Many schools and companies were off yesterday and will be off on Monday for the observance of the holiday. The holiday traffic has been pretty bad. My normal commute takes about 25 minutes but I finally got to my destination about 45-50 minutes later.
A lot of Chinese travel back to their parent’s homes or back to home villages. Others stay home and fix meals and have their own special times. At midnight last night when Friday changed to Saturday my phone’s lock screen background changed to a special screen for the Festival. It confused me at first but my Galaxy S5 is a specific version for China (hence my trouble with not having Google Play). We aren’t doing too much for the holiday because tomorrow we are starting our vacation. Hopefully, we will be able to catch some of the river activities where we will be going.
Festival based in Legend
This festival is called Duanwu in Madarin falls on the fifth day or the fifth lunar month each year. The English name is derived from one of the typical activities of the festival rather than a translation.
As a friend of mine, a Chinese woman, explained it to me, this holiday has an origin steeped in legend and history. She was not certain about how much of the story is mere legend and how much is based in historical fact. Around one of the periods where states warred with other states, there was a man that loved his country and loved his leader. He was an adviser to the leader of their state; however, other high up officials became jealous of him and made plans. They laid trumped up charges against resulting in his exile. He was forced to wander around the country. As he wondered he began to write epic poetry that is still revered today. Sometime later another state invaded his beloved capitol city. He wrote a final poem lamenting the fate of his country and then jumped into a river.
Some locals spread the word of his death and immediately took to the water to find his body, because they all loved him despite his exile and despite technically being a traitor to the state. Some people took boats down the river to find him pounding paddles on the water to scare away the fish. Others stood by the shore pounding drums in hopes of scaring the fish and still other threw food such as rice wrapped in leaves as a last ditch effort to distract the fish so they could recover the body.
Since he died on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month that is when they decided to honor his life and death and ultimately his love and pride in his country.
To be honest my friend didn’t tell me too much about how people celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival beyond the general sense. In many places there Dragon Boat races that have become a huge part of the holiday, despite It not really being a part of the holiday’s origin. Around the time the holiday really took hold the sport of Dragon boat races were very popular, so somehow the two things were connected through the years. Dragon boats are very long slender boats made of wood that have a dragon head and tail on either end and have intricately carved and painted details along its sides and parts. Of course this event is the name sake for the English name.
Another special way to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival is by eating rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. You can, of course, see the direct connection to the story. These snacks are called Zongzi. Zongzi can have different fillings, often the chosen filling (ie dried fruit, meat, etc) is mixed in with the rice and then wrapped and tied up. The rice is often glutinous and thus very sticky. Ive eaten some and have liked some while I didn’t like others. I was also told that in the north part of China the zongzi tend to be more sweet while here in the south it tends to be more savory and have things like meats or even sautéed shitake mushrooms.
There can be a lot more to the holiday and I hope to tell you more later. I know there is a part of the holiday that is supposed to help your health if you partake in it but I do not know any details. Hopefully, I will soon have more to tell you.
So I hope you all have a wonderful Dragon Boat Festival. If you are around areas that have this festival, please tell me about your experiences by commenting or emailing me; I’d love to hear all about it.
Culture shock is one thing but the slow adjustment to the idiosyncrasies of another culture over months and even years is another. One of the oddest parts of slowly adjusting was having stereotypes affirmed or denied; even with knowing a belief is a stereotype it’s still a little odd to see it contraindicated. For instance, in some stereotypes of Chinese people you often see that they are quiet, sometimes even shy, and polite. However, that isn’t completely the truth in a general sense—they can be quite loud.
One of those deeper realizations you begin to learn after living abroad is that what constitutes being polite or rude is not always the same among different cultures. In my experience and limited knowledge into the inner workings of the Chinese culture some actions that are rude in the West are not rude here and vice versa. For a Western person some topics are matter of crossing boundaries between people, but these are often different in other countries. So in this context, I want to share with you my experience into what is culturally accepted with comments about others appearances particularly where it relates to their body.
Thanks, I wasn’t Aware
I am an American woman as so many of you know and as anyone who has seen me, you know I am also overweight. While I am overweight in the Western eyes, to the Chinese the extent of my overweight is even more extreme. So for a culture that believes pointing out one’s faults (to a certain extent) is actually helping that person, it is even more necessary for my weight to be pointed out or at least commented on. It is often viewed as a fact and thought that it shouldn’t sting or hurt because it is a simple fact.
An example of this would be when I took a Chinese class at a university in Guilin the teacher—a very sweet and wonderful woman—was teaching us about how to describe people and items. So of course the easiest is to point things out in the classroom. So some of the classmates were tall, short, short hair, long hair, beautiful, nice and of course skinny and fat. The teacher pointed to me and said that I was fat like her followed by a huge smile of endearment towards me. She did not even think about how it might be hurtful or annoying to me, because it was a descriptor just like if she had said I was wearing a black coat or have blond hair. Although, I was slightly offended she was such a sweet and caring person I couldn’t be mad at her especially since it was obvious that she didn’t mean it to be mean or hurtful.
A public service announcement
Other times Chinese people (at least in my experience of where I’ve been) love to comment on appearances with both good and bad qualities. I have two examples for this. The first happened while I was walking with a Dutch friend of mine who is absolutely the quintessential Dutch woman: tall, slender, beautiful, big blue eyes, fair skin, and blond hair. So here we have 2 western women one short and fat, the other tall and skinny, and both fair skinned, blue eyed, and long blond hair. She was extremely fluent in Chinese and over heard some women following us talking about our different body shapes between the two of us and also in comparison to their own bodies. They also spoke a lot about my friend’s big, beautiful blue eyes. So she turned and responded to their comments, which freaked them out because most foreigners do not speak Chinese.
A more recent example of this was the other day in the elevator at my apartment complex in Shenzhen. Micah and I were heading out to meet a friend for lunch. I was wearing a tank top since it has been unbelievably hot recently. Already in the elevator was a man and woman. The woman proceeds to talk to her male companion about how my skin is so white. Very white. She said this many times and I believe spoke about my freckles pondering about how I got them but this is where my Chinese is really bad. After she apparently exhausted those topics she turned to Micah and I still speaking to the man and said “Though they are both very fat”; just a simple statement of being for her. I almost said something about that being rude, but decided to hide under the assumed guise of ignorance she assumed I had.
You would think this might be mostly because I am overweight and the impact of being overweight is felt more in China since the Chinese body tends to be so much leaner and more slender then a healthy fit western body. However, this is not the case always. A Chinese friend of mine was telling me about how during one of her trips to Korea she fell off a curb and broke her ankle. Her parents proceed to tell her that if she wasn’t so fat this would not have happened. After she returned home, she received many messages from other family (even cousins) telling her that she should lose a lot of weight. Although, it bothered my friend because she has more western thinking then eastern thinking, she understood culturally where it came from (but was still mad about it). To be honest, my friend could lose a few pounds but not more then 5-10 pounds at the very MOST. Obviously this is not enough weight to cause her big enough problems to result in her fall.
Norms and mores are relative
So the lesson is in how different cultures perceive things. The Western culture usually has more qualms about pointing out a person’s flaws (unless they are intentionally being cruel or are just oblivious), whereas Asia tends to point these out as a measure of care or from a desire to give a helping hand or even in a simple descriptor. It does make one think about how very sensitive America has gotten about terms. Is there value in walking around on egg shells when something is obvious? It is true that I am fat, no one can deny that, so should I get upset when it is used as a simple descriptor? I don’t know that this can really be answered, because there are so many factors in both cultures that would have to be considered.
However, it is more in the heart of person where the intent of a statement matters. I do know that terms become wrong when they speak of someone being less valued as a human because of some trait. Being called fat would bother me more if I could understand if a person was merely describing me or wanting to help me by pointing out something I need to work on versus someone that was saying I was less valued than them because I am overweight. Is that what some of these people here mean to say? Do they really mean to judge me as less worthy or less of a human because I have extra body weight or are they merely being honest about describing me as overweight? Honestly, I have no clue sometimes but I do not think that in a general sense it is not meant to be rude or cutting.
I have definitely learned to be more self-possessed and learned to take things in stride because 1)why sweat the small stuff, 2) why should I feel bad about myself because others don’t like it, and 3) it has never been a secret that I was overweight, its not like I can hide that! So my best advice if you travel or even face comments or thoughts in your country, take pride in what you do and do your best in all areas including taking care of yourself; but don’t stop truly living for another’s description or criticism after all they are not responsible for your happiness and should have less impact on your life to affect it negatively
Note: This is the second installment in the Arriving in China series. If you would like to read that section first, click here.
Chicago’s trippy lights and itinerary changes
Once we arrived in the Chicago airport we immediately scoped out the place and checked the flight board to make sure nothing had changed (as per the advice of the nice woman the previous day). Then we started exploring this new airport. Chicago airport is an odd place complete with displays and even intricate running lights in passenger tunnels.
During our several hour layover, we periodically checked the flight board verifying we were near the correct gate. However, throughout the day both the gate AND the terminal changed twice—we did a lot of walking. Some of the changes were extreme going from opposite end to opposite end of the airport. Eventually, we were able to board the flight to Hong Kong!
International flight with international coke
I remember having a turbulent mixture of both excitement and nervousness–everything was new to me and everything was fascinating to me. International flights, for those that have never been, are very different than domestic flights. For one, it is common place to have your very own headphone jack and a personal TV on the back of the seat in front of you for your own personal viewing pleasure. No more having to watch a single large screen at the front and playing head ping pong with the inevitable tall person in between you and the screen (as was what Micah told me happened on his first flight). We started this flight knowing it was going to be about 14 hours, though it ended up being 16.5, because it had to go around a large ocean storm at some point.
I was a bit anxious on how I would do with the air turbulence. Logically, turbulence makes sense and thus is not something I would see as a point of worry. However, I’m not the bravest person in the world and so was not sure how I would react. When it first happened it startled me but I didn’t have much of a reaction. It was very similar to riding in a car when it crossed from a paved road to a washboard road and back to a paved road. In other words it was no big deal for me; there were screams or gasps around the plane.
The selection of entertainment was amazing. There was TV shows, movies, music, some sports and news casts, and even some basic games (i.e. solitaire, Tetris, and zumba). However, I have to say the food was a little less than desired. I think a packed lunch from a quick store would have been better, but we were able to drink Chinese Coca Cola! My biggest problem with the meal was that since I was gluten free at the time I couldn’t eat about 70% of the miserly food they supplied us. The biggest meal was a small bag of chips with a sandwich made of cold deli meat on a small bagel. All the snacks except the peanuts were bread based and so I couldn’t eat them either. Micah got to eat what I couldn’t, he was well fed.
Though all in all the flight wasn’t bad except one minor incident between myself and a very rude steward. I tried to obey the seatbelt signs, so I waited and waited and
waited to use the restroom all the while watching a dozen more people over several hours get up and go. Finally, after reaching the point of decision wherein I had to decide between disobeying the never changing seatbelt sign or having an accident in my seat: I chose to disobey the seat and follow the others to the queue. A steward looked straight at me and screamed at ME, only ME “Can’t you read?! Get back in your seat!” He never even looked at the others; it was like they were invisible. I was so shocked by being screamed at in such a public place that I went back to my seat. A woman walked by and I felt sorry for the chewing out I was sure he would give her. So I listened…nothing. Again a man walked by and the same thing happened, which is to say nothing at all. So I screwed up my courage, which wasn’t too hard considering I was edging into a boiled indignation. Why would he yell at me and no one else? I was angry now.
So when I passed him to stand in line. He looked at me and took a deep breath to, I presume, yell at me further. I cut him off telling him something like “If you’re going to chastise people for getting up while the seatbelt sign is on, then do so but don’t pick out the one person you feel you can kowtow and scream at her. Now if you don’t want me to use the restroom when the sign is on then have the sign changed more often. I have been waiting for HOURS. Or would you prefer to have to do some cleaning?” He stepped back, glared at me and huffed, but never said a word to me for the remainder of the 9 hours. Once I turned back to face towards the front of the line I was surprised with a few smiles and nods from the others in line. Though, I can’t say that the matter was closed since he repeatedly skipped over me if he was unfortunate enough to be assigned as the server to my area for a meal, snack, or drink. The first time it happened I had to ask for my meal. One of the stewardesses caught on and served me when she’d pass by. I made sure to thank you as much as possible.
Hong kong arrival, So much luggage and no one to help the Americans
After we arrived in Hong Kong, we found our way to the luggage area. At this point, I deeply regretted almost every single item we brought. Since we were moving our entire lives to China we pushed our bags to the limit and took advantage of the maximum allowed luggage per person. It was exhausting pulling all those pieces of luggage through the airport; thankfully early in our commute across the airport we found a trolley cart to ease our burden.
We followed the signs directing us to Mainland China transportation. Hong Kong is famous for their hospitality, so we didn’t worry about not speaking Chinese Mandarin or Cantonese. We also didn’t worry because it is an international hub making it necessary for there to be English speakers and because were English signs everywhere. So we were safe in assuming someone would speak English, right? Wrong, oh so wrong. For whatever reason, NO ONE spoke English and no one wanted to help the stupid Americans by finding someone that could speak English. After 2.5 days of traveling and having just disembarked a 16.5 hour flight we were exhausted, and my patience was thin at best.
After my attempts to find an English speaker failed and even my attempts to use my Chinese-English dictionary on my phone to communicate also failed, Micah went off to try and figure out how to use the pay phone in order to phone his boss. I watched the luggage and kept trying to communicate, but each attempt and each HOUR was draining me more and more. By the time the second guard started his shift and his repetitive staring at me while walking past yet again and watching the clerks talk about me, I silently broke into tears. I tried to hide them but it was no use. Micah had no luck figuring out the phones. We were just stuck there in the lobby with English signs that taunted us with messages which told us we could buy a ticket for Mainland transport in that lobby from their kind clerks. Our only hope was a new shift of clerks in the morning (12 hours away), who could and would help us. We’d have to sleep in the lobby.
Finally, a new woman came in to start her shift. She took one look at me in all my pitifulness and Micah’s frantic look while trying to use the internet to figure something out and she decided we needed help. She came over to us and pulled us over to her desk where she amid very few English words, some dictionary look ups, and a lot of charades finally figured out what we needed and wanted and helped us get on our way. As we were standing in the line waiting for the shuttle to come pick us and others up, I heard and watched her yelling at all the others and pointing at us.
I do remember her very kind smile when I looked up the word for “thank you” on my phone and showed her. I put as much emphasis in my eyes as possible, but I’m sure the fact that I was still occasionally brushing away tears expressed all she needed from me. She spoke softly to me and smiled, waved and headed back to row of desks where she started to yell at the others as I watched unabashedly.
I know I’ll never see her again but I won’t soon forget how kind she was toward us. She was one of the positive people I thought back to in the following weeks.
Welcome to a dark HK, Micah’s relief and my excitement.
So finally aboard the shuttle, luggage loaded, documentation stacked on the dash board and everyone seated, we started off. I remember thinking that I was sad my very first glimpse of a foreign country would be at night when I wouldn’t be able to see much of anything. Micah was wide eyed and taking in as much as he could. He had his arm around me and sat so close to me. He was also pointing things out for me to look at because I don’t see well at night. Despite not having too much to see, Hong Kong still showed us some of its luster. I remember just being dumbfounded with how beautiful it looked even in the limited sight of night. Micah whispered promises of coming back to Hong Kong to explore its beauty someday, a new adventure in the midst of another. I made a similar promise as well.
This series, Arriving in China, continues with the next leg of our journey: Part 3, Shenzhen.
Imagine that you are walking down the street when your thoughts suddenly become sluggish and thick like feet walking in a muddy creek bed. Then you realize you can’t feel much of your body and the edges of your vision are beginning to slide into a gray fog ever so slowly. You take a breath to calm yourself, but something else, something other than your own mind hijacks your thoughts and an icy panic runs up your spine, while the world around you begins to tilt and turn like a twisted, tormenting theme park ride.
This is what the beginning of a seizure feels like, at least some seizures for some people, like myself. For me this is normal. While I can’t say you ever quite get used to the confusion, the fear, the pain (both mental and physical) and the hijacking of both your mind and your body with varying levels of awareness, I can tell you that it is a struggle that I am well equipped. I have lived with seizures all of my life and have seizures nearly every week (sometimes more often), even at 29.
There are many limitations to having epilepsy or other seizure disorders; however, the challenges and the limitations take a different turn when one moves to a foreign country. My husband and I have been living in China for 2 years now. China is a wonderfully vast country full of cultural idiosyncrasies, interesting foods, an old culture, a complicated people, amazingly beautiful lands, frustrations, joys, wonders and even mysteries. I love living here, but it is often a minefield rife with dangers for someone like me – someone with seizures.
The triggers, my mines
One of the most common triggers (things that cause seizures in those who have seizure disorders) is flashing lights. This is generally called photosensitive seizures, meaning you are sensitive to light and, in this case to light patterns. So I have to be extremely cautious walking around popular squares or areas of cities at twilight and nighttime; because if there is one thing China likes it is anything that will get your attention. Rapidly changing and moving
images on huge LED screens liter these common areas and cause me a plethora of issues. These can range from a severe headache to twitching/spasms to even a full seizure all dependent on how much light directly catches my eyes and the duration of exposure. Adding to these mines, there are often string lights or runner lights that are flashing around doors or signs for shops, hotels, stores, restaurants, and other misc businesses that would like to have flashy neon adverts.
Another trigger for me is crowds and lots of chaotic noises. I know, I know, most people ask me, “Then why in the world did you choose to move to China of all places”?
es it is true that China is often perceived as being the motherland of chaotic crowds and the cacophony of noise they release, but the simple answer is that it’s not like that everyday everywhere. I came from a small area with a low population, but even there I sometimes had to worry about crowds like in crowded restaurants or special sales at superstores. Or even in day to day living at busy universities. You can’t escape crowds if you want to be a part of a society at large and not live on a farm in isolation.
So I adapted and developed a strong fighting spirit along with a keen sense of observation. With a world so full of dangers in the environment around you and inside you, at all times you must be sure of where the safe areas are, where the exits are, and possible aids (i.e. something to drink, dark places, quiet places) and learn a great deal of physical discipline. This is how I walk through China in my everyday life. I step around crowds or focus on counting my steps so my brain is occupied and, therefore, less able to take in bad stimuli if I have to go through crowds. I wear headphones a lot so that outside sound is muffled or my music drowns it out.
Epilepsy Stigmas in China
You might ask, “Could you ask for help?” The answer in America and other countries is a hesitant “yes,” I could, for the most part; however here in the East there is a rather strong stigma that pushes those with seizure disorders to be silenced. I learned very quickly through experience and reading other people’s stories online that I must keep this a secret or risk some fallout. The stigma can range from fear of it somehow being a contagion that could be inflicted on other people—which elicits fear and sometimes verbal violence—to being a symptom of some kind of darker psychological disorder hinting at possible dangers or violence everyone around.
Other stigmas from less developed areas revolve around seizures being some kind of trick or punishment from an external source such as spirits, karma, or even bad luck. Thus, if you are being punished by some higher power, then you have done something to warrant this and should be given a wide berth.
Madness, possession, contagious disease, cosmic punishment, psychologically disturbed, irreparable human, mistake, broken, reject, and subhuman are many of the labels thrust upon people with seizures in this society. They are often told they should never marry nor should they hold a job. And of course, children are out of the question.
People diagnosed with epilepsy, before marriage, are often denied marriage certificates. Often people are fired if they have a seizure at work. The person or even family members are often shunned and ignored in their own neighborhoods. If the one suffering from seizures is a child, many other parents will not allow their children to play with “those children” for fear of some sort of damage or repercussion falling on their children.
I have been lucky enough to not have anything but minor seizures out in public or make it back to my apartment in time for a larger seizure. I have to be careful of not getting overheated or overly tired, and I have to be careful about the foods I eat too as some chemicals (MSG) and foods (pork for me) can worsen or even cause seizures.
I am truly blessed because I grew up with parents that were patient and loving even in the grips of a child suffering from a disorder they didn’t understand well. However, many children and even adults here in China do not have that same level of support. Orphanages here are filled with children who have various disabilities or disorders; they are thrown away for falling short of “perfect.” Teenagers and adults are often sent away or kept in seclusion and denied even the basics of a proper education.
Recently, there was a man in Hubei who was sentenced to a life in prison after a seizure resulted in a fatal car crash while he was driving. Yes, he should NOT have been driving, that is undeniable, but he will never receive treatment, support, or good medicines in prison. This is an example of how China deals with “disruptive” disorders, they tend to put you somewhere and ignore you in hopes the problem will go away.
The Hope for Seizure Disorders in the Future
Now please don’t think that things are hopeless, because they are not. In the last 8 years, China has made some remarkable strides in trying to get more information out there about seizure disorders for public consumption and to delineate disorders and disabilities. There are disability groups and agencies that are popping up all over China and some colleges are now trying to aid students with special needs. Though, I admit the progress is slow, but it is wonderful and heading in the right direction.
I would like to end this blog about living in China with epilepsy by explaining that while life for me is limited and often more difficult than some people, I have more freedom and independence here than I did back home. Things are more closely placed here and the public transits are remarkable. Back home, we had lots of land so everything is so spread out that walking is not feasible. Public busses were unreliable and often not running, subways didn’t exist and taxis were too expensive if you can even find one. In China, I am able to go anywhere I want, when I want, and how I want. For the first time in my 29 years of life, I am able to taste what being an independent adult tastes like and this is one of many reasons I feel freer here in China than in America despite hiding my “dirty little secret.”
Note: This blog was submitted to another expat blog as a guest blog. You should definitely check out her blog, because it is awesome! I would also like to thank Amanda for her help and also the suggestion in writing this blog.
I wanted to open this blog with a little bit about who we are, where we are, what we’re doing and how we’ve gotten to this point. My name is Genta Hurst. I am a scientist (out of work right now), book lover, aspiring author and aspiring artist. Micah and I got married back in December of 2010. Even before dating, I knew that Micah had a dream of not just traveling to, but living in China. At first I thought it bizarre, but the more he talked about it the more I found it endearing and oddly intriguing.
Now before ya’ll start thinking he brainwashed me (it has been accused) let me tell you my half of this decision. Even as a child I had a casual interest in Asia. Then, when I went to college and my best friend convinced me to learn Japanese with him, I fell deeply in love with Asia and specifically Japan.
So, later, after we had been married a year and a half, Micah started talking casually, at first, about how he really wanted us to think about moving to China. I wasn’t surprised and wasn’t completely against it. Then he and a very dear friend—who long ago was aptly nickname “The Professor”—started talking about it happening sooner than later because the timing was right. To say that I was not a happy grad student is an understatement. I was working on my PhD in Clinical Psychology and just started realizing that I had a deep love for neuropsychology. Of course as anyone could imagine I was not on-board with this until I had my PhD in hand.
Yeah so long story short, I didn’t graduate and we up and left a few months later. I’m sure you will see more about my subsequent academic journey in future blogs.
So bottom line is that we are living and working in China and are finally able to share that with you after a few (horrible) attempts previously. I am excited to see if this blog takes off and I am hoping that I can create a community of interested people of all walks of life that desire to see what life is like for an America couple (and their wanderlust dear friend Professor).
You will soon see that we are quirky and strange and I hope you enjoy seeing the world through our eyes. Please let me know if you ever have anything you would like to know more about or would like to see. There so many rich and deep topics to talk about in both general and specific ways.