand the culture and take local jobs are met with annoyance at the very least.
Concerning my teaching experience, it is hard to fully express the myriad of differences between Chinese and European schools. Predictably, students work very hard, waking at 6am and finishing classes at 9.50pm. They receive ungodly amounts of homework and attend crash schools in their free time. Even so, they are cheerful, expressive and incredibly tactile with one another, contrasting my own prejudgment of Chinese people as meek and reserved. Tactility is so pronounced so as to appear intimate, often between the same gender: holding hands, sitting on laps and resting hands on inner thighs/ groins, actions that would provoke ridicule in western schools; the commonly used homophobic phrase “that’s gay” springs to mind, sadly used by countless British and other young European youths when confronted with gender fluidity and homosexuality. Students will readily hug or touch teachers, that too an unacceptable breach of personal space in European schools. In these respects, it is surprisingly open. Relationships between students are nowhere near as ruthless as in the west; there has been zero physical altercations and no bullying, or so I initially thought. I have recently realised that it takes a subtler form, namely inciting shame and embarrassment by collectively laughing at mistakes or singling out another with jokes, the pernicious effects of which are often masked by the target laughing along. My supposition is that the extensively smiley exterior is but a façade, indicative of an unwillingness to show discontent rather than genuine cheeriness. From my point of view as a teacher though, their receptive, eager and goofy nature is very endearing. It requires no classroom management skills compared to western schools where it seems the goal of students is to systematically see how far they can push the teacher.
Apologies for ending on an ominous note, but the level of pollution is actually frightening. Living in London I was intellectually aware of the dangers of unregulated economic progress, but was slightly wavered by scientific debate about how climate has always changed throughout the history of the earth; that humans mightn’t be the primary factor. My experience of pollution in China has eliminated any sense of complacency. On some of the worst days, AQI (Air Quality Index) neared 900, putting into perspective outrage at a record high of 197 in London. The smog was so bad that you could not see two metres ahead making driving a heart-in-mouth experience! For days at a time the city took on an eerie apocalyptic feel, the lack of any sunlight or visibility resembling the Silent Hill world. Aside from my own nausea, headaches and horrible phlegm, I really questioned the morality of such economic progress when it comes at the cost of entire primary schools of children with lingering, hearty coughs and babies wearing ineffective face masks, destined to develop lung problems. 300+ AQI is considered hazardous and cause for bolting yourself in secure, air-purified rooms, yet people accept double that, going to school and work as normal. I have noticed that throughout the society questioning the status quo is not seen as an option, yet us foreign teachers are outraged!
Cover and feature photos: Courtesy of Nicoletta Enria