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Living to Learn and Learning to Live in China

It has been a wonderful opportunity to come to this great land, which sometimes referred to as the
“biggest neighbor” in Asia. Though there are lots of similarities with my country’s (Philippines) culture
and China’s, it is still interesting to note some particular practices in daily basis that I haven’t experience
living with Chinese neighbors in my hometown in the Philippines.
I grew up in “Bruce Lee (Li Chang Long) era” which greatly affects my way of thinking and interests in
life. Though American films are many in those days (1970’s), Chinese films are equally not a few,
month after month, year after year, particularly Bruce Lee’s movies. I remember one instance, where I
have to cheat my parents just to sneak in to see Kung Fu or “Shaolin” movies. My favorites were that of
Bruce Lee, Wang Tao, Carter Wang and the like. That was the beginning of my fascination to Chinese
culture. In the later years however, this desire to like Chinese stuff or anything about Chinese was
temporarily disturbed by strong western influences and name calling like “communism” in the early
1980’s. So wide is the propaganda that I remember as a college student being warned against joining
such kind of group or even mentioning it in class or something. Since I don’t like politics, I continue to
intensify my desire to like Chinese movies, though the “Remington Steele” and “Superman” kept flying
in most TV and movie screens respectively. Well, I like those Hollywood treks as well as Jacky Chan’s
and Jet Li’s martial arts, though the American stuff is becoming more and more popular in those times.
Hence, I need to borrow tapes (Betamax that time) just to watch my favorite Jackie Chan or Jet Li
movies. Anyway, as I said earlier, it’s only temporary for as I began to grow and went to college, the old
pattern of acculturated life to Chinese stuff was restored back, yet with more meaningful spheres of
experience. I was working in the morning and study in the evening with Chinese employers. That was
how I finished my college degree, though I really don’t like my job that much. Since all my employers
were Chinese, whether half or pure blooded, I began to savor Chinese food and “Chinese table manners”
which actually sank to my system up to this time. Those employers, I really don’t know exactly where in
China, all I knew that they all come from the south and they speak different Chinese language, yet the
culture is the same. In fact, the experiences I had with those employers expand the horizon of
appreciation anything Chinese, from cooking to medicine. I even dreamed to marry a Chinese girl.
Now that I am here, I want to deal with the subject of Living and Learning in China, particularly in the
booming mainland. How is it like in a foreigner’s point of view especially to the first timers like me?
Let me divide this into two major discussions: a. Living and Learning with the People, b. Learning and
Living with the Language.

Living and Learning with the People

First, living with people is not very hard if you share some detailed cultural norms, or beliefs and thereby
easier to learn something from each other. This is not easy to be found here with my experience though
there are some similarities in both Chinese and Filipino cultures such as loyalty to friend, individual
shyness and respect for the elderly. Aside from these, I still have to deal with the extremes, like one time
I was giving an apple to a child, actually a son of one of my neighbors in Shijiazhuang City, near
Beijing. The child was not only shy to refuse my offering but I was told later that they don’t usually
accept something from a stranger. Well, I really thought that what I offered was not delicious but only to
find myself learning something about “strangers” in the eye of a Chinese child. Another thing I
discovered, apples in Shijiazhuang is literally cheap and a lot cheaper than my country’s. I was not very
sure if this is one of the reasons, but as I lived in this Hebei’s capital for two and a half years, I
discovered that there were times that a lot of rotten apples piled up in the street corners in the nearby
little market. I was amazed by the abundance of fruits like apples in this part of China, where I can eat it
anytime I like. So I began to live the old saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. My diet was
strictly balanced not only with apples but also with the different invitations from my neighbors almost
every two days. Can you imagined?, I dined with almost every family living around my apartment and
since I came two months closer to the Spring Festival, my stomach was filled in every corner of it. Oh
boy! Each family does not only make sure that you are “baula” (term for being full after eating), but they
want you to bring some of their goodies laid on the dining table earlier. Since there’s no way you can
refuse, I have to take a lot of candies, delicacies, sunflower seeds, and the like. It was fun though.
The learning part while living with those neighbors flow smoothly to my daily routines. I began to be
more appreciative to everyone I met, as they warmly smile at me everyday. After each meal with each
family, as if the ice was broken so to speak and the next time I give something to any of the children,
they began to smile while accepting it. Hence, I learned that dining with Chinese is as important as
breathing itself. You can forget the food you ate, but you can never forget the feelings and friendly
gestures attached to the association of each dinner or lunch.

Learning and Living with the Language

As English major, I learned a great deal of Teaching English as a Second Language both in theory and
practice as a Secondary and Tertiary level Language teacher for the past ten years now. Yet, I never
imagine myself learning one of the world’s most difficult languages, the Chinese language. Anyway, it
seemed easy to learn my first Chinese phrase; “Ni hao ma!”, for ”hello or hi, how are you?”. Yeah, even
the “tingbudong” became my favorite expression whenever I went shopping or just to go around the city
proper. Sometimes I have to accompany this with a non verbal cue, having my forefinger swinging just
in front my lips to add meaning to my broken Chinese tone for “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”.
Unlike “xiexie ni”, for thank you, and “baula” for “I’m full” after a dinner, which are quite easier to
pronounce and remember, most Chinese words or expressions are really difficult to learn for older
language learners like me. In a larger sense however, whether easy or hard, whenever a foreigner speaks
a Chinese word, it serves as a passport to a skyway of cultural understanding and friendly association.
With this in mind, I began to be serious about learning Chinese. So, when the school (Hebei University
of Science and Technology) where I used to work offered free Chinese lessons for the foreign teachers, I
joined the class without hesitation, though I know that it was only during my free time. Several days and
weeks past, I tried all I can to learn the language but only with a minimum increase of lexical knowledge
and that of tone articulation. My stock of Chinese words increases slowly from 30 to 65 words, and I
knew that these are not enough to say that I am having extra lessons four hours a week but enough to live
around the city making friends and enjoying a Chinese social life. I enjoy it much to practice my
Chinese with the local people around the city having an increase number of invitations from “surprised”
dinner to a variety show invitations. There were even times that they thought I am also a local Chinese.
These comments sometimes brought a sense of fulfillment whether it is because of my looks or because
of my Chinese pronunciation. I preferred the latter reason though.
Now that I moved from Shijiazhuang to Dongguan, like from North to South, I still cherish the moments
learning and living with the language. The school (Taiwan Businessmen’s Dongguan School) where I
used to work before has also Chinese lessons, at least two hours per week for free.
Sounds too lucky to have this privilege, yet I am still struggling consistently while I am living to learn
and learning to live in China.