I have lived in China for almost 4 years. This hasnít been consecutive, so I have had my occasional refreshers on American culture. I still remember many of the things that amazed me when I first came to China: the overwhelming number of open-air markets, the cheapness of food, the assault of non-familiar smells on the nose, the amazing sense of local community. When I returned to the Boston area after 6 months in Hefei, a friend asked me what the three things were I noticed to be the most different about the United States.
Forks are heavy.
Toilet paper, even in restaurants, is really soft.
We throw out an obscene amount of garbage.
The ins and outs of daily life in a city are not different. Everyone wants a good job, a good house at a low price, higher income, a happy family, and access to better education for their children. Remember that if you are pushing your child to academic excellence in China, then you are aiming to send him or her abroad.
From there, as you look into bigger and smaller issues, you start to see what makes things different. One of the things I have particularly noticed is that there is far less daily fear in China. Certainly, people are vulnerable. We see many car accidents, bus accidents, and lately the news has been scattered with information on natural disasters in Inner Mongolia as well as the numerous deaths caused by Coal Mining accidents. I have seen a gangster-style knife fight once in my time in China, over buying a doll for a child from a street peddler.
Even granted the occasional violent outbreaks, I have been in many parts of the city late at night here in Shanghai, and have never felt the least reason to worry. When I lived in Hefei, it was much the same situation, though people went to sleep earlier. Here, around the Bund, you can still find elderly couples chatting with their neighbors on a hot night until around 1:30AM. You just canít feel uneasy when grandma is sitting near you outside in her pajamas.
In reading about the blackout in the New York area last week, I could see that some people found a glimpse of that kind of community. As people, as the social animals that we are, we share so much in common. Itís nice to be in a place where I donít feel like I have to fear those around me.
This is not to say that everything is sunny and wonderful. You may get pick pocketed, but you likely will not see any weapons. If you understand Chinese, you may hear offensive things said about yourself. Public transportation sandwiches people together in a way that rivals sardine cans – there is nearly no sense of personal space here. People blow their nose into the street, spit all the time, crash into you on their bicycles, and find every way possible to get around rules.
Sometimes it seems like there are no rules, no regulations. In fact, it is possible to get around much regulation. Still, there is not a sense of impending danger aside from the fact that you may not get the best price on the next piece of clothing you buy. While lacking the economic dominance of the United States, there is something comforting in that level of social calm that I find here in China.