Elbow Space in a No-Space Land

The Pearl Tower/Journalist Nikki
The Pearl Tower/Journalist Nikki


Stepping into Shanghai’s airport after a 14 hour flight, I was expecting to see some type of primitive, majestic, suburban, setting like in the Disney movie, “Mulan.” Instead, my first thought was, “This stinks!” Literally. Shanghai is so populated that it is hard to smell anything other than body odor and pungent foods. For some reason, Shanghai’s airport smelled of durian, or liúlián, a fruit even known to the Chinese as “stinky fruit.” Not only was I in a stinky city, I was also in one of the most urban cities in the world;my expectations to see “Mulan” were quickly overwhelmed by reality.

My parents told me we were moving to China as if it wasn’t a big deal. It happened one Saturday night over dinner. “Hey, (chomp, chomp), so we are pretty sure we are (slurp) going to China for three years. Will you pass the salt, Nikki?” Growing up, my parents loved taking my older brother and me on road trips. I loved being in new places, but my motion-sickness made me hate going places. Usually, I would object to even the mere thought of traveling. As a nine year old girl, I didn’t have a sense of geography and I didn’t know anything about China. All I could think of was the phrase, “Digging a hole all the way to China.” I wasn’t nervous or disappointed about moving. Since I was frequently bullied in school, I was just excited to start middle school with new peers.

Once I arrived, I immediately noticed Shanghai’s littered streets—both serving as roads and as public restrooms for small children with slit cloth diapers. Coming from a suburb in New Mexico, I was baffled at the hustle and bustle of the city. Shanghai’s skyline is a dynamic stretch of skyscrapers, thickly blanketed in a toxic cloud of smog. Everybody smokes, the factories are constantly producing poisonous vapor, and the humidity made it feel like I was taking a shower in all of it. My mucus was black for three years from all of the pollution. There isn’t any room to build horizontally, so buildings are narrow and tall. From the ground up, I felt as tiny as an ant with the looming city life overhead.

Coming from a homogenous suburb in Albuquerque, I thought everybody was basically the same everywhere; same standards of living, same thought processes, and the same socioeconomic class. I was about to discover just the opposite as Chinese cultural differences taught me that I had a lot to learn. The first thing I had to redefine was my concept of personal space. I quickly learned that the Chinese would touch everything, even my hair. While I found it awkward to have people touching me, the Chinese seemed to find it funny, laughing and giggling. I could only understand the reasons for their strange behavior after learning some Mandarin.

It took me a while to understand that my family and I looked just as odd to the Chinese people as they did to me. At first, everybody really did look the same to me with their straight, black hair; light colored, hairless skin; and petite builds. Compared to them, my family must have looked like we had just come out of a circus. I have thick, curly, dark, brown hair, which served as a main attraction. My brother’s bright, red hair drew even more attention. Even people with red hair are impressed with the redness of his hair. My father is a large, dark Israeli man. His hair is so thick, even on his arms, that the freakishly large mosquitoes in Shanghai could suffocate while trying to bite him. My mother always had a well-endowed bosom and she stood out against the beautifully petite Chinese women with smaller bosoms. Fairly quickly, we all got used to random people coming up… and touching us.

The first time my family and I went up to Shanghai’s Pearl Tower, the tallest building in Shanghai up until 2007, I had my first exposure to the Chinese concept of elbow space. As I was looking out of the windows from the observation level, I felt somebody stroking my hair. Unfortunately for the older woman standing behind me, who found my hair so beautiful that she had to feel it, she did not know that my hair is also dangerous. My hair is so thick and curly that it will envelop whatever it gets its strands around. As I turned around to see who was touching my hair, the rings on the woman’s fingers got caught in my curls. Her hand was stuck in my hair.

“Piao-lin, piao-lin!” She was so embarrassed and kept telling me, “Beautiful, beautiful,” as if to justify the awkward situation in which we found ourselves. My brother was beside me and noticed that I was in a bit of a pinch. As he leaned in to help, I could feel the older woman trying to refrain from painfully jerking her hand out of my hair, and into his. She wouldn’t stop giggling as my brother untangled my hair from the rings on her fingers. I didn’t understand why she was giggling, what was so funny? After my head was free, I finally got to see to whom those fingers belonged. She was cute with her large-framed glasses clashing with her small stature. She was probably in her mid 50’s but she didn’t have a single wrinkle. Her embarrassment made her blush, and I noticed her high cheek bones. Chinese women age so well that she could have even been 80 and I wouldn’t have known. I gave her a smile, but it probably was more of a, “I’m confused and uncomfortable” face, and I quickly made my way to the elevator.

The incident at the Pearl Tower was only the first of many invasive experiences to come. My hair, and my brother’s hair, got us into a lot of strange situations. Always a businessman, my brother tried to make profit off of our hair on several occasions. One of these attempts was during the first time that my family and I went to Shanghai’s man-made nature center, Century Park.

As my parents went to buy entrance tickets to the park, my brother and I waited next to a fountain close by. A Chinese couple came up to my brother and me and asked if they could take a picture with us. Flattered, we said yes.

“Hen hao, hen hao. Xie xie,” They enthusiastically thanked us after letting them take a few photos with us. The Chinese love to include the hand sign for peace in their pictures. Others noticed the couple taking pictures with us, and more and people also wanted to take pictures. In just a few minutes, a crowd formed. My brother and I only knew a little bit of Mandarin at the time, and I followed his lead to direct everybody to form a line.

“Guòlái,” We signaled with our hands that everybody line up. My brother took off his hat, put a coin in it, and smiled. The people in line understood that he was asking them to pay, and started laughing. My brother and I missed the joke. I asked my brother why everybody was laughing. Also puzzled, he could only give me a shrug. He took their laughter as willingness to pay and placed the hat beside where we were posing. One by one, they gave us money and took pictures with us. It didn’t take long for my parents to realize what was happening and, needless to say, we did not make any profit.

During my three year stay, I attended Shanghai American School. Although it was an American school, the majority of my peers were Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Cantonese. The classes were taught in English and most of my peers spoke English pretty well. Many of my Chinese peers liked to hold my hand, which I thought was odd. Julie Yao, one of my friends at the time, was one of the most persistent. She was constantly touching my arm, holding my hand, or linking her elbow with mine as we walked to classes. I figured if I just kept pulling my arm back and unlinking our elbows that she would eventually get the message. But, she didn’t.

Julie and I lived in the same of many expat compounds in Shanghai, Seasons Villa. There, I made friends from all over the world: Spain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Singapore, India, Australia, Taiwan, Korea, New Zealand, Malaysia, and the rest of the world’s flags. Since we lived in the same area, Julie and I took the same bus home.

After a day of pulling back my limbs from her at school and saying, “No, no, Julie, I don’t like that,” I finally confronted her while we sat together on the school bus home. Again, she started to grab my hand. I told her, “I don’t like to be touched all of the time.” Like she usually did, she giggled and let it go...until the next time. It went like this for the entire school year. We just did not have the same concept of personal space, and it was impossible to explain. I didn’t understand why she giggled when I confronted her.

During my stay in China, I developed a passion and knack for language and I eagerly learned as much Mandarin as I could. When my Mandarin became good enough, I was able to observe and understand cultural differences. I noticed that although the Mandarin word for “no”, pronounced as “boo-shi,” is used frequently in conversations between Chinese people, it seemed like nobody was comfortable saying “no” in English.

In Seasons Villa, there was a club house in the center of the compound which had all of the things I loved: an outdoor pool, a game room, a snack bar, and a gym. At the reception desk, there were always at least two people working. None of the employees there spoke much English. One day, after coming back from school, I realized I forgot my keys and was locked outside of my house. I went to the club house to get a spare key.

“Hello,” The woman at the reception desk said to me.

“Ni hao,” I said hello back, trying to meet her half way between my limited Mandarin and her limited English.

“I need another key to house #97,” I told her in English.

“A key? House 97?” I thought she was clarifying, so, I nodded. She continued to sit in her chair behind the counter and smiled. I smiled back.

“May I borrow it please?” I politely tried to speed things up.

“Ah,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” She started to laugh and kept nodding her head. But, she still wasn’t giving me a key.

“My Chinese not so good, do you understand my English?” This time I spoke to her in my strange, American-accented Mandarin. Again, she laughed and nodded her head. And so it went on until I figured out that she was saying, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” because she didn’t know how to say, “No, I don’t understand.” She had no idea of what I was trying to tell her. I ended up just going to a friend’s house until my mom got home.

Suddenly, I understood why the older woman couldn’t stop laughing when her fingers were awkwardly stuck in my hair, or why all of those people started laughing when my brother rudely asked for money, or why Julie laughed when I confronted her. The Chinese laugh nervously to try to smooth over awkward situations. In China, laughter and enthusiasm is the equivalent to the American “smile and nod.”

After I understood this quirky aspect of Chinese culture, I was able to resolve my discomfort with Julie and the other Chinese girls at school with ease, by acknowledging their discomfort.

“I still like you, Julie. I like being your friend,” I could finally tell Julie to stop holding my hand in a way that she understood. “I am just not used to holding hands all of the time because I come from a different culture.” Julie finally understood that I wasn’t yelling at her, or insulting her, but that I was still getting used to my new surroundings.

After a year, my culture shock slowly dissolved and I became open to new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and even holding hands with my friends. As of seventh grade, I comfortably linked my arm with my friends’ arms, taking over the width of the school halls. As I learned more Mandarin, I understood more and more about the culture in which I was immersed. I even picked up some Chinese qualities. Occasionally, I will also include a peace sign in my pictures.

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