That first week or so before school started was truly overwhelming. Everywhere we looked, things were much different from home. I guess that even the first evening with its red-carpet welcome underscored just how different Eastern and Western concepts can be. When the Chinese want to show honor, they make things into an event. They invite lots of people, have lots of food, and insist that the guests of honor give speeches, even if no one understands them. They do photo shoots (with or without a professional photographer) of the hosts and honored guests. The Chinese grow up surrounded by people, and they tend to move in crowds. When an honored guest is invited to dinner, many other “accompanying guests” are invited to be sure that the honored guest feels welcome. Color, noise, and pageantry are the watchwords.
After we started classes, one teacher explained that the Chinese society was primitively agrarian even into the mid-twentieth century. Farmers worked from dawn to dusk seven days a week, so they loved any excuse they could have for a holiday. Farm families tended to be large, and working in the fields was often a solitary labor, so gathering the gang with food, noise, color, and a party was always a good thing. If a host failed to provide the festive ambience, it was a slight or a signal that the guest was somehow not in favor. Although Chinese have lots of parties, they do not necessarily like to get close to people easily. The party atmosphere keeps things at arms length while satisfying the need for camaraderie.
As Americans, we valued individual space, quiet, and one-on-one relationships. We wanted to sleep and have quiet time to adjust. It was very wearying for us to always be with people and always be jolly in a group. The first week was fun, and all that activity helped us get over our jet lag, but our overall feeling was one of exhaustion.
I think another great shock was that we did not understand anything. We had expected to see and hear more English. But the reality was we couldn’t even pick things out from an alphabet on signs. We were in our twenties, and we sometimes felt like we were in our terrible twos. We couldn’t do anything for ourselves. We couldn’t understand anything of what was said. After our English-speaking guides from the student center went home, we were left with our non-English-speaking housemates to smile and point and not know what to do. For example, it would have saved us much grief, if just one of our housemates knew how to explain what we should do about our laundry….