Freaking out my host family in Beijing

As I write this post I am in Beijing.  I’m staying with a delightful retired couple where they are giving me tons of chances to practice Chinese.   Some days we communicate great, other days it’s a total breakdown.  They have been very gracious to me and patient too.  BTW, this picture was taken of Lu Ayi as she made zongzi, which is a traditional food during the Dragon Boat Festival.

For a change of pace, instead of writing about language per se, today I’ll write about some of the cultural things that are happening with the family.

There are tons of things that I do that seem weird to my Chinese family.  In may case, my Ayi is great at observing and commenting on things that I do that freak her out.  For example, the first day Lu Ayi noticed that I am left-handed.  I can tell that older generation Chinese still react to seeing left-handers, especially when they use chopsticks with their left hand.   Next, I was thumbing through a book and to turn the pages, every so often I licked my finger.  Bad form, turns out that’s a big no no with my Ayi (ironic considering how often old people here cough and spit).  Third, you’d think that it’s easy to put on slippers, but it took days for me to get it right.  Turns out that I would take off my shoes, step on the floor, and then step into the slippers.  It would be better for me to directly step into the slippers.  I just couldn’t understand if the family was upset with me or what.  I think, however, they were just concerned that I not get dirty.  Fourth, for breakfast I usually have dou jiang (soy bean drink) and you tiao (donut-like fried item).  I actually find them to be a bit tasteless so I like to dip my you tiao into my yogurt. I think it gives the you tiao a little more flavor, but it definitely freaks out Lu Ayi, and even I can understand why that would be weird to her.  Fifth, I also drink a lot of water with my meals.  Chinese people don’t generally drink a lot of liquids as part of their actual meal.   Lu Ayi was amazed that I would have yogurt and drink water at the same time.  (BTW, language wise, Chinese “drink” their yogurt, while in English we “eat” it.)  Sixth, this one isn’t me, but more related to my observation of them.  OK, I know that Chinese are adverse to drinking cold things (bad for your general health), but really folks, how in the world do they drink things that are so piping hot? It’s amazing, simply amazing to see them slurping away at super hot liquids.  And finally, another observation about them.  I have enjoyed watching what old people do in China that is supposed to improve health.  For example, I see a lot of them walking backwards, slapping themselves while walking, pulling on their fingers, etc.

All of this has reminded me how much it wears me out to be out of sync with my life.  Our “normal” life has a comfort pace and behavior.  Experiencing a new culture drains us of energy because of all of the little things that remove us from automatic pilot.  With time, however, we start to understand the new rhythm and pace of things.  For example, I now feel normal shaving and bathing in the smaller bathroom.  I’ve got that new sync down.  I also feel normal in the subway now.  I’ve got that new rhythm down too.  To be honest, adapting to a new pace and rhythm it’s part of what I love about being in another country… but it does wear a person out.



4 Responses to “Freaking out my host family in Beijing”

  1. Tamara Says:

    When I was in Brasil for the first time I was shocked at how the milk was left out. In the evening when we came back from being gone all day the milk would still be on the kitchen counter. I couldn’t believe those dang kids! Well turns out, that milk in the box doesn’t have to be refrigerated. I started drinking it after that. It was much yummier when I heated it up like tea and dipped buscuits in it for breakfast!

  2. Natasha Says:

    Wow! Beijing.. How cool is that!

    I really enjoyed reading your entry.. I even read it to Raza and Sajjad Raza was tickled at the walking backward part.. it’s amazing to see different cultures in different places, we would love to see more pics and hear more about your endeavors

  3. Tommy Says:

    It’s interesting how many of the observations are also applicable to Japan (the slippers, slurping piping hot green tea, dipping and mixing foods, the water, etc)

    I also like to drink a lot of water when I eat, but this habit never seems to fit the expectation in Japan. At restaurants, people only drink water if it is already on the table or served by the waiter (in a tiny two-sipper), and they almost never specifically order water, unless it is at the end of a heavy drinking session. When I order a water, people sometimes ask me if I’m sure I don’t want to drink juice or a soft drink or something else, as if water were the inferior alternative.

    As far as hygiene in Tokyo goes, I notice a lot of spitting, coughing, sneezing openly or into their hands (and a lot of people wearing masks), despite all the recommendations by global health organizations to use our sleeves in public.

  4. Rachel Says:

    Hi! It sounds like you’re having an awesome experience with your host family. I would like to study Chinese with a host family in Beijing. How do you recommend I find a host family? Did you use a certain website? Thanks for your help!

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