'An Israeli Is Direct; They Says What They Think. In China, It’s the Exact Opposite'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Why a woman from Guangzhou got a Star of David tattoo, and what a young Israeli learned about himself while in Australia

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Alex Zeng.
Alex Zeng.Credit: Meged Gozani

Alex Zeng, 40, lives in Guangzhou, China; flying to Hong Kong

Excuse the ignorance, but what’s Guangzhou’s story?

It’s a Chinese port city with a 2,000-year history. During the Ming Dynasty, when everything was closed to foreigners, the only port in China was Guangzhou, so people from all over the world have always gone there to purchase and to trade goods.

What’s a girl from Guangzhou doing in Israel?

Sightseeing. I was here for 10 days and I visited Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem. I also went to the [West Bank] separation barrier but didn’t manage to see anything. The taxi driver was impatient and asked why I had wanted to come here in the first place.

Why did you?

I am interested in religions. The Chinese media publish a lot of information about Israel of the troublesome kind, but my sister had visited here a few years ago and told me it was all right.

Do you have a connection to Judaism? I see you have a Star of David tattoo.

Everyone asked me about that here. It’s just that when I was learning about the Bible, in China, the symbol interested me. In “The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown writes that one of the triangles stands for the man and the other one for the woman, so something about it reminded me of yin-yang.

I’m not sure Dan Brown can be relied on. Do you believe in any religion?

I don’t believe in anything, but my mother believes in Buddha, like 80 percent of the Chinese. Our religion is very similar to Buddhism, but it originates in China and is called Dao Jiao (Taoism). We have a small shrine in the house and my mother prays in the morning, noontime and evening. There is also a village shrine, of the local deity, and people pray there, too.

What do you do for a living?

I studied international commerce and work in it. It is very interesting; our clients come from all kinds of places in the world, and it is very important to know something about their culture. I am a liaison between foreign clients and local industries – a kind of translator of language and culture. Say, in the United States, if you told someone, “Hey, what a pretty dress,” the reply would be, “Thank you, I’m glad you like it.” But if you tell a Chinese woman that, she will answer you immediately that it is not so pretty, because the Chinese don’t want anyone to think that they are showing off.

Did you have a chance to encounter the complexities of Israeli culture?

Yes, we are doing a lot of business with Israel lately. An Israeli is direct; he says what he thinks. In China, it’s the exact opposite. You don’t lie, but what you have to say – you always talk around it. Like, if there’s an item of clothing that isn’t made well, a Chinese person won’t say “It’s not good,” but “Maybe it should be mended a bit.”

I thought that was an American thing.

When I learned English, my teacher said I should listen to what the Americans say after the word “but,” because the significant information only comes after that.

Funny. Your English is really excellent.

The truth is that most Chinese don’t speak good English, because in the Chinese education system you learn mainly how to pass exams. It’s an extremely competitive system. When you’re applying for work, the first thing they look at is which school you attended. If it’s not one of the top 10, you won’t even be invited for an interview. It was hard when I was in school, too; I slept about four hours a night in high school. But today’s it’s really awful. My sister’s son wanted to play during a break, but no one wanted to join him, because they all went to an enrichment class.

Do you have children?

No. I can buy a car and an apartment by myself, so why do I need to get married? Children are expensive, and even without them young people are under tremendous economic pressure. Someone calculated that an average person in Guangzhou would have to work 100 years to pay for an apartment; with my situation, things are actually relatively cheap. Many people in China live with their parents or grandparents, even after they get married.

Do you live alone?

I am living with my parents right now. For me it’s not a problem. My mother took care of me when I was young, and I want to take care of her, even though she is the one looking after me now. She is from the generation that thought married women should stay home, so she doesn’t let others do housework and there is always good food. And what can you do? I’m lazy.

Oz Shalom.Credit: Meged Gozani

Oz Shalom, 26, lives in Ashkelon; arriving from Brisbane, Australia

Hello, can I ask what you did abroad?

The idea was to get to Australia. I’m a diver and a skipper, and last year I worked for the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company [which carries oil from the Red Sea port to the Mediterranean]. Israel doesn’t have an port for oil tankers, so the ships dock in the open sea. We serviced the ships, transported the crew back and forth, and maintained communications with the shore. It’s tough work. It’s three days on and three days off, and when I wasn’t working, I traveled around Israel. I decided that I could do the same work abroad, big-time, in a bigger country. Every year Australia grants 500 visas to people under the age of 35, and with the visa you can travel and work for a year. There was a lottery and I lucked out: I flew with a friend and we landed in a small town in Queensland.

The Pacific is big and open, there’s plenty to discover there.

Everything was so different from Israel. The whole world is there, because Europeans have unlimited quotas with the visa. People from all over the world work and travel together, all of them in backpackers’ jobs – like at ranches, in construction. All kinds of crap jobs, because the Australians are lazy.

Did you find work?

Not on the sea at first. I worked for half a year as a tractor driver in Melbourne. It was amazing. It’s one of the best cities in the world; they’re really living the dream. But I also dealt with a lot of problems; there was quite a bit of drama during my time there. There are some very tough Australians in the isolated towns – people with no values who just want to drink beer. I found myself feeling like a soldier again, fighting with yourself and feeling alone, with no one who understands around you. I wasn’t hungry for bread but I was hungry for money, so I said I would drop the ego and finish the job. It steels you, makes you stronger.

Survival in Melbourne.

But then winter arrived, and I don’t like winter, so I went on a trip with a friend. We started in Melbourne, on the east coast, through Sydney. Camping, beaches, playing instruments a lot, hiking, snorkeling – less going to attractions, because we create attractions ourselves.


We were in a fully equipped 4x4 and stopped in less touristy places, because Australia can be expensive. Finally we got to Byron Bay, which was the coolest place, we were in a hostel next to a marsh. Full of snakes and lizards of all sizes, and plenty of hippies. Everything revolves around music and surfing.

Are you a musician?

I’m into music, but I wouldn’t say I’m a musician. I do it for myself. I thought I would find lots of guitar players in Australia, so I decided to go all out and took an oud with me. I said to myself, let’s see how Arab-Mizrahi-Israeli sound is received.


People really went for it, the authentic Middle East. I played together with a German friend who had a drum; after three weeks we continued northward. Towns, campfires, beaches, and then we reached a place called Airlie Beach. It’s where people set out on cruises for the Whitsunday Islands – 75 islands, incredibly beautiful. I finally found a job on a boat there as dive master. We went for a three-day cruise, diving, stopping, seeing stingrays, lemon sharks. Turquoise water. They have Australia’s most beautiful beach there, White Heaven Beach. The sand there is white, it looks like snow, and there’s serious tides there. If you get there at the right time you see what’s called 50 shades of blue – beauty that can’t be expressed in words.

Sounds like you did pretty well.

When you get back to the shore, all the workers hang out together, parties, nightlife. It wasn’t a trip to the East, it was a “self-journey.”

What did you learn?

I see things in completely different proportions today. Everything feels small to me now, including Israel. Fours hours to travel to Eilat? That’s nothing, I’m just getting warmed up. I can drive 18 hours straight now. My greatest experience from Australia was the feeling of world peace, with people from all over the world together, good to one another, and no one cares what the color of your skin is or where you’re from or if you have a degree. That made me feel good.

Sounds like paradise – why did you come back?

I could have stayed another year, because farm work gets you a year’s extension of the visa, but my mom is already angry.