• Matthew Kaufman

Judgement and Traveling in China: Lessons in Humility and Perspective

Some time ago, I had the unique opportunity of getting to spend some 50 days traveling across mainland eastern China.

It's an incredible experience dining in China. Generally, you go to most American or European style restaurants and you would be presented with a variety of food dishes. These dishes are generally named after their appearance or ingredients. For example, if you see “Curly Fries” you can safely know that these are french fries that are prepared in a manner that makes them curly. That was not my experience whilst in China. My dear friend who was helping translate for me explained that dishes were named after their region and their flavors. A novel concept, for sure. In some ways, this was very helpful and was more descriptive than perhaps their ingredient naming would have been. Take American barbecue dishes as an example. There are a multitude of ways of smoking ribs and applying barbecue sauce that all produce different flavors. Naming after flavors in these ways would actually make things easier to understand. Conversely, when you go to order a chicken dish with rice, it’s helpful to know what all will be used in the dish rather than just knowing that it will be spicy and done in the Beijing style.

I also noticed the power and uprising of digital currency there. Most people in China use an app called WeChat. Many people have probably heard of it outside of China, but in China it is almost universal that everyone has it. Likewise, almost everywhere in China, you can pay with WeChat. Almost any service, good, or anything else you would spend money on, you can almost always pay with WeChat.

This to me is a double edged sword and made me re-evaluate how I store my own currency. You see, while I was staying over there, I was using the local currency as most I could because I did not have a cell phone while I was traveling. While I never really had any trouble with this, it did open my eyes to a very sobering fact. Back here even in the United States, I almost never carry cash and very rarely keep cash even lying around the house. But what if I was suddenly cut off from my bank or if there was some issue where I couldn’t use a credit card? How would I pay for a dinner I ordered then? While paying via an app or card is certainly a convenience, I realized how vital it is to have a fall back plan, lest you incur the wrath of the producer of the good or service.

Finally, it gave me a very different perspective of what it’s like to be the minority among a majority. Many people I interacted with had never seen a white American with facial hair in person before. Or they might have seen a few, but it was incredibly uncommon for the area. I was constantly being looked at, stared at, and watched. Some of this was very nice and welcoming. Some people were just genuinely interested and curious about me, what brought me to China, what I thought of the places, and so on. Many of these kind people would even go so far to ask if they could take pictures with me. Other people were not so nice.

The old proverb about never judging someone till you've walked a mile in their shoes still holds up.

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