Strangers in a strange land

Being in this new city has prompted many recent reflections on cultural relativism… It’s been two months since Jamie and I arrived in Hangzhou and we’re definitely finding our feet in this city. We’re adjusting well to our new jobs as English teachers and we’re becoming familiar with our new neighbourhood. We can comfortably use the metro and buses to explore the city now, and we’ve even got a list of favourite restaurants where we eat almost daily. Our mandarin is also slowly improving; when we first got here we could only utter (and often horribly mispronounce) single words whereas now we can say some basic sentences and even order our meals and pay for groceries using the local language. Hangzhou is a very cycling-friendly city, with large, safe dedicated bike lanes alongside almost every road, so we even bought ourselves matching bicycles to make getting to work easier, quicker and more fun. We’ve also really taken to cycling the streets late at night, to explore the city sights when everything is quieter and cooler. Even at midnight though, we are never the only people out and about and we enjoy meeting and greeting other night owls on our adventures.

This new city is starting to feel like home, although we still can’t help but notice at times that we are in fact strangers in this land. For example, it can be quite frustrating when a friendly neighbour in the elevator tries to spark a conversation with us and all we can muster is “Duìbùqǐ, wǒ bù huì shuō zhōngwén” which is “sorry, I don’t speak Chinese”, in Chinese! I also miss being able to pick up on snippets of conversation as we walk past people in public places, something I hope will change as my mandarin gets better. Other ways we’re reminded that we are the foreigners here include the stares we sometimes get from curious and bewildered children, or the occasions when someone in a restaurant will snap a photo of us in much the same way an avid bird watcher will respond to a rare robin.

Back in South Africa we were also technically outsiders, falling into a minority category, as roughly 80% of the country’s population is comprised of black citizens. It’s a country with a complex history of global trade, ethnic migrations and infusions of cultural hybridization – both before and after the introduction of European explorers. Today the country has eleven official languages and a diverse cultural and ethnic spectrum. However, the Republic of South Africa is only just starting to recover from its centuries of racial inequality and forced segregation, so the urban areas we grew up in were heavily dominated by white English speakers and did not reflect the true racial, cultural, religious or linguistic diversity of the nation as a whole.

In the six months before we came to China we were fortunate enough to find the time and means to drive from one corner of SA to the other, from Cape Town to Kruger and back again. It was an adventure that gave us a really interesting cross-sectional view of the multitude of regions and biomes found within the country’s borders. I feel the trip also enriched our understandings and awareness of how differently cultures and cultural norms can develop, depending on the geographical, social, economic and historical factors embedded in that community.

Compared to South Africa, China is truly gigantic! We’re talking about a population of 57 million versus one of 1300 million (or 1,3 billion), and an area of land so expansive it stretches across 5 geographical time zones (even though the entire country runs on one standard time zone). Aside from one time zone, China also has one officially recognised language, Hànyǔ or standard mandarin, although under the umbrella of this one language there exist well over 50 regional dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Here in Hangzhou we are slowly trying to learn more about the complexities of China’s sociological and political past. China is a nation with a well-documented and richly celebrated history. It’s a nation where the contemporary culture has been influenced by interactions with European and North American cultures, but its own cultural heritage (spanning thousands of years) hasn’t been ravaged in the same way that European colonialism altered the societies and attempted to ‘rewrite the histories’ of many African countries.


On the surface it seems like a country that’s pretty homogenous, especially since roughly 92% of the total population fall under one ethnic classification. Culturally though, to say that all of China is the same culture seems a hugely oversimplified and flawed assumption. It feels similar to saying that all of Africa is essentially the same culture, a statement that we can’t even make about one country at the bottom of Africa, let alone the whole continent. Aside from variations of regional dialects in China, which loosely correlate with provincial borders, our local colleagues have also told us a little about the cultural differences that seem to exist between Northern and Southern China; the first time we heard of this it was brought up in a conversation about food, where we were told that food from the north is always spicy, whilst food in Southern China won’t be anywhere near as spicy as Northern cuisine.

We’re also intrigued by the many cultural differences between lifestyles here and lifestyles in more Western countries; from toilet designs, to table manners, schooling structures, or even what constitutes as ‘conventional business hours’. Living in an urban city like Hangzhou, means that there are also many similarities to western countries, such as how shopping malls, transport systems, urban housing and other infrastructures operate. With each day, we try to get to know this new land, this language and this lifestyle a little better, and we’re trying to see as much of this massive and diverse country as we can while we’re living and working here. This coming week we’ll be taking our first trip out of the city to visit a small nearby town called Nanxun, and we are really looking forward to exploring this new space and getting a glimpse of how people outside of huge cities live. Later this year we also plan on taking a two-day train ride across the country, from the East where we live to the autonomous region of Tibet in the West of China. To say that we are excited would be an understatement.

We’re fully aware that in China we look strange with our light hair and blue eyes and that we sound strange when we speak, but we’re truly enjoying this immersion into a culture that’s radically different from the largely Westernised culture in which we were raised. It’s a huge part of why we chose to come and work here. I am really appreciating the new practice of navigating simple social situations (like buying food, or taking a train) and having to completely throw my old social assumptions out the window, and learn from scratch how another culture functions. It’s an invigorating experience to encounter everything and everyone around us with fresh, wide eyes and a desire to simply learn as much as I can. I truly feel that it’s the best way to travel and even if I find myself back in familiar spaces, it’s an approach and ethos I’ll hold onto and keep trying to live by.