Observations from the other side of the world

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Monday, November 23, 2015, 2:00 am
By: 
Caitlin Leppert

 

As I stepped off the plane, the first thing I noticed about China was the traffic. A Chinese student who was traveling with me and fifteen other students from Michigan State University noticed the traffic, as well.

“Just so you know, guys. The cars won’t stop for you. So watch what you’re doing.”

And true to his warning, the cars heeded no rules. I often found myself leaping back onto the curb to avoid catastrophe.

But traffic and reckless drivers aren’t unique to China. I’ve had my fair share of near-collisions in East Lansing, too.

That being said, it didn’t take long to feel culture shocked by the great and ancient city of Beijing.

I traveled to China with fifteen of the most motivated advertising and journalism students at MSU to participate in the One Show Youth Creative Festival, a prestigious creative advertising competition. For ten days, we breathed advertising — and smog.

The pollution hung in the air like fog and lined our throats like dirt. It was unbearable. Some days, it was difficult to see past the buildings in front of us, as the rest of Beijing’s skyline was lost in the dense, gray nothingness. An eerie sight, and even more uncomfortable smell.

One afternoon, as I walked back to our temporary office from Starbucks (some things transcend hemispheres), the smog choked my throat so severely that I found myself dry heaving in the middle of the sidewalk. I’m sure passing locals scoffed “rookie,” as they readjusted their filtered face masks.

The smog was intense, but my attention quickly fixed on other aspects of the Chinese culture which were completely foreign to me — and not just the fact that Crab Rangoons are strictly an American dish, although that fact did throw me.

Hong Kong excluded, China operates under a communist government. It’s one thing to learn about life in a communist country in school, but it’s another to see it first-hand. There was no music, no news broadcasts, no newspapers, few magazines and the majority of the Internet was blocked.

The streets were lined with bulletin boards, plastered with the “Socialist Core Values.” As a writer, I couldn’t get over the lack of words. “No freedom of speech” is a four-word horror story.

The most obvious, and most difficult, aspect of China to adjust to was communication. In other countries, words can, for the most part, be sounded out, and locals are able to help you on your way. In China, street and restaurant signs are written with Chinese characters, making it impossible to navigate or eat without the assistance of a translator.

Or, I should say, nearly impossible. Toward the end of the trip, when my funds were dwindling, a friend and I decided to order authentic ramen for lunch (the large bowl of noodles only costs about $4).

The restaurant was buffet style, making it easy for us to get our food. But when the cashier attempted to check us out, I didn’t have the slightest idea what she was saying. I didn’t recognize the names of numbers, or any of the other words she was saying. And she didn’t recognize my frantic “I don’t know,” I kept repeating. Finally, she waved the amount of money at us that we were supposed to pay. Crisis averted, sort of.

China was the strange, foreign and exciting adventure I expected, and more. Although as different as the country is, and despite the thirteen-hour time difference, I couldn’t help but notice just how similar Beijing is to home. People headed to work, rushing around, others moseying by on the street, taking selfies. Fast food, fancy food, bad parallel parkers, subway commuters. Different languages, different cultures, different countries, but people really aren’t that different after all.

 

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