Culture Shock & Personal Loss Collide
We have been in China for just over ten days and for a whole host of reasons, I am more homesick than I have ever been. After 120 days of travel, I have hit a low point and have strong desires to return home.
I had a lot of apprehension about traveling in China. I felt a bit unprepared. Our travel routing and plans were still in flux and I was unsure of what to expect. I knew things would be culturally different; however, what we have encountered to date has been far different than anything I anticipated or could have imagined. Here are just a few things that we’ve experienced in China that make me long for the blue skies of Colorado.
During the Beijing Summer Olympics headlines centered around the poor air quality and the steps taken to improve the air quality levels for the athletes during the Olympiad. I watched the Olympics, however, I could never imagine just how bad the air quality would be in Beijing. I also did not realize how many other cities in China also had poor air quality.
We arrived to a thick brown haze in Beijing that changed very little during our five day stay. The haze blocked out the sun and made it appear overcast for most of the daylight hours. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Not only was this the case in Beijing, but the same pollution haze existed in Datong and now in Xi’an. It feels like we have not seen the sun in over ten days.
I fully expected that communication would be a challenge in China. However, I secretly hoped that more people would speak English—even a little bit—as a second language.
We found communication challenging in Beijing, but it was even more challenging in Datong where almost no one spoke English. We downloaded a Chinese translation app for our phone to help with written materials, but even the most basic verbal transactions involved a lot of energy, frustration and uncertainty.
As I outlined in our Famous for a Day post, Western tourists are far and few between. As a result, we tend to draw a lot of undue attention in the form of people stopping, staring and even taking pictures. I knew that we would stand out from the general population, however, I did not expect to see so few Western tourists. Additionally, I never anticipated the level of attention that we would gain by just walking down the street.
Again, I fully expected that the Chinese culture would vary greatly from Western cultures. Experiencing the culture is part of what we have come to love about traveling. However, there were many cultural differences that definitely surprised us.
Lack of Personal Space
We encountered people everywhere and the concept of personal space differs greatly from Western cultures. I do not like large crowds and do not enjoy being pushed. I definitely appreciate my personal space. I felt like we were always among crowds and that pushing, elbowing and crowding was something we just couldn’t avoid.
The most surprising part was the difference in overall cleanliness. Not only is the air polluted, but we found litter to be a standard. There aren’t any public trash cans so trash collects everywhere. Even on supposed hiking trails and rural areas, there were piles of trash—some of them burning.
We were surprised to witness men, women and children spitting—anywhere and everywhere—on streets, in the train station and even in restaurants. It’s not uncommon to hear people snorting, sniffing and loudly clearing their throats and then splitting it out on the ground in front of you!
Missing Friends and Home
After having been gone for almost five months and having spent our final two weeks in Europe in the company of friends and family, the drastic changes have made me a bit homesick. September and October are typically filled with events and activities. From birthdays (my moms, our niece, and nephews), to attending sporting events (Denver Broncos games with friends and Colorado Avalanche games with family), to participating in the Nike Women’s Marathon with my good friend in mid-October.
Likewise, outside of seeing my brother and four of our friends in Europe, I am feeling out of touch with many people. I miss the social interaction from home.
Sick & Weary
We had a lot of fun playing with our friends for five days in Germany. However, we managed to pick up a bug and have been on the mend. We spent our last few days in Europe and first week in China trying to kick the cold.
Additionally, I have let some little things get to me. Simple, unimportant things. Like the fact that my black cardigan sweater has holes in it and that I have developed holes in two pairs of my socks. With my limited wardrobe, things that would normally be insignificant can feel significant.
House on Fire
The tipping point occurred yesterday. After taking the overnight train, we arrived (tired) to our hotel in Xi’an to learn of a fire at our home in Colorado. When deciding to rent our home, I rationalized that anything that was damaged could be repaired with a little elbow grease and money. You can replace carpets, refinish floors, repaint walls or replace blinds. However, I never dreamed something so significant would damage our home! The worst part was not being able to see it first hand and see just how bad it was.
We initially received an email from our neighbor notifying us that there had been a fire at our house. We then realized we had missed a phone call from my brother on Viber. We hurriedly returned his call and he filled us in on the limited details that he knew. He sent us a few pictures of the damage. The grill had been blackened and ripped from it’s base and our refrigerator melted beyond recognition. It was horrifying to see our belongings destroyed.
After a few hours, a few deep breaths, a few phone calls, a few emails, and a good nights’ sleep we put the pieces together and appreciate that the fire could have been far worse. A backyard neighbor noticed the fire at 6:00 A.M on their way to work. The neighbor drove to our street, notified our tenant and our next door neighbor, called 911 and the fire department was on site and had the fire out within minutes. No one was hurt. Our house was still standing. The fire was limited to our patio grill area and there was no structural damage to the house. We had a lot to be thankful for, however, this really was the tipping point.
China has been hard so far…and I just miss home.