Cultural understanding, or — everything you ever knew is wrong!

Many years before I ever imagined I would be living in China, I remember having a conversation with a woman at church who owned rental properties. This woman is one of the most hateful people I have ever met in my life, so what she said probably shouldn’t have made an impression, but it was so odd that it has stuck with me for years.

“The Chinese don’t know how to clean,” she said. “Their apartments are disgusting with grease everywhere. And when I show them how, they always say ‘we not know how.’” (Yes, she was sure to emphasize her story with a mocking Chinese accent for that extra punch of racism.)

I don’t remember what I said in reply, if anything, but I wondered about that for a long time. How could it be possible that people “don’t know” how to clean? They might have different standards or ways of cleaning, but I have eaten at Chinese friends’ houses before, and their homes seemed perfectly fine to me. After all, if they didn’t know how to clean, wouldn’t they all be dying of disease?

Fast forward a few years. Missouri is long in my rearview mirror and I’m living in a small, moldy apartment with no hot water in any of the sinks. I’ve done my best to cope, but by this time I have hired an ayi (a housekeeper). I’m speaking to one of my friends about cultural stereotypes, and I ask her, “What do Chinese people think about Americans?” and she says, “Oh, they don’t know how to keep house.” This might be actually why I remember that conversation at church from so long ago, because I’ve heard these claims before.

In America, I was a perfectly competent housekeeper. Not excellent (I always hated dusting, folding laundry and making the bed), but my house was typically “guest ready” or could be that way in a matter of minutes. I had bible study at my house twice a week and regularly held baby showers, Pampered Chef parties, and hang out nights in my home. The same was true of my cooking. I was not a gourmet chef, but I was a damn good cook. My chili, spaghetti and chocolate chunk brownies were famous.

But living in China, I was no longer a domestic goddess. Along with all the other culture shock issues, one that has been particularly hard to deal with has been feeling unable to care for my own home. There is a lot more to living in a new country than just learning a language and making new friends. When you move to a new country, you quickly learn that EVERYTHING YOU EVER KNEW IS WRONG!  You cannot find foods you recognize at the market, the way you bank and go to the post office is different, the pots you use to cook are different, the sponges you use to clean do not exist, and even picture frames come in wonky sizes that don’t fit any of the pictures you brought.

When it comes to living in China, everything is hard. Every day is a struggle. I don’t lie to people and tell them that things will eventually get normal. That’a a common lie. It’s something people who have lived overseas tell newbies to comfort them. But your life will never be normal or easy again. You do get used to the struggle, but it never goes away. The struggles of everyday life just become a part of everyday life. The struggle of living life every day is what drives most expats back to their home countries eventually.

In the place where you are born, you learn how things are done; and everything is done a certain way. You use xxx brand of dish soap, hot water and xxx brand of sponge or rag to clean them. But what do you do when you can’t find your brand of dish soap. Try a new one? One that doesn’t smell right or feel right? One that doesn’t seem to rinse completely away? Sure you can find things that look like sponges, but they aren’t as absorbent as you are used to so you make a big sloppy mess every time you try to wipe down the counters with them. The broom you now use to sweep the floor is of a different material and you know it isn’t getting all the dust up. Hot water? Ha! If you want to lug it through the house from the shower because that is the only tap with hot water. Same for your laundry. Forget using hot water to clean your sweaty clothes or the soft, warm, fluffy feel of towels fresh out of the dryer. DRYERS DON’T EXIST HERE!

It isn’t that I don’t know how to clean; it’s that I don’t know how to clean when I don’t have the “proper” tools (i.e. – the tools I’m used to). I’m sure the same is true of the Chinese tenants that the lady from church was talking about. They are just as out of their element in America as I am out of mine in China. The tenants were not stupid, not unable to clean, but they needed help, support and, most importantly, compassion. If you have never tried to live outside your home country, you have no damn business judging someone else who has. You cannot fathom the struggles they face every single day.

I’m learning to deal with it. Like I said, I have a housekeeper. I know my limits and I know she can do a better job. I do still have to clean on her days off, so I recently spent $5 on sponges you can buy for $1 in the states just because they were the exact right sponges I needed. The feeling of those sponges in my hand was a relief few other experience in China have brought me.