My hair slips through strangers’ fingers as we walk through the marketplace. One by one they reach out, pinch a humid curl between their fingers and let it drop. Light hair and blue eyes isn’t the norm in China, even in the large cities.
We’re in a market in Nanning, the largest city in Guangxi, China. Carts and benches are so close together they’re practically overlapping. Live fish swim in shallow metal buckets on the curbs, odd shaped fruits hang from beams and chicken legs with yellow feet dangle off table tops. This isn’t a typical tourist attraction, but it is an incredibly important stop on our tour through China.
This is where my friend Katy was left by her birth parents when she was a few days old. This time last year, Katy and her parents, Leslie and David, asked me if I wanted to join them on a heritage tour of Katy’s home country. I knew Katy was nervous about returning to the country where she was born, and I like to think that my presence put her at ease. A teenager can be a completely different person when she’s with her friend, rather than with her parents. Together, Katy’s parents and I made the perfect support system.
Though I had never left the country before, I have traveled around the United States. To say I was excited to go to China seems like an understatement. I wanted to see the culture, the mountains and the people, from the women wearing high heels to the beggars in the streets. I harassed Google day and night, asked my well-traveled grandma questions, read novels and travel guides to China. But nothing, no matter how many times I looked at pictures of the Great Wall or the city of Yangshuo, could compare to being there in the flesh.
Culture shock is a phrase that is said so often that it loses its meaning. But that’s what it was like to go halfway around the world.
Everything was a shock. Being accosted by vendors, commanding you to buy their merchandise and calling you a “very bad customer” when you refused. Gray skies, nothing blue, due to pollution. Bikes everywhere; braving the busy streets where stoplights were just suggestions. Random people walking next to me took out their cameras and aimed them at my face.
And it was certainly shocking to see the living conditions of some of the people. One of the events scheduled for us by the adoption agency was to meet Katy’s foster parents. For Katy, this meant meeting a living part of her past. For me, this meant getting a glimpse of a culture that I have never experienced.
Katy’s foster parents lived in an apartment, as nearly everybody does in cities. When we walked down the alley, we were in a courtyard of sorts. Gray buildings rose on all sides of us, where the weak sunlight from above didn’t quite reach the ground, where broken umbrellas and random planks of wood littered the ground and piled up in the corners.
There was no lobby. No elevators. No air conditioning.
As we climbed and sweated, Glenn told us that Katy’s foster father had recently had a stroke, and could not walk. As we reached the fifth floor, we all wondered how he got from his apartment to the streets, and how often.
As we filed in, I sat on a small chair, my knees reaching my chest. Katy sat on a bench next to her foster father, and her mom Leslie sad on her right. Katy’s dad, David, stood with Glenn and took pictures.
No air moved through the small gray room. A window was open, facing the building across the courtyard, but no breeze passed through. Sweat gathered behind my knees and slid down my calves as Katy met her foster father. He handed us pictures of a one-year-old Katy with his cramped and shaking fingers. A short while later, Katy’s foster mother walked through the door. She had full cheeks and an orange shirt on. As soon as she saw Katy she began to gesture with her hands how tall she had grown.
Realizing that Katy could currently be living in an apartment like this if her life had been different, that she would ride her bike everywhere and go to school year round, made me realize how drastically different the Chinese culture is.
Meeting her foster parents was the part I was most excited for Katy to experience. I wanted her to see how she came from a loving atmosphere, and was remembered. Leslie teared up a little when she took Katy’s foster mother’s hand in hers and thanked her for taking such good care of her daughter. Though I felt like an intruder, both on the intimate moment and the couple’s home, I was completely submerged in the culture.
I’ll never have that experience again. I’ll never get to be so close to another culture as I was that day. There are the main tourist attractions, sure. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the River Li, Tiananmen Square and the panda preserve in Ya’an are all part of the Chinese culture. But to sit on a stool in a cement apartment and watch a typical family interact in their living room is something I’ll always cherish.
In addition to seeing the living conditions of citizens in cities, it was so strange to be in a country where social media doesn’t really exist. One of the most exhausting and time consuming things a teenager will ever endure is teaching their parents how to operate Facebook. Before I left, my mother insisted that I teach her how to message through it. So we sat in opposite ends of the house, trying to have a conversation through our keyboards, but most of them ended with me yelling directions over my shoulder and out my door.
When I tried to access Facebook in Beijing it was blocked. Social media is such an important and ubiquitous part of our culture here in the US that I didn’t consider it not existing in China. Keeping control over the spreading of ideas, which can lead to much bigger things such as protests, has always been something that China’s good at. Many people of the younger and middle generation don’t know who Tank Man, the man who stood before a column of tanks in a protest outside of Tiananmen Square, was. That’s an aspect of their culture that I did not expect.
The phrase ‘culture shock’ is such a bland way to explain the different places in this world. The only way to really get a glimpse of a different culture is to go there, and visit the people’s homes, eat their food and wear their clothes. It’s strange that the importance of different cultures and traditions isn’t taught with the same degree of urgency as math or science is. After traveling to China, I’ve discovered that the study of cultures is every bit as important as memorizing the periodic table or the pythagorean theory. Different environments and cultures ties the human race together, as well as sets it apart.