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Cheese and aubergines

By Sam Harman | | Updated: 2012-05-21 10:04
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China Daily website is inviting foreigner readers to share your China Story! and here are some points that we hope will help contributors:

I moved to China 4 months ago today. It has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most invigorating and sensational roller coaster rides of my life, and i still have two months to go.

I'm 22 years old, and came to China for the same stereotypical reasons most people my age do. They get the travel bug, they want to 'see the world' and 'expand their minds'. I was no different. I wanted to be one of those cool guys I saw when I was younger, arriving home after a stint of travelling, stubble on their face, wisdom in their eyes and an aura of accomplishment surrounding them. Add to this my yearning curiosity about China and Hey Presto, here I am - currently teaching Oral English down in Guangdong, I earn 2000 RMB a month and live with a squadron of other foreign teachers from all over the world, aged between 19 and 33.

Sam Harman poses with a Chinese girl in an undated photo. [Photo provided to] 

China has not been the expected. I was unaware, before I came, of the level of ongoing development within the country. High rise building, flat screen televisions, well equipped class rooms, comfortable (to some extent) living conditions. I found myself pleasantly surprised. I was prepared for the beastly and the basic. Mud huts, camp fires and the occasional swarm of mammoths or something. Life in Dongguan, Houjie town is practically cloud 9 in comparison to my minds eye before I left sunny old England behind in January. The living conditions were bearable. I could cope with cockroaches, with having to fetch my own water, with a rock solid mattress and a squat toilet. The one thing I couldn't live with, was the staring.

You receive a phenomenal amount of attention as a westerner almost everywhere in China, so much so that to the reclusive and quiet personality, it can be a little overwhelming. Blue eyes, blonde hair, big noses and hairy arms are some of the things my kids find particularly hypnotic. I felt like a continual outsider when I fist arrived. People didn't make a lot of effort to make themselves understood, I was overly and repeatedly warned about theft, my apartment was a pig sty and I felt, essentially, alone. A feeling aided in no small part by the intensive, unrelenting and perpetual staring, kindly provided by every single person in a 20 meter radius.

But time makes all things easier. Eventually, like everyone else, I came to abide the stares, even indulge in them at times. I saw the funny side of the language barrier, tasted the chickens feet and sang at KTV. I submitted to the flow of Chinese culture and haven't looked back since, but it wasn't until today I realized how intrinsically similar it is to my own.

When the Chinese take a photograph they will not say 'Cheese!' like we do back home. Instead they say, with total conviction and sincerity on their smiling faces, the wonderful word - 'Aubergine!"

Amused at first, it dawned on me that I had no reason to be judgmental. Where I am from they say cheese! Cheese?...Cheese?? Why on earth say anything at all, why not just count to 3 and be done with it? Why, as human beings, do we feel the need to yell a non-specific food when someone takes a photo of us? Do me a favor and google it, send your response to

I always thought 'You have to be crazy to live in China for 6 months'. Today I asked myself why? Perhaps it's because of the tenable sanity of my co-workers, but I don't think that's the reason. China is home to one of the oldest and most profound cultures in the world, and has a very, VERY large number of inhabitants. They can't all be mad.

China is globally known as a country of contrasts. Of vividness and resounding humanity. It is in this country that I have witnessed some of the most heart wrenchingly beautiful and disturbingly bizarre scenes that the human race can offer, and as extreme as these moments have been, the core of them, their motivation is as clear to me as crystal. Love, hunger, hatred, jealousy, compassion, curiosity, lust, pride, bravery.....I could write for weeks and not finish this list. We all share a modus operandi for life, no matter where we're from or where we go, we are pushed and pulled by the current of our emotions, by our fragile and fickle hearts.

The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action a number of times and expect different results. Isn't that what we all do everyday when we wake up? When we get out of bed and pledge ourselves to our daily routines? Aren't we all, to some degree, a little bit crazy? It's my conclusion that you have to be, not just to live in China, but to live in this world. This world where we shout random foods at a camera when we see a flash.

At least we're all shouting words from the same category, so, in the end, how different can we really be? We may all be a bit crazy, but at least we're crazy together! So, instead of grasping onto your own culture, take a break. Let go and allow the culture of another country to embrace you, and you may be surprised at the amount of similarities you find, just like I was this afternoon in sunny, southern China.

The author is an oral English teacher in Guangdong.

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