Spending four days in Hong Kong before flying into Beijing, I thought I’d be prepared for most differences in culture. That was not the case. Hong Kong definitely differs from the U.S., but the cultural emersion of a Beijing steeped in 3000 years of civilization is not something, ultimately, you can mentally prepare for. That being said, I immediately loved it. Working past language barriers, odd foods, and social norms on the other end of the spectrum is both exhilarating and extremely satisfying.
Though the surface differences are glaringly obvious the moment you step off the plane, I didn’t fully understand the depth of the cultural difference until our dinner Thursday night with a UF alumnus. We have a diverse set of interns, especially when it comes to food. We have allergies, a vegetarian, and myself, a vegan. We would be lost without the Mandarin speaking saviors that are our fellow interns; it was no different that night. As Grace translated all of our food requests and questions were asked and re-asked and orders changed, the waiter was obviously becoming flustered and the language barrier was no help. The night was coming to a close and the waiter was tidying up with a quiet reserve. We had just learned some fun Mandarin phrases that day and one intern, Caro, told the waiter ‘你是天使,’which translates to “You are an angel”. We all chuckled along with the waiter as he scurried away with some empty plates thinking the playful sincerity had translated well. Yeah, it definitely did not. The waiter came back awhile later and asked Grace if he had done anything to offend Caro or to earn her disdain. He thought she was making fun of him! It was the first time I had to personally witness and deal with the social awkwardness of humor lost in translation. Another peculiarity from my point of view was the indirect approach to avoid a confrontation. Rather than asking Grace in the moment what Caro meant, he nodded, laughed along, and saved his questions for a more personal setting.
Another event I found eye opening, but in a unifying way, occurred at the park. Bonding by way of group exercise is an integral part of life in Beijing, especially for the senior population. This past Tuesday we found several older women doing a type of ribbon dancing to music played on a small stereo. We watched in awe as they expertly twirled and danced and were soon invited to join in. More than a few of us interns took turns laughing in childish imitation of the skilled ribbon masters. Although we didn’t speak the language, soon a small crowd laughed and clapped for all of us. The climax of the encounter was applauding a Chinese woman who danced so long and beautifully we couldn’t pull ourselves away.
When it comes down to it, Beijing is full of 22 million people working, playing, and living their lives and I get to be apart of it.