But the questions don’t stop when we leave the Middle Kingdom. When we’re on U.S. soil and Americans find out we normally live in China, they’ve got curious questions of their own.
Here’s the Venn diagram (uh, or not) of where the FAQs from both sides of the Pacific intersect.
1. Are you an English teacher?
It’s no surprise that the default occupation everyone imagines for Americans in China is teaching English. There are tens of thousands of Americans who come to China to do just that. I happen to not be one of them at the moment.
How I answer Americans: No.
How I answer Chinese people: No. No, sorry, I cannot tutor your child/grandchild. No, really, I don’t have time. Sorry.
2. Do you speak Chinese/Mandarin?
How I answer Americans: Yes.
(Why? Because 90% of the Americans asking this question can’t speak a lick of Mandarin. To them, I seem to have mastered a boatload of the language, enough to carry on long conversations with friends, watch movies, and order stuff online from Chinese vendors. That seems like a pretty solid “yes, I speak Chinese” in their eyes.)
How I answer Chinese people: Only a little.
(Why? Because 90% of the Chinese folks asking this question speak waaaayyyy better Mandarin than I ever will, and if we keep chatting long enough, they’ll discover my inevitable grammar errors, limited vocabulary, and messed-up tones. Plus, no matter how good my Chinese ever gets, “only a little” will always be the culturally appropriate answer to this question. Modest is hottest. Or some chengyu like that.)
3. What is the weather like over there? Is it hot? Does it snow?
For some reason, Americans are usually the ones assuming all of China is really hot, while their Chinese counterparts are assuming that all of the U.S. is really cold and snowy. Time for a little edumacation.
How I answer on both sides of the Pacific: China and the continental U.S. are roughly the same size; namely, HUGE. So, the climates in different parts of each country are, well, different.
In some places (Heilongjiang, Minnesota), it gets cold and snows in the winter. In some places (Guangxi, Florida), it’s hot and humid, and doesn’t snow unless hell is also freezing over. Some parts (Ningxia, Arizona) have deserts, some parts (Qinghai, Colorado) have huge mountains, and some parts (Zhejiang, South Carolina) are on the coast. And some places (Beijing, Seattle) don’t see clear blue skies for weeks at a time…though the reasons for that may vary.
4. Do you eat rice?
Americans usually phrase this more like, “So, you must have to eat a lot of rice there, right?” as their eyes do a little cringe of pity, while Chinese people are asking, “Can you really manage to eat rice like we do? Or do you die without white bread at every meal??”
Side note: I’d be very curious to hear if laowai in northern China get asked this one as frequently as we do down in the south, where even the noodles are made from rice.
How I answer on both sides of the Pacific: Yes, we eat rice, and we do so happily. Rice here is wonderful. (Uncle Ben would lose so much face in China.) We eat more rice than we normally do in the U.S., but it’s still far less than our Chinese friends eat.
For those that appreciate a little TMI in their lives, I’ll mention that the quantity of rice one consumes does have an effect on one’s digestive tract. So, it takes a few days to adjust each time we cross the ocean.
5. Are you used to China?
This is another question that gets phrased in various ways. I often get the feeling that Americans are wondering if I actually like living in China. They’ve heard, seen, or smelled stuff that leads them to believe it would be hard to do that.
On the other hand, the feeling behind the Chinese question is more like, so, have you adjusted yet? Do you know our customs and culture now? Or are you still behaving like a caveman?
How I answer on both sides of the Pacific: Yes, I’m used to China. And yes, there are lots of things about living in China that I actually like. (Of course, there are also lots of things about living in China that I don’t like and find annoying.) No matter where you live, if you’re going to be happy, you’ve got to look for the good along with the bad and the ugly.