A culture within a culture – China through a westerner’s lens

It has been well documented this year that there have been numerous polemics on China as the origin of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the current tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the USA.

As a westerner, I fear that such reports could be a damaging blow to anyone who has never visited China. It would be a great injustice if people were to judge China based on media portrayals without having experienced it for themselves and looked beyond what is fed to us in news bulletins. I hope my experiences which are exemplified in one particular case can demonstrate that beneath the hearsay and rumours, there is a beautifully paradoxical nation with so much more to offer than what is conveyed by the media.

Love through noodles

From the very first time I set foot in the Middle Kingdom, I have always been drawn to the elegant simplicity of life in China and the way in which there is a beautiful and meticulous method behind even the most mundane of activities.

Roll back to September 2014 and I vividly remember visiting a shopfront selling 兰州拉面 – ‘Lanzhou beef noodles’, a staple found on almost every roadside across the nation (believe me, I have seen them everywhere). My Mandarin was appalling and I was overcome with xenophobia and homesickness so resorted to following my friend, a fluent Mandarin speaker into the restaurant.

Although on first glance I had my inhibitions, any fears and reservations were soon allayed as I became mesmerised with watching how the 老板- ‘Restaurant Owner’ rolled what appeared to be mountains of dough. He continuously kneaded and stretched the dough, building up such a crescendo that Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry would be in awe of. Each noodle was perfectly proportionate without the use of any utensils or equipment to measure them.

This moment has stayed with me and is one of my fondest memories of when I first arrived in Shanghai six years ago. With time, what used to seem strange became increasingly familiar and, dare I say it, a real passion of mine to understand the cultural nuances that you would only be able to appreciate if you lived in the Lion’s Den itself and were able to experience China with your own eyes.

Forget what you know and embrace the madness

Man with geese in the back of his motorbike

Fast forward six years and I still find myself thinking of those days and itching to go back and be right in the middle of the hustle and bustle once again.

To wake up early, run down the streets of Shanghai or the Hutongs of Beijing and see people walking around in pyjamas drinking tea, stretching, dancing or just enjoying chatter amongst themselves. To be surrounded by the continuous honking from driving that I can only compare to ‘The Simpsons: Hit and Run’ video game.

Nevertheless, beyond the madness I have come to realise there is a culture and a 道 (way) behind everything whether that is making noodles, preparing food or even smoking in the designated non-smoking area. I know it is a cliché but it simply is what it is, there is a method and a reason behind the way in which people do things.

Although it may offend at first and still to this day may not make sense in some cases, open your eyes and your mind to embrace the chaos and wonderful contradictions you will encounter – it will change your outlook on life forever. I went to China a narrow-minded 19-year-old and returned a man with broader horizons than I could have ever possibly imagined a year later. Look deeper than the Great Wall, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Pandas and you will find yourself presented with an invaluable cultural lesson like no other.

Let your love affair with China begin!

It is my sincere hope that my experiences as a westerner and memories that I will cherish forever will encourage people who are thinking about visiting, moving or even conducting business in China to approach it with an open mind.

You will not only learn a lot about China and its people, but through the challenges and differences you will indeed learn a lot about yourself. Finally, always remember that nothing will ever make sense… China is what it is, and your expectations will never be the same as the reality.

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