China, Culture, Personal / November 3, 2012

Wandering the Streets of China: An Introspection. Is This Culture Shock?

I don’t even know where I am anymore. Sometimes my location on this great planet of ours doesn't fully register until that Google Maps pin drops on my precise whereabouts. “Wow,” I think. I used to be there, and now I’m here.

Less than two weeks ago I stepped foot on the Asian continent for the first time. I have been to four continents now. This one, though, I am perplexed by. I spend most of my days lost, wandering through cities and my thoughts. I cannot read the signs. I do not know where to go. I cannot communicate with the locals. I speak to them in English, hoping they will understand. They speak to me in Mandarin, hoping I will understand. Even my body language and hand movements don’t seem to register.

I carry a book with me. The English text coddles me in a strange land. I am reading Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman, an incredibly inspiring nomad and author whom I interviewed earlier this year. I don’t read much, but I devour her words, stupefied by the parallels in our lives. Her thoughts, feelings and experiences are remarkably similar to mine. Her positivity and strong will exhorts me.

As I wander the streets, I am confused, but I take in all that I can. I don’t know which restaurants to eat in, or what to eat, for that matter. People bustle within street markets. I purchase street food for the equivalent of 25 cents. It is a spicy, over-flavored spiral on a stick, covered in sesame seeds. I am assured it’s not meat, but when I bite into it, it tastes chewy and, frankly, a lot like meat. The fact that so many locals purchased the same thing makes me nervous. I decide not to Google it. The freshly squeezed pomegranate juice that I bought from three men smoking cigarettes helps everything go down sweetly.

People are spitting in all directions. The person beside me doesn’t cover his mouth when he sneezes. There is a man throwing up on the sidewalk. I can see the residual sweat from when somebody leaned against this same piece of glass. I am overly-aware of what I touch with my hands. The smells are rarely pleasant, often times putrid. Alleyways are lined with dirt and trash. So are the streets.

This is not the civilized world. That’s not to say it is an uncivilized world, it’s just a world I’m not familiar with. I don’t want to be a tourist, but I have no choice. I am white. People stare. It’s usually something I love (narcissistic me), but I feel uncomfortable. Their eyes are questioning what I’m doing here.

I’m not even sure what I’m experiencing yet. I have no frame of reference. But, later on, some time from now, I will understand. Traveling to new places is not a linear experience. It changes you like the tide, waves crashing down upon each other, intermingling with the past, transcribing the future.

I wonder what the future holds for me.


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