Adapting

03 Nov 2003

When a foreigner in China talks with Chinese people, one of the major questions he will be asked about his life in China is, xi bu xiguan? — are you used to it? Annoying as it can be at times to be asked this same question over and over, when I give it any thought, I find the question still relevant after over three years here.

Of course, culture shock is certainly an issue, but I’ve always felt that I’m only minimally affected by it. The first time I went to Japan I pranced in like a wide-eyed child with no idea what to expect, rather than with a list of expectations. As a result, I wasn’t so “shocked.” The same principle applied in China, for the most part. I don’t think it’s something I’ve done consciously; it’s just the way it worked out for me.

Bedroom (1)

1st Apartment

When I first arrived in China, I stayed at a Chinese friend’s empty apartment. It was a broiling Hangzhou summer, but the apartment had no air conditioning. At night I slept on a bamboo mat with no cover. An electric fan made sleep just barely possible, and mosquito coils kept the little bloodsuckers at bay. I washed my clothes by hand and cooked most of my own meals. The toilet flush mechanism was broken and had to be flushed by dumping in a bucket of water. The hot water heater didn’t work, so showers were cold. After a week or two, I accepted that “this is China,” and I felt I had pretty much adapted to life in China.

After only a month, I was given an offer to move in with a Chinese guy about my same age. I could stay for free, and the apartment would have fully functional bathroom facilities, washing machine, and air conditioning. More than anything though, I feared the prospect of loneliness and boredom if I stayed at the first place. So I moved.

Bedroom (2)

2nd Apartment

My second living arrangement turned out to be great for language study. That was the whole reason I was allowed to live there for free, but it turned out to be far from one-sided. I ate meals at school in the cafeteria for about 4 RMB ($.050 US), and at home with my roommate in another cafeteria every night for 3 RMB. The food certainly wasn’t great, but it was OK. After I showered, I used the tiny hand towels that Chinese people use to dry off. My social life was practically non-existent. I didn’t know any other foreigners, and my Chinese wasn’t good enough yet to make many Chinese friends who wanted anything more than English practice. I spent a lot of time studying Chinese and hanging out at home with my roommate. I felt I had pretty much adapted to life in China.

apt-1

ZUCC Apartment

When my roommate decided to move to Canada to study, I moved into ZUCC’s newly finished teacher apartment. The new place not only had all the amenities of my former residence, but it was much bigger and it was all mine. I could cook on my own again. I finally bought a DVD player. No longer content with the Chinese “wash rag,” I bought a large, thick Western-style bath towel. I quickly got used to having my own place, and since I had Chinese friends by that time, it wasn’t so bad being alone. I felt I had already adapted to life in China, so small changes seemed insignificant.

The second semester of my life at ZUCC, Wilson, Helene, Simon, and Ben arrived. It was the beginning of a real foreigner community. Although my Chinese friendships continued, a big part of my free time was shifted to socializing with them. I stopped cooking, and began eating out all the time. We could all easily afford it, and the food was good. We almost always ate Chinese. I bought a desktop computer for my room and started my own website. The little changes continued.

I’ve now been in China for over three years. I’m finding a renewed interest in cooking on my own, applying a sort of fusion approach (cooking Chinese food with olive oil and balsamic vinegar — mmmmm), but I still eat out a lot. I still spend a lot of time with the other foreign teachers. Now my main contacts with the Chinese language are Chinese class and my Chinese girlfriend, although I still occasionally meet my Chinese friends as well. But I’m still adapted to life in China, right?

I find myself wondering what “adapting” really is. At what point in my stay here was I most “adapted to Chinese life”? Is it more important that I alter some part of myself to successfully fit in, or is it more important that I’ve found contentment in a foreign environment? Clearly, adaptation is a process of finding a balance between what you can accept from your new environment and what you must change about your new environment in order to be comfortable. But if that balance keeps evolving, does it mean one has still not adapted?

I guess it’s all just pointless rhetoric in the end, but I enjoy watching the new teachers undergo the process, finding wonder and revulsion in parts of life here that I barely notice anymore. It’s very easy to forget how much you’ve really adapted sometimes. I think it’s equally difficult to be aware of how one is still adapting.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I’ve been reading for a while now, but I haven’t taken too much time looking through all the archives. This post was pretty interesting given all the more recent posts I’ve read over the last year.
    Out of curiosity, when you came to China initially, were you planning on staying for as long as you have?
    I’ve only spent about 4 months total in China, during which I met you actually (Chinesepod visit last summer), but I’m coming back this year for what is seeming to be an unknown amount of time. I’m excited as hell, and reading about someone who’s been there for so long is really interesting.

  2. Jason,

    I was planning to stay one, probably two years. But then I found that my Chinese was never good enough for me to leave satisfied, and there were just too many opportunities here, while nothing especially appealing awaited me elsewhere.

  3. […] in China for us non-Chinese is a never-ending process of adaptation. Some things come easier than others. For me, one of the most difficult to get used to has been […]

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