I recalled a recent family visit to Shanghai. There even I experienced a certain stomach-churning horror at some aspects of Chinese culture, particularly when seeing them through the eyes of my Western (just one-quarter Chinese) daughters—and their equally California-bred cousins. In Shanghai, traffic laws are viewed as suggestions only—with the result that one should not step into a crosswalk if one can see cars coming, because they really will not stop (of course, the same goes for the crosswalks of my neighboring Asian-heavy South Pasadena). The children were shocked to witness a car smash into a motorbike just six feet away, tearing the bike’s headlamp off in a splatter of glass and ejecting the rider—after which, the car simply backed up and screeched off. Waiting in long lines for squat toilets, they were appalled to see elderly Shanghainese ladies push blithely past 20 waiting people to gruntingly enter the first open stall. The nadir came with the trip to the open-air market. It wasn’t the live carp jumping around our ankles, the rows of plastic tubs bubbling with squirming eels, or even the alley of Plexiglas-enclosed “chicken rooms,” where burly men in sweaty wifebeater undershirts slaughtered live chickens while chain-smoking. Oh, no. It was the cheerful yanking off of the legs of live, squirming bullfrogs with—ahh!—pliers. Traumatized at the sudden spray of blood around the hapless twitching amphibians, the children declared these the cruelest people in the world.
Thinking global, I leaned forward to give the kids a silky-voiced, tolerance-enhancing lesson in poverty cuisine: “It’s just that you enjoy so much wonderful food in America—fruits, vegetables, bread, yogurt, meat processed so much you don’t recognize it. By contrast, in remote parts of China, people are so poor that all they have to eat is mice or crickets or—or—or bullfrogs, or else they will die.” At which point a Shanghainese painter friend of ours, who, unlike me, is an actual mainland native, politely demurred, saying: “Well, no. This is what I hate about the Chinese. They insist on having the animal killed in front of them so they can guarantee it’s fresh. They need to see the gleam in the animal’s eye so they know the merchant is not cheating them.”
All righty then!
--Sandra Tsing Loh, Atlantic Monthly, on culture shock