I lost it.

November 9, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Chinese Hot PotIt’s often-frustrating living in a country where you don’t understand the culture or the language. Every once in a while I’ll find myself just getting so angry and annoyed at the cultural differences that I have to lock myself up at home and let it pass. I find it soothes my inpatients.

However, on this fateful Saturday night, I lost it.

Our tutor Grace had offered to take us to one of her favorite Hot Pot restaurants. Hot Pot is huge here in Shanghai and I was one of the few people who had never tried it. When Grace found this out, she insisted on taking us and letting us experience this Shanghai treat.

So on Saturday, after a short subway ride we met Gina, Aaron, and Grace in a quest to enjoy some Hot Pot. That’s when my inner turmoil began.

As we attempted to get a taxi a man in a tiny black car starts honking his horn, he along with a dozen other cars are stuck in traffic, stopped at a red light. So he honks, as if that is going to make the cars in front of him go faster, as if the sound of his blaring horn will make the light change and as if no one else is around him. Looking at the situation, I lean down staring at the man through his open passenger window and I say calmly, in words he cannot understand, “honking your horn isn’t going to make the car move sir, I promise.” The passenger in his car chuckles and the driver stops honking. He slowly inches up moving away from me and we continue to stand on the crowded street, blocking the way of the herds of people trying to get by.

After spending fifteen minutes getting honked at by bicyclists driving on the sidewalk, getting shoved by fellow pedestrians and having no luck with finding a cab, Grace suggests we walk up a block to a bigger intersection. So along with the masses we walk, past the dozens of squatting street vendors selling everything from fake Tiffany’s jewelry to winter coats, passing street food smells and smokes, and finally, coming to a huge intersection (where, frankly, chaos comes to die).

We stand patiently at the curb waiting for the green man to give us the go ahead when we notice the herds of people going. They just start walking. Fearing for our lives, we continue to stand there, waiting for our friend the green man to come up. Finally when he does, we notice no difference in the intersection. Cars driving in every direction, turning at red lights, bikes swerving through traffic and pedestrians playing Frogger in between whizzing cars. It was enough to shoot my blood pressure through the roof.

As we play Russian Roulette through the intersection, we spot two empty cabs (we needed two since we have five people and only four fit in your standard cab). We ran as safely as possible, getting the attention of the driver and as we attempt to get in, a huge truck pulls up behind it and starts wailing on his horn, successfully getting the cab driver to move and leave us behind. The second cab pulls up behind the honking truck and stops, letting Garrett, Gina and Aaron in. Grace tells the taxi driver where to go and Grace and I are left behind looking for another cab. But just as their cab is pulling away with everyone safely inside a black car pulls up behind him and starts honking his horn incessantly! He sees that the cab has just gotten everyone in and is starting to leave but he wont lay off the horn. This is where I lose it for the first time.

I begin to yell at him in English, I scream how he can wait and that they’re going and when I am done throwing my temper tantrum I notice hundreds of passersby staring at me chuckling under their looming smiles. The man drives past me, looking at me in utter confusion while continuing to honk his horn. Grace puts her arms around me and walks me away from the intersection while we begin looking for another cab.

Fifteen minutes later we get one and we head towards the intersection where the rest of the group has been waiting. Finally when we arrive Grace leads us through a crowded, frantic street with bright lights illuminating the sky and takes us into the third floor of a big building. We are the only foreigners there. Which, normally, isn’t a big deal but I notice a table of twenty something guys just staring at us with the same grins I encountered moments before. As we walk by they say “Hello!” in mocking tones. (A trend I notice more and more. Some Chinese people will say words in English to foreigners passing by, often repeating the words the foreigners themselves were just saying, and they say them in these tones that are somewhat mocking and very rude.) I manage to hold my breath and not say anything but I can feel my blood start to simmer.

When we sit down Grace is nothing but an angel, she guides us through the menu and we order. Hot Pot works a little like Korean BBQ. You order uncooked foods like beef, lamb, pork, potatoes, eggs, mushrooms, tofu, and anything else you can think of and they provide you with a huge pot of boiling broth divided into two: one is regular flavor broth, the other is spicy. As the soup simmers on the heat plate you add your raw food, slowly letting it cook in your giant tub of soup.

I was a little intimidated by the entire process but Grace had wanted to let me experience it since I was the only one who hadn’t. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve had since living in Shanghai but it was…ummm… not enough to make me throw up all over myself.

And so, an hour later, after having devoured an amazing amount of Hot Pot, we realizSquatter Toileted we had ordered FAR too much food and were not going to be able to finish it. Luckily, this place was incredibly reasonably priced and leaving some items behind wasn’t breaking the bank. (By incredibly reasonably priced I mean like 2RMB (30 cents) for a plate of lots of raw food.) It was also at this time that I decided I needed to use the restroom. Gina had warned me earlier that the bathrooms weren’t very clean and that they only had squatter toilets.

I have never used a squatter toilet. In all my time in Shanghai, I have never used one. Not only do I think my legs are not strong enough but I cannot get over the mental anguish that occurs when I think of having to use a hole in the floor. And so, with Grace’s help, I ask someone if there are ANY western bathrooms in this building. No.

Grace and I go down stairs to a McDonalds. No.

We go to a KFC. No.

We go into another mall. No.

Finally we head down the block, across the street and into a KTV lounge where to my relief, we find one.

On our return up the elevator Grace and I are surrounded by people, a group of which happen to be young guys (not the same ones as before) and while Grace and I stand there completely silent they start at it. “Hello!” “HAAYlow!” “Helo!”

What is it with the twenty something male population, do they see non Chinese looking people and assume we speak English? I mean I could easily be French, Russian or heck, Mexican. What if I didn’t speak English? I try very hard to speak Chinese, so that I wont have to inconvenience them and yet I get this! And what is with the tone?!

Luckily before I can muster up enough annoyance to say something, the elevator comes to a stop and Grace and I exit.

After finishing our meal. We head across the lobby to a pretty awesome Arcade where we spend the next half our playing cheap arcade games and screaming at the claw machine. (I don’t know why I play those things; I never win the 25cent stuffed animal!)

Then we leave and get into an elevator. This is where it gets bad.

A lady and a man are already on the elevator when we board and they are having a conversation, a conversation that one would only mimic when standing in the crowd at a rock concert. They were speaking so incredibly loud that no one else could hear themselves. And of course, I am standing far to close to the lady who is now screaming into my ear. I try staying calm but then in one moment, I lose it.

As loud as I can I scream “WHY DOES EVERYONE TALK SO LOUD!!!”

At this point the conversation amongst the couple stops entirely, the people I am with look at me in horror and the elevator reaches the ground floor and the doors open. I smile politely, excuse myself, get off the elevator and the mortification begins. I hadn’t meant to be so loud, I hadn’t meant to be so rude, I just could not handle her screaming into my ear anymore. I couldn’t.

As everyone else follows behind me, I feel a great urge to apologize and explain to them my reasoning but they, understandably, avoid eye contact. We say goodbye to Grace (she lives near by and wouldn’t need a cab home) and head into a taxi. I sit in the back corner trying to justify my behavior but it was too late. The embarrassment had settled in and I just needed to go home.

Chinese people do talk very loud; it’s something I had to get use to at first and thought I had managed to do. But as I sit here with my ear tingling, I wonder, was yelling out all that bad? I mean, I constantly get shoved, cut in front of and go ignored. I’ve been told that it’s survival of the fittest and everyone fens for themselves. So if that is the case, what I did on the elevator was really just me becoming more assimilated into the culture, right?


  1. Sounds like you must be an endless source of entertainment for the Shanghainese if you keep throwing public tantrums. You might find your stress levels to greatly decrease if you just let all of China flow and not really get worked up about it. Although I have to agree with you on the obnoxiousness of young men and their patronizing halloooo’s. That’s getting way too old, and try living in Jiangxi province where just about every young man does it. You’re too spoiled in Shanghai with its greater internationalism. And squat toilets aren’t that bad once you use them a couple times. You definitely get a cleaner break.

    Comment by Nate — November 14, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  2. I know how you feel. Though Hong Kong, where I live is much more Western, I have had my own difficulties adjusting to the culture. Even when everyone speaks English, Chinese culture is just thick. Very much unlike the low-context American culture I come from. But that’s what I’m here for…at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

    Comment by wesmcl — December 17, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

  3. I’ve been living in the secondary city of China for quite a while and had never mastered this cultural assimilation. There’s no such thing, to me chinese culture rubs the non-chinese the wrong way like sandpaper. Moving to a much bigger city like Shanghai proves nothing better. People still push, shove and elbow me in the elevator even when I carry my 9 month baby on a front pack. Can’t wait to move back to South East Asia.

    Comment by Indy — February 19, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

  4. You’re lucky to be out of Shanghai. I have 3 more months. Sometimes I do have my public tantrums but most of the time I just can’t be bothered. Some Chinese I know are nice, but the rest of them, meh. Makes one wonder, what has all that 3000 years of civilization (civilization, pun intended) come to? Nothing.

    One technique that works for me when commuting every morning is that when they push, I push back harder. haha.


    Comment by Hatz — April 2, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  5. I felt sorry for that night.i knew you didn’t feel good but didn’t know it was so bad after i left you to go back. The same speaking language can’t solve the problems between two completely different cultures.In the case,if you can’t change,you have to keep;if you can’t keep,shouting might be the best way. so don’t worry i can understand.We have to learn but nothing with nothing.anyway,welcome back to Shanghai!

    Comment by Grace — June 15, 2010 @ 12:47 am

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