When we first moved to Shanghai, I remember feeling so alien from the bigger world outside our safe and sheltered apartment complex that I was literally afraid to walk down the street where vendors were selling all manner of items off of blankets on the sidewalk. There was nothing threatening, but it was all so different, and I knew I stood out there. Later that year, as I became more familiar with the area, I felt confident enough to walk there and take photos, still as an observer, but not afraid.
I have recently been shopping for produce in a very local market. I have been in this market lots of times in the past, but really just to show it off to visitors we've had, not as a serious shopper. But now I'm going in a couple of times a week, visiting the same stalls, and coming out laden with bags of produce for a song. Really, how much would eight or so of the long English style cucumbers cost at a US grocery store? $10? Maybe more? I come away paying about a dollar for eight of them. All the produce is so inexpensive... love that. I love the way the vendor with the barrels of dry goods scoops rice into a little bag for me. I love watching the noodles and dumpling wrappers being made, fresh every day, in the noodle stall. But what I love more is feeling like a little part of the Chinese culture when I shop in that market. I wish I could go incognito, that I could look and speak Chinese. How would I see the market differently if that were possible? I know I stand out, but I can talk price in Mandarin, I can smile at the familiar shop keepers... I like this.
But as much as I like my newly formed local market habit, it makes me realize that it's only a tiny beginning of really seeing, let alone experiencing, the local culture. Do I have time left to really get a glimpse of deeper Chinese culture? Can I ever even hope to, as a westerner who doesn't speak the language? I am chiding myself a little for not putting forth more effort to learn it. It's not learning Spanish, you realize. It is a truly FOREIGN language with an even more foreign written language system. The sounds are familiar to me now, after hearing it for years, after hearing my children practice for their classes at school. There's not enough time left for me to learn enough to take me deeper into an understanding of who China is below the surface. But is it worth working on learning the language again now, with the time I have left? What will I do with it later?
I've read lots of books with Chinese themes, some novels, some history. I've gained real insight from them. They have given me a taste of Chinese culture, an appetizer. I will be able to continue to read about China from wherever in the world I may live, so that's a good thing. That level of learning can continue. Reading is great that way.
No neat and tidy ending to this post... I'm sure I'll continue to roll the culture idea around in my head, and maybe write some more about it later.