Study exchange programme a unique opportunity to learn about Chinese culture
Opinion / 14 November 2019, 10:00am / Wesley Seale
Autumn is rather chilly in Beijing and one has to dress warmly especially if the invitation is to have dinner with a friend.
Shaolong, a classmate and friend, has invited me to meet at a local mall. Shaolong has an English name as well.
It is not only in Africa that people have an English name in addition to their own name and, as with many languages, Shaolong has a special meaning.
The Chinese just think it more practical to have English names, as China grows faster and faster into becoming a leading country in the world.
We must meet at a mall. Invitations to people’s homes are rare, if not non-existent. Maybe because space is so limited in a city that plays home to 25million people.
Most social gatherings therefore entail a meal at a restaurant or karaoke spot. As a result, eating out is relatively cheap. Of course, the more fancier the place, the more delicious the cuisine, the more you pay.
Again, as in most cultures, Chinese people have a deep appreciation for sharing a meal.
When invited out for a meal it is because they value the friendship and the company.
Traffic in Beijing is a nightmare compared with South African cities. You have to plan an hour for travelling and punctuality is a must.
Do not arrive too early, lest you be thought of as starving. Never arrive late, it is an insult to the host. Bus works better these days.
In my first semester, I used the underground metro to go anywhere. Yet by metro one does not get to see the city and it is a bit more expensive, with a bigger crowd.
A bus ride generally costs about R2, with a normal journey entailing no more than two bus rides. The transport system is integrated, which means you can use the same card on the metro and the bus.
We thought of having this idea back home. Sadly, as with so many great ideas, it became stuck in the political will phase.
As one who has lived in Europe as well, China is much more like Africa. We do not mind bumping into each other, nor do we hesitate asking people for help.
Chinese people are friendlier than Europeans and always willing to help. The older ones will help you improve your Chinese while the younger ones will want to practise their English.
By the way, Chinese people do not speak Mandarin; they speak Chinese or Cantonese.
Often people would ask me how good my Mandarin was and I had to explain that Mandarin was rare and more complicated.
We will speak the language of the people, declared Chairman Mao.
Mandarin characters are much more intricate and it was used by the ruling elite, the Mandarins, in the old China.
One only has to see the difference when using the translate app on a cellphone, an app that often comes in handy.
In the bus or metro, adults give up their seats for children and older folk. There is a deep respect for children and older persons.
Back home one can understand why this is done for older folk, but generally children must stand up so that adults can sit.
It was one of the beautiful things that this culture shock experience taught me.
During occupation by the Japanese, the colonisers treated Chinese women and children terribly. As a result, there is a deep respect for women and children in China.
There exists what I like to call a Chinese feminism. A Chinese woman would think nothing of becoming hysterical or wailing loudy in public if her partner upset her.
The philosophy is: do not think that you can treat me any way you like. The poor guy is just sitting there feeling embarrassed because in Asia shame is a cardinal sin.
The other side to this Chinese feminism is that it is generally expected for the woman to make the first move. Unwarranted attention by men is therefore rare because men know that it is the woman that must initiate, and if she doesn’t, then oh well, we have to just move on swiftly.
Shaolong is at the restaurant already and checks with me whether what he has ordered is fine.
The food served here is authentic Chinese food, not like the commercialised Chinese food they serve back home.
South Africans generally only know châomià* spelt chow mein, fried noodles, or fried rice, châofà* .
Yet Chinese cuisine is much richer and, of course, depends on what region one comes from in China.
We agree that we need more of these kinds of interactions between Chinese and South Africans at this local level.
Friendship and learning to know each other will teach us how diverse we all are, but more importantly also just how much more we have in common.
The coldness of autumn therefore evaporates as the warmth of friendship and laughter, with help from the food and báijiu of cos, strengthens these two brothers once separated not by a bus ride, but by thousands of miles.
* Wesley Seale is currently pursuing his PhD in Sino-SA relations in Beijing.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.