AmeriCan & AmeriCan’t

After living and working in the States for the past three months, I have noticed several things you can do here but not in China, and several things that are considered strange but would be normal in my home country. Behavioral differences can reflect life philosophies, but other times it is just done without any deeper meaning.


Walking on the Grass

“What?” “Yes, you heard me correctly.” It is completely acceptable to walk on the grass in any public space, even the grass on the sides of the street or a park! In China, however, you will most likely see signs reminding people to keep off of the grass because it is also living. I think that if you want to go to the other side of the lawn, just use the sidewalk and take a small detour!


 Washing the dishes…in a dish washer!

In China, every dish is served on a separate plate, which produces many dirty dishes; however, most people still hand wash their dishes. Only a few wealthy families have enough space and can afford to own one in their home. Therefore, my only exposure to dishwashers was watching American soap operas and visiting my friends’ homes in the suburban areas of big Chinese cities . That’s why for the first couple of days here, I had no clue how to use a dishwasher, and still hand washed all of my dishes.


Hanging Your Wet Clothes Outside

A couple of months ago, a report caught my attention. A group of older Chinese women in NY were hanging wet clothes on their balconies to dry, which is considered unusual in the US. (dama, as newly coined in English) Whereas, if you went to any Chinese university dorm, you would see an array of colorful clothing hanging on a rope connected to the balcony. In the US, you are expected to put your wet clothes into a dryer and the machine, not the sun, dries them for you. It’s actually very interesting considering most Chinese people are considered reserved, but you do see a lot of people hanging their underwear outside for any passerby to see.


Don’t hold hands/link arms  of someone of the same sex, unless you want people to assume you’re in a relationship.

Americans love to hug each other and Chinese love to hold hands, although it’s mostly female friends who hold each other’s hands. In China, women walk arm in arm, no matter how old they are or where they are walking. It doesn’t indicate they are lovers, just friends. In America, however, one of my professors told me to never do that because people might misunderstand. It’s ok for people of the same sex to hug goodbye, but if you walk around holding someone’s hand, Americans will assume you are in a relationship.

Can I have a glass of hot water?

The first day I arrived in the States, I went to a restaurant in the Seattle airport and asked for a glass of hot water, which is the most common drink in China. The waitress asked me if I wanted to put anything into it and I said, “Just plain old hot water with nothing in it.” Almost every time I ask for a glass of hot water, Americans ask me the same question. I now understand Americans drink ice water to be refreshed, just like Chinese drink hot water to warm them up.



Two months before I came to the U.S., I decided to put my apartment on rental and move to a temporary residence, which was too small for all of my belongings. Through the years I had accumulated numerous amounts of stuff: brand new children’s toys, cooking books, hardly read handicraft books, knitting tools, new kitchen wares, bed sheets, rugs, patchwork cloths and colorful threads, like new wool sweaters and pants of various lengths, a trench coat, gloves, dozens of new journals, you name it. Even for a regular online seller and shopper like me, selling them online was too demanding given my tight moving schedule and wasn’t worth the small fraction of money I would have received. So I told all of my friends and people I knew that I would be having a yard sale that weekend and that they could come pick up anything they wanted at no cost. Pretty generous, right? That’s what I thought, but nobody showed up at my door that weekend even though some people did ask me to hold a certain item for them. So the unwanted stuff which could be put to better use ended up in two huge trashcans downstairs. You might wondering, “Why didn’t you just donate them to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army?” Well, we don’t have those two organizations in China.

When two of my housemates offered to take me to the Goodwill in Walla Walla one Saturday, I accepted gladly. The moment I walked in, I was pretty much impressed by how neat it was. The two spacious rooms were painted white and had both huge front windows and good lighting. The people working there were dressed in blue uniforms and greeted me right when I walked in. The whole store looked like a mini flea market, only without the yelling vendors and unpleasant smells. Instead the shoppers were quiet and the music was light.

The racks of clothes were arranged both by color and size. Hoodies, sweaters, coats, blazers, dresses, pants, even pajamas could be found here. Seriously? Pajamas? Not many Chinese would buy second-hand clothes, as far as I know, let alone pajamas. As I picked up items randomly, I was surprised to find them in pretty good condition with no holes, missing buttons, or broken zippers. Some of them were even new with the original price tags to prove it.

I strolled from the racks of clothes to book section and then on to the home section. There I found blankets, bedding, lamps of different designs, wooden desks, golf tools, education tools, home decorations, blenders, hair dryers and other home appliances. On one shelf there were sets of beautiful china plates and cups. Polished and shiny they seemed to smile at me, saying: “Hey, even though I’m from a thrift store, I’m as sassy as those from Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. Take me home; I want to sit in a garden beside the country road.”

Even having heard and read a lot about the Goodwill, I was not quite sure about buying anything there at first; thirty minutes later I had tried on several jeans in the fitting rooms with another sweater hanging on the wall. At last I walked out of there with a pair of jeans, a cute blue cross-body bag, and a story book in Chinese for the house.

On our way back home , I was happy to be one of the rare Chinese people who would buy second-hand clothes, but on the other hand I felt a little bit sad for having had to dump my stuff instead of donating it.

We have an anti-second-hand culture in China. Buying used stuff is considered losing face (diulian) for Chinese, which is a huge event. We try to define a person by the stuff he owns and uses, so if possible almost everyone wants to get something new, not something preowned. By having the newest stuff, we think we can gain the respect of others and maintain face (mianzi ). Clothes make the man, but a man should not only be defined by what he wears.

In certain areas in my hometown, lots of people need shoes and clothes to keep them warm during the harsh winter, and numerous children need journals to write homework in, pens to draw with, and books to read. For those who want to donate here in the U.S., it’s not so hard to find those in need.


Qu Jiangli


My First Rock-climbing

I want to try everything new, and I did in the past 8 months. I tried to learn swimming, and learned breath stroke. I tried to travel alone, and enjoyed travelling from east to west. I tried to taste food I don’t know, and fell in love with some. But there is one thing I didn’t do and have been planning to do for a long time.

Every time when I passed the Climbing Wall, I wondered what was inside. There is a sculpture outside, on which, there are some colorful handholds. Once or twice, I even saw someone climbing on it. It looked quite fun! When the weather was handholds on the rock: red, green, blue, orange, pink, purple, yellow…

There is another reason why rock-climbing is more attractive to me. Jack and Matt, two boys in my writing class, kept on writing something about rock-climbing. They wrote about their special love to rocks, their adventures and enjoyment in climbing, and even their nightmares about rock-climbing. While I was reading Jack’s paper, I started imagining climbing in the raw nature without rope or those colorful hand-holds; imagining them climbing on the snow-white mountain top, walking on the iced pathway, the gray rocks and rolling stones…

Today, when I checked my schedule and found I have all evening free (Usually, I prefer to go to some lectures and Whitman has very good lectures!) I thought maybe it’s the time for me to try this new thing! But I heard that rock-climbing requires two people to climb together, so I called Violeta, who was also interested in everything new. She was very excited and would like to go together. And she even told me that today was “Ladies’ Night”, which means it would not be so awkward to fall down and lie on your back in front of boys. It seemed she had been observing this sport for a while and was eager to go.

At 8pm, we two appeared at the Climbing Wall. The girl who worked at the front desk came up to help. When she learned that it was the first time for us to climb, she handed us two forms to fill.

The first page was “Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability for the Whitman College Climbing Center”. I even didn’t read and signed, but Violeta was very careful. She read them one by one and even exclaimed with horror “Oh my goodness!” She pointed to the line and read loudly “ I understand that the dangers and the risks of participation in the Program could include but is not limited to, death, serious neck or spinal injuries which may result in complete or partial paralysis or brain damage…”her eyes opened widely and she said again “Oh my God!” The painful expression emerged on her face, which seemed that she had already started imagining these horrible accidents happened to her. “Oh come on. Do not read it at all. The more you read, the less you want to try.” I told her in the tone of an experienced person. She frowned and kept on reading, silently. A few seconds later, she said with strong determination “Ok, I think I will stop reading it. You are right. Before I read it, I was excited and eagered to try. Now, I am very nervous and even want to give up.” “Oh no, you can’t give up even before you try!” I encourged her. Then she signed, biting her lower lip, frowned, again. I started laughing and said “To tell the truth, I even dare not to read it, because I know it will scare me. Usually, it will not happen.” She noded but still looked not relieved.

Then we turned to the second form, it was “Safety Policies and Rules”  This time none of us read more than 2 seconds and signed.

“Ok, it seems you all have done?” The girl in the front desk smiled and took the paper we handed. “Oh, the Helmet Waiver” she pointed at a small piece in the middle of the first form, “you two both want helmets?” she asked. “Yes” we two answered in chorus. “En, it’s the first time you climb, so maybe you will be in this wall” She turned to look at a not high rock on her left side. “Oh, then maybe helmet is not needed!” I understood and said. Then we were set to watch a video about 8 minutes, which was mainly about the safety and skills of climbing.

Now we were ready to have a try. The rock looked not high but very steep. It was easy to find handholds but the problem was I couldn’t hold for seconds! It seemed I was too fat to climb. But Violeta is a slim girl, still it was impossible for her to either hold longer or move a step.

We tried on that wall about 30 minutes, and made no progress. Violeta sighed and had an idea “As we are here, maybe we should take pictures! At least we tried!.” So I rushed back to fetch my camera and we had a good time in posing in front of the wall and pretended climbing high. After I posted all photos several people asked me “Why didn’t you wear a helmet or a rope?” My reply was “It was above the ground 50 cm,haha!”

Seeing us struggling and almost on the verge of giving up, the girl worked in the front desk came up and showed us some skills in climbing. But we failed even after her instruction. Then another girl who was an expert in climbing (I saw her climbed to the top of the rock just now when I had nothing to do but stood and watched) gave us the suggestion to try another wall. Although that wall was high, it was not so steep.

I tried first. With the help of all those handholds, I can hold for a while, but moving was still not so easy. Before you move, you should find the best footholds and handholds, and try to keep your body paralyzed to the wall. I even twisted my body once, which made it hard to move or hold. I tried several times and can climb higher to the red line (the line for beginners). Violeta tried and she did a good job, too. At least, better than what we did just now.

As we were trying hard and enjoying ourselves, we saw people start leaving. “Oh, it’s almost 10pm.” I looked at my watch. “They close at 10. Maybe we should leave.”Voileta started to collect her things.

I really enjoyed this rock-climbing. Although I didn’t climb a lot and didn’t have deep reflection, it was a kind of enjoyment. The only pity was we didn’t start climbing the “right” wall early. If there is another chance, I would like to try it again. Maybe, I will fall in love with rock-climbing, as what I did to other stuffs.

Qu Jiangli


                                                                                                            Sue & Mike

“Take a left at the third light and you will be on 12, honey.”

“Honey, thank you for the drive. It is fabulous! The speed limit is 25.”

“Look, there is a deer! Oh, a group of them, at least 4. Watch the road, dad.”

Sue is always the person who sits in the back but holds the floor. Of course, usually she sits next to Mike when I am not here. She is so good at directions, which makes me questioning if there is a map of the world in her mind.

Sue & Mike are my host family. Before I came here, I filled out a form about myself and agreed to have a host family. But to tell the truth, I didn’t expect a lot, because I was going to live with my residents, and mostly hang out with them. And I was sure I could learn about American culture from them.

“Dingdong, dingdong,” the doorbell rang. “It must be my host family!” I said and rushed to open the door. Outside, two smiling faces were waiting for me, a tall man standing behind a golden haired lady. “Hi, I am Sue. And this is Mike.” Both of them looked like they were in their early 60s.

I gave them big hugs, which surprised them a lot. After hosting so many Chinese scholars and students, they knew that Chinese people didn’t hug, which made me different. In fact, I just learned how to hug from watching American soap operas.

We sat at the table and started talking about ourselves. We also talked about the people they had hosted whom I happened to know. Sue was very active and talkative, while Mike was silent. I really can’t remember whether he said anything or not that day.(I was proved wrong later! Mike is very knowledgeable in history, geology, sociology, etc. And he can keep on talking all our way to Oregon.)

They told me that they would be gone for the next 3 weeks because they were traveling in Turkey. I was surprised that people at their age were still traveling such a long distance. Sue saw my surprise, smiled, and said “I am 72, and Mike is 75.” They looked much younger than their age.( Later, after I learned that Sue runs a Marathon every year and saw Mike bicycling like he was at his 20s, I saw that they also acted much younger than their real ages.)

In China, when you turn 60, people expect you not to do intense sports, because you might break your legs or have a heart attack. So most older people in China look even older than they are.

I also found that Chinese people don’t travel a lot. I can think of three reasons: One, traveling is not easy. In China, the train is the main mode of transportation and it’s not easy to buy a ticket because we have such a big population. Two, traveling is exhausting. You can find Chinese runs most travel agencies in the U.S. It is easy and safe to take a tour, and you can see a lot of places of interest within one day, but the problem is that you will not have enough time to explore every place. They are efficient but exhausting. Three, traveling is dangerous. Like I mentioned above, older people are usually encouraged to do some easy sports, but traveling requires you to be adventurous and strong. Usually, you can’t eat well, or sleep well, and you will have to walk a lot or stay in a car for a long time.

“Are you interested in museums? Maybe we can go to the Walla Walla Museum when we are back.” Asked Sue. She had planned our first trip. It was really a very good trip and on our way, we even went into a casino.

I have learnt about American culture from different perspectives, and Sue & Mike have played an essential role. It’s true I am living with my residents, who are all Americans, but they are always busy with their schoolwork. And in fact, just like in China or in other countries, college is a special time in life, it is different from the real life at home before or after. Sue & Mike offered me a window through which I saw the real American culture.

I celebrated my first Christmas with Sue & Mike and Sue’s family. It was during the winter break and I had traveled back from the East Coast. Exhausted and lonely, I was picked up by Sue and her son Jeff at the airport on Christmas Eve. Usually, American people would stay at home with family, but they came to the airport. The moment I saw them there, I was moved to tears.

The next day, we headed to Sue’s niece Heidi’s home in the Tri-Cities. I was warmly welcomed by all of her relatives and we were offered a feast on this special festival. It was snowing heavily outside and you can see colorful lights in the neighborhood through the window; and inside, it was warm and happy— a traditional Christmas in my mind. (Of course, from the American soap operas.)

I played a card game with her family under the unclear American rule (I figured it out after playing it for about 30 minutes). Although I eventually lost, it was the first time I had played cards with a group of Americans.

I watched a fatabulous basketball game at the stadium with Sue’s family. I was wearing a T-shirt with the team logo and yelled and clapped happily. It was the first time I had watched a basketball game in person. (I had watched a football match in China before, but Chinese football, you know!)

I fell in love with a huge dog for the first time at Sue’s daughter’s home in Portland during this winter break. She was as huge as a black bear, but I saw mildness and tenderness in her eyes the first time we looked at each other. I had never kept a pet at home, because I am usually a little scared of animals. But that time, it proved that the huge dog really loved me, and she even came to my room to sleep next to my bed.

All these “first-time experiences” made my life vibrant and full in this country far away from home. Sue & Mike are like my family in the U.S. now.

This spring break, when I was planning my trip to Canada, Sue & Mike helped me again. Their daughter Jennifer, who lives in Montreal, came to pick me up at the airport and drove me back and forth every day. She was as sweet as her parents!

Just last weekend, Sue & Mike drove 3 hours to take me to see the deepest canyon in America and drove to Idaho on our way back to let me have more things to talk about when back in China (I traveled in 3 states in one day!) They are really so nice to me!

Yesterday, Sue drove almost 3 hours to take me to see her brother Bob’s farm. It was a shock for me to see how good the living conditions are for American farmers and I could not move my eyes from all those advanced machines working on the farm. While in China, no one really wants to be a farmer because farmers live a hard life, they can’t make as much money as most workers do. People living in the farm try to move to cities, and farmers’ children study harder to change their lives—they don’t want to be farmers as like their parents.

And next week, Sue & Mike are planning to take me to a trip to Sue’s sister Trish’s farm, because although Bob and Trish both are farmers, their farms are different and their products are different.

I am really so lucky to have a host family like Sue & Mike! They offered me more opportunities to know this country and their culture. What I learned most are the good qualities they have: good-heart, hospitality, optimist, confidence and the most important is—to love your life!

Tiny details

In my first week in the US, I noticed lots of tiny details about life at Whitman and Walla Walla which caught my attention for being different, weird, strange, and extraordinary. This is random stuff that American students probably take for granted because for them it’s obvious and very normal, but definitely not so much for foreign visitors. Here are 5 examples that, to my mind, are very striking:

  • IHC houses look exactly like in the computer game “The Sims”. I’ve always lived in an apartment, so I was really excited to discover things like the porch swing, the fireplace, and the creepy basement. I’ve taken so many pictures of houses in the US!

  • At Whitman it’s OK to walk on the lawn, or even splay on it if you want to. Not so much in parched Andalucía – south of Spain- where perfect lawns with sprinklers are regarded as a luxury. Drought is an issue almost every summer, so people can be extremely water-conscious.

  • Students wearing their PJ pants in the dining halls and around campus. OMG! What’s more, I once saw someone wearing slippers at a professor’s office, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never dream of doing this if I were in my home university.

  • Every time I buy things at a store the same thought crosses my mind: “beware, taxes are not included”. For that reason, I find that price tags in the US are downright devious, whereas in Spain I always know the exact amount that I’m going to pay at the checkout.

  • I absolutely love getting free water in restaurants! I was also delighted to discover that if you can’t finish your meal, you can take it out in a box and the waiter won’t glare at you. Back home, waiters expect you to buy overpriced mineral water, and very seldom do they have boxes for you to take out your meal.

And I’ve just scratched the surface. If you’ve travelled abroad , can you think of other examples?

One of the things I have noticed in the US that is very different from France is the culture of leaving tips. In the US, it seems that you have to give a tip to the waiter or the waitress, no matter what. In France such a thing would never be expected of any customer. I worked as a waitress a few summers ago and if I wanted a tip from a client, I had to deserve it.  It wasn’t simply a mark of a customer’s appreciation of the meal in general or the ambiance of the restaurant. Because of this, I had to be very nice to every customer — smiling, attentive, and energetic.
I was very surprised the first time I was asked to give a tip in the US. The waiter hadn’t been very nice to me; he was distant and inconsiderate, so I didn’t feel that he deserved a tip.  Furthermore, when I paid by credit card, the desk clerk asked me to sign and to add an amount for the tip.  Since I didn’t have any cash and they had already swiped my card, I thought I would just leave it this way — but I understood only when I saw my bank statement that they charged me the tip anyway. I was very surprised by this method.
In France it would be inconceivable to have this system; it creates a system of entitlement. For us, the tip is a good way to build a relationship between waiters and customers.  If the customer is happy with the service, she will give a tip and be delighted to do it — and the waiter will be pleased to have his service recognized. But tips are only a recognition of exemplary service.  The lack of a tip is not an offense, as it seems to be in the US.

In Japan, we have a cultural practice of giving gifts to hosts. When you visit someone else’s house in Japan, you would normally bring some kind of present to them, because you know you will be in their care and you want to recognize their generosity. Even when I was younger, my mom would make me bring presents for my friends and their family whenever I visited them. Although I know that this is not expected here in the US, having grown up in this culture where this type of thing is very common, I feel like I have to have something when I go over to someone’s house. This impulse is so deeply ingrained that I can’t stop myself, even when I try.

When I flew to the US, I brought a lot of gifts from Japan just for this purpose, but I’m all out now, and so when I stayed with a friend and her family over Thanksgiving, I didn’t have anything to give them. Since I was told that I didn’t need to bring anything, at first I was going to bring just myself. But it just felt so weird going to someone’s house with no gifts that I ended up getting something small on the way.

I was thinking about this gift-giving tradition that we have in Japan, and wondered if they really don’t have anything like this in the US. Then I realized that people here write thank-you cards instead (or at least a lot more than we do in Japan), which I think is a great custom. My family and I have hosted several people from the US in the past few years, and they all sent us thank-you cards after they went back to their homes. My parents were really impressed because we rarely write cards. I still think giving people gifts to show appreciation is nice, because you take time to think about them and appreciate their kindness in choosing gifts, but I also think it’s nice to write cards to express your gratitude. I don’t know if this is a strictly American custom or not, but if it is, this is one of the things that I admire about American culture.