I’m one of 60 foreigners in a Chinese city of 3 million people. I’m a tall, white male with blonde hair and blue eyes (some say I have deep pools). You could say it’s not hard for me to get noticed here. There’s a word for what I am. Laowai. I hear it all the time, sometimes even daily, in hushed tones spoken to friends who are elbowing each other in the ribs and alerting each other to my presence. Some are less inconspicuous and just decide to shout, “LaoWAI!” I’ve gotten used to it. My newbie self would turn around every time I heard this interjection, something that would be considered highly rude back home, but now it’s just water off a duck’s back. I ignore it like I would the drone of plane passing overhead.
This behavior is usually no less than annoying (unless it’s a kid, then it’s kinda cute), especially after the realization that it’s not going to stop a month into your stay in China. You feel like everyone should eventually know of the big, white man-beast that emerges from time to time, but 3 million is a lot of people. There are several entertaining ways that my foreign-ness dawns on Chinese people, many of which would get your ass kicked back home in America. But I realize it’s a pretty homogenous country, and Daqing is especially as far as Chinese cities go. It’s probably a complete mystery to many people why I’ve decided to come and live in what many would consider a frozen hellhole. Here are the most common reactions to my simple existence as I go about mundane activities.
The Classic “Laowai!”
Imagine if you saw a hispanic, a Middle Eastern or, hey, even a Chinese person walking down the street in America. Would you point and shout “Foreigner!”? Would you say “Hey, look! There’s a foreigner” to your friend without even bothering to lower your voice at all within earshot of this person (which, I know, is beside the point)? Well, that’s exactly what happens here. As a foreigner in China, it will be one of the first words you learn, the first you will understand. Good thing, too, as it will be directed at you quite a bit. After five months, it’s just white noise to me.
A random Chinese person shouting “Hellooo!?” at you is not that dissimilar from making monkey noises at the chimpanzee exhibit or tapping on the glass to get a response. The zoo analogy sounds pretty harsh, but it is almost dead on. It is very easy to separate who is actually trying to practice their English from someone who is just being obnoxious and openly mocking you. The latter will be smiling and alerting their friend of your presence as you approach, and only after have you passed them will one venture that feeble, goofy hello. Those guys are having a day at the zoo, and I barely hear them anymore I’ve gotten so good at ignoring them.
The 360° Pivot Stare
This is one of my personal favorites. You know someone has to be a special kind of sheltered when they are so shocked at your very presence that they slowly turn in a complete circle, blatantly staring at you the entire 360 degrees. Sure, you can try making eye-contact with them, hoping in vain that they’ll just look away and mind their own business. Good luck. I’m just glad the little old lady didn’t drop her bag of eggs. This is also probably one of the most annoying reactions. I guess, even in North Carolina, I’ve been so exposed to multiculturalism that this type of reaction would be completely out of the question in any situation. Oh well, keep looking while it’s free.
The Not So Inconspicuous Photo Op
Another favorite, because it’s so incredulous. What would you do if some random-ass stranger took a photo of you for no particular reason other than your skin is a different color? Yeah, wouldn’t go over so well back home… Hmm, you’re holding your phone at a very strange angle in the middle of the supermarket. *Whoosh, to the other side of the amateur photographer.* Busted. Her camera is up and I see a thumbnail of myself. I know I’m sexy, but please restrain yourself. I’d love to know how this conversation with friends actually goes down. “Yep, so here’s a nice sunset from yesterday evening, there’s the good noodles I was telling you about, and oh, some white guy I’ve never met before carrying his groceries.”
The Point and Laugh
This one probably pisses me off the most. Really, you’re just going to wear that shit-eating grin while elbowing your friend and laughing? Seriously. As with virtually every one of these, I can’t imagine any universe in which this would go down well back home. I understand I’m clearly different. You may not have even seen a foreigner in person before. But how can you think this is the best reaction? Maybe I’m just too complacent in my whiteness. It’s become old hat until now. Okay, you can laugh it up. Just don’t ever go to the Bronx. Especially don’t go anywhere in the South. They won’t ‘preciate that there.
The…Wow, you’re actually scared of me
I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong. One day I was in H&M (I know, the whole minimalism thing but there was a great sale) just purusing, minding my own business. I pay for my new shirt and walk out the door just as a couple enters. The girl gasps and makes a noise in surprise when she notices my foreign face, and shrinks up against here boyfriend in fear, clutching on to him for dear life. I don’t know if you, the reader, have ever seen a photo of me, but I’m about as far away from intimidating as it gets. What the fuck have people been telling you about 150-pounds-when-soaking-wet white guys? Okay, to be fair my beard was in full force that day.
The Passing Glance
Thank you, person, for being an actual human being. Thank you for just briefly acknowledging that I may be a bit different and continuing about your business. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for other people to go about their day without trying to inconspicuously (yeah, you’re not fooling anyone) take a photo of me, but you’re a saint.
This one does not bother me at all because kids are innocent no matter where you go in the world. If they haven’t had a foreign teacher before, then of course they might be a bit taken aback by their first foreigner sighting. And when I say taken aback, I mean some of their jaws literally drop. Others will smile at you and try to practice their English, which I always indulge. English is very much in demand throughout Asia and I’m hopeful that this increasing early exposure to someone of a different culture will condition a new generation of people to be more culturally aware, even as members of a very homogenous population. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this will be the case unless the parents help out. Maybe telling their children that it is actually not okay to point and laugh at someone different from them would be a good start. But I think there is probably a better chance of the children teaching their parents this stuff.
IMPORTANT UPDATE FOR TUMBLRS
Okay, I’m not deleting my tumblog. It wouldn’t be fair to the best audience, like, ever. BUT. After this month I will no longer be posting to tumblr. Instead, I’ll be using it the same way most people use it, by sharing content related to my interests - travel and minimalism - rather than using it as my primary blogging platform. I will post a link from the new Wordpress blog every time a post is up, but you’ll have to go there to get all the goodness! Part of this change is making things more automated so I can focus on my ebook and freelance writing a bit more. Heading over to Wordpress now would be a huge help towards succeeding in that goal. Thanks guys, see you around!
Edit: Maybe I should add a link to the new blog if I’m begging you to go there… Mwuahhahaha, is it big enough?
What can I say about the driving here? Well. Cracks knuckles. AHHHHRRRGGGGARGHHH!1!!1one. Sorry, that was my pent-up inner monologue from the past 5 months escaping. The driving in China is something that – on any given day – never fails to infuriate me on a small level, even after generally enjoying myself here for the past 5 months. I wouldn’t blame this entirely on China, however. I’m a pretty scrupulous driver back in the States. If you’re going too fast you’re a douchebag; too slow, an idiot. I guess, ironically, that would make me an asshole. Equipped with that knowledge of my vehicular hubris, any laowai reading this can imagine how quick I am to anger here.
Pedestrians have the right to get out of the way.
As a walker – that’s a person without a two-ton machine with wheels, not a zombie – you have no sacred ground here. Don’t even look at your feet (a necessity during the winter) lest you look back up to find you have roughly 0.3 seconds to get out of the way of some tool driving his SUV on the sidewalk. I’m not sure, but I think the way it works is that if your car is big enough, then you have an unwritten amendment to your license that allows you to go anywhere the fuck you want.
Pedestrian lights are just decorations here. While waiting for your (nonexistent) window to cross the street, you’ll notice vehicles going right, left and sometimes straight on red. Basically you’re your best judge. Wading through traffic is an art form and you’ll just have to use the elderly Chinese woman beside you, walking through the rush-hour, zero fucks given, as your shield until you perfect it yourself.
When you do decide to start throwing caution to the wind and just adopt the Chinese method for crossing the street whenever the hell you can, take a look at the oncoming traffic. Just briefly; don’t die. You’ll notice that instead of slowing down, or even just getting into the next lane to avoid you, they start heading toward you. It’s almost as if they’re trying to beat you to it, until the last possible second when there just isn’t enough space between you and the other side of the street to make it through without hitting you.
Take a look at this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on China’s convoluted right-of-way. You can’t make this shit up.
Compared to the western understanding of right-of-way, which refers to the legal right to proceed forward in a vehicle without fear of being found at fault for causing a collision, right-of-way in China means, for all intents and purposes, that the person who is in the way (first) has the right. In practice, this translates into motorists and cyclists turning or merging straight into the path of other traffic believing that the onus is on the other person to avoid a collision.
That’s almost akin to me blindly merging into peak traffic because it’s the unlucky soul in the other lane’s problem. Oh wait…that’s exactly what it is. So, this is the “system” that some apologetic expats will tell you “kind of works”. A free-for-all. A battle royale of aluminum, steel and meat-bags. Who will win?
Metal wins. This data from the World Health Organization bears it out. I do actually like to back up my vitriolic rants with facts here at Spartan Wanderer so I don’t seem like the drunkest, oldest guy at the expat bar. The most impassioned cultural relativist argument can’t stand up to the numbers that declare that even India has safer roads than China – a fact my girlfriend couldn’t believe after having travelled their for 6 months.
This isn’t because Chinese people are inherently bad drivers. All developing nations in the thrust of rapid industrialization are responsible for a high amount of traffic fatalities due to poor infrastructure that can’t keep up with the purchasing power of a new middle class desiring vehicular status symbols with little to no knowledge of how to actually use them. The US and Europe have had years and years to develop good traffic laws and niceties on the road while the Chinese middle class has only just arrived. Road manners haven’t had time to develop.
But what about the police?
Hahahahaha, that’s so cute! Three months in, I was flabbergasted (don’t get to use that word very often) to see a police officer directing traffic. Toilet paper and oranges were on sale at the local mall, so naturally, chaos ensued. It was the first time I had seen the police actually doing something. I even did a double-take. There are large arrays of traffic cameras at every light, designed to photograph and automatically fine traffic-violations, but in several cities these “cameras” are no more than a flash attached to a motion sensor. Even if the police were motivated to do more, China is a communist country in name only. For all practical purposes, the government is a plutocratic/kleptocratic oligarchy, meaning anyone with the money or connections can run red-lights at 100 mph all day long without fear of retribution.
The most dangerous people on the road are…
Women driving luxury vehicles. No, really. Daqing is an oil city, and one of the most affluent in China despite it having only been around since 1959. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of beamers, mercs and jags in my life. I saw my first Bentley here. And of course there are plenty of douche-mobile Hummers. If you have the money to put yourself in one of those, then you also have the funds to put your wife in a matching one. No license? No problem. This is China; if you have the money and the guanxi (friends in high places), then your wife has an Audi and a license to terrorize everyone else on the road.
About the photo…
I’ve seen maybe four or five accidents, just bump-ups, from our apartment window. We’ll be going about our business, planning lessons, writing, being a lazy slob on a Netflix binge after a night at Kingsley’s thenSCREEECH CRASH! Then they get out and stand beside their cars for 2+ hours and wait for police/insurance company. This taxi driver in particular decided to try and avoid a busy intersection beside our place and cut through the hospital parking lot. Fair enough; even I do that at home sometimes. But the trick is to not continue going at 50 mph, which he didn’t do (obviously) and now he will pretty much certainly lose his livelihood for hitting a BMW, likely owned by someone important. Or rich. Doesn’t matter. It’s harsh, but yeah…slow the fuck down.
The takeaway: the driving pisses me off here, it’s objectively worse than back home, but it’s because of rapid industrialization, not because Asian-driver jokes are true.
That felt good.
Ta-da! If you are reading this on tumblr, then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Did I do a magic trick? Nope. Did I do a flip? Mosey over to this link and you will be enlightened. Now that you’re here…reading the same post… Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a massive overhaul of the good ole blog. Between teaching kids colors and various fruits in English and correcting horrible, glaring errors in textbooks – “May I play your ball?” – I’ve been slowly preparing what you see here.
Because I can. And tumblr is done-zo. I’m getting new followers everyday, and I love you guys for taking a second to click that button. Comparatively, I’m still a rinky-dink blogger, a drop in the ocean, and still I never thought I’d have this big of an audience. More followers create a problem that tumblr does not address so well: communication. I’m getting a few questions each week ranging from general comments on what I’m doing (which make me blush and keep me writing) to very specific questions regarding visas (thanks to China’s bitchy process).
Sometimes these are in the Disqus comments at the bottom of each post. I usually always reply to those. Often they are in tumblr’s own “reply” thingy. If I reply to those, it creates a separate post and sort of screws up the appearance that I’m going for, which sucks for me and isn’t fair to you guys if I don’t respond simply for that reason. Basically, it’s a headache to have any substantive dialogue with tumblr’s system that was so clearly designed for shorter attention spans. We’re better than that, right?
As I just mentioned, it will be much easier to comment, for me to see your comment, respond and get a nice discussion going. This month is going to be full of the things I dislike about China, so I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for that and it will be a great opportunity to put WordPress through its paces. I tried to keep the design as zen as possible to reflect my minimalist values and make it easily navigable now that there’s a few pages. Feel free to look through the archives and subscribe in the sidebar!
Okay, some of you may remember me shooting my mouth off about a future ebook. That’s still coming, even if by this point it sounds like I’m talking out of my ass. This upgrade to Spartan Wanderer 2.0 was quite impromptu and began with me just fucking around with WordPress during a break from lesson planning. I liked what I saw. Everything was put on the back-burner until this was finished.
Moving to WordPress means a new audience and I want to make it easy for them to get caught up with us tumblr veterans. They, too, should be able to see my early, mediocre ramblings. While there is an archive on WordPress, I will be making a downloadable, offline version. New followers will be able to download every post from the beginning in 2011 to the end of 2013 from the Kindle Store.
After the archive is easily digestible for the masses, I will resume going full steam on the ebook. That’s all I’ll say about it until I’m closer to getting it up on the web. I haven’t thrown up a T-shirt design in a while, so more of those will be coming to Skreened soon. As far as material goes…well, hehe…don’t you worry. I’ll be going to Harbin’s famous ice festival soon, and shortly after that, partying in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year.
This is where I write about longterm travel and the minimalist lifestyle that makes it easier to pursue and enjoy. I write anything from personal travelogues, to articles on interesting cultural stuff, travel advice, rants and reviews for helpful things in my pack. If I get a lot of questions or comments about a particular issue, I’ll write about that. Minimalism is a huge thing here, but I am not part of the establishment that is going to tell you to throw out everything but 100, or 50, or 25 things – with many stipulations excluding cookware and underwear and whatever other mental gymnastics they need to do to sleep at night – in order to be happy.
My only goal is to show as many people as possible how positive a force for good travel can be, and how that lifestyle can be achieved by anyone who wishes to pursue it. Anything beyond that is just gravy. So kick back, open a beer and join the journey. I assure you, it’s still quite young.
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all throughout Kingsley’s
All the laowai were stirring, could I get a neat bourbon please?
Secret Santa was finished; I got 2 bags of coffee!
Now it’s time for tequila shots, while for the third time, someone plays “Get Lucky.”
China is the fourth country I’ve celebrated Festivus in – England, Iceland and America being the other three. My observations over the past three years have revealed that booze plays a major role throughout the season in pretty much any place other than the American South, because it’s of the devil there. Things haven’t changed here. All of us expats met at Kingsley’s to eat pizza, do Secret Santa and consume copious amounts of alcohol. Nearly everyone turns up on holidays because we’re as much of a family as anyone has in this tiny, frozen corner of China.
Aside from Secret Santa, it was just another night at your local expat bar. Barflies at the bar, having groundbreaking discussions on politics or bitching about their school/China and people on the dance floor doing the Electric Slide to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as if it’s the biggest innovation to come out of 2013. There was a new guy there who kept buying us tequila shots. He was an oil worker, just visiting, lived with his boyfriend about 3 hours away. I smoked too many cigarettes as we broke common ground over coming from the South and somehow ending up in China, liberal as they come. We all ended the night at KFC after one more shot.
I awake to a pain in my head and a turmoil in my stomach
Santa seems to have given me a holiday hangover from his sack
Kate cooks a wonderful meal for laowai friends, cheer is had by all
Later I open presents on Skype, thank you Chinese internet, no dropped calls
We both woke up pretty hungover, which sucked because there was a shitload of cooking and cleaning to be done in the next 4 hours. We were originally going to have a quiet Christmas dinner with one other couple, but word gets around…and you’re cooking for twice as many people. I duck out in a rush to the school. My package from home has arrived! The school also gave us gifts – two really nice faux-china tea sets that we have no idea how the fuck we’ll get back to America/England without breaking completely. We enjoy an xmas dinner of all the normal stuff as well as a crispy duck, just like A Christmas Story.
I have to give mad props to my mom. This was my third consecutive xmas abroad and she still sent me a gift. I ring my family with their beaten up package in my lap, expecting shards of whatever used to in it before the careful attention of USPS and China Post got to it. I called at 10pm, just in time for my dad, mom, bro and sis to be around the tree Christmas morning. We opened presents just like we would have if we were at home. Christmas is just another day to me. The only part of it I really celebrate is being together with family, which in some ways made it harder than if it were anything more than that to me.
The Day After
Now today some mandatory fun the school has planned
Unsure of what to expect, I drink a beer on the bus with a friend
Later we find ourselves being eaten by fish, passing around a jar of wine
Sounds pretty weird but it was actually a good time
The day after Christmas, the school threw quite a good staff party at a (apparently ’7-star’) hotel and spa. Both foreign and Chinese teachers boarded a bus and an hour later we’re sitting in a hot tub surrounded by a fake forest in a biodome-esque structure with what I’m sure is a choral version of “What is Love?” playing in the background. We try to play a drinking game with the Chinese teachers, but truth or dare isn’t that great when it “devolves” from asking what things you’ve put in various holes to “Are you from Heilongjiang Province?” Thankfully, just the right amount of huangjiu makes anything interesting.
There’s a different sort of pool in the spa, the sort where little fishes eat the dead skin off of you. For some new age treatment that would have cost $40/hour in the States we drop $5, hop in and let the weirdness begin. At first, it’s unbearable. I can’t keep my feet still for five seconds without giggling. But then you kinda get used to it, and ease your entire body in (with your hands around your shorts, of course). Ten minutes later we’re kicking back, passing the aforementioned huangjiu (which happens to be in an epic ceramic jar) back and forth while the fish eat their fill, sort of coming to terms with the fact that, yes, we’re in China and this is happening.
laowai - colloquial term for a foreigner; will be shouted at you with wild abandon
huangjiu - a tasty yellow wine; better than baijiu
I take a sip of my Christmas-snickerdoodle-cinnamon-gingerbread monstrosity that I would have ridiculed anyone in a heartbeat for drinking at home and enjoy it shamelessly. I’m in Starbucks and I don’t want to leave. The inside is the same as home (and warm), jazzy xmas songs are playing and the staff speak perfect English. It’s an enclave, a refuge from the onslaught of China-ness that anyone will experience in Harbin, despite the amount of tourist hype it’s gotten recently from the increasingly famous ice festival and Bourdain’s show. But we have to leave. We’re on a mission.
Kate and I are looking for an Arabian/Lebanese/we’re-actually-not-sure-anymore place that all of our expat friends in Daqing have been talking up. Middle Eastern food has always been a treat for me; there’s not that much to be had in Greensboro, NC if you can imagine. It’s terrorist (yes, George Dubya accent there) food that scares the locals because Sharia law may be imposed on you against your will if you so much as indulge in a hummus and pita.
We were excited and willing, which means jack when you’re in a city of 10 million where no one speaks English and everything is written in a series of lines, dashes and curves that your mind is incapable of rendering into anything useful. Fuck. Hence, Starbucks. We had been taking screenshots of Google Maps for the past ten minutes because, despite Harbin’s recent aim to increase tourism, the city has no maps to offer said potential tourists. The place is called Marhaba, and the only Arabian place in Harbin that I can find in the depths of the interwebz.
Outside the enclave, the white noise of China engulfs us once again (now with Russian architecture!). We wave a taxi down and I lean into the window to ask if he knows how to get to the red dot on my map. He mutters something and beckons us inside, which could mean anything. We decide that he knows where it is and enjoy the ride for a good ten minutes, admiring the bustling grayness of Harbin outside. Then the driver asks a question on his radio. We pick out buzz words like “foreigners”, “I don’t know” and “Where is?” I show him the map again, and again, he nods.
Ten minutes later, we realize we’re being taken for a ride. Yes, in a taxi, but also in the you-are-foreign-and-easily-taken-advantage-of sense of the phrase. To be fair, this doesn’t happen very often and we chalked it up to scamming simply being a more common phenomenon in bigger cities. My Chinese is still shit so I don’t have a good middle-ground between saying “I know what you did” and something really offensive, so I go with a very intimidating knowing look, and we get out reasonably close to the dot and lamb kofta.
So it’s dark, and I’m sure it’s a nice place during the day, but the vibe is sketchy. We’re not sure which side of the intersection the place is on so we just guess and walk quickly. We both notice that some guy had been walking behind us, stopping when we stopped and was just generally being a sketchball ever since we exited Scam McScammy’s taxi. Then we see it. Arabic script in a sea of Chinese. Of course, it had to be it! I confirm by asking an old man smoking outside “Ālābó cài?” which I totally looked up on my phone en route. He nods and opens the door.
After the initial cloud of cigarette smoke pours out - typical of most restaurants in China - we quickly begin to realize that, in fact, this isn’t the place. The layout is the same as any Chinese place. The only thing on the menu is chaunr, which does technically find its origins in the Islamic regions of China, but it’s now a common street food and easy to get anywhere… I digress. We accepted defeat and ordered several sticks of charred meat, which I will never turn away. The TV had Arabic captions, so I guess that’s something…
After a depressing trip to Harbin’s Siberian Tiger Park, we decide to give Marhaba another try. This time I knew the intersection we were looking for and gave the driver that. He nodded enthusiastically and proceeded to ask the classic, nice-guy driver questions: “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in China?” “Can you speak Chinese?” Things always go a lot smoother if you play along and it’s a great chance to practice the language. He drops us off at the same street of last night’s previous failure.
This time we try the other side of the street. We run into some fellow laowai and ask if they know the place. One guy says, “There’s a bunch of muslim places here.” Well, that typical American response really narrowed it down. We walk up and down what I begin to refer to as Café Row in my mind. It seems Harbin’s Institute of Technology has created a market for what all students need but is so hard to find in Daqing…the precious black gold that is coffee. We get distracted and duck into Café Bubu for lattes.
I ask the shop owner “Arabian food where is?” He looks over at a table occupied by a lone man and shouts “Hossan! Something in Chinese.” The man is from Libya and is actually friends with the owner of Marhaba. He tells us to come back to his table after we down our lattes, which we do quickly, the end of our mission now in sight. Hossan came to Harbin when things began to go to hell in Libya and is now working on his PhD in molecular biology or something equally high-minded. We exchanged numbers for future fun times in the city and followed him back outside into the permeating cold of Heilongjiang Province.
Kate and I exchanged a look as we crossed the street…heading straight for the chuanr place of the previous night’s failure. Hossan stops. “Okay, here we are!” Marhaba was, I shit you not, directly across from last night’s place. It was the most nondescript place you could imagine with nothing to indicate that it was anything other than another Chinese place. But sure enough, hookahs stand sentinel around the dining area. We’re alone, well past the 11am lunch rush that happens in China like clockwork. Hossan tells us that the chef isn’t there, but he will make sure everything is good. After a few words in the kitchen, he’s gone. It’s just us and the little old lady bringing us the menus.
After much debate, we decide on lamb kofta, hummus and pita, salad and yellow rice. We talk about the hilarity of being so close last night, wondering if the old man across the street saw us come in and if his knowing gaze will be greeting us when we leave. Then we hear it. The resounding BEEP of a microwave fills the room, our ears and begins deconstructing this dream we had had for the past 24 hours. As long as it isn’t the meat…and it’s the meat. The lamb was dry and suspect, but the little old lady was sitting in the corner, doing nothing else but watching us. We ate it. I’m not walking around Harbin with a Zagat in my back pocket and my expectations turned up to 11 for every random Chinese dive on the street, but it was a bit disheartening after everything we had gone through to get there. Luckily, the man from across the way was not outside, mocking us with his catatonic posture and cigarette smoke.
Later that week…
We’re chilling at the expat bar after a rough 17-hour week. I was just returning from the bar and set my glass of bourbon - neat, of course - on the table and turned back to our group. A friend said, “So did you guys enjoy Ali Baba’s while you where in Harbin?”
"Ali Baba’s…um, you mean Marhaba, right? The Arabian restaurant?" I replied, puzzled. I thought that case had been closed.
"Hmm, never heard of that one. Ali Baba’s is the one we always visit. Give it a try next time!"
When I told my family and friends that I would definitely be going to a small city in China for a year, their reactions were a mixture of worry and bewilderment. Although I’m not quite rubbing sticks together to boil my water in the evening or emptying my shit bucket in the morning, it is the first country I’ve lived in that I can’t find everything I want when I want it. This is part of travel and not a big deal; something we should all prepare for and even embrace. If you’re going to live in a Tier-1 city like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, you won’t be hurting for Western comforts. We actually have a Walmart here, which I love and hate. But even with corporate American world-domination, I’m occasionally left without. Here are 10 things you should bring.
1. Coffee - If you’re going to be living in a Tier-3 city like me, prepare for a coffee desert. I was naive and thought that it wouldn’t be that bad, that there’s a Walmart in Daqing, all will be fine. I was wrong and spent two months without a good cup of coffee that didn’t cost an arm and a leg until my mom sent me some from my favorite coffee place back home for my birthday (thanks mom). Bring at least a bag or two of your favorite blend that will last you until you can order online or make a trip to a bigger city.
2. Deodorant - I haven’t seen it yet. Chinese people also smell fine, so I’m not sure what they do differently. There’s this shitty roll-on thing from Adidas at Walmart. It doesn’t smell very good. Bring your own deodorant and, really, any other toiletries you particularly like. Of course you will be able to find toothpaste here, but you might end up with some weird citrus flavor that’s similar to the aftertaste of a handful of Skittles. It’s good to start out with what you know.
3. Spices - I’m not the greatest cook in the world. The great thing about China is that cooking and eating out will usually even out to be about the same cost. However, my girlfriend and I get bored of Chinese food and she doesn’t suck at cooking (in fact she’s pretty damn good). It’s been difficult to get the spices for a proper Western dinner. Some specifics that have been hard/impossible to track down are oregano, basil, thyme and cinnamon. Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
4. Vitamins and Meds - Especially if you’re going to be teaching English to snotty little kids who will be picking their noses for half your lesson. It’s not difficult to get sick in this line of work and the vitamins here are either really expensive, fake or both. Bring your medications as well (with your prescription for customs). You don’t know what you’re going to get from the pharmacy unless you have someone that can read and speak Chinese with you.
5. Art Stuff - Kate is an amazing artist and is quite happy that she packed her paints, because there are just no craft stores here. If you do any artsy fartsy stuff in your free time, bring your materials with you. This is going to sound so goddamn pretentious, but I really hate that I can’t get Moleskine journals here either. I’ve been using them since before I studied in Sweden and my time in China has almost filled the current one up. First world problems.
6. Clothes that Fit - Daqing may be a little-know Tier-3 outpost of Heilongjiang, but that doesn’t exclude it from China’s increasing interest in high fashion. H&M, Zara and several other European brands are to be had here…but not in sizes large enough for my monstrously tall, foreigner body. I bought a new pair of jeans (raw denim, of course) online because nothing fits me here. I suggest bringing enough solid outfits from home to last you a good while, until you can go on spree in Beijing or Shanghai.
7. Your Last Good Beer - If you love a good IPA like me, then prepare for piss. You know something is wrong when you get excited about a sale on Budweiser or Carlsburg. Most beer in China weighs in at a whopping 3% ABV and tastes like it, too. On the other end of the spectrum, China’s famous spirit, baijiu, will inexplicably range from 40-60%. You’ve gotta taste it to believe it and subsequently repress the memories of the night that follows. Maybe bring a sixer of your favorite brew or a handle of nice bourbon for the road.
8. Adaptor(s) - There are three different electrical outlets in China, four if you decide to visit Hong Kong while you’re here. Bring an adapter for each one. Each plug has holes for all of these outlets, but for some inexplicable reason half of them have nothing but concrete behind them. You can never count on only one adaptor here. I bring all of them with me to the cafe just in case.
9. Smartphone - If you have a smartphone with a SIM card slot, ask your provider to unlock it before you come to China. My iPhone has really been a saint when I need to know something in Chinese immediately. Pleco and Google Translate have definitely made several situations go more smoothly than they would have without them. I’m no stranger to the $20 phone method, which I did in both Sweden and Iceland, but after four months with my iPhone in China, I won’t go back. Bring one if you can (definitely too expensive to buy here).
10. VPN - The Great Firewall is not a myth. You’ll get to know it well, quickly. Most of my posts since arriving in China have been later than I would like because of this obstacle. The only way to scale the digital barrier, other than moving to Hong Kong, is a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a subscription-based service that will provide you with several severs that make you appear to be online in another country. This isn’t something you can put in your bag, but you will need to buy a plan before coming to China because many of the providers’ websites are obviously blocked here.
Of course, the underlying caveat to all of these goodies is the great, the amazing Taobao - providing expats with anything their deprived little hearts desire since living in China became a thing. You can buy almost anything – punching bags and protein powder, maple syrup and Pop Tarts – and have it shipped to you in no time. It’s China’s Amazon, and sometimes the only way you can get the goods. In short, China is not a third-world country with live chickens in wicker baskets at the supermarket (at least where I live), there are Walmarts, you will not be left wanting.
To most people, including me before I got here, China is a pretty scary country to travel to, let alone live there for a year. You hear the craziest news stories all the time – rivers full of dead pigs, babies being flushed down the toilet and fake beef made from rat and cat – and think, “how can people live there?” Not to mention the iron, zombie fist of Mao, clutching the country with the firm grasp of unadulterated Commie tyranny. Oh, and there’s always that disappearing and having your organs harvested myth.
But, you know, it’s not actually that bad. Most of the things that people imagine as the “spectres of China” are neither so terrible or that common. They should definitely not hold someone back from visiting or even living here for a while. It’s an amazing country with its own special cultural gems and problems that should not be passed over as an option for world travel because of a few overplayed myths and stereotypes. Here are a few things in China that are not nearly as scary as they’re made out to be.
1. Squatting Instead of Sitting - I’d be lying if I said they don’t take some getting used to, but squat toilets aren’t that bad. Sure, you made need to adjust your aim over time. The biggest hassle is the toilet paper. You usually need to bring your own. As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll be fine. The novelty of having to squat rather than sit dissipated within a week. In fact, it’s actually healthier to squat. Here’s an informative Wikipedia article on the merits of both squatting and sitting. It’s various amounts of interesting and informative.
2. Gutter Oil - This foul stuff definitely exists, there’s no denying it. I have seen it and smelled it. But you shouldn’t let it stop you from experiencing the incredible, and I mean AMAZING food that China has to offer. Basically, if you’re too afraid to eat here, don’t bother coming. And it’s not difficult to spot a joint that uses gutter oil. They look exactly like you’d think they would – dirty and shady places that scream “intestinal worms!” Try not to let the grotesque, yet true statistic that 1 in 10 meals are cooked with gutter oil in China get to you. If you go somewhere that looks clean and has several customers, you will enjoy great food and will continue to have roughly normal shits afterward.
3. Fear of Eating Dog - It’s the favorite joke on any Asian country. All they eat are dogs over here. I just had a Labradoodle for lunch yesterday…joke. Although it’s definitely possible to eat man’s best friend over here, it’s illegal in some areas and, more importantly, incredibly expensive. No one is going to feed you dog unless you ask for it. Foreigners make for a good laugh, but not good enough to give them the most expensive dish on the menu for shits ‘n’ giggles. Rest easy knowing that as soon as you walk into a dog joint, you will know. Usually dog carcasses will be strung up from the ceiling, so you can’t miss ‘em.
4. Language Barriers - Don’t let the friendly “Hellooo!?”‘s fool you. Barely anyone can speak English in a Tier 3 city – only 0.83% in the entire country do – and it can be really nerve-wracking and frustrating at first. Trust me, you can get by quite quickly even with next to no Mandarin skills. Gesturing and context can go a very long way and you can always show an address in Chinese to a cab driver. If you have a smartphone, Google Translate and Pleco will be your good friends. Learn numbers and food words as well as a few other common expressions – “How much?” is a good one – and you will be fine in no time.
5. Communism - I live in a communist country. This thought rarely crosses my mind though. Everything feels…quite normal. No one is getting thrown against the walls, I haven’t seen anyone disappear into a black Audi and the most I’ve seen the police do so far is direct traffic. In fact, being in China has made me realize just how much of a police state the US is by comparison. I haven’t seen any riot gear here while helicopters are used to raid small stakes poker matches back home. Which is surprising, considering all of the spooky stories about China’s regime that come from the mainstream media these days. They problem here is that the police don’t do enough unless the price is right from a local. If you’re a foreigner then you’ll be okay. No one wants a dead foreigner on their hands.
6. Bird/Swine/Cat/Dinosaur Flu’s - Just as common as the food scares are the disease scares. Bird flu is probably the most common even though only 359 people worldwide have actually died from it. It’s quite difficult to catch, usually only on farms and manufacturing plants. Just wash your hands after handling eggs and meat, as you would back home. You will want to take the basic precautions before coming here – hepatitis and typhoid – and beyond that, wash your hands like you would at home. You may need a mask for pollution depending on where you’re going, but you can forgo the hazmat suit for various types of influenza.
7. Getting Scammed - If you are a naive, everyone-is-a-walking-rainbow person devoid of a drop of cynicism, then you will be scammed no matter where you go in the world. Start off by buying groceries at the supermarket while you’re learning your numbers. Don’t worry about restaurants; the prices are in plain view. If you step into the main market district of any city right off the plane, then you may well lose some money, but like I said, numbers are your friend. Suggest lower prices confidently. If they don’t budge, walk away. You will hear the price drop quicker than a lead piano. It’s also nice to know that, actually, not everyone here is hellbent on scamming you because your skin is a different color. If you buy often from the same vendor, you will even get a lower price once you’re a regular.
China’s culture shock is nothing to scoff at and will likely leave you with your back against the apartment door thinking, “What the hell just happened?” But you won’t die. You won’t get an exotic disease. You won’t get stabbed or mugged. You probably won’t be disappeared. Maybe you’ll get a funny tummy and maybe people will point and stare at you. One thing is certain: you will enjoy China. You will enjoy China IF you break through the barriers of Chinese weird-mongering and scare-mongering and embrace the country for what it is: an interesting blend of chaos and beauty.
One day in the far away future, the cosmic wheel that is the universe and everything will cease to spin. As it continues to expand, everything will decay until the entire damn thing is a heterogenous mixture of particles so small that we non-PhD astrophysicists could never comprehend it. This is the most probable death of the universe, otherwise known as the Final Energy State.
I’m somewhat of a science buff – real dork here – but not in the sense that I actually know that much. I just find the vastness of space super-interesting and all too frequently fall into a Wikipedia black hole (pun intended) reading up on it. I discovered this article on reddit, and subsequently my very existence felt petty and insignificant.
Of course this has nothing to do with travel…until I use it as a somewhat relatable and roundabout metaphor! I think everyone has their own final energy state. Well, physically speaking, that would be death. But I’m not talking about that. The energy and excitement in our lives often fluctuates with highs and lows that we may or may not be able to control. Sometimes we will fall deep into a routine – going to work, eating at the same places, pissing away our free time the same way we always do…
The more routine and boring we let life get, the closer we get to our own final energy state, and it’s…very bland.
Everyone back home thinks I live a pretty adventurous life and, while that may be true to a certain extent, I am not immune to the ruts of life just because I can see loads of Chinese writing outside of my window. I’m sure there are not many people here and elsewhere abroad that would want to admit this to themselves. As interesting we expats like to think ourselves, we worked back home, we partied and drank back home, and we walked hungover to McDonald’s the next day.
It’s entirely too easy to depend on the shear novelty of being in China to deliver adventure and excitement to your front door. Doesn’t work that way. No matter where you came from and where you live, you have to venture outside to find that stuff. I think this is the hardest pill to swallow for new long-term travelers, which is why I’m writing this. I’d like you to nip it in the bud early so you don’t get too content too early and have to discover this for yourself. It’s an unconventional lifestyle, but you still have to work at it to get the most out of it. Here’s a few things you can do (that I need to do more):
1. Eat at New Places - There are a few places in my area that I know I like – Red Seat Barbecue, Spicy Beef Place, Good Bread Place – and then there are probably hundreds of other restaurants in Daqing, big and small, that I haven’t set foot in yet. All of these places have that one impeccable dish that I can’t get enough of until I do. Then I can’t be bothered of going through the process of a new restaurant staff’s shocked expressions over my foreigness or the nuances of ordering with my limited Chinese. Looks like it will be a pizza night. That makes me sad. I should never feel that way. I’ve only hit the tip of the culinary iceberg in China (only the dongbei cuisine iceberg, really) and I need to taste the rest rather than consider myself contented with my small handful of discoveries.
2. Explore More - This is pretty obvious albeit still easy to neglect. We get trapped by our routes – to work, to the gym, to the super market – so much so that any deviation is immediately perceived as an inconvenience. This is exactly the type of thinking that a traveler should avoid. Busy is busy no matter where we are, but if we have the time we should actively seek out new things when we go about the day-to-day. If you see a crowd of people, go check it out. Smell something interesting? Go have a bite. If you’re bored, get offline and take an aimless walk.
3. Don’t Get Complacent - Having been somewhere for a few months is no excuse to stop exploring. There’s nothing wrong with resigning yourself to a lazy day, but never forget that you’re on the other side of the world. When your time there is finished, you may never come back. There should never be a point where you can consider yourself the all-knowing expat king of a city when there are endless layers of a culture to peel back and understand. China is like that for me. I feel like I could live here for years and never truly grasp some things. I learn something every time I go out.
4. Access the Language - Improving your language skills will only amplify your experience. If you can hold a conversation with the locals and even befriend some of them, you’ve got the key to one of the most enriching cultural experiences you can possibly have. It was easy for me to get caught up in simply pointing at pictures of food and saying “this” in Chinese, but now I try my best to speak in full sentences. I’m far from even a toddler’s proficiency, but anytime I understand a local and they understand me, it’s a great feeling.
We’ve all left a conventional lifestyle for different reasons, but the universal one that we share is change. We wanted something different. How well are we succeeding at that if we follow the same routine that we did back home? Don’t let the excitement in your expat life dwindle into it’s lethargic final energy state of work, gym, Netflix, bed, repeat. A perpetual state of world travel is an adventurous and glamorous lifestyle to lead, but it requires a catalyst. You. Only you can keep that energy going.