China Blogger Spotlight: Getting intercultural with Joel from China Hope Live

Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: October 14th, 2010 | Updated: November 11th, 2010 | Comments
Joel and Jessica, ChinaHopelive at Trash Mountain Park, Tianjin Joel and Jessica are the voices behind the excellent China blog Tianjin, the North American couple document their daily excursions into the intercultural terrain that is life in China. Interspersed with illuminating musings and ponderings—they've both got M.A.'s in Intercultural Studiesthere's a lot of food for thought. Here we chat with Joel about the blog, perceptions of cultural differences and living life in Tianjin... and if you're thinking of visiting the city, don't miss Joel's top five list of things to do in Tianjin! >>> China Travel: So first of all, can you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you came to live in China? Joel: We were university classmates together pursuing degrees in Intercultural Studies and got married in between undergrad and grad school. Part-way through our M.A.'s we decided to move to Mainland China. During 2006 we finished our last year of studies in Taipei while teaching English full-time and saving money. In 2007 we moved to Tianjin to study Chinese full-time for two years. China Travel: Why did you choose Tianjin? Joel and Lily, Tianjin University Joel: Tianjin has a private one-on-one style language school for foreigners called the Beijing has a similar school, but it's more expensive. Also, cost of living in Tianjin is much cheaper than in Beijing, the food is better, the people are friendlier, and it's still easy to practice more-or-less standard Mandarin (普通话) because the local dialect isn't too far off and, with so many universities around, there's no shortage of standard Mandarin speakers. China Travel: Have you always kept a blog? Joel: I've blogged since 2004, but we didn't really start China blogging at China Hope Live until January 2006 when we moved to Taipei (台北)。 China Travel: China Hope Live is full of insightful thoughts and analysis on Chinese culture, do you think it is something a foreigner can ever truly understand? [pullquote]We can also learn lots about ourselves and our own cultures through the perspectives of people from other cultures.[/pullquote]Joel: Yes and no—it depends what you mean by "truly understand." I definitely think it's possible for people from vastly different cultures, like East Asian and Euro-American cultures, to have a deep and satisfying mutual understanding. We can also learn lots about ourselves and our own cultures through the perspectives of people from other cultures. Chinese people have the opportunity to see things about Canadian culture and society (for example) that Canadians can't see because Canadians are in their own culture and therefore they are too close to see some things. And the same works in reverse: outsiders in China can see things about Chinese culture and society that Chinese people can't see because Chinese people don't have an outsider's perspective on their own culture. So there's lots we can learn from one another, not just about one another's cultures, but also about our own cultures. eating cats, China Sometimes when people say "understand China" what they really mean is "accept and agree with whatever 'China' says or does." Sometimes when these people hear a foreigner express a "non-Chinese opinion" (especially about sensitive topics), they disregard the foreigner by saying "they just don't understand China" or "they're just using foreign thinking to understand China." I think that kind of attitude and thinking is basically nonsense, and it doesn't promote mutual understanding. "Understanding" and "thinking and feeling the same" are not the same thing. The differences between Chinese and Euro-American cultures are very, very deep; often I think people don't realize how different we really are. Cultural differences are fascinating. However, I think the things we have in common are even deeper, more profound, and more important that our differences. I really believe that it's possible for Chinese and lǎowàis (老外s) to have solidarity that is stronger and more meaningful than our differences. China Travel: How do you think teaching in China has affected your experiences here? Joel: Teaching English in China is not ideal. Studying Chinese full-time was much better for helping us learn about China and make local friends. Our plan was always to study Chinese until we ran out of money and then teach English. I teach English full-time now (需要挣奶粉钱!), and spending 40 hours a week in English really hurts your Chinese learning. I love getting to know my students, but they all want to speak English, so it's not easy to progress in Chinese and my Chinese ability is suffering. The good thing about teaching, if you're teaching university students or adults, is that it's an easy way to meet lots of people. China Travel: What are some of the most difficult cultural differences you have overcome in your daily life in China? Joel: It's not hard to adjust to ultimately minor things: traffic, public hygiene standards, strangers and neighbors asking 'personal' questions (like "How much money do you make?") or making unsolicited comments about our 'personal business' (like "You're fat! You should eat less meat!"), strangers criticizing our parenting style ("How can you not have socks on her!? She's going to get diarrhea!"), etc. In the first year these things made us uncomfortable, but after three years they're just funny. For example: [pullquote]"How can you not have socks on her!? She's going to get diarrhea!"[/pullquote] Other differences are harder to get used to: the air pollution, communication style differences (can be very different!), less personal freedom, people being hypersensitive about 'China's face'... also, the callousness toward strangers who need help and the way angry, out-of-control parents will sometimes 'discipline' their small children in public are both very hard to take. After three years I'm still shocked and saddened at how "the Good Samaritan" seems to be a totally foreign concept in China. China Travel: I really enjoyed your Chinese breakfast: Tianjin style post. How do you think Tianjin cuisine stands up to the rest of China's more famous offerings and what are you top 3 must-try dishes? Gabacai, breakfast in Tianjin Joel: If you're coming to Tianjin, you really should make sure you try some 锅巴菜 (gābacài) at breakfast, for both the food and the Tianjin breakfast experience. That's my favorite truly local dish. Tianjiners also love 煎饼果子 (jiānbinggǔozi) and 老豆腐 (lǎodòufu), among many other things. China Travel: What would your top five recommendations be for a first time visitor to Tianjin to get a feel for the city? Joel: My recommendations might not be for everyone since I'm more of a culture geek and not that into shopping:
  1. Take an afternoon and visit the Tianjin Museum (天津博物馆) on Youyi Lu (友谊路). The second floor is dedicated to highlighting how both Tianjin and foreigners fit into the official narrative of China's modern history—you'll learn about dramatic events like the Tianjin Incident/Massacre. Here's an excerpt from the introduction, to give you a taste:
    "The past hundred years after the Opium War, the Chinese nation had undergone the semi-feudal and semi-colonial miserable experience. During this period, Tianjin historically became the forefront where Chinese and Western civilizations collided with each other. In the life-and-death struggle for the defense of the Chinese nation, Tianjin more than once became the main battlefield in the resistance against foreign invasion..."
  2. Marriage market, Tianjin Tianjin marriage market The "Marriage Market" at Central Park (中心公园) on weekend mornings in decent weather. Not only are the people friendly and talkative, but seeing this modern day match-making in action is a site to behold. You can literally browse the men's and women's sections looking for a spouse. (See the links for photos and stories from three of our visits there.)
  3. The few remaining not-yet-redeveloped old-style neighborhoods in Tianjin's less-redeveloped districts (红桥区 and 河北区). Here you can still find pre-Reform-and-Opening neighborhoods and hutongs. You can also see the city in transition—older neighborhoods painted with "拆" (how buildings are marked for demolition), many half-demolished but still containing many families. This is a great way to see first-hand the drastic changes sweeping major Chinese cities. Tianjin's forsaken neighborhoods are disappearing fast. Church, Tianjin
  4. The Haihe River (海河), along with the Foreign Concession Areas. They will show you not only historic buildings, a nice riverwalk, and pretty lights at night, but also swimmers, fishermen, and some fun local life. There's plenty of history to take in in the Concession areas, from Eric Liddell's old house (the Chariots of Fire guy) to former residences of the last Emperor and Yuan Shikai, the warlord who co-opted the republican dream of Sun Yat-Sen. I especially like the historic, crumbling, pre-Liberation church buildings.
  5. Ancient Culture Street (古文化街). It's a tourist trap, but colorful, noisy, and fun at the right times. If you want more shopping, the number one most popular local tourism/shopping location is the glitzy BīnJiāng Dào (滨江道) walking street. Be prepared for serious crowds, though. And watch your pockets.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known before coming to China? Joel: Hard to say. I wish I'd known that "sheep soup" in Chinese actually means sheep parts soup. Also, it would have been nice to know what pig's blood cake was before we ate it. China Travel: Have you managed to do much traveling here? Tell us about your best experience so far? Hiking the Great wall Joel: We've done a modest amount of traveling: Beijing of course (Henan province (the historic Bi Gan Temple). Closer to Tianjin we've gone camping on the Great Wall, visited some nearby rural villages, and explored the Jiulongshan National Forest Park. I most loved the peace and grandeur of our five-hour hike along a mostly unrestored section of the Great Wall, and visiting village homes. China Travel: And your worst? Joel: We haven't had any terrible travel experiences. But my mom was sick on an 11-hour hard sleeper train from Henan province to Tianjin once—she didn't enjoy that too much! I don't like cramped, crowded, hot, smoke-filled buses or really slow trains, same goes for the over-crowded city buses and subway. But the high-speed train to Beijing is sooo awesome! One time I went to Beijing twice in one day. China Travel: What do you miss most from back home? Joel: Our family family and our church family. China Travel: What would you miss most about China if you were to leave tomorrow? Joel: The people. It's also nice having everything you need within walking or biking distance. I'd miss the vegetable markets and the street markets, too. All images are courtesy of China Hope Live and may not be used for any other purpose.
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