A bit of culture shock

Maria Niechwiadowicz


I knew it would be a little hard to come back to China after a month in Taiwan, but I wasn’t expecting to be smacked in the face by culture shock. After a long day of traveling from Taipei to Hong Kong to Xi’an, I exited the airport to a gray sky. In the mere 20 hours I spent there before catching a bus to Guyuan, I found myself annoyed at the pushy crowds and the loud way in which people speak, things that did not annoy me before. Similarly, after navigating through Taiwan where pinyin or bits of English could be found everywhere, I was forced back into the reality of chinese characters. I could hardly read anything at the airport or bus station. When trying to communicate with others I found the accent to be more difficult than I remembered. In a word, I was overwhelmed.

Though being in Taiwan put my time in Guyuan into perspective many ways, it also put me into a more comfortable place. In Taiwan I was spiritually free and physically independent. While this was a good time of renewal and comfort, being back in China has reminded me that God’s mission sometimes places you outside of your comfort zone and removes certain freedoms. Needless to say, coming back has been hard.

Obviously, Taiwan is very different from western China, but there are a few other differences I observed that I think are worth noting. I, by no means, share this to demean either culture, nor do I intend to make generalizations, but simply provide insight based on my personal experience.

In regards to communication between people, and with me as a foreigner, people in Guyuan are kind but can come across a bit blunt. Upon seeing me, people will stare but rarely say anything. Their stares are not menacing, just curious. If someone does talk to me, they want to know where I come from, what I’m doing here, and how old I am (which they ask very loudly in the forceful Guyuan dialect). Rarely do you hear a “thank you” in daily life.

In contrast, I was shocked at how polite people were in Taiwan! Walking down the street, people have a happier “resting attitude” and a nod of greeting is common. “Thank you” is used quite often. Due to the foreign population in Taipei, I wasn’t stared at at all. In Kaohsiung, however, locals greeted me with a friendly, “Ni hao! Ni shi piao liang! Ni shi na guoren? (Hello! You are so beautiful! Where do you come from?) 

When it comes to street norms, jaywalking is king in Guyuan. We might as well not have traffic signals, cause nobody follows them. In Taiwan (especially Taipei), people follow the rules and are very cognizant of cars. My hosts were constantly pulling me closer to the side of the road, aware of scooters and cars passing by. Vehicles seemed to always win control in Taiwan, but in Guyuan, pedestrians rule the road with confidence.

As for eating, I have learned to pay very much attention to others around me for the appropriate table manners. In Guyuan, people eat simply and without shame. A serving spoon is not common to share dishes with the table. Diners just use his or her own personal chopsticks to grab pieces of food from the family dish. Bowls of rice or noodles usually stay on the table. The head is lowered towards the bowl to shovel in food. And any bones or inedible items are placed directly onto the table.

In my Taiwan experience, there is almost always a serving spoon to be used for each dish, though some families it may consider it to be acceptable to use your personal chopsticks. Almost everyone picks up their small bowl of rice or noodles to eat from it rather than lowering their head to the table. And inedible pieces sometimes end up on the table but more often in a disposable cup, napkin, or extra plate.

These may seem like trivial things to note, but really tell a lot about people and a culture!

Anyway, though I miss the independence and city vibes of Taiwan, it is nice to be back in the simplicity of Guyuan. It is two weeks after the Lunar New Year and firecrackers are finally starting to disappear (people have been letting them off every hour of every day). We are still in winter with light snowfall that doesn’t stay long, and temperatures fluctuating between 40 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

The spring semester will officially begin on Monday, making this the longest winter break I’ve ever had, but our semester will not end until end of June or July. So good luck to all you folks taking Midterm exams in the USA, as you are heading off for spring break I will be handing out my syllabi! :)