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Little culture shocks in China

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By Talibeh Hydara

A week ago, I arrived from China after crisscrossing the Asian country for four months. I have seen everything. I have eaten everything. Well, not everything. What is a pity is that if not for religious dietary restrictions, at this age of my life, I should have been comfortably tasting even human flesh. Religion is a threat to my appetite, so to speak.

I went to China knowing I would be shocked. I expected to be shocked. I was shocked. Beyond a tech industry developing at breakneck speed and poverty alleviation miraculous in human history, I observed and enjoyed a few culture shocks which have made my stay in China quite exciting and memorable. Let’s dive in then.

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I spent part of my childhood in Guinea Bissau; tropical rainforest, rich flora and fauna. I laid traps for birds and hunted rodents and gazelles. I’ve eaten almost every other bird species, even the carnivorous ones like vultures. I remember, as a child in Guinea Bissau, I believed that vulture meat was the best. I’ve eaten it more than chicken at some point in my life. I also ate jungle fowls, turkeys, doves, pigeons. I was a native living in the forest who ate birds for fun and almost made them endangered species.

When I came back to The Gambia in 1998, I resumed eating birds of all  kinds. But seeing a duck in a pool of dirty, soak-away, swimming was a turn-off for me. It always seems disgusting. However, when I went to China, lo and behold, I was eating duck like my life depended on it. Duck feet, duck wings, duck breasts, duck head, every part of the duck is eatable. I could not stop eating it. I first saw duck meat in Pinggu District. It was a marinated duck breast. I looked at it as if it was alive, sniffed it first and risked a bite. I’ve gone around the table afterwards picking every piece I could lay my hand on. It was a revelation. Even though people do eat it here, duck meat has never been relevant in Gambian dishes. Now that I am back, all the ducks chilling in soak-aways in my neighborhood are in real trouble. I’m going to start stealing ducks everywhere.

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I love tea. It’s the only thing I am comfortable drinking all the time even if I’ll have to pee all the time. I don’t drink coffee or alcohol. In fact, one of my many nicknames is “T”, which has a similar pronunciation to “tea”. However, if I were born in China, I wouldn’t have liked tea. I’d probably be drinking red wine or something because Chinese don’t put sugar in tea. Sugar-less tea tastes like insipid hot water. I drank it in China a lot but it nearly killed my love for tea. Sometimes I would sit in my apartment the whole day without drinking tea, even though there was sugar. Chinese believe putting sugar in tea spoils its flavour. I agree, but I could not get used to it. When it comes to serving tea, Chinese don’t fill the teacup out of respect for the guest. If you fill a guest’s teacup to the brim, it could mean you don’t really welcome them or the guest has overstayed his welcome. In The Gambia, attaya, which is our own green tea, if you don’t fill someone’s cup, he would frown at you for the rest of the week. We want our cups full until the attaya spills. For a wine glass, however, Chinese fill it up. It’s wine, after all. So, fill it up and get drunk!

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I talked about this in one of my articles, Adapting In China. Chinese don’t drink cold water. It’s hot water. I’ve tried it so many times but whenever I had the chance to drink cold water, normal water, I jumped on it. Drinking hot water, even though it’s healthy, doesn’t cut it for me. I’m never satisfied. It’s like the water stops somewhere in my throat and refuses to reach my stomach. I remain thirsty. How about early lunch? This might not be unique to only China. Many parts of the world do take their lunch early. Those parts of the world don’t include The Gambia. I’ve never eaten lunch at noon here. The earliest I’ve eaten lunch in The Gambia is 2pm. Noon is breakfast for me. But early lunch is like clockwork in China. I refused to get used to that too. If not, I would spend all my money on food here. Breakfast: 11am. Lunch: 4pm. Dinner: 9pm. That’s a more familiar routine, not dinner at 6pm.

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This one is a wholesome moment. One day, I woke up early and took a stroll. As I reached a pedestrian flyover, I saw a handsome guy with a lady, presumably his partner. He was carrying a cute little girl. He wrapped his right arm around her against his chest while his left hand was carrying the lady’s bag. Guess what the lady was carrying. A cellphone. The only thing she was carrying, actually. She was either repeatedly taking a selfie or repeatedly checking herself in the mirror because the only thing she concentrated on was the screen. The man was visibly struggling to handle both the child and her handbag but she seemed unbothered. I felt bad for the guy but, at the same time, I thought that was really cute and considerate. I later realised that it’s very common for Chinese men to carry a partner’s handbag. It made me think of home. Gambian men will do anything not to carry a lady’s bag in public. We naïvely think it makes us appear weak and controlled by our partners. Some of us, even if you point a gun to our head, we will not carry it. We could learn a thing or two from Chinese men. Love isn’t only between bedsheets.

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In The Gambia, when two people go out to eat together, especially people of opposite sex, the commonest thing is that the man pays the bill. No negotiations. This doesn’t mean women don’t pay but the general expectation is for the man to pay, especially if he was the one who invited her. That’s the order here. Well, that’s not the order in China. In China, boys and girls split the bill, especially those not in any kind of romantic relationships. This has amazed me. Having fought with them over this issue a few times, I asked one of them why. Why would you pass on the chance to save money? She told me something which has stuck with me. She said because girls don’t want to feel like they owe boys. It took time before that sank in. I had to review the whole history of men making women feel like owing them and the consequences of such. Men want to make women feel like that all the time. It’s who we are. If a woman owes a man, he never forgets that debt. There’s a high chance he’s going to return asking for something in return. And we all know what that something is. I have seen it so many times here. You’re invited to dinner. Once. Twice. Thrice. Then, a few thousands of dalasis have been spent on such outings. If the man asks for something in return and you really don’t want the dinners to abruptly stop, you might be inclined to give in. As tragic as that sounds, it happens here. Therefore, I thought it was quite ingenious for college and university students to split bills in order to minimise such incidents. If you owe a man nothing, he has nothing on you. You’re off the hook.

To stay on the dinner or lunch, I realised that if Chinese want to eat with their hand, they usually wear plastic gloves. We wash our hands here, sometimes we don’t even wash them, and start eating. What a difference a plastic glove could make!

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Across the world, especially in Africa, parents love to name their kids after great people. We believe that by naming our kids after such legendary personalities, the kids will somehow take to those characters and become like them in the future. It’s a strong belief in Africa. For example, in my village, there was a great man called Amfaal who touched the lives of many people. He died in 2009 but until today, parents still name their kids after him. Out of respect and admiration for these great people, we try to immortalise their legacies by naming our children after them. Unfortunately in Africa, such babies now grow up to become a shadow of their namesakes. They become thieves, murderers and rapists. In China, however, out of the same respect and admiration for these great personalities, parents don’t name their kids after them. I travelled across China but I have never seen anyone else named Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping or Hu Jintao. As great as they were, their names remain unique. Mao Zedong would have had a million namesakes in The Gambia. Maybe, just maybe, we should adopt the Chinese style. We should respect and memorialise our great men and women in different ways, rather than naming our misguided children after them. We no longer give birth to saints. We bring animals into this world and giving them great names doesn’t change who they become in the future. A typical example is seeing a man named Muhammad raping a woman or Jesus stealing from the poor or Mary becoming a prostitute, no offence intended. It’s high time we stopped giving these names to our children and let the original bearers sleep in peace. Chinese have the right ideas!

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Cultures are different, so too are traditions. In The Gambia, piercing girls is done as early as the first week after the baby was born. It’s believed that piercing early makes the healing faster. It sounds cruel, right? I believe so too. A week-old baby, looking right into her innocent eyes, and inserting a sharp object into her earlobes, without compassion. It always sounds cruel to me. I’ve always believed some traditions ought to allow people to decide if they want it. Then I went to China. It’s different there. Girls don’t get pierced until later in life; most of them until they are young adults. It was strange to me and also made total sense at the same time.

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It took me a while to settle in China. Now I am finding it even more difficult to settle back in The Gambia. Based on what I’ve seen and experienced, it feels like I have time-travelled back from the future. I also feel sleepy whenever it is night in China. I have left China but China refuses to leave me and I hope it doesn’t. Anyway, hopefully, I will get to share more with you in a book I know I will never write. But a book I would love to write. See you soon, China.

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