Short Story 1: Langfang, Hebei, China
Unexpected Moments in Old-School China
In this short story, we'll encounter some unexpected moments during my six months in Langfang, Hebei, China, in 2013. Langfang was my first experience living and traveling abroad, and Corporate China is where I landed my first professional internship. All right, let’s dive in!
Unexpected Moments (2016)
1.1: Culture Shock
My first three days in Langfang were emotionally difficult. Culture shock was starting to take its toll. I felt vulnerable and hesitant. Five days before arriving in mainland China, I was in California ecstatic to embark on a quest abroad. I had an emotional high from my commencement where I received an MBA degree. Five days after graduation, I was five thousand nine hundred miles away from home feeling confused in China. What I learned in textbooks and classrooms during college and in graduate school was out the window in the Hebei province. Formulating a hypothesis (an educated guess) on how my experience would be in Langfang wouldn’t have helped. I remember the text message I sent my sister through Skype on day two: “I don’t know if I can do this.” As I typed, my eyes got watery, and a tear came running down my right cheek. I couldn’t understand why I felt fragile, marginal, and inadequate. My sister was astonished that I was second-guessing myself. In less than ten seconds, my eyes dried, I regained composure and rolled up my sleeves and said, “I can do this!” My options were to fight, flight, or freeze. My decision was to fight, by changing my attitude and reiterating some positive affirmations throughout the day. I incorporated a holistic approach to help keep my sanity and emotions at bay with morning meditation. Throwing in the towel wasn’t an option. I had to shift gears and put on my emotional intelligence hat. Wishful thinking would only get me so far. Despite the disarray with my apartment situation, I was hopeful that things would iron out.
1.2: The Kid & Two Babies
There were three memorable moments at Yang Guang Jia He, the apartment/community where I was living in Langfang that took me by surprise. On day two, a local woman was with her baby boy in the outdoor exercise area. From a distance, it seemed as if the infant was in a t-shirt and diaper. As I walked by, the female stood up, turned, and held the baby with his back and rear end planted on her chest. She lifted up his legs toward the sky, and the infant was urinating on the concrete floor. It was broad daylight and Chinese locals were present. The woman wasn’t trying to be private about her son’s public water fountain display. After a week in Langfang, I observed another woman with her baby son outside in the community plaza. He was wearing a pajama. I could tell by the lack of coordination in the infant’s movement that he was in the beginning stages of walking. He had a large custom slit on the rear end of his pants. The baby wasn’t wearing a diaper or underwear underneath. My first assumption was that the pajama had been put on backward, but it wasn’t. Perhaps the slit on his rear end was an alternative version for easily defecating (going number two) rather than strapping on a diaper. Another vivid moment at Yang Guang Jia He was the child that I saw at the front entrance on a Sunday afternoon. There were street vendors selling food and merchandise on the sidewalk. Cars, buses, taxis and locals were passing through, while street sweepers were sweeping the usual dust. As I was about to enter the community, I turned my head and caught a glimpse of the unforeseen: an elementary school kid in a deep squat position, defecating on the sidewalk. I continued walking with a poker face pretending I didn’t see what the child was doing.
1.3: The Beijing Belly
Paul, one of the American interns, had brought to my attention “The Beijing Belly,” which revolves around a niche group of local men in China, age’s thirty and above, who show off their stomach in public. The interns and I would witness random males, specifically in Beijing and Langfang, with their t-shirt rolled above their tummy, with a knot in the front (above the chest), or behind (above the lower back). Interestingly, “The Beijing Belly” was displayed by different generational cohorts mainly during the summer. Generation X and baby boomer groups that were exposing their stomach weren’t attractive male models or studs with six pack abs. Instead, some of the local men were flaunting their Homer Simpson style gut. Out of all the interns, Paul had the greatest laughs. He would occasionally emulate “The Beijing Belly” by walking around with his t-shirt rolled up to his chest humorously revealing his stomach. What was strange is how I observed heterosexual males, in particularly millennials, wearing tight capri jeans in public. At the underground mall in downtown Langfang, clothing stores that provided mainstream men’s apparel had mannequins displayed in tight-fitting capris. Sometimes I saw males wearing high capri pants while publicly showing off their stomach. The lifestyle in the Hebei province was never a dull moment, even with the twists and turns.
At the apartment (Yang Guang Jia He), firecrackers would go off during unexpected times of the day, mainly on the weekends. 0530 (5:30 a.m.) was the earliest time I heard them pop. Listening to booms that resemble the sound of gunshots for six months would make my body cringe sometimes. The first time I heard firecrackers at night in my community, I made two profound assumptions: one, an armed lunatic was outside going on a rampage, or two, a mysterious vigilante was protecting the vicinity. After a few seconds, I realized that the two assumptions were false exaggerations, and the bangs were firecrackers. Dan, a Chinese colleague who worked in the same department as I, provided some clarification on the blasts that I would hear at Yang Guang Jia He. Aldo: Why do firecrackers go off in my community? Dan: When you hear firecrackers in Langfang it means a baby was born. Aldo: No wonder. (Smiling) I hear them at least once every two weeks. Sometimes once a week. Dan: The people are celebrating a new birth. There is a recollection that I have of firecrackers at the apartment complex. On a Friday night, I felt exhausted from the workweek. I was looking forward to sleeping in and not hearing my alarm going off at 0530 (5:30 a.m.). On Saturday at 0615 (6:15 a.m.), I heard explosions outside of my window that sounded as if bombs were falling from the sky. I jumped out of my bed; my blood pressure was going up, and I let it all out. Aldo: DAMN, MAN! I’M TIRED OF THIS SHIT! I could barely hear myself shouting. My roommate was in her room, which was next to mine. I wasn’t sure if she heard what I said. The firecrackers were popping for about a minute. It was my angriest moment in Langfang. Talk about a rude awakening on a Saturday morning at Yang Guang Jia He.
After the four-hour bus ride from Langfang, I arrived in Shijiazhuang. I stood out like a sore thumb, and I only saw one American in that active city. The downtown strip had stores, street vendors, and an underground mall. There was a parking lot with dozens of bicycles owned by the locals (as demonstrated in exhibit six). Shockingly, none of the bikes had padlocks. Witnessing more than one hundred unlocked bicycles in a congested public area made me realize that bike theft isn’t problematic in Shijiazhuang. The next morning, I stopped by a supermarket in a plaza on the strip to stock up on some snacks. It was about 0830 (8:30 a.m.), and the market had a crowd of people. Rather than providing free samples of food, some of the store employees were hollering at local customers to buy food, while chefs were busy cooking and frying in front of shoppers. As I was browsing in an aisle, I heard a loud commotion from a group of individuals a few aisles away. As I migrated toward the uproar, the tone of the voices intensified. Two male grocery employees were standing on a wooden pallet. I stood on my tippy toes, but I couldn’t see what was on it. There was a line of twenty to thirty people, ages forty-five to sixty-five. The two workers were signaling the crowd to move back. Some Shijiazhuang locals were surrounding the pallet, and they wanted the workers to move and get off. I was waiting for a brawl to break loose because of the turmoil. All of a sudden, the six locals that were neighboring the pallet pushed the two guys off. A few individuals from the line rushed in. People were shoving others while bent over so that they could get an item from the pallet. Two shoppers were playing tug of war with a twenty-five-pound bag of rice. There were about twelve bags on the pallet for a line of about thirty customers. The bags of rice cleared within thirty seconds. The locals weren’t yelling or fist fighting with one another during and after the shoving matches. Some even looked at each other smiled, laughed, and made I’m-going-to-get-a-bag-next-time gestures. The bags of rice incident at the grocery store in Shijiazhuang wasn’t comparable to “Walmart Black Friday” videos publicized on YouTube. What I witnessed didn’t have the chaotic and madness components that Black Friday’s have in America.
Discover more stories in Book 1, 180 Day Abroad with the Chinese Locals: What Textbooks and Classrooms Don't Tell Us About China, or visit other Short Stories in Merida (5), Phuket (4), Bangkok (3), and Shanghai (2).