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Helen Toppin


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Helen Toppin is an Anglo-Australian teaching in Shanghai. Like everyone living in a foreign country, she sometimes struggles with different cultural values.

Apart from the fact that we look different and sound funny, living as a foreigner in China is a daily reminder of how cultural differences affect beliefs and how your beliefs are just that. You may be an experienced traveller, pride yourself on your ability to tolerate all sorts of frustrations and inconsistencies, and no longer emerge from a Shanghai taxi a nervous wreck, but there are times when being in China hits you in the face and you have to like it, or swallow your hypocrisy whole.

Let me give you an example: Up in the far north of China is a town called Harbin. A smallish town by Chinese standards (population 10 million), it has become famous in recent years for its annual ‘Ice and Snow Festival’. Each year an amazing array of mammoth ice sculptures are carved from massive blocks of ice and displayed under lights at night to the general public. Equally impressive, are the snow sculptures best viewed during the day. At temperatures of -25C the sculptures last until February and then the big thaw begins. Fascinating though it was, it was not the ice and snow festival which tested my Western sensibilities.

Part of the package was a side trip to the Siberian Tiger Park which houses hundreds of tigers. Their idea of a perfect day is to bask in the snow and drape themselves elegantly over logs like sleek and supercilious fashion models.
They also enjoy the odd tussle over the live chickens which tourists throw to them for a light snack and a bit of family entertainment. My son, Charlie, paid his 40 Yuan (about £2.75) for a semi-comatose chicken (they were hanging in a row and upside down, so a bit befuddled) and hurled it into the enclosure. Within milliseconds the chicken was in bite sized joints and a few reddish-brown feathers had fluttered to the ground, contrasting vividly with the whiteness of the snow. The tigers licked their lips and looked at us expectantly. That was it for now though; 40 Yuan is a lot of money in China.
Believe me, there’s nothing quite like watching a live animal being ripped apart by a pack of ravenous big cats. Just ask the Ancient Romans. Cameras clicked, toddlers beamed and we all agreed it had been a thoroughly good day out.
As we left the park we couldn’t help but reflect on how that would have gone down in the West. Here, no part of an animal is wasted. Chicken stew is served complete with head and feet. My supermarket sells cows veins carefully wrapped in plastic. Poor, hungry people have no time to be sentimental about creatures further down the food chain. Tigers are respected in that park. They are well fed, expertly cared for and their numbers are increasing. If a few ‘rich’ tourists can help to supplement their diet, then why not?