China: Making my way in the crowd

September 27, 2018

Top Questions Asked By Year at EMU:
Freshman year – “What’s your major?”
Sophomore – “What are your plans after college?”
Junior – “Where are you going for your cross-cultural?”
Senior – “No, seriously pick one. Why haven’t you gone yet?”

I remember picking my destination for cross-cultural in the fall of my freshman year. I was a naive 18 year old from rural Ohio who had never left the east coast, and I was ready to explore the world. I marched into the cross-cultural office as soon as I had mustered up my freshman courage to ask where it was. I pointed dramatically at the first person I saw and declared “Where can I get the most culture shock!” Perhaps my memory is a bit foggy on the details of my inquiry, but I do know I left that office with a definitive answer: China.

They say that if you keep a routine for twenty-one days, you will form a habit. However, they do not say the length of time it takes to assimilate yourself into a completely new culture.  I woke up this Monday morning and walked to the bus stop to have our early morning class thirty minutes away. As we waited the fifteen minutes with vacant stares for bus 22 to reach our stop, Anna turned to me and asked, “Do things feel just…normal now?”

For one of the first times in my life, I didn’t immediately have something to say. I looked to my right and there was the usual pop-up shop that sold magazines and various breakfast breads enshrouded in pork floss. To my left were some locals who had pulled out their phones and were taking pictures of the thirteen foreigners who were waiting for the transit. The sound of the endless honking of cars communicating their whereabouts to each other filled my ears along with the sizzling of various meats being cooked, skewered, and sold for 3 yuan per stick; an inexpensive 50 cent breakfast for North Americans. I looked back at Anna, shrugged, and offered, “kinda.”


We have reached our fourth week in China and third week in Nanchong. In no way can I say that I have come to adopt the Chinese culture in its pure essence, but neither can I say that I haven’t grown accustomed to the stark differences. When we arrived here, I can definitely say I felt very out of place. Immediately, I could tell that we were an oddity by the looks we were receiving of neither disgust nor excitement, but of intrigue. Beijing is definitely a place for tourists, however, with a population of two million, we are spread thin. A group of thirteen was a rare sighting. We were followed by whispers of “Weiguorenmin” (foreigners) and then “Meiguorenmin”(Americans) when they heard our comparatively monotone English voices. Once I heard a little girl walking past us in an alleyway, counting out loud how many foreigners there were and exclaiming “Shi san ge Weiguoren!” to her friend when she figured it out.

The racial diversity in Chinese cities may be spread thin, however, the shear number of people per square foot is not. We have had to reduce our personal space down to about 5 centimeters while in public. This was my biggest worry as I have enochlophobia, the fear of crowds. I remember while visiting New York, I had to wiggle my way out of a rather large one to take a breather and collect myself. I have noticed a difference however, to the crowds of New York, USA and those of Nanchong, China.

When in a crowd in New York, people are not used to being this close to each other, and every little mistake is seen as a problem; being elbowed in the ribs after the transit suddenly halts in the road, stepping on another’s shoes when trying to quickly avoid a near death experience with a taxi, or accidentally “brake-checking” someone while reading a sign. Here in China it is different.

Last evening, I was attempting to get onto a bus back to the university at the same time the primary school let out at 9:00 pm. The bus driver looked at the three foreigners and two locals on the steps waiting to scan their bus passes and looked back to the collection of children whom we would spend the next hour standing beside. He shouted something I can only imagine to mean, “Make some room!” I was the first one to board the bus and saw a wall of children hanging onto each other and onto the nearest support, so I did what I had learned in the past four weeks in China to do; I pushed.

In Mandarin, there is no phrase for “excuse me” to use in a crowd setting. The closest we have learned is “qing wen” which literally translates to “please question.” So we must push our way through only muttering “dui bu qi” (sorry) when we accidentally make a wrong move and cause the other person pain. While moving through a crowd, it is less of asking people to part the Red Sea, and more of swimming through Dr. Seuss’s famous Oobleck. I have been able to wiggle my way through, but been restrained by my backpack being stuck between two people.

Curiously, I am less anxious getting onto busses or pushing my way through the sidewalks, invading people’s personal bubble. I think this is due to the expectation that this is how to get from point A to point C when point B is blocking your path. There isn’t the awkward hand on the shoulder and slight bow as you excuse yourself by someone. I think I always feared the social repercussions, responsibilities, and constant apologies that needed to be said.

I feel that China has made me more comfortable with asserting myself. I may be illiterate, but I have gained the confidences of at least two Finns.

-Finn Wengerd

On the Great Wall