我是外国人 – Being a foreigner in Shijiazhuang

Just to make one thing clear from the start:  in general the Chinese people are lovely and welcoming towards people. However China has a very different culture than the UK, and inevitably there are cultural differences. This post will go through 5 of the main cultural differences and challenges I face as a foreigner in Shijiazhuang.

1. The staring 

This is easily one of the most frustrating things about living in China. Many people in Shijiazhuang have never seen a non-Asian person before, or they have seen so few that we’re a novelty to them. Add in the fact that they are much more conservative in their dress than in the West and you’ve got a recipe for constant stares. It’s been explained to us that they’re not staring out of hostility but because they are curious. While that is probably true in the majority of cases, it does get annoying to be stared at so much. I think it affects me most when I’m sick (or hungover). I don’t want to leave my flat to get food when I feel horrible anyway, but add in the fact that I’ll be stared at and its just not happening. The staring affects what I wear too; no shorts unless I’m willing to be looked at. Again it’s not in a leery way – they’ve just never seen so much pale white flesh! The staring is most noticeable when there’s a big group of us. It almost feels like being on a catwalk sometimes.
2. The photos

Closely linked to the not-so-subtle staring, another thing the locals like to do is take pictures of us. Sometimes brave people will ask for a selfie; one memorable encounter with two Chinese schoolgirls resulted in me missing my stop on the bus. This usually happens with drunk Chinese men in restaurants too. More often people will shove a phone in our faces or try and take a picture without getting too close. Similar to the staring, they have no shame about taking photos of us when we clearly don’t want them. Some of the 42 crew react by trying to make them embarrassed so wave hello or take a photo of them in return. It doesn’t really work though, and I have no idea how many random people have photos of me on their phone. With the photos and the staring, we’re practically celebrities!

Staring in Beijing
3. The pollution

Okay granted, the pollution doesn’t only affect foreigners in Shijiazhuang, but especially in winter it was a huge part of life here. When people ask me where I teach, they’ve never heard of Shijiazhuang. Like Leeds United being how I describe when Leeds is famous for, the pollution is how I describe Shijiazhuang. It’s bad. There’s no denying that. In winter there were several months where I legitimately saw no blue sky. Because the city isn’t known like Beijing,no one really cares if the air is off the charts. I invested in some disposable masks recommended on a blog written by a doctor, but rarely wore them since they fogged up my glasses and hurt my ears. For next year I’m ordering a reusable one online which hopefully I’ll like more!

Nice clean air on New Years! Sadly in the winter it wasn’t that uncommon.
4. The travel

Shijiazhuang doesn’t currently have a subway system. They are building one, but this just means there is a heap of construction on the roads. When you’re reliant on the bus system, this gets tiresome quickly. Being a foreigner using public transport in the Shiz has its own problems. By now I know how to get to my regular places to shop or eat and meet friends, but if I get on the wrong bus or get lost if have to get a taxi back home since I can’t ask the bus drivers where they are going. Alright fair play I should try harder with Chinese and then maybe this problem will vanish. What will not vanish however is the sheer number of cars, people, and bikes on the road. Crossing the road often feels like I’m taking my life into my hands. Bikes seem to ignore every one and every thing around them, buses have a life of their own and everyone likes to honk their horn at all times! Plus a few times people have failed to stop because they’ve been staring at the foreigner which doesn’t help!

5. The manners

Many many times this year I’ve had to remind myself that the Chinese way of doing things isn’t wrong, it’s just different. So, when someone is spitting on the floor of a restaurant or standing in my personal space their not being rude, it’s just a different. This can get frustrating sometimes however. This week the 42 crew went to a water park in Beijing and experienced the Chinese system of queuing for an extended period of time. I say ‘system of queuing’, but from what I could tell there was none. People pushed in front of us and didn’t seem to understand that if they waited in an orderly fashion at the top of the ride they’d all get their turn. After putting up with this all day by the end we were fed up and took a stand at the top of the stairs. Using Julian’s arm and body we forced everyone behind us to wait until the 20 or so people in front of us had gone before moving ahead. Even then they tried to break his grip and push past us. Eventually the backlog cleared and Julian took a step forward. His space was immediately filled with roughly 15 people crammed together. As a British person, the Chinese ‘system’ of queuing is intensely frustrating.

Excellent pollution comparison photo’s from Izzie. We use the tower blocks as reference points for how bad the air is.
As legendary TEFL teacher Michael Knapp once said: China is a polychronic society, and there will be things we find odd simply because we’re not from the same culture. It’s not wrong, it’s just different.


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