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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

New Relatives

In America, I have one younger brother, two aunts, two uncles, two grandparents, and no sisters. In China, I have infinite of each. From “Ying Jie” (Sister Ying), my warm-hearted, chestnut loving older sister who manages a cultural center in Sha Xi, to “Zhang Shu Shu” (Uncle Zhang), my jovial uncle who showed our confused group of foreigners how to navigate down a mountain as we taught him how to snap. Although aware that this nation is run by the Chinese Communist Party, I didn’t truly understand how culturally ingrained the value of community is until I witnessed it first-hand. Even practical strangers are referred to as brother, rather than Mr. or Mrs. This pseudo-familial tie instantly envelopes the blossoming relationship with a sense of comfort.

Even in a large city, such as Kunming, the sense of camaraderie is palpable. When strolling through Green Lake Park, one can hear roaring laughter and cheeky remarks erupting from dozens of elderly men playing and observing Mahjong, and one can see groups of people serenely practicing Tai Chi together. Nearly everyone I have talked to thus far has not only been welcoming, but eager to form a bond… whether it be the monk at the Xu Ning Si temple who asked Ryan for his WeChat, or “NaiNai” (grandmother), the matriarch at seemingly every restaurant who wants to make sure we loved the food. In fact, even the act of eating itself is community based; most meals are eaten family style, in which each dish is shared by the whole group. It is also custom to continually serve and offer food to others.

When something as trivial as going to the grocery store becomes a trip to chat with a good friend rather than a chore, life is filled with much more laughter. As my instructor, Kang Lao Shi, explained to me, relationships with people such as shop clerks and restaurant owners, well, exist here (including special perks of friendship such as discounts). I cannot think of a single store clerk in New Jersey I know personally, while after just five days in the village of Sha Xi, I find myself smiling and waving to new friends. Although I appreciate the sense of individualism I gained growing up in America, I’m excited to feel the synergy and the “Hominess” I imagine that comes along with being a part of the tight knit communities I have witnessed here in China.