March 3, 2011


It was 6:50 a.m. and I was standing outside shivering, it was misting and the temperature was only 35 degrees. I was sleepy and desperate for the big green shuttle bus to arrive at my apartment. I waited along with a dozen co-workers until 7:15, when someone got a phone call saying the bus was broken and wouldn't be coming.

People started chattering and rushing around the small parking lot under my building trying to figure out how to get to campus on time for work. I had no idea what was going on, I was cold and half asleep. Ten minutes had passed when one of the teachers waved for me to come with her. I was under the impression we would be sharing a taxi. Four of us went to the corner, crossed the street, and stopped in front of a primary school. 

It was 7:30 when a black sedan pulled up, the teachers motioned for me to sit in the front and they hopped in the back. I had no idea who our driver was and he didn't say anything to us. The women in the back immediately fell asleep, but I put my headphones in and savored the ridiculousness of the moment. Only in China. It took less than an hour to get to campus, thanks to our driver's erratic weaves around cars and sporadic stretches of driving in the bike lane. 

The day before, our shuttle bus gave a small SUV a little tap on its back bumper. There was hardly a scratch, but the SUV driver freaked out and put on a huge show of pacing back and forth in the middle of a huge, busy intersection. The entire bus of people got excited and many exited the bus to check out the argument between our driver and the SUV diva. It took 45 minutes, but we finally made it back on our way.

Two days in a row I had distinctly Chinese commutes to work. The immersion continued in the office. I share a new office with two other 20-something Chinese girls who love shopping, pop culture, and bright, glittery nail polish. Most of the day we sit quietly, they occasionally talk to each other in Chinese and I usually enjoy NPR, Pandora, or online TV shows that I haven't heard in five months (my internet at work is actually fast!) But every now and then we have random conversations about the latest iPhones, celebrity scandals in Hong Kong, or the best kinds of shampoo. 

As silly as it sounds, I'm gaining valuable insight into Chinese pop culture. My co-workers have wholeheartedly embraced my quest to learn Chinese and have promised to speak to me in Mandarin... which is cool, but I don't understand 98% of what's going on. At any rate, I'm trying to catch on, I have my work assignment for the next week written in pinyin (the roman letter spelling of Chinese words).

I was enveloped by China en route to work, in the office, and even at meals this week. At lunch one day, I learned all about the health policy of government employees in China, as we picked at a whole fish with our chopsticks. That night at dinner I was the only foreigner in a room of 25 people. 

I sipped on tepid rice juice, which has the texture of runny, over-cooked grits and is dark purple. I know, it sounds wretched, but it was good -- it wasn't overly sweet or pungent, like a lot of "juices" are here. Plus, it was a lot better than my other option, corn juice, which is the same consistency and texture but tastes like a popcorn kernel doused in corn syrup. 

The evening was full of strange and mostly delicious dishes, many that I've never had before. It was a typical Chinese buffet with a massive circular table with a wheel in the middle that all the dishes were put on, so we rotated all the food around, picking what we wanted with our chopsticks. 

I always get nervous eating with only Chinese people because I feel like they're closely watching what I eat, how I eat it, and whether or not I have capable hands with the chopsticks. Both at the dinner and at my Chinese banquet lunch the next day, I found myself dropping food more than usual or having a difficult time picking things up. 

I've made progress since moving here though, no one asks me if I need a fork anymore.

This weekend, my friends and I are going to have a very Chinese night out -- starting with KTV, the wildly popular and awkward karaoke experience, then we're going to a stadium-style dancing club that is decadently decorated with gaudy chandeliers and all things cheap but luxurious. We'll most likely be the only foreigners at both venues.

When in Rome, right? 

Except in Rome, doing as the Romans did was far less awkward and involved gelato. Doing as the Chinese makes for better stories though.

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