Sunday, January 25, 2015

The difference a year makes: On being changed

Well, it's a bit embarrassing how long it has been since I have posted. I just paid for another year of and an iPad app to update this thing. Let's see if I get any better at this.

Christmas morning family photo
How cute are we 'eh?

We had our first Christmas in Canada in 3 years. We lucked out and our week in Ottawa was crazy warm. Above zero almost the whole time! Jackpot!

Last year, we went to Ireland and France over Christmas. We noticed the obvious, superficial differences: people didn't drive like their arrival at their destination as quickly as possible at all costs was crucial to life as we know it, they queued, they didn't spit, they didn't urinate in public (sober), ditto for spitting.

Funnily enough, I did encounter a squat toilet at a gas station in France. The public washrooms in Paris were pretty gross, so I was quite thankful for the squatter where I didn't actually need to actively try to avoid touching a scary looking toilet seat. If you told me 5 years ago when I encountered my first squat toilet that I would one day prefer them, I wouldn't have believed you.

Anyway, this year was a special Christmas, not only because it was my first Christmas back in Canada in 3 years but also because it was the first time I/we really saw how China had changed us.

When we left China, we were definitely in need of a vacation. We had both been swamped at work and had been experiencing more than a few "China days" recently. As you can imagine, "China days" are days when a combination of local behaviours and a lack of patience/humour/energy combine to putting you in a bad mood. There's a big risk when these happen of becoming negative about China and living here, rather than chalking it up to a bad day.

There is a big issue currently in Shanghai (and other big cities) with taxi availability. This is made even worse by Chinese taxi apps that give Chinese literate folks the opportunity to find taxis on their phones and lure drivers there way with the promise of a tip (very uncommon in Chinese culture previously). Waiting for taxis wasn't so much of an issue in our first year here. Now, it's common to wait 30 minutes where you used to wait 3. In central waiting areas, it can be ruthless trying to flag down a taxi, especially since queuing is not standard.

The week before we left China, I was waiting for a taxi to go meet the Irishman and some colleagues for dinner. I watched a grandmother and young child (maybe 4 years old) get pushed out of the way again and again by people snagging their taxi. I was livid, shouting mostly in English, but being completely ignored by the men and women who violently pushed their way into taxis while this elderly woman tried to keep her grandson safe. It was insane. I ranted via Whatsapp to the Irishman about how badly I needed a break from Shanghai.

For my first few days in Ottawa, I'm embarrassed to say, I ranted quite a bit to friends and family. I complained about slow and cersored internet, bureaucracy, lack of queuing, spitting, belching, slurping, peeing in public, and the annoyance of "face saving culture".

But by day 4 or so, I was calm enough to talk about all of the good things, not least of which are the jobs and standard of living we have been able to enjoy here. Even the stress of pollution isn't very serious for us with our air filters, face masks, and filtered water.


By the time we arrived in Vancouver a week later, greeted by signs in Chinese and an airport full of people more likely to speak Mandarin than French, we were almost missing it.

Embarrasingly enough, after all our ranting about Chinese internet, we ended up using our VPN service to put us on a Chinese server so we could stream Homeland easily when we woke up early on our first day in Vancouver.

Coming "home" wasn't as easy as you might think. I had to continually remind myself to apologize if I accidentally touched someone, a practice that I now find a bit ridiculous. The Irishman and I panicked a bit in restaurants, unsure of how aggressive we could be when flagging down a server to ask for the bill. I had to take money off the table as my husband, unsure of how to tip, left crazy 50% gratituities (sorry, servers). We were ID'd all the time and it took training to remember to bring our passports with us --while this was a bit annoying, I'm quite pleased we pass for 25 and under with a minute chance that we are under 19.

We revelled in the short lines, small talk with cashiers, familiar brands at the stores. I said sorry, please, and thank you hundreds of times. I drove and enjoyed it.

It became most clear one afternoon in Vancouver how China had changed us. One of my vacation goals was to fill up on fresh, delicious sushi. Not a tall order in Vancouver but, we learned, at a highly rated restaurant on New Year's Eve, it pays to have a reservation. While we waited to get the hostess's attention, a man tried to get around us. On cue, the Irishman and I both threw our elbows up and made a human wall between the man and the hostess desk. I think my cousin Shawna was mortified as we both called out "we were here first" when a woman came up behind us on the other side, trying to sneak by. We were nice about it, smiling and just making sure that people didn't think that we had already checked in with the hostess.

We were all turned away in the end, anyway, because they were full. We got our cardio in finding an open sushi restaurant down the street.

My spoiled husband isn't a sushi fan and my breastfeeding cuz was up for a food-heavy afternoon, so we headed to the Mexican restaurant next door to the Japanese place for Round 2. The lights were on and door was unlocked; I walked in to see if we could get a table. There was no one around. From the safety of the patio, Shawna whispered to the Irishman that she was sure I'd be murdered as they watched me wander down a hallway into the kitchen to investigate. Turned out they were open and happy to serve us. Once we had been seated, other people came into the restaurant, as well.

Family photo at home
Staying in was probably safer for us...

In both of those instances, our non-confrontational, polite Canadian and Irish sensibilities would have left us uncomfortable as we watched other (presumably Chinese) patrons slide around us while we looked on in silence. Perhaps, once the others had spoken to the hostess, we would have, with many apologies, piped up that we had been there first. Perhaps not. We certainly wouldn't have defaulted to our "Chinese crowd" response of taking up space and asserting our position. One year ago, I probably wouldn't have wandered into the kitchen of an unfamilar restaurant.

In China, asserting yourself is the only way to not get run over, literally and figuratively. There are over a billion other people trying to get things done with varying levels of decorum. In life, modified to be less intimidating or (depending on the culture) rude, it can make you a better advocate for yourself. Being timid and defaulting to avoiding even the most polite "confrontation" isn't doing anyone a favour. The people who were trying to get the hostess's attention weren't necessarily trying to get ahead of us but trying to make sure they didn't get caught in the shuffle. And that's okay.

Don't get me wrong, I will never advocate for butting in line. But it's nice to see how needing to assert myself every day, whether it's on my bike, at the shop trying to pay, or getting on the Metro, has changed me and the Irishman to not shy away from basic encounters.

If you do ever see us pushing a granny aside, it is time for an intervention.


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