Is China Really Upside-Down?

When I was a kid in southern Ontario, our favourite mind-altering impossibility was to imagine digging, not to unearth potatoes or worms, but straight down “until we get to China!” We understood, in a five-to-seven-year-old way, that since the world was round – there was a globe in my brother’s room, so that part was obvious – then the Chinese people must be upside-down. (And their children were starving, as I knew from my mother’s frowning over every uneaten vegetable.) In places like Canton, Ohio, or Pekin, Illinois, or half a dozen other American towns, apparently even the grown-ups nurtured the same fantasy about the inscrutable other side of the planet.

We’ll be there by lunchtime, I think.

Now I live in northeastern China. I don’t feel upside-down, well, not most of the time, and my little family is proving the old global-awareness mantras: yup, people are pretty much people, wherever they are, and they love to eat and sing and laugh, and they love their families and get mainly-unexplainable pleasure when “one of theirs” wins a game or a race or the Nobel Prize for Literature. They want peace and a better life for their kids. The usual.

The longer I’m here, though, the more I think of my old backyard dreams, because in ways mostly silly and insignificant, there is a definite strain of oppositeness. It starts with food. (Doesn’t everything?) Leafy greens aren’t tossed and dressed with sweetness, but boiled until dead. Carrots are the vegetable that, nearly universally, Chinese children hate, while North American parents find it their last vitamin-rich hope. Still with fruits and veggies, while it is not standard, many Chinese open up a banana from the “bottom”, the opposite end from the stem. It’s hard to get a good Caesar salad in China, partly because they ignore the leaves of the plant entirely, waiting until it bolts so that they can then boil the stem and root. While in North America people get more and more nervous, even allergic, about the presence of monosodium glutamate as a flavour-enhancer, in our local supermarket there is an entire long aisle labelled simply “MSG”, positioned about where our stores put the breakfast cereal or fruit juices, and about as long. We laugh every time we hear, too, that the parents of some of our young friends ask them, anxiously, after a meal at McDonald’s, KFC, or at our place, But don’t you get hungry right away after eating Western food?

It’s not all about mealtimes. Everyone knows about family names (Wang, Yao, Xia) being the “first names” here, but that’s not all. When Canadians address a letter or package, we begin with the most specific information (name, apartment number) and end with the province or country. China Post, though, wants the most general info at first, finishing with the most particular bits.  Lately, I’ve been playing cards with some of my English students, a little hands-on experience with idiom (trumping and tricks and strong suits) and low-pain conversation. Some tell me that it depends on the game – in some games, they don’t deal at all, but rather the players serially grab their own cards from a stationary deck – but in general they deal counter-clockwise, unlike Westerners, and some deal from the bottom of the deck with no thought of it being unethical. On most light switches I’ve encountered, I push the bottom (or downward) to turn the light on, instead of the “up equals on” standard back home. When there is a fire, China dials 1-1-9, not 9-1-1, and for telephone information it’s 1-1-4. (It’s 110 for the cops, and 120 for an ambulance.)

There are some slightly larger issues where this country feels discombobulating. Frosh week in a Chinese university would be thoroughly disorienting for the average high-school grad in North America. First off, it runs for from two to four weeks, and second, it’s mainly composed of marching. (In certain schools, like the naval-themed university near us, the freshman are up at dawn for training through the rest of the year, too.) Trainers come from the army to campuses all over China, the kids wear camouflage duds, and they soldier their way through a mini-basic training as their introduction to the “freedoms” of university life, of being away from home for the first time. Apart from the boredom – which Chinese students are brilliantly prepared to endure – it’s not that hard physically, and it seems that the students come to be proud of having passed yet another test. Not only that, but they come to like and sympathize with the young military men who come to work them over, but who also sing and laugh with them by the end of their stint. I’m told that this practice began after the student uprising that ended bloodily in Tiananmen Square in 1989, so there’s a political rationale to go along with the obvious moral counterpoint to the frequent debauch of a Western adolescent’s first glimpse of “higher education”. Nobody gets drunk. Nobody gets laid, I don’t imagine, with four boys or girls to a room and strict curfews.

Parents here do not ask their teenaged children, with exasperation, If everybody else jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too? In fact, if there was a cliff-jumping phenomenon in Chinese society, they would want their children to be the FIRST over the cliff, of COURSE! China is becoming, and bluntly aspires to be, a more consumer-oriented society, with the attendant calls to increase one’s “special”-ness by buying the same product as everybody else does. Still, though, it remains a profoundly conformist, a competitively conformist place. If you want your children to succeed, they must do what everyone else is doing, but they must do more of it. Individualism is barely skin deep. I teach Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, with its famed closing lines, “I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. When I ask my students to choose between an imaginary street, heavily populated, that most people were choosing to travel along, and an attractive alternative one with few people on it, the great majority don’t hesitate the to take the former. In North America, of course, the majority of us do exactly the same thing, but we are inclined to at least pretend that the possibilities for adventure and discovery along the path that “wanted wear” are worth the risk of getting lost or being mildly unsafe or unsure.    

The recent election (I resisted the urge to put the word in quotation marks) of the Communist Party’s ruling Political Bureau of 25 did include two women, However, quite upside-down for a North American educator (me) who has long watched young women dominate high school honour rolls and university entrance rates, men still absolutely rule here in China. Young girls unapologetically aspire to look weak and to invite the protection of a man. They quietly accept that the men have huge advantages in the exploding Chinese economy, but also benefit from the  traditional expectation that the man will provide the house (and, in modern social climbing, the Benz or BMW), not to mention that here there are just not quite enough women to go around…

The traditional view of Canadians as the most polite of people also goes a little topsy-turvy here, because a Canuck is often shamed by the extreme politeness of Chinese friends and associates – the humble, grateful extension of two hands to receive even the most mundane of gifts, the inability to leave a conversation without the most formal, face-to-face acknowledgement of farewell. (I have to watch myself as a teacher, especially, as students who have things to do and places to go will not even express impatience or anxiety as long as I’m still talkin’. I’ll suddenly realize that they are frozen in this exchange, and say, But listen, you are not my prisoner! If you have to go, that’s fine.) All this is true, unless this ex-pat is finding, usually among strangers, that the Chinese are disorientingly RUDE by my standards: shouldering by me to get first foot on the bus, horking magnificently and phlegm-painting the sidewalk, or treating service providers with an indifference that seems to border on haughtiness or inhumanity.

And yes, you may be accusing me of having gotten much more serious about this upside-downers than you might have expected. (Guilty!) This last example might be the one that is the most meaningful bit of inversion that I have noticed here, that I think I have noticed here. (China is big. It is a good teacher of humility.) Although this is changing with the decades, and perhaps with the generations – I was a child in the 60s, a teen in the 70s – it still seems to me and to my bride, who first put it this way, that in Canada we tend to trust most people until we are proven wrong. In China, for reasons arising from the social upheaveals it has undergone in the last century or so, trust is withheld as the default stance, except with one’s own family. They tend to distrust until proven wrong, and that’s not easy to do. The ridiculous exception to this rule is found in the practice of gan bei, a sort of competitive “bottoms up” exercise in alcoholic excess, which Chinese men say bonds them with their fellow staggerers and allows them a dubious brand of trust.

So If I feel a little head-under-heels at times, it’s not surprising. Some things really are downside-up here on the other side of the globe. I come from a country where, in recent years, the expression YOU DE MAN! is a semi-literate shout of praise to a dominant golfer, football hero or the guy who fixed the office coffee-vending machine. Contrast that with my Chinese class the other day, when I laughed to learn that you de man is a command, in a children’s song, to “swim slowly!” Yes, life in China does seem confusing at times, but I try to repeat to myself, soothingly, slowly. You de man. You de man.

Comment (1)

  1. Hi Jay,
    I enjoyed your Howdy Herald and really enjoyed this post. As Shannon and I lived for a year in South Korea, we are used to this strangely opposite super-polite / super-rude world…odd and confusing for us, too.
    Sam is fortunate to have this experience early in life and to be fluent in Mandarin, what an advantage he will have when he enters adulthood.
    Keep up the adventures and living life to the fullest and taking the road less travelled!
    Your long-lost Ottawa pal…Marc

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