I woke up this morning at 6:45 AM to the sound of fireworks outside my bedroom window. Really? Fireworks at this ungodly hour, when you can’t even really see them, because the sun is out?! Welcome to China…
We haven’t even been here for a full week, and we have already started to accumulate many Chinese eccentricities into our daily lives. Getting splinters in my lip from using cheap cafeteria chopsticks?…..check. Nearly getting clipped by a motor scooter while crossing the street?…..check. Having a random stranger request to take my picture?…..double check. It’s been a very long week.
Nevertheless, Justin and I have managed to fall into a routine. Usually, I wake up around 8:00 and find Justin to already be showered, dressed, and having already ventured out once that morning. Either from the jet lag or the 6 AM fireworks, Justin has become an early bird here in China. I roll off of that unforgiving Chinese mattress (more like box springs), try to stretch out my stiff back, and brave the scary scary shower in the scary bathroom. Sometimes we Skype my dad in the morning; he always thinks it’s funny that we’re about to start our day when he’s about to go to sleep. And eventually, we tread down the six flights of stairs and out onto campus to find something to eat.
So far, we’ve eaten almost all of our meals at the school cafeteria. We’ve found some pretty safe dishes, but we’ve also seen some scary mystery meat, too. It’s interesting to see the food left behind by students on the tables, waiting to be cleaned up. One girl left behind a plate that had an entire fish (eyeballs and everything!) sitting on a bed of lettuce.
Ordering food can be difficult with the language barrier. I usually depend on Justin to order for both of us. He knows Mandarin words for “rice” and “noodles.” It also helps going to a place that serves cafeteria style, because we can just point to the things we want. If the cafeteria lady offers to put the furry mystery meat in my bowl of noodles, I can vigorously shake my head and she understands that I don’t want it. Sometimes friendly students who know a bit of English will come up and offer their assistance. Sometimes they don’t really know enough English to help, but they just want to rub shoulders with the foreigners so that they can brag about it later to their friends. It’s cute, but it can be a bit distracting when you’re just trying to order some food and sit down.
Most of our experiences in the cafeteria have been positive, minus leaving with the cafeteria smell on our clothes (it’s somewhat similar to the Subway smell….those of you who eat at Subway a lot might understand). I even have my favorite cafeteria lady, who is very nice and always eager to understand and accommodate us. However, some cafeteria ladies are not so nice. Just last night, we tried a different section of the cafeteria. Justin went up to the counter and used his broken Chinese to tell them what we wanted, and they started laughing at him. We were both tired and hungry, and we didn’t want to make a spectacle of ourselves; we just wanted to grab something to eat quickly and go. The mean cafeteria lady actually beckoned over some other cafeteria ladies, and they all gathered around us close. Anything that Justin said sent them off into fits of laughter, and several of them were pointing while they were laughing. It was like a horror scene out of any middle school student’s nightmare….other people in the cafeteria started staring at us because they were making such a commotion. The lady asked me a question in Chinese, and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” She imitated me shrugging my shoulders and laughed so hard she had to brace her hands on her knees! When we finally got our food from her we were angry and embarrassed, and maybe it was just because I was so tired, but I started crying. Any Chinese travel expert will warn Americans to be patient with Chinese people and to not get offended because we may misunderstand what they’re saying. But I think pointing and laughing and mocking are pretty easy to understand in any language. I feel like I’ve been banished from that part of the cafeteria and I’ll be very reluctant to go there again.
I suppose we’ll have to get used to every-day tasks like ordering food being more of a challenge. Nothing is easy or normal here in China. Even heading back to our apartment after the run-in with the mean cafeteria lady, groups of students walking down the street pointed at us shouting, “lao wai!” (foreigner). Can you imagine if in the U.S. we pointed and shouted “foreigner” at every person not looking distinctly American? But then again, I guess the beauty of America is that it’s difficult to distinguish a foreigner from a native. Everyone who comes can just fit right in. Not so in China, especially in a small town like Huzhou. Most people here have never seen anyone who looks like me (except in pictures). I haven’t seen any other foreigners since we’ve been here, which I guess adds to our celebrity status. We are the Brad and Angelina of HVTC campus, and I don’t necessarily like it.
But it’s not all bad. It is much easier to make friends here than it ever was for me in America. Most of the students, though they may point at us from afar and giggle if we speak to them, would jump at the chance to be our friends. We met a girl named Zheng (sounds like “Jen”) yesterday who just followed a maintenance worker up into our apartment to see if she could help. We talked to her for all of five minutes before she asked for our cell phone number, and we made plans to eat lunch with her the next day. She took us on a pretty wild adventure to a shopping mall in downtown Huzhou today, but I’ll have to write about that later. There are a MILLION fireworks going off outside right now, and it’s actually dark outside so I’ll be able to see them! I’ll write again mingtian (tomorrow)!