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.
I haven’t written about what’s in my pack for a while! I’m kind of running out of things to write about, but I guess that’s the point of living with less, right? Today I’ll talk about a practical, inconsequential thing that every traveler should have: a passport cover (or wallet, case, holder, semantics). This is a pretty damn important thing to have, yet I see many people without one in the airport. I’m probably going to sound like your dad, but if you’re walking around the world without one of these, you should get a talking to.
If you want to be a long-term traveler, then your passport is essentially the key to that lifestyle. Protect it at all costs! The newer US passports are a bit sturdier than the last ones, but that’s no excuse to have that thing bouncing around in your bag unprotected. Some places will even turn you away at immigration if your passport is badly damaged. I’m guessing no one reading this wants to go through that. I don’t, and I won’t.
Really, anything is better than nothing, but I splurged on my cover. I have a penchant for leather because it looks cool, it’s durable and it will look even cooler with age, so I picked up a really nice cowhide cover from TAGSMITHon Etsy. This thing is bomb-proof, hand-stitched from a single piece of full-grain leather and beautiful. I’ve had it for about 6 months and it looks brand new, as does my passport if you don’t look at the stamps. If you’re wondering what protected my passport before 6 months ago, yes, I was a hypocrite.
Now I’ve got a beautiful cover with quality materials and stitching that will last almost forever, all while supporting a small business in the process. Okay, it’s a piece of leather that my passport goes in. Not much more I can say about it, so here are a few general passport tips that can really save you while you’re out there wandering:
1. Bring a notarized copy of your information page. If your passport is lost, stolen or destroyed, a notarized copy will help you get a new one much more quickly.
2. Take another form of ID with you. This will also come in handy if the universe decides to screw you over and take your passport (because it’s definitely never your fault).
3. Store your passport in a front pocket or deep in your backpack for obvious reasons.
4. Don’t take it out in public unless you need it. Depending on where you are, this could make you a target. Passports are valuable.
5. Always have it on you…or don’t. Officials in some countries will check your papers quite often, so don’t get caught without it. Some don’t care at all after you’ve entered and it’s better off left at your apartment where you can’t lose it.
6. Don’t leave it out in the open if you plan to take a nap on the train…Jesus…
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.
I shakily walk my tray down the aisle to a secluded table devoid of kids, or really anyone that remotely looks like they might try to talk to me. I remove my shades, my ear warmers, the hat that was underneath the ear warmers and my headphones. I step out of my laowai-approved, “Hellooo!?”-proof isolation chamber and sit down to one of my most guilty pleasures…the Big Mac.
The first bite is heaven. Say what you want about McD’s, but they’ve got their cook formula sorted out. You’ve got the thing that kind of resembles a burger with nondescript sauces and “cheese” that work together to create something divine. The fries…you can go to hell if you don’t think McD’s has the best fries. Wash that down with a coke and you’re flying high. Someone says “Hello?” but I choose to ignore him and continue to shove three fries at a time into my face like a neanderthal.
I wipe my mouth with a napkin, stare down at my leavings. I stand up, quickly don my winter gear and look around to make sure no one saw. I feel like I’m walking out of a brothel or an opium den. A Chinese teenager is staring at me from outside, mouth agape. He knows. I nod, and walk out of the human feeding trough of shame and disgrace, destined to be hungry again in an hour or less.
It’s not the first time and it won’t even remotely be the last time. I don’t even eat fast food in America. But whenever I’m abroad it’s a taste of home, a drunken treat and my personal ICU for hangovers. Someone drops a subtle “KFC anyone?” after 10 drinks? I’m in. If I’m in need of a quick, disposable sponge to soak up the toxins the next day, McDonald’s is there, waiting. Smirking at the obligatory trip it knows I will make once I pry my tongue from the roof of my mouth and stand in the shower for 15 minutes.
The thing about fast food places abroad is that - wait for it - they are usually five times better and cleaner than any I’ve been to in the States. Sweden’s McDonald’s looks like something out of a sci-fi film while I would sooner eat off the floor of McDonald’s in China than the tabletops in America. Iceland got smart and kicked out Ronald McDonald in 2009 - slow clap for Siggi - even if it was mainly due to the 2008 economic meltdown rather than health concerns.
In China, it’s a rallying point for our tiny foreigner community. Our Daqing Bowling League nights always begin at the golden arches. The guys that live way out in Longfeng and Ranghulu districts have to commute to get their fix here in Xincun. All of us laowai are in our element while the Chinese look on at the spectacle with curiosity and maybe some well-placed disgust. The next time I run into one of these 60 foreigners in this city of 3 million, I know it will be here. It’s always McDonald’s.
The reason why we’re drawn there is obvious. Familiarity. Even if I didn’t eat there back home, I saw the golden arches everywhere, almost daily. When I eat there in China, I know it will taste the same as back home. Food is an emotional thing, and even if it is shitty, disposable food, the taste can bring you home for a split second. Even the McDonald’s package - the service, the shameless branding, Ronald’s creepy smile - is enough to give you a rest from all things Chinese.
As someone who’s always preaching self-improvement, yoga, meditation and other hippie shit, eating fast food is probably one of the most hypocritical things I do. It’s a hard battle to win. No matter how delightful the dumplings are, I will tire of them. The home comforts of consumerist, American global domination are only a five minute walk away. What is a hungry expat to do?
We’ve been cooking a lot more. The (my girlfriend’s) power to cook Western food definitely balances out the onslaught of Chinese food. However, cooking a full meal with one burner and a rice cooker can be a mission, and sometimes, ain’t no one got time for that. My girlfriend is under a newly self-imposed fast food ban and I might try the same. But one thing I never do in life is make promises I can’t keep. For better or worse, I’m lovin’ it.
I’ve been in China for over three months now, and it’s phenomenal how quickly that time has sped away. With three months left in this term, potential English teachers - maybe even you - are getting their paperwork together, trying to cut through their school’s bullshit and preparing for a life-altering move. Maybe you’ve got your packing-list situated, been poked in all the right places with vaccines and even began learning a bit of Mandarin. But there is one thing that no one will have checked off their list of preparations with ease. Maybe you know what I’m talking about without even saying it (or because of the title). It’s your visa.
This grand pain in the ass has been the subject of roughly 80% of comments and questions I’ve received since arriving in China, therefore I will attempt to give you a comprehensive guide based on everything I know and the stories of other teachers. I wrote about my own experience a while back, but a lot of the usefulness was probably lost in my attempt to spice up what is usually a boring bureaucratic process.
Z-Visa…not X, not F, not L
Firstly, “Z-visa” is in the title because, for English teachers, this is truly the only legal visa you can come to China on. When you are searching for a school to work for, the Z-visa is the first thing you should look for, even before the salary. If a school does not offer to help you acquire it, run, and run hard. If the benefits on offer are simply too hard to pass up, email them about it. If they do anything other than tell you up front that, yes, they help all teachers with their Z-visa, then they are trying to screw you over. It’s as simple as that.
Common tricks, whim-whams and bamboozles are to tell the prospective teacher that he or she should come over on a L-visa (tourist) or an F-visa (business) and that his or her visa will be converted to a Z once they arrive. Don’t agree to this because:
a) It’s illegal. If you’re caught working on it, then the government is well within its rights to deport you, making it more difficult to work anywhere abroad until you get a new passport.
b) Once you arrive, they will keep putting off converting the visa or they will simply deny they ever promised this. Why? Because they can. You can’t really complain to anyone because you’re working illegally. You are now the school’s bitch.
c) If the school does have enough friends in high places, they will ask you to do a visa run to Hong Kong, or maybe Mongolia, to have your illegal visa converted. While many teachers have done this successfully, it’s a highly stressful and unnecessary process.
So, as if I haven’t made this clear enough in a stern, fatherly tone, make sure you are getting the goddamned Z-visa, and nothing else! Not doing so will open the door to so many unnecessary future stresses when the Z-visa is already bad enough!
The Foreign Expert Certificate
Let’s come back to the Z-visa in a bit. There’s some other hoops you’ll need to jump through first before making your grand and hopeful trip to the embassy (or sending an agent to do it for you). As a teacher (and I think any other profession), you need to hold a Foreign Expert Certificate, which is basically proof that you are qualified to be doing what you’re doing in China. I find this hilarious because the amount of teachers in China that have a bachelors or more in English/Teaching/TEFL and also have any relevant teaching experience (i.e. an actual classroom, not summer camp, volunteering, etc.) is probably less than 1%. No one is really qualified. The classroom is going to be your teacher.
The quest for the Permit for Foreign Experts (which you need to submit for your visa application; you’ll get the actual Foreign Expert Certificate in China) will be mostly done through your school. You’ll learn a lot about them through this process. Mostly, how helpful, organized and honest they are. Get ready for email tennis. These are the things that you should prepare to hand in to them:
- Copy of your passport information page
- Copy of your degree(s)
- Copy of your TEFL certificate(s)
- Resume and cover letter
- Work reference that indicates you have taught before, and were good at it - there’s some leeway here
- Physical Examination Record for Foreigner form completed by doctor - basically indicates you’re healthy enough to work
- A color photo of your face - you’ll quickly learn that white is right and that China as a whole is quite racist
- Criminal background check - I got one from the county courthouse; no FBI check required. Murderers welcome!
This is sort of a mixture of what the government requires and what your school wants. Another requirement for anyone working in China is that you have 2 years of work experience after graduating university, but I’m not sure if this is actually enforced because I myself only had about one year on my resume and many teachers I know came over straight after graduating. Either it isn’t enforced, or your school will simply fake the information (this is quite common). Speaking of forging documents, I have heard tales of degrees and TEFL certificates being faked by schools as well, but I’m not sure if the government has been cracking down on this more or not. If the leaders in your school have power with the government, they can do a lot for you if they like you enough.
Requirements for the Z-Visa
After getting all of the right stuff to your school for your Foreign Expert Certificate, they will mail you an Invitation Letter with the Permit for Foreign Experts. Make sure they get these two things to you! Once they do, you’re pretty much in the clear as far as getting your visa is concerned. You now have all of the information to complete the forms, and because so much checking up on you has already been done for the Permit for Foreign Experts, getting your visa is really as simple as turning in the correct forms. Here is what you will now need to submit for your Z-visa:
- Visa Application Form V.2011A
- Supplementary Application Form V.2011B
- A black/white copy of your passport information page
- A passport-sized photo with a white background
- Invitation letter from your school (needs to have your full name, date of birth, and mention you are offered an ‘English teaching position’)
- Permit/Confirmation Letter for Foreign Experts
- Optional – Your flight itinerary. They ultimately didn’t take mine, but the woman processing my application sure scrutinized it for a while
Applying for the Visa
There are six locations in the United States where you can apply for your visa. The main Chinese embassy is in Washington, DC. There are five other consulates in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. If you’re pressed for time between getting the documents from the school and the day you depart and are also lucky enough to live nearby, you can simply go to the embassy and apply in person. DC is about a five-hour drive for me in North Carolina, so I did this for my Swedish residence permit as well as my Z-visa most recently. It’s a good road-trip if you can wrangle a friend into going with you.
If you do apply at the embassy/consulate, make sure you get there early. The visa office in Washington opens at 9:30. I read several reports of people getting there on time and not being able to do same-day service because of the wait. So we rolled up at 8:00 and I ended up snagging the first number. If you’ve been to the DMV then you’ll be at home in this atmosphere. There are three windows for applying that will display your number when it’s your turn. Pay attention as they will skip right over you to the next in line if you take too long. Apparently, they do not offer same-day service any longer, which was what I was counting on as my flight was two weeks away and I can’t exactly afford to spend three nights in DC. Which brings me to your other option…
Hire an Agent
If the embassy/consulates are out of reach, you can hire a travel agency to apply for you. Basically you will just ship the documents to them and they will take them to the visa office on your behalf. Because I couldn’t get my visa the same day, I had to do this so it could be shipped back to me. Oasis China Visa Service is located a couple floors above the visa office, almost too conveniently. I used them to receive my visa on my behalf and then ship it back home via FedEx. They charge a $20 service fee and it was another $20 for the shipping. It was an easy process and I had my visa in my hands a week later.
I have written everything above from my experience and here I am sitting in China, using a VPN to bypass the firewall and all. So if you keep these things in mind, stay organized and be persistent with your school, you will get passed the headaches and…begin to enjoy the headaches of living in China! This post is probably incredibly boring for many, but I’ve had so many questions about Chinese visas that I was compelled to help anyone who needs it. There’s a lot of conflicting information online and it can be really frustrating to wade through the bullshit. This should be quite comprehensive, and you too will soon be able listen to your roof leak into a metal bowl while you work in the computer room.
Other stuff to remember…
Make sure your school stays on the ball! I was surprised how often I had to remind them that I needed this or that and even explain what “this” or “that” is. Maybe I was naive in thinking they would know everything having already dealt with getting several foreign teachers here before me. Well, that was before I found out my boss is completely incompetent…but that’s another story.
Make copies of all your documents before you go to the visa office/send them there.
- The DC visa office is in a different building from the main embassy a few blocks away. I found this out literally the day before heading over. Here is the address.
I slowly come to from a groggy haze to something resembling that scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. You know the one. Kate was saying, “Holy Fucking Shit” in the background, not quite yelling, but definitely louder than normal (not that she says it all the time). I draw a sharp breath, hold it in tightly and brace for impact. Again. And again we get away with just a longer-than-usual burst of the oncoming truck’s horn. The bus driver seems as unfazed as ever. Just going from point A to point B, no big deal.
Daqing was beginning to assimilate us into its patchwork of (un)organized chaos and the culture shock was cutting at us with a blade that was getting duller with each day. It was time to see another part of China. Volcanoes and lava and shit seem to be a running theme in our lives so it’s no surprise that our destination was Wudalianchi, a National Forest Park containing 14 dormant volcanoes and their millions of years of work on some pretty beautiful geological formations, lakes and other cool stuff. But first, the bus journey.
We had to survive it. I wish I was exaggerating. Okay, maybe I am. But just a bit. Google “bus crash in China” and you will find too many headlines citing massive fatalities per crash, as well as several disturbing YouTube videos documenting them. It’s the kind of info that you know is out there but you don’t read it before you go. Hell, one of the teachers in our group had been here for nearly four years and this was his first coach trip, mostly due to the frequency in crashes. But you’ve got to do it once for the sake of doing it, and we did. Here’s a snapshot of both the beautiful and grotesque that we saw along the way.
1. The stark urban/rural divide - Nothing will provoke “Real China” to backhand you in your naive, urbanite little face than taking a bus straight out into the countryside. Leaving the (let’s be honest) grim, I’m-definitely-in-a-Chinese-city skyline of Daqing will yield a pleasant drive through the surrounding wetlands. Then you get to the first town, and wow. What you’ll see is the physical manifestation of a stereotype. It is dirty, it smells, it is being dragged behind the horse of forced, rapid industrialization, both willing and reluctant at the same time. Stagnant pools of water make up the front yards of many houses and piles of rubbish sit next to charming little gardens. But the government buildings are spotless. Bricks pin down tarps on the roofs in an effort to keep out the rain; it’s been quite wet in Heilongjiang this year. You’ll most likely yield to sheep and the occasional kid shitting in the street while their parents encourage them on.
2. The most horrific driving you’ve (likely) seen - Driving in China is special. The China apologist’s refrain is always something to the effect of “but yeah, they have a system and it kinda works.” That may be true, but from an objective position, some systems are better than others, China’s being somewhere near the bottom rung of that ladder. The size of the vehicle and amount of traffic are inconsequential. Expect your driver to pass lorries and tractors first and worry about the oncoming traffic later. Within towns and cities, your bus is the big bully and the little tuk tuks and cars are the uncool kids in high school. They know they have to make room for you, or else. If there is no where to go (so even the sidewalk is blocked), then the driver will simply lay on his horn as if he’s Moses or Magneto, expecting the traffic to part for him based on the length and volume of the blast.
3. The most horrific toilet you’ve (definitely) seen - We pulled over midway through the five-hour journey for a piss break. Instead of logically stopping in the last city, the driver decided on what once could have been a petrol station but is now a primitive outpost with the exclusive purpose of receiving the excrement of hundreds of passengers per day. I was bursting, and didn’t have a second thought about what the toilet may or may not look like. My god. Staring down into the communal concrete trough made the piss that was so eager to get out seconds earlier recoil in fear. What do you think gallons of urine and feces would look like if left for months (years?) in a basin with no drainage? Picture that, because whatever I could type out in detail will make you hit Ctrl + W faster than I handled my business in the thing that was the most literal representation of a cesspool I’ve yet seen. Put it this way, it was enough to leave me with only complete apathy toward all of the Chinese men craning to see what a foreign dude’s junk looks like. Oh, and my girlfriend watched a guy kill a giant rat with a shovel on the women’s side.
4. An otherwise beautiful place – Finding ugliness in China is not hard, and it truly exists in any country, even if it’s hidden under a few more layers than it is here. But beyond the city lies beauty. The leaves were changing and painting what little forest the farmers decided to spare. I always find beauty in the uniformity of crops, whether it’s here, in Sweden or North Carolina. I lose myself trying to stare straight down the spaces between rows of corn in the nanoseconds I have to do so. When I look up, I notice that it’s snowing. The road to Wudalianchi has that northern quality to it. You look around and you just feel that you’re north. The sun breaks through the clouds, shining on the hodgepodge of tin-roofed houses and turf huts to put a period at the end of that thought. The scenery helps to repress the memories of near-death experiences. When the volcanoes come into view over the horizon – on fire from the leaves rather than lava – I even forget about the toilet.
It’s easy to say things like “holy shit look at that” and “wow, that’s incredibly dangerous” but at the end of the day, it is a basic form of transportation that hundreds of thousands of people use all the time. Not really that novel. However, if you’re not Chinese, then you’re in for quite a unique view of each stage of rapid development in the country. Watching two eras clash outside your window will begin to shed light on the reasons behind the strange social behaviors you see in the city. In addition to these profound revelations, you will never complain about a gas station bathroom ever again.
My first post on Spartan Wanderer was back in June, 2011 in preparation for my first long-term move to a foreign country. 124 posts later, I’ve seen a lot of cool things, experienced a lot of culture and drunken enough to kill a lot of people. Also, I’ve learned that I love writing about it all. I initially just wanted an outlet for that, but also began writing a few pieces about living a minimalist lifestyle and how it is an ideal change for anyone thinking about traveling for a while. Now, I want to inspire people to travel, to show them that it’s actually not as hard as it may seem, and generally be a part of the wonderful thing that is cultural exchange - a great medicine for the human condition.
The blog has remained largely unchanged since its debut (not that it was a big event) other than the facelift I gave it not too long ago. I haven’t tried to monetize it, nor ask for subscribers. In a way, I feel like there’s less pressure on my writing because of that. I’ve tried my best to post once a week, with a few breaks every now and then due mostly in part to self-induced extreme busyness. The words have flowed out over several cups of coffee (and beers) and sometimes they stayed stubbornly lodged deep in the abyss, and bringing them out was like pulling teeth. For the most part, it’s been awesome, and so have you guys. My readers.
My faithful few. I have no delusions about this blog and I don’t seek ‘tumblr fame’, much less internet fame, although only writing for a living would be pretty sweet (then again I would lack for material if I wasn’t working in every country I live in). I’m quite happy over the amount of followers I’ve picked up over the years, although the number pales in comparison to tumblogs dedicated to cat photos and porn. But then again, it’s just a number, and whenever it jumps up by a couple it gives me a warm feeling that’s really just a bonus to the enjoyment I get out of writing. When you guys message me or comment, I’m always thrilled to answer, so keep ‘em coming.
Why am I writing this and showing you some of my cheesy reflections? Because it’s time. I think it’s time to take it to the next level. I’ve been playing with the idea of writing something more long-form for a while (yes, a book) and I’ve already said a little something about it. I’m all about putting a bow on things, and I want to do that for this blog. I want to write something that defines the purpose for any of this; a compendium of sorts for anyone wanting to dip their toes into foreign waters for the first time.
People ask me all the time how I got started traveling like this as if I possess some set of special conditions that allow me to do so. Not so. I’m completely average and am not by any stretch of the imagination independently wealthy, hence my working everywhere I go. The secret to long-term travel is that it’s easy. The hardest thing about it are the psychological barriers. If you haven’t been abroad before, it’s really hard to picture yourself somewhere thousands of miles away. And you are, after all, picking up and relocating your entire life. But once you streamline your life, educate yourself and stay on top of things, it is easy.
There’s never more a frustrating answer to all of your questions when you’re trying something new than “it’s easy.” That’s why I’m writing this ebook. I want to outline the process of moving abroad from the reasons why anyone would ever choose to do so to planning your next move. I’m basing it all off of my and my close friends’ experiences, so it’s not some mere, naive conjecture that you can find in abundance all over the web. I’m making a blueprint that is author-tested because I want as many people to experience the liberating, amazing experience of travel as possible. And I’m already three chapters in.
In order to do this, I will unfortunately be taking a couple of breaks from writing here because I also have a job, and I have to be selective about how I spend my free time. October will be the first of these breaks. ‘National Day Golden Week’ starts at the end of September so I’ll have a week off from work in which my girlfriend and I will go to Harbin to explore, and the rest will be writing. I’ll have to see how much I finish in October to know when my next break will be, but I will definitely be posting again in November. I’ll still be tweeting, instagramming and maybe even uploading a few YouTube videos, so it won’t be completely dead air.
But anyway, I’ll be writing it. In addition, I probably will add some type of subscription feature in the future, completely free of course. The only thing I’m monetizing at the moment are the t-shirt designs I do over at Footloose Fabrics. But I will probably charge a nominal fee for this ebook when it’s finished (we’re talking $3 or less) in order to fund future projects for this blog. It’s all very exciting to me, anyway, taking it to the next level and all that. This is some low-budget shit though, so don’t expect me to be Colin Wright overnight. I just appreciate your reading, your comments and your enjoyment, so keep it up with all that.
I’ve just taken a couple shots of baijiu and am not very capable of ending this post very coherently, but to summarize: I’m having fun in China; I’m grateful for my audience; I’m writing an ebook; It might take a while; I love you guys. That’s it. I’ll post some updates on Twitter soon, but using my VPN to get over the Great Firewall really is a bitch.
I’m rather animalistic when it comes to baser needs, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite things about China so far is the food. There’s fresh dumplings, filled with whatever you want from sweet corn to pork. Spicy hot pot in which to boil whatever bits of meat you fancy. Charred pieces of meat on a stick from the street. A vegan would starve here. I, however, am in heaven. I’m no foodie, but there are a few meals that may warrant some special attention on the blog from time to time. Our favorite (so far) barbecue spot deserves the first honor.
A Quick Note on Cleanliness
China is definitely one of those countries where you need to be careful…but not so careful that you’re giving every restaurant with a C-rating a miss (most don’t even have a grade). The bacteria is different here and more resilient than back home, so it’s not uncommon to have the shits within your first weeks of being here. I messaged my friend telling him that I didn’t think I’d make it to the bar one night because I had eaten something bad. His simple reply was “Welcome to China.”
Two good rules that us newbies have been using are:
1) Go somewhere busy because there is a high turnaround rate for the food, which increases the likelihood that it’s fresh, and
2) use common sense. We’ve only been to two questionable places so far and we knew we wouldn’t be eating what we ordered within a couple minutes of being there.
But I digress…
One Million Degrees Barbecue
We’ve been in Daqing for about three weeks now - not really a long time. But we do have two definite favorites in the running right now, and one is (literal translation) One Million Degrees Barbecue (my friend says the Chinese characters aren’t clear on whether that’s Fahrenheit or Celsius). It specializes in charred pieces of meat, something I’m a bit of an expert in and the reason I will never be able to rattle my conscience enough to become a vegetarian/vegan.
If you’ve ever had Korean barbecue before, you’ll be right at home here. It’s common practice that, after marking what you want to grill on the menu, you cook those things yourself. Unfortunately that’s only happened once so far because (I think) the Chinese there are worried that we don’t know how to do it and are eager to do it for us (we’ll talk about white privilege in China later). This time around we kept it simple with some spicy beef, pork, mushrooms and squid rice. Yep, there’s little bits of tentacle in there and it’s goddamn wonderful.
We cooked…er, our waitress cooked the beef first as we awkwardly conversated across her, which isn’t really that awkward because no one spoke English there apart from us. In the meantime, we sip on our Harbin Beer, but cautiously, as to avoid losing our inhibitions to its whopping 3.1% ABV mid-meal. Once that’s done, we dipped the meat in the three sauces that we’d arranged on our plate: one chili, one crushed peanut, one I’m not sure. Good stuff.
The mushrooms are placed in tiny pans that are slid underneath the main hotplate to sizzle, freeing up much needed real estate for something much more important - the pork. As you can see by the photos, it looks almost exactly like bacon and it basically is. Some people might be turned off by the amount of fat on some cuts of meat here, but many schools of Chinese cuisine work it in to be quite nice. You can even order fat on skewers in most places. After biting into that crispy goodness I didn’t mind at all, and anyone who does can give me their share.
We dish out the rice to each other until the last spoonful. I glanced up for a brief second to confirm that, yes, two-thirds of the place is still staring at us, observing our exotic ways. You get used to it.
“Fúwùyuán!” I shouted. I wanted another beer. It’s basically the English equivalent to yelling “Waitress!” which I’m not sure is acceptable anywhere in the US anymore, but totally the norm here. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to get service in most places without that interjection. I drink up as we drink in the atmosphere. Shirtless bros smoking in the corner and laughing, two independent ladies breaking the mold by having multiple beers in public and unintentional eye-contact with more starers.
The meal comes to 65 yuan; about $10 USD. That’s actually splurging in China, on a meal that would be about $25+ in the US, possibly more for the added value of a “unique dining experience.” It’s just the tip of the culinary iceberg. This isn’t your Kung pao chicken from back home, and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to go back to that. Stick around for more reasons American Chinese food will be ruined for me in a year’s time.