Sometimes I forget that I am in China. Dalian feels western to me from the architecture to the cars on the street to the shops that I see. The fact that I am in a city often feels like a bigger difference to me than the fact that I am halfway around the world from home.
Don’t get me wrong: I am definitely in China. All the signs and labels here are in Chinese, and everyone speaks Chinese unless they are talking to me and can speak English. The markets are like nothing I have seen in the United States and everything can be found inexpensively. There are fish swimming in the food section of Wal-Mart rather than in the pet section, and I can name only half the vegetables.
Jason took me to see where his family buys their food. His father and grandmother go to a farmers’ market every week. It is at least twice the size of the farmers’ market in Easton, and there is a lot of variety. We made several trips to the car carrying bags of fresh produce.
Next, we visited a different market that is famous for seafood and picked up some fish, crabs, and abalone, which is my favorite. Dalian has great seafood since it is surrounded on three sides by the ocean.
The traffic is crazier than most of the traffic that I have encountered in the western world. I have revised my definition of a sidewalk. I usually thought of sidewalks as places for people to walk where they are safe from cars. Here it seems that sidewalks are more like slow side streets and parking lots. There are so many cars in this city that there is not enough room for them to park anywhere else. I have also learned that a street is a place where people walk, run, and play games of Frogger with the cars.
Jason assures me that most cars are safe and that they aren’t going to hit me, at least as long as I act like a normal Chinese person and only stay still or step forward. I’ve been warned that I should never step backwards because most drivers will go behind me, and almost all of them do. The drivers are good because they have to do mandatory driving school and go through rigorous testing, all of which can cost almost a thousand dollars. It means that they are so good at maneuvering cars that roads feel like high school hallways.
Aside from the traffic, the city is beautiful. All the space not taken up by roads and high-rise buildings is used for well-designed parks. From the Labor Park to the People’s Square to Xinghai Square to the Olympic Square over an underground Wal-Mart, this is a green city. Jason took me on walks through several of the city’s parks, and I enjoyed seeing how many people make a point of exercising. His parents try to walk three kilometers every evening around a popular park. Being healthy is a big part of the culture there.
Jason’s grandmother goes to exercise every morning. She and twenty other elderly ladies gather in one of the parks to wield swords, flash fans, and twirl disks to music. I went with her one morning before Jason got up. I still didn’t know enough Chinese to communicate with her, so we communicated in the only way we knew how: with smiles and dragging each other by the hand. We needed to walk for half a kilometer or so through the city to get to the park. There were a lot of people looking at the elderly Chinese woman and the young American walking hand in hand down the street.
When we got to the park, we met with her exercise group, and I attempted to follow them through their graceful movements. I tried, but I failed. Even though I tainted the beauty of their synchronized movements, they seemed glad to have me. They used what little English they knew to invite me back whenever I had the time, and I used what little Chinese I knew to thank them and assure them that I would come if Jason and I weren’t busy. As always, smiles were a language that everyone understood.
As a taxi driver once told us, smiles are good for business, especially with foreigners. Language is only one level of communication. In this age of technology and text-based communication, there is an emphasis put on words and ideas. After living in China, I remember that there is so much more. Body language, tone of voice, and many other clues communicate as much as words. It can be hard to communicate through a language barrier, but when people respect each other and care about understanding, they can live together as I lived with Jason’s family. All it takes is patience and love.