I’m Surprised by Many Aspects of Xiamen

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Published 2006-08-12

The smell of Xiamen

I was completely unprepared for the novelty of odors in Xiamen. I knew it might smell "bad" or "strange" but couldn't have known how completely new it would smell. It's not so much that it smells "bad," its more that the general miasma is completely unlike anything I'd ever smelled before. For example: whenever I smell incense burning (previously one of my least favorite smells) I take a deep breath because at least it's a smell I recognize. I was prepared for "bad smells" but I was unprepared for the total lack of olafactory familiarity.

Everything in China is a social event.

Everything. There is no job so simple that it cannot be done by less than two people. Corollary: you can't go anywhere and be alone. If there's an empty place (parking lot, bathroom, greenspace at the park), someone (usually a uniformed guard) is literally being paid just to stand there.

Xiamen is very pretty.

Even prettier than photos would suggest. The first few days we were here I let the pervasive smelliness cloud my judgment of its beauty; I have since come to realize that Xiamen is clean and leafy. The streets are remarkably free of litter and most are well planted. It reminds me a bit of a tropical version of Berlin, but much much cleaner. One advantage of the abundant workforce is many people are paid to pick up trash, sweep streets, and generally look after the urban environment.

Thus far culture shock has not been too extreme.

I am OK with not understanding overheard conversations but being unable to read signage is getting really frustrating. Jenny's ability to speak even a little Mandarin (and mine to read it) is apparently very impressive to the Chinese people we've met. Also: what little Mandarin we've learned is surprisingly useful. Just knowing numbers and a handful of common words ("good" "bad" "can do" "can't do" "north" "south" "want", etc.) gets you pretty far.

Being stared at does not bother me in the least.

When we walk Bismarck we are a major item of interest. He's about the size of ten Chinese dogs; old people and children are literally scared of him. We always make him sit which demonstrates his good nature and that turns their opinions. Chinese people do not restrain or train their dogs in any way. So I suspect our control over him might border on supernatural. Jenny diligently greets everyone who stares at us which is slowly breaking people down. I just stare back.

I am not much put off by the heat and humidity.

Everyone here sweats a lot so it just doesn't bug me. I thought I'd just hate it but the weather is OK if you just accept you will get sweaty. As with the smells, the heat and humidity combo is so novel to me that I have no frame of reference to decide whether it's "good" or "bad." It is not quite as hot as those 100+ Nebraska scorchers, but about a million times more humid. Maybe the abundant greenery modulates my perception of the heat.