In 2012 I wrote an entry titled similar to this one, only it depicted things I couldn't get used to in China (see Things That, 2 Years on, I cannot get used to entry, posted May, 2012). It included chicken heads and feet, being stared at and not being able to buy any clothes in my size. Now that I've been here twice that amount of time and my health has been restored, I reflect on the things that are so commonplace that I've become inured to them. I'd go so far as to say that these aspects of Chinese society make readjusting to life in the west, however temporary, difficult.
People: Over here, unless I'm in my house, I can count on seeing people everywhere. The crush of humanity on the buses, dodging physically linked groups on crowded sidewalks, having a total stranger share a table with me at KFC – none of this would happen in the States, especially strangers eating together.
By contrast, America seems empty. Even in bigger cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Tampa and Portland, sidewalks are virtually bare and neighborhoods seldom have anyone walking around.
Under the general heading of noise:
Noise is an everyday part of life in China. Walk down any commercial street and you're likely to get blasted with hip-hop music, meant to entice shoppers. Over that, you might have some pretty lady shouting into a battery powered amplifier that broadcasts terrible sound quality. On buses and subways, you might get assaulted by someone – or several someones shouting into their phone, or just to a seat mate.
Sneezing! Over here, I can hear my neighbors sneeze from several buildings away. Apparently, the louder you sneeze over there, the better. In the west, one sneezes as quietly as possible.
Square Dancing: Since this community became inhabited by more than just me and the migrant workers that built it, I've heard the same 7 songs every night. The ladies of our community and the community next door gather to dance away their day's frustrations at the same time each night. If, because of rain, they do not dance, I miss the music, even though when I hear it I feel like grinding my teeth. Can't they find 7 other songs to dance to?
Children are given free rein to do as they wish, including shouting and shreiking, at any time of the day or night. I find that I miss Chinese children's unrestrained glee and playing when I'm stateside, where children are encouraged to use indoor voices, or be quiet lest they bother the neighbors.
Neighbors: From 6AM to around 11PM, there is no doubt I have neighbors. They shout up the building at household members from the parking lot. They are not quiet about closing the foyer door. That aluminum barrier slams and the noise echoes through the concrete stairwell. I daresay even people on the top floor can hear the stairwell door closing. Me, on the first floor, am intimately familiar with neighbors' comings and goings.
By contrast, in the states, I wondered if I had neighbors. Until I came to China, I didn't know what it really means to be a part of a community.
Now, on to other aspects of life in China that contrast deeply with life in America.
Gardens: Any little available patch of ground is planted. In the no-man's land to the rear of our campus you will find people trudging, pail and implements in hand to tend to their vegetables. You might also smell the (human waste) fertilizer... not a pleasant smell at all. Once, I even saw a man tending a vegetable garden he had planted in a highway median. I doubt that, anywhere in the west, one would find such an abundance of gardens.
Traffic: In every city I've been to in China, traffic of all kinds is just a crazy proposition. Be you a pedestrian or a taxi passenger, you are taking your life into your hands – or putting it in someone else's hands at every outing. Isn't it a wonder how anybody gets anywhere in China? I've often told my stateside friends who wish to visit that I would have to sedate them before taking them anywhere because they would likely have a heart attack at some of the traffic doings.
Temperatures: Wuhan has 2 set temperatures: freezer and oven. Occasionally we might enjoy a mild respite from these extremes, but there is pretty much where the thermostat is stuck. I'm used to bundling up in the winter and shedding as much as possible in the summer. If need be, I have a space heater for winter and air conditioning for summer in my home. Everywhere else I might venture, there might not be climate control.
Just about EVERYWHERE in America is temperature controlled: houses, cars, stores, offices. It gets as hot in Texas as it does in Wuhan but it never really bothered me because I went from my air conditioned house to my air conditioned car, drove to my air conditioned office and, after work, went shopping in air conditioned stores. After living in natural temperature cycles since I've been here, it is difficult for me to to adjust to regulated temperatures stateside.
Fashion disasters: I am proud to say that I can now walk right past someone wearing polkadots with plaid or flowers with stripes, and orange shoes that don't match the outfit, without cringing or wincing. Oh, sure: they catch my eye but it no longer hurts. By contrast, in the west, one can see some truly bizarre clothing and acres of nude flesh. After deep consideration, I reason: better to clash fabric patterns than to not cover oneself at all.
Low counters and furniture: I am tall, no doubts about that. When I came here, it took a long time to adjust to kitchen counters that hit me mid-thigh and couches that I have to crouch on rather that sit on. I've made my peace with tiny dining tables at restaurants too: now I automatically adjust my legs so that I can scrunch them under the table. Or, I sit sideways.
Without fail, every time I return to America, I exclaim over the countertops that are as high as my hip and sofas that I can fall into – instead of falling down on. Bathroom mirrors are another plus during stateside visits. Here, my mirror cuts the top of my head off unless I scrunch down.
Crazy things on wheels: I've seen queen sized mattresses, refrigerators, 50 kilo sacs of veggies and huge sculptures of styrofoam on bikes, going down the road. Three or four people, astride an electric scooter, trundling by. It seems that if it needs wheels, the common bike is good enough. Tie it on and make it work.
By contrast, biking in America is a dubious proposition everywhere except a few, select cities. Even then, bikes are for people, not refrigerators. Biking is more recreational than functional in America, for the most part.
Smells: Some smells in China I don't think anyone could get used to, say: a public toilet. When I leave China, I don't miss those smells at all. Food vendor carts are what I'm talking about when I mention smells. In America, you might smell flowers, belching diesel fumes from buses and car exhaust, but smelling food is not as prevalent as in China.
And there you have it: things that have become so commonplace in my life that I'm lost without them when I'm not here. What about you? What have you gotten so used to that you don't notice it anymore?