When I was volunteering in ZJ, there was an amazing Chinese guy who told us his life story. Two parts of his story really stuck out to me. The one I'll quickly cite here is how he was cheated when purchasing a lunch on a train in India, so he got angry. But he was reminded to love the unlovable. How can he love the person who cheated him? It was a hard lesson for him and caused me to reflect much.
In China, there are a ton of problems. Whether it's cell phone safety issues due to poor product design, infrastructure or construction disasters due to mismanagement, tainted pork scandals, a huge real estate bubble (ok, honestly, anyone who purchases something but doesn't use it is only acting as a speculator that feeds bubble prices), or what have you, China has problems. Want a summary? Read the letter from the angry Chinese girl to the Norway bomber. Heck, just today, I was buying some milk, and I couldn't figure out whether to trust the cheap milk or the expensive milk. Is the cheap milk too cheap because it's bad? Or is the expensive milk a big scam like the allegedly high-end pork that was tainted? And how come all of it is stored on shelves with no refrigeration? Should I buy the refrigerated milk instead?
A lot of people here ask me why I came here to China from Canada. Why leave such a great country for such a poor one? Isn't that ironic. I struggle to tell them the media stories and general fear the western world seems to have these days about how China will take over the world and become the next global superpower. But most Chinese citizens I meet don't believe that sentiment at all. And ironically, on the other side of the ocean, my parents and others talk excitedly about how the rich Chinese immigrants are driving up all the real estate prices in Vancouver and elsewhere. There's a huge disconnect here. The rich (and many corrupt) are leaving, the poor are staying with fewer and fewer jobs, and there's little foundation for a stable society. How the outside world views China and how China views itself are not the same.
So my friends continue to ask me. Why did I come here? I came here to learn Mandarin in the effort to dream that maybe, just maybe, one day I can do something like volunteer in ZJ long-term, among other things. However, for my friends and colleagues, they worry that China will go bust within a decade, and then things will get really bad. My one colleague's words echo in my ears: "If things get bad, you can always go home. But we have to stay here."
I've never quite understood certain types of expats who work here, but would never be able to relate to normal Chinese folks. They don't have normal Chinese friends (i.e. those who aren't rich), dislike normal Chinese food, avoid trying to learn the language, and live in conditions really out of touch with local conditions. Are they really even living here, or did they somehow manage to transport a bubble of home over here with them? I didn't want to be like them. I wanted to mingle and do a deep dive into real Chinese culture. And yet, over the past month, I've had various experiences that made me question my commitment and love for people so different myself.
It was a hot day. I just wanted an ice cream cone. I walked into the KFC and got in line. There was only one guy in front of me. Later, a lady walked up and stood beside me. Together, we walked to the counter. Does the guy serve me, standing right in front of him? No, he asks the lady to the side what she wants. Excuse me? OK, it's OK, it's China. I can wait. On my right, another lady walks up. So a girl comes and serves her. Excuse me? OK, it's OK. Then a boy walks up on my right and goes to the counter as soon as the Lady #2 is done. The girl serves him too. Meanwhile, Lady #1 on my left is still not done. Whatever, I can wait. Then Lady #3 walks up and stands behind the boy. The girl starts to serve her as well. I finally get fed up.
Me: "Hey, is there no meaning if I line up?"
Girl: /looks at me confused.
Me: "I've been waiting a long time here!"
Lady #3: "Oh, he's been waiting in line."
Girl: "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought he was helping you" /points at co-worker, who is still helping Lady #1; what is Lady #1 ordering??
Me: "No, he's not helping me, he's helping her, and he's been taking a heck of a long time. And I don't even know why he's helping her, I was lined up!"
Girl: "Oh, sorry."
Me: "Argh, just give me an ice cream."
So later, I went to get a milk tea at the shop near my apartment and complained to the girl behind the counter.
Milk Tea Girl: "Oh, well, if you don't speak up, then it's difficult to know that you're ready to order. There are lots of times when there are people here, and they're still deciding, so I serve someone else."
Me: "No, that can't be it. Because me and Lady #1 walked up to the counter at the same time, and I was right in front of the guy, and neither of us spoke. He just asked her right away what she wanted."
Milk Tea Girl: "Oh, well, maybe they didn't see you."
Me (thinking): What?????
So I'm a pretty big guy by China standards, it's hard not to notice me if I'm standing right in front of you. 187cm.
Me: How could they not see me? I was right in front of them!
Milk Tea Girl: Well, if I'm busy serving someone, sometimes I won't notice if someone is waiting.
Now that's a significant cultural difference. It's getting better in China, but it's still hard to get really good customer service. In Canada, I'm used to people coming around and asking me if things are fine, looking around to see if anyone is waiting, etc. You don't experience that a lot in China. You have to go out of your way to get service, and it's often a matter of yelling for help first or barging your way into a conversation.
Just the other day, I was at China Telecom, getting my set top box changed. This lady comes and demands something from the service rep. Excuse me? Did you not see me chatting with this person here?
As well, there are a lot of shortsighted small-minded people. I'd say this has to do more with economic status than it does culture. They're just trying to make ends meet, and Mr. Foreign Moneybags shouldn't condemn them. Sometimes the small-mindedness extends to beyond economic matters to matters of stature (admittedly closely entwined subjects). That gets irksome, but it comes with the territory.
Unfortunately, as much as I like diving into real Chinese culture, one thing I dearly miss about Vancouver is the diversity of food options. Here in China, I am limited to eating cheap Chinese stuff often, simply because I don't know anyone who can afford to eat at expensive restaurants. I'd be eating alone. OK, sometimes I do this anyway. As much as I love Chinese food, I loved Vancouver's diversity more, where you could go from pho to Japadogs to pasta to sushi to a great steak. It's like one of those stupid first-world problems.
Similarly, the friends I have made here are difficult to compare to the friends I have in Vancouver. We have little about which to communicate. On an intellectual level, interest level, life goal level, and spiritual level, I have not found anyone here in Shenzhen with whom I can really communicate. OK, I know some good friends in Chengdu (hi guys! :D), but they're not in Shenzhen.
So why am I here? Should I just leave? I don't think that's right. I wanted to do this for real and not be half-hearted about it. I just finished reading Through Gates of Splendor, the story of the five brave men who died to bring the gospel to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador. These guys loved the Waodani so much, despite how remote they were, despite how primitive they were, and most importantly, despite knowing that the Waodani probably would despise them and even kill them (which they did). But so much good happened because of that incident, thanks to the undying love that God implanted in the hearts of these men and their wives. When their wives went to finish the mission work, they were able to reconcile with the Waodani, have peace with them, and change the world. This story inspired a lot of people.
And thus I recalled the lesson of my dear friend from ZJ, how he had to learn how to love the unlovable. Here is a Chinese guy only recently a believer, who understands the love of God far better than I do myself. Before God, we are all the same, how can I be so irked by these people when I myself have irked God countless times? Jesus had many parables on this theme. It was humbling and made me realize I still have a long way to go, but motivated me to double down and sign a new 1-year contract for a new apartment. Some things here in China may still irk me, but I'm here for a while yet. Especially since my Mandarin still sucks. And I promised a crying primary school kid that I'd try to go back to ZJ again.