After my first week in Sichuan, I am pleased to announce that my lost luggage has been returned, my jet lag has disappeared, and I haven’t gotten sick. Other than that though, I don’t have much to report. I’m still getting used to the routine at the Laohegou Nature Reserve, figuring out what’s going on, who’s who, and how to decipher the Sichuan dialect. Being thrust into a new group of people in a new part of China has made me appreciate how close I became with many of the people I met in Lijiang. Hell, I even dated a local. We aren’t together anymore, but we are still in touch and chat occasionally on Wechat.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post. It’s something I imagine many people are curious about: what was it like to date a rural Chinese person? Weren’t there cultural differences?

The short answer is yes, there were. If the relationship were truly right, however, I believe that any of these differences could be overcome.

As for the long answer, I will attempt to explain several differences in mindset and behavior that I perceived to be cultural, rather than individual. This is not a complete list, and a Part Two might be necessary if I think of more points later. Bear in mind that since I can only speak from my personal experience, I cannot say for sure whether the following cultural differences are specific to ethnic Naxi people, whether they apply throughout rural Yunnan Province, or whether they are indicative of China as a whole.

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  1. Culinary Rigidity

In Southern China, people eat rice. Rice is their staple. Without it, a meal is incomplete. TF was not very adventurous when it came to food, and believed very strongly that without rice, he wouldn’t feel full. If we ate noodles for lunch, we had to have rice for dinner. If we ate at a western-style restaurant (which only happened occasionally), he would order the only rice dish on the menu. He didn’t like pizza, because as he saw it, the crust was a staple food and should be eaten separately from the meat, cheese, and vegetables. He had no taste for sweets, and little interest in trying new foods. Not to mention the fact that I consistently ate more than him!

  1. Insensitivity to Social Injustice

In the United States, most people are hyper-aware of political sensitivity and eager to avoid offending people. Even if many Americans are in fact prejudiced, we are usually unwilling to voice such opinions aloud. Not so in China. I heard several pointed comments aimed at TF, often along the lines of, “Most Naxi aren’t good looking, but you are.” Someone expressed disbelief that I, a foreigner, would choose a Naxi guy over all the fine Han specimens out there (this particular Han answered his own question). The interesting thing was, TF never seemed to mind at all. He even turned around and said similar things about other ethnicities. Uyghurs are terrorists. Yi are thieves. Et cetera. I had walked into a tangled web of Chinese ethnic relations, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. My American sensibilities were immediately offended, but if none of the people in question seemed insulted, then who was I to judge?

  1. Brotherhood

I first met TF through his “brother” Yixiu, owner of Rock Bar. I soon came to learn that most of the guys who hung out or worked at Rock Bar were “brothers” from the same village in Yulong County. Closer than ordinary friends, these guys shared long histories and a responsibility to protect and respect one another. Yixiu, as the oldest in the group and therefore the “big brother,” demanded the most respect. This often led to complex tensions and conflicts among the lower ranks. If the guys felt upset with Yixiu, they did not dare to voice their complaints for fear of disrespecting their big brother. To me, as TF’s girlfriend, I was granted access to this unusual network of locals. Many of the guys came to feel like real friends. At the same time, though, with TF I consistently felt second-place to his friends. The brotherhood always came first.

  1. Moneymaking

As an upper-middle class American, I was raised to believe that education is the path to success. Pick a direction, follow through, earn a degree (or several), and a long career will follow. This same mindset is very prevalent in urban Chinese society. In Lijiang, however, I found the opposite situation. I’ve written before about Ljiang’s tourism-dominated economy, in which livelihoods are created and destroyed based on informal interpersonal networks. This environment provides easy money to uneducated locals from impoverished backgrounds. Most of the young people I met were dabblers: they played music, worked in guesthouses, led tour groups, and sold local products to tourists. Only a few held full-time “careers,” such as TF’s roommate who was a real estate agent. With his college education, TF might have had more career opportunities than many of the other locals. But surrounded as he was by Lijiang’s unique tourism economy, he remained firmly entrenched in the culture of one-time moneymaking schemes: a jade sale here, a tour group there. In a way, I found this culture freeing and inspiring. Anything seemed possible. If he were tied down to a full-time job, TF would never have had the opportunity to play music, learn about the symbolic significance of jade or tea, or interact with tourists from all walks of life. His experiences have given him a unique appreciation of his own traditional culture, an appreciation that is arguably lacking in many parts of China (and the world).

On the other hand, the Lijiang Lifestyle made me feel anxious. There was a persistent lack of ambition in the air, and the locals spent hours every day playing cards, computer games, and hanging out. As time went on I began to worry that I was losing touch with my sense of idealism, and my belief that continuous learning and hard work would make the world a better place. My decision to apply to graduate school came about during one of those long, lazy days, when I realized that I would rather work hard towards some idealistic goal than remain comfortable forever.

  1. Folk Beliefs

These were the little differences in belief that may not seem important, but tend to add up and constitute a large component of a person’s worldview. TF truly believed in the healing power of jade, Chinese herbs, and ivory (which is another issue altogether). He believed that the Chinese zodiac was of indisputable importance, and once admitted that if I weren’t a foreigner, to whom the zodiac doesn’t really apply, he never would have dated someone from the Year of the Ram. Although many of these seemed like superstitions to me, I had to admit that I probably believe many things that would seem fallacious to Chinese people. MSG is bad. Eggs must be refrigerated. Tylenol cures all. I often discussed with TF what it means to believe in something, and we reached the agreement that belief cannot be forced. Although I wanted to believe in the power of jade, for example, I simply couldn’t. I hadn’t grown up with the idea. All we could do, we agreed, was accept and respect the beliefs of the other person and hope that our own beliefs would expand and evolve with time.

  1. Political Beliefs

I used to assume, naively, that all ethnic minorities in China are somehow at odds with the Chinese government. This is what the American media seem to suggest when they print another piece about Uyghur unrest or a suppressed Tibetan protest. In Yunnan, though, I discovered that many minority people identify very strongly as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. TF was one of these. His upbringing and education had instilled in him a firm belief in the greatness of Mao Zedong, and a strong loyalty to the Communist Party of China. Growing up in America, I had learned a very different story. But how could I argue? How could I question the legitimacy of TF’s education, when I have no way of proving that my own education was any more objective? Every history textbook emphasizes one perspective over another, and every public school curriculum reflects a political agenda. When political topics came up, I chose to respect TF’s point of view and move on. But if our relationship had progressed into something more serious, we might have needed to delve more deeply into uncomfortable subjects.

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The next question, I suppose, is whether or not these cultural differences contributed to the demise of my relationship with TF. I wish I could say they did not. I wish I could say that any two people from anywhere in the world can be brought together, as we were, by curiosity, respect, and a good sense of humor. But the truth is, cultural differences do matter. Perhaps if I had spent more time in rural China before meeting him, or if he had learned English and studied abroad, these differences might have been easier to overcome. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to commit to someone who doesn’t speak English, won’t eat pizza, and believes in his heart of hearts that Mao Zedong made no mistakes. I am pretty sure that TF, similarly, wasn’t ready to commit to a flighty American who travels all over the world and might someday get a PhD.

This was a fascinating and incredibly fun experience, and I am so happy that it happened. But now it’s time to move on to the next stage of my life: working in the Laohegou Nature Reserve in Sichuan. That’ll probably be the topic of my next blog post, so stay tuned!

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