Cultural Differences Where They Count

Every now and then, I find myself in a situation where I forget that I am in China and then suddenly something happens that jolts me back to reality and then all the "awe-filled", "oh-my-gosh what am I doing here", "is this really happening" emotions come rushing back to me as though I just landed yesterday.

On Wednesday, that happened when I decided to go ice-skating. I had never been ice-skating before, so I went with 2 of my country-mates (Sheree & Taurean) and a Kenyan friend (Cynthia) from school. On the way to the rink we were chatting in English, laughing and having fun. That was the point when I forgot that I was in China. Then before we went on the ice ourselves, we were looking down at other people skating. Everyone looked like they were there just having fun, a few people were training for hockey or figure skating, but there were mostly amateurs. Then at the far end of the rink, there was this one little girl, about 9/10 years old who was practicing spins with her coach. It was the kind of spin where the skater starts out slowly and builds momentum until they finally slow down. That’s when it hit me…again. "Am I really here?"

It’s the strangest things that get you. For me, seeing that little girl (no doubt training to be a professional figure skater) brought back memories of watching the Olympic Ice-Skaters when I was 9/10 too and wanting to be an ice-skater myself, but knowing it would never happen because there is no snow or ice-skating rinks in Jamaica. Then suddenly after almost 22 years, I was looking down at an ice-skating rink and this little girl was skating and spinning as though it was the most normal thing on Earth.

I get reality checks like that almost every day, but some hit home more than others. The skating rink was a big reality check, but there are a lot of smaller things scattered all around my life here, and because they are so small, I generally tend to ignore it. These are things people don’t really tell you because I figure it’s such a small detail that they ignore or forget about it too, but its these little things that add up and constantly remind me that I’m not at home:


At first, I always used to wonder why I would get lost every time I got directions to a place, then one day I realised that most Chinese talk in code…cardinal codes. What I mean is, they give directions using Cardinal Points and that’s when I get confused. The first time I went to meet my violin teacher, she told me to use the North-East Exit of the subway-station and walk north. I ended up walking south for about 1/2 hour. Every University has a North, South, East and West Gate and all the Subway-Stations, parks, the Summer Palace, they all use Cardinal Points to describe entrances/exits. In Chinese Language class, we are learning how to describe where a place is by saying whether it is North/South/East/West relative to another place. It seems that I will have to walk around with a compass everywhere I go, if only I could find one.


The first time I got my semester schedule, I couldn’t understand why I would have an exam on the 26th or why they would be teaching during the Christmas Season. It was the same reason why on my first Sunday in Beijing, I woke up with the expectation of a quiet, peaceful day…like Jamaica but to my shock and horror, the roads, restaurants, supermarkets, everywhere were business as usual. Even the bank was open. At first it is harrowing, but after a while (I admit, even I went to the bank one Sunday, It really is convenient) you get used to it. Even though holidays don’t start until December 31, I still consider the winter holidays "Christmas Holiday". So now when I ask people "What are you doing for Christmas Holidays?" They look at me puzzled and ask "Christmas Holidays? You have holidays in Christmas?" Then I have to explain that I really meant Winter Holidays.


I suppose this is the same concept as a spelling test, except when the teacher dictates to us students, we have to write characters instead of words. The strange thing to me was that I had never really hear this word (Dictation) used in a school setting, so it felt strange, but maybe it’s just me.


We learnt in class that discounts are written by quoting the percentage of the price to be paid. In Jamaica, we usually quote the percentage that should not be paid. So in China, a sign would say "60% Discount" meaning, I would pay 60% of the price. But in Jamaica it would say "40% Discount". That really confused me before we got to the chapter on buying clothes because I know some things in China are really cheap, but if I get a 95% discount, how would the store owner eat?


Today I went to a restaurant chain called "Donata’s Pizza" and I ordered Garlic Bread expecting garlic butter on the bread. Instead I got bread with diced tomatoes on top, and what made it garlic was 2 slivers of garlic on top of each of bread. My sister thinks it could be real Italian garlic bread, who knows, but to me it is a bit strange…false advertising maybe?


When it comes to relationships, Chinese have some serious passion in their blood. Stepping out of my room, I immediately know which Chinese are in love and which Chinese are breaking up. They are not shy about public displays of affection at all and on the breaking up side of things…let’s just say it would make a very interesting Soap Opera.



2 thoughts on “Cultural Differences Where They Count

  1. This was a really nice read. I love that I get to glimpse these things with you 😀

    I had the culture shock of the cardinal points in NY too. Instead of a compass, I got a map and learned to navigate that way. After a while, I could master the directions fairly well, and even better if i was driving. 🙂

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