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Thursday, 15 July 2010

Chinese Features

By Johna Ferguson

Because I have gone back and forth from the states to China since 1982, people ask me what Chinese features I have adopted and what features remain American.

I know when I am in China I dress completely differently. When I first came, I only had clothes from America but for the last 15 years or so I find I am not bringing clothes from the States to wear but buying Chinese ones and then just leaving them until I return for our yearly visits.

I’m short and small so their clothes fit me fine all except for the sleeve length. Their styles are quite different from ours – well, at least in the mid- to low-level price range that I buy in. When in the States, I usually buy simple, rather plain clothes, but ones that will last, like a Perry Ellis wool coat I have been wearing for more than 20 years.

Here in China, I don’t expect the clothes to last more than two or three seasons as buttons fall off, zippers break or they just look worn out; but then they are inexpensive. Here the clothes have more decorations, nothing is left unadorned. Like a nightie I bought that has lots of different colored embroidered ruffles and my black wool sweater has red, orange and gray cross-stitched geometric designs all the way up both sides of the zipper front.I just couldn’t find a plain black cardigan anywhere.

But I don’t buy my underwear or Levi’s here as I can’t find a fit or style I like. In Seattle, I usually wear a plain Patagonia jacket while here I wear a light-weight, beige-colored down one, but it has bright orange embroidered flowers on the front pockets.

Here, I eat with chopsticks while In Seattle I only use them in our home. I only eat Chinese food in Qingdao, but now I can get sliced bread, butter, jam, coffee and orange juice - typical American breakfast foods.

My husband does the main cooking so it is Chinese style; I find I don’t eat much meat but lots of tofu and green vegetables. No fresh green salads in China, too many pesticides, but I eat many tossed salads in the states (but watch out for E coli), and Chinese eat few sweets but we eat too many in the States.

I hate traffic jams and loved it in China when there were just bike traffic jams. But now, Chinese cities are just like Seattle or any place - too many cars, too much pollution.

I cannot adapt to people just dropping by without calling, nor can I stand the assumption the Chinese take that we are always free. Someone will call at 10AM and say there is a big dinner that night and they expect us to attend.

In Seattle, I call first before dropping in, even on best friends. We also call and arrange appointments ahead of time, sometimes a week, such as before inviting people for dinner, but not here. It’s always the unexpected.

I also can’t get used to the gift giving here. Every time you visit a friend for the first time, you take a gift. I always bring many boxes of candy back for gifts, but here people bring a us a bag of oranges, fresh strawberries or instant coffee since they know I drink it.

Because my husband was a professor, many of his former students drop by to say hello if they are in town and they always bring a gift. If we visit my husband’s former classmates, we always take a gift.

However, there is a kind of round-robin giving here. If you get something and you don’t want it or can’t use it, it is perfectly alright to pass it on to someone else. Many people bring us fancy tea or bottles of wine, and these we usually pass on, hoping we aren’t giving them back to the person who gave them to us. One really needs a filing system to keep track of all these gifts. In Seattle I often take a bottle of good wine if we are invited out to dinner, but never a bag of oranges.

But I love both places and have somehow learned to adapt to each one without too many complaints or embarrassments. I guess one would have to say I’m a mixture of both countries - a little of this and a little of that.

Now back in Seattle, a different me, but only as long as I am here. Next year I’ll again be another person in China.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Hi Johna,

I so enjoy reading your essays on the differences between China and the USA.

I laughed when I thought about being invited to a lovely dinner party and bringing a bag of oranges, and I can just imagine a Chinese person being equally amused at the idea of us bringing a bouquet of flowers.

Isn't it wonderful that we can exchange information so easily even though we are thousands of miles apart?

I love your stories....

I am really enjoying your stories, Johna. I will be visiting China this fall with an Elderhostel (aka Exploritas, aka Road Scholar) group. Could you write about Chinese customs and courtesy insofar as they differ from the US?

What a find. I look forward to reading more of your posts about China. Thank you!

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