As we came closer, the noise levels grew. Before we knew it, the waiting crowd had become a wildly baying mob, each of them running in front of each other in their efforts to grab our attention. Upon reaching the exit we stood in bewilderment, worried that the frenzied roaring taking place all around us might come to blows.
The above description might well conjure up images of a notorious criminal being led from the courthouse, or of a celebrity at the centre of a controversial media storm trying to push past the throng of journalists and photographers. It was neither, however. The madness in question took place in a train station taxi rank on a Monday afternoon, and the baying mob were not in fact revenge-seekers, paparazzi or wild animals; they were taxi drivers competing for some custom.
In the immediate aftermath of a 30-hour journey from my hometown of Stradbally, which consisted of two long flights to get us from Dublin to Shanghai, this taxi rank was our inaugural introduction to our new Chinese home of Shangrao. Luckily for myself and my fiancée, we had a local to help us through this bizarre process, the representative from our new employers calmly putting us in a ramshackle old vehicle that looked as if it had been dug out of a closed-down scrapyard and barking some instructions at the driver. There we sat, laughing ourselves silly at the craziness of it all as our driver raced and rallied his way through the streets to our hotel, barely taking his hand off the horn in the process. Bikes, of both a pedal and motor variety and everything in between, zoomed by in all directions, the only rule of the road seeming to be that you had to beep every second or so. As culture shocks go, this was something of a baptism of fire.
It soon became apparent that this noisy night amongst motorists was no one-off occurrence, horns hardly pausing for breath on Shangrao’s chaotic, almost-impossible-to-cross roads. Nor was it the only aspect of life in China that will take some time getting used to, with conversations tending to take place at a somewhat extreme volume meaning that a moment’s peace rarely seems possible whilst out in public. Arguably the most astounding shock comes during visits to public toilets, where the level of cleanliness and the regular lack of any toilet paper makes one wonder if health and safety regulations were ever considered for invention around these parts.
But things soon started looking up…
Before I begin to sound as if I am warning readers against any ideas of trying out life in China, I should clarify that I in fact have the opposite intention. The progressively more positive view we have developed since moving here has been an incomparable lesson as to why culture shock is a hurdle worth overcoming and not an insurmountable barrier. As our jet-lag gradually ceased to hinder our energy levels we began to explore more of the city, finding that there was more to see around every corner. With the picturesque scenery on either side of the river, the vibrant pedestrianised area in the city centre and the traditional buildings of Xinjiang College (a former college campus, now open to the public for sightseeing purposes) among the places so far explored, it has already become clear that Shangrao and the Jiangxi province as a whole have much in store.
The food alone makes the marathon voyage worthwhile, although it’s worth asking for a less spicy version. Having long since been a curry lover, I used to consider myself partial to a bit of spice until I found out what the local idea of spicy is in China’s south-east, our first visit to a restaurant resulting in neither my fiancée nor myself being able to finish our chilli-laden fish pot. Once the food’s mouth-burning capacity has been reduced though, the cuisine resembles the Western idea of Chinese food in terms of layout and ingredients, but with a fresh and natural taste that is a far cry from our greasy, heavy-on-the-stomach takeaways. Furthermore, the price of a sizeable and filling bowl of rice or noodles with some delicious meat and vegetables works out at about the equivalent of €3, for which one would be lucky to get a mediocre sandwich back on the Emerald Isle. Even chopsticks haven’t turned out to be too difficult to use, although I certainly couldn’t claim to never make any mess on the table!
As is often the case, and more extremely so here than in foreign European countries, linguistic challenges can be both the most infuriating and the most rewarding. Chinese having four different tones, the tone of voice in which a word is uttered can completely change its meaning. The upshot of this seems to be that unless you pronounce everything with 100% perfection, a lot of people seem clueless as to what you’re trying to say. To make matters even more complicated, older generations are not entirely certain to speak the national tongue of Mandarin, having grown up with a more localised dialect, so that even if we are saying words correctly they might not know the same ones. But on the bright side, it feels great when you do manage to get your point across. Having resorted to pointing at pictures on our first few restaurant visits, we attempted to order food using vocabulary we had been learning, only for confused staff to blurt rapid Chinese at us until we gave up and left. Immediately afterwards we tried our chances in another restaurant where we somehow were understood, both of us feeling decidedly chuffed at our success in asking for rice with beef and two beers. It appears to be a case of win-some-lose-some for the time being, but every small victory provides a surge of desire to progress further.
If Chinese culture presents something of a shock to us, we also provide quite the surprise for them! The population here being extremely homogenous, the whiteness of our skin attracts a lot of attention around the town. Discretion not seeming to be a part of the local culture here, we are openly stared at as we walk through the street, some people pointing us out to their companions with no effort to hide their astonishment. The more outgoing often approach us and ask for photos as if we were celebrities, while the less daring simply take photos of us while they think we’re not looking. Many a motorcyclist has come close to causing a crash as a result of staring in amazement at the white couple on the footpath, while cheerful cries of ‘Hello’ from people we have never seen before are quite a common occurrence.
On the whole, life in China is turning out to be an adventure in every sense of the word. With its 22nd-Century trains and 19th-Century toilets, the country presents a mix of old-school and modern that will take a Westerner by surprise. Surprise also seems to be the locals’ first reaction to any non-Chinese people populating the streets, but the welcome afforded to us since arriving has been an overwhelmingly accommodating one. Taking the good with the bad becomes rapidly easier with the realisation of just how much the former outweighs the latter, with scenic experiences, linguistic achievements and culinary delights making the incessant traffic noise and the pong from restaurant toilet facilities all seem worth it. So if proof were ever needed that overcoming culture shock more than merits the efforts, China would be a good place to find it!