Greetings from Nanjing! It’s a pleasure to be reporting from China, while I am studying abroad here.
It didn’t take too long to adjust to the new environment upon arrival in China, but this is likely because I have had some instruction in Mandarin back in the States and and travel experience from my study abroad in Italy. However, I noticed that a few of my program-mates have gone through periods of culture shock and homesickness, which is completely understandable (as China’s culture is in some respects quite different than that of the United States).
One thing that I did have to get accustomed to was to be constantly alert when crossing busy streets. There is a constant flow of motorists and a lack of traffic lights in Nanjing, and motorists aren’t afraid to honk at you if you are perceived as “being in the way”. I don’t know how many times an overzealous motorist has attempted to run me over even though I had the right of way.
Another topic of note is that the Chinese perception of politeness differs from that in America. We are used to saying ‘please’ (qǐng) and ‘thank you’ (xièxie) for daily interactions. In China, these phrases are often reserved for times when very strong displays of politeness and emotion are required. Saying “thank you” to a cashier when you are getting your change may sometimes result in a strange look from the opposite end – somewhere between a look of disbelief and a look of discomfort. (In China, the common outlook is that customers “give” their patronage and money to a store, so there is no need for the customer to say thank you in such transactions.)
Likewise, the term ‘sorry (duìbuqǐ)’ is usually also reserved for extremely impolite situations. Thus, if someone bumps into you on a crowded subway (and this is bound to happen every time one takes the subway), one learns that an apology from the offending party is a rare occurrence indeed.
Nonetheless, China is changing everyday. In particular, the youth generation in China is picking up more western habits, and starting to incorporate more polite colloquialisms into daily speech. Thus, if inclined to do so, one should feel free to use qǐng, xièxie, and duìbuqǐ.
Anyway, these cultural differences allow one to gain perspective whilst being in a new land and do not hold one back from the study abroad experience. There are seemingly countless sights, eats, and experiences available in China. I’ll update with more cultural tidbits and interesting places to visit in China within the next few weeks or so. I hope you’ll look forward to my column!
Until then – zai4jian4 (再見)!
Johnson is currently studying Chinese at Nanjing University through CSI’s intensive Chinese language program. His studies are generously funded by the CV Starr fellowship. He is pleased to serve as WCIB’s first overseas Foreign Affairs Correspondent.