It’s the Kingdom of extremes, and one that’s utterly baffling to most outside of it. For me, however, China allures as strongly as the poignant smell of Chòu dòufu (or, stinky tofu). If you haven’t been to China before, trust me on this one, it’s powerful. This country, frankly put, is like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
If you’re curious, China is also the country that gave me my first bite of blogging, see Let the Games Begin and ChinaDoll, if you want to dive into the archives of my life in 中国. Warning, some of these entries are rough!
Looking back, it’s even more evident to me now; China is one place where expats experience the extremes. It can be a bitter battle (at times I felt this too) and/or a lustful affair. It’s the land that shows you what can happen when you move to a country starkly different from your own.
What did I enjoy most?
A short list detailed for you.
1. The Food
You may get stuck in a frenzy, but street food in China has yet to paralleled, except maybe in Vietnam.
From the steppe of Inner Mongolia, to terraced rice patties to the feat of a highway that takes you up to China’s side of Everest (Mother China claims Tibet), this country has an array of natural splendors you must visit. I still count many of my adventures in China as some of my favorite travel stories of all time. Where else can you go to a government sponsored “clibming festival” where the world’s tallest man attends?
Always changing (with unbelievable speed and haste, especially for an American, there’s no gridlock here), always fascinating, and always controversial to the outsider. What does this photo depict? Well, I’m letting you readers discern that. For those genuinely curious, it was shot in a park in Chengdu. The Chinese love to perform.
Be it drinking raw beer (in Qingdao) out of a plastic bag, or riding a kooky ostrich at an ostrich farm/amusement park/dinosaur exhibition in Zhengzhou. China is simply weird. Or, as I’ll glowingly say, novel.
Take a taxi ride through any mega-city in China and skyscrapers flank you for miles. I lived in a “small” Chinese city, which according to the most recent census at that time, 6 million people shared it with me. That didn’t include undocumented migrant workers either. (My students estimated the total was really around 11 to 17 million.) This aspect is both impressive and stifling.
And what I don’t miss.
The pollution levels are record high here and unjustly dangerous to one’s longterm health. See this NYT article for its extent. In an unprecedented word choice for a weather forecast, one week read, “smoky” for my home city of Zhengzhou. The cause? Farmers were illegally burning corn cobs from the end of the crop’s season. And it was, indeed, smoky. The overall chemical cocktail included lingering plumes of black clouds. I wondered when I’d see that orb of yellow, called the sun, again.
2. Smelling or seeing unwanted things, and the lack of lines
This is vague, but with reason. There’s a lot to include here. What do I mention first? Seeing a child pee inside a plastic bag by your head while on a train? Or listening to the blood-curling sound of a taxi-driver prepare his throat to hock a loogie? (It’s an experience that happens everyday.) Or is it the stink of squatter toilets that never have toilet paper, but always have a precarious buildup of waste? Or perhaps finally, that aforementioned stinky tofu sold on the streets?
I’ll be honest with you, I only like the clarity of that reference, not the olfactory-assaulting food itself.
Insert odd body part of an animal here. I like to be a culinary adventurist, just like the next oddball voyager, but I do have my limits. Like starfish on a stick. How does one eat that?
You should know baijiu is colloquially known as Chinese firewater. In layman’s terms, it’s a distilled alcohol made from rice or wheat (depending if it’s from the South or North of China, respectfully). As my co-workers and I coined it, you can always expect the baijiu burps after a long, forcibly boozy banquet. Just to elaborate further, this photo is a candid shot. It illustrates the tango of the baijiu battle between foreigners and the in-their-element-Chinese.
5. Government control and lackluster human rights policies
I no longer need a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to upload photos to Facebook, or to access WordPress. It’s nice. Also, I said Mother China on a blog. Oops.
Caption: This is me making the kě’ài (cute) pose that so many Chinese women strike in photographs. Great success? I’ll answer a quick no, but that is Beijing’s Forbidden City (covered in smog) in the background. Note, I didn’t take the second step to becoming a Chinese girl, which is to wear heels while hiking up that hill, or any hill, for that matter.
One last thing, in China you will always be a waiguoren, or foreigner. No matter how hard you try to go rogue, or native. Expat life in China, it’s nothing like the romance of life in Spain.
Could you live in China?
If you’re expat, or have been one before, what was the most difficult thing about adjusting to your adopted country of residence?
And if you’ve lived in China, or are from there, what would you add?
Even if it seems crazy, sometimes I still envision myself passing another year there!
Disclaimer: All photos are taken by me. Please don’t use them without my permission, thanks! Additionally, the quality is reduced because I had to search a backup web source for these as my hard drive is making them inaccessible at the moment!