Today I went to a Chinese picnic with my roommate. My roommate Tera has been learning Chinese for several years now, and she is quite good at it too. She was invited to the picnic by the Chinese church she has been attending, and she invited me to tag along if I wanted. I don’t know a lick of Chinese, but I decided to go just because I thought it might be interesting. Turns out I was quite right.
The first thing I noticed when I got there was how strange it was to have no idea what anyone else was saying. I have never been to a foreign country before, nor have I ever really been in a group that did not speak English, so when I was suddenly in a place where pretty much the only language being spoken was Chinese, I felt very out of place. All of a sudden, I was being forced to rely on Tera to tell me what was going on. Sometimes people would start talking to me in Chinese, and Tera had to explain to them that I didn’t know what they were saying, then act as interpreter for the conversation. Other times, people would try to talk to me in English, but the accent was so thick that Tera still had to interpret for me. And a lot of times, I could hardly tell if people were speaking Chinese or English because the Chinese words sometimes sounded like English, and the English words sometimes sounded like they should be Chinese. It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who are brave enough to go to an entirely foreign country to live.
At the beginning of the picnic, we sang a few songs as a group. Some of them were in English, and of course I didn’t have any trouble with those. But other songs were sung in Chinese, and even though I had the words in front of me, I couldn’t read them because it was in traditional lettering. So I had to just stand there awkwardly while everyone else sang and pretend that I knew what I was doing. For the last song though, I was able to participate a little more. It was still in Chinese, but the words we had also had the musical notes of the melody above it. I realized that although I couldn’t read the Chinese characters, I could read the musical notes, so I simply sang the notes without using any actual words.
Perhaps the greatest cultural difference I noticed was in eating. The picnic consisted of a mix between American and Chinese cuisine (the main dishes were hamburgers, hot dogs, and various noodles), but of course all the food was being eaten in a Chinese manner. I was amused to see many of the people eating hamburgers without buns and hot dog buns without hot dogs. It was a good reminder that there is always more than one way to eat a particular food. I also noticed that many of the people would pick up large chunks off their plates and bite off of the chunk. Many also ate with their faces very close to the food. If I didn’t know better, I would say that Chinese people must simply have bad manners, but that is not true. It is simply the way people are used to eating in China. If I were to go to China and use American manners, the Chinese would probably think I have bad manners too. For Americans, it is very poor manners to slurp your soup. But for the Chinese, it is rude to not slurp your soup. It’s all a matter of perspective.
So over all, I had a really good time at the picnic. The people there were a lot nicer to be around than the people at the average american picnic. When it came time to get the food, they had the young kids go first, then the elderly people, then everyone else. And it wasn’t like a big mad rush to get the food either. When Americans get in a line for food, it’s always a big competition to get the food first, and to get the most food possible. But not at this picnic. People were more interested in talking to each other than getting food. Meeting with people, hanging out, and having a good time. That’s what they cared about. Not just eating the food. And that should be what a picnic is about.