That’s how it’s done in China, baby

How to describe daily life here? Things are done so differently to back home, even now I still never fail to be amazed and/or amused. For example, on my first day here I went to open a bank account, accompanied by a German friend who has lived here a while. However, I did not know my room number yet, and a bank employee explained that without a room number she wouldn’t be able to open me an account. After a moment’s dithering she said, “Oh, I’ll just make up a number then”, and wrote in a random number. My mouth was hanging open, but my local friend was busy cursing herself for not having had the presence of mind to think of doing that first.

Customer service is not really a known concept here. Don’t expect shopkeepers and waiting staff to be nice to you in China; usually they are stony-faced and abrupt. It’s nothing personal, and they do not expect courtesy in response. Last night at a restaurant, our friend who was in charge of ordering for the group was calling to and speaking to waiting staff in what I thought was quite a kind manner (especially as they kept walking off partway through his orders), but our foreign friends seemed taken aback by his tone of voice. The meaner you are, the better people treat you. If you want to get your way, just kick up a fuss and make a lot of noise and you’ll intimidate everyone into doing what you want. No-one will get offended and sometimes, it’s the only way to get things done. An elderly friend of the family once got so rowdy at the bank (Chinese banks are notorious for the ridiculously long waiting times) that they gave her a VIP card so she’d never have to queue again. Result.

Health and safety apparently hasn’t been invented here yet. The university campus alone is basically an open building site (supposedly they choose the summer holidays to do their construction, when most students are away). Just innocently walking home the other day I very nearly got a faceful of rubble as I passed by a pick-up truck into which a builder was throwing spadefuls of I don’t even know what. Another time, someone was using a pneumatic drill on a rooftop a couple of metres away as we walked by, bits of jagged rock flying everywhere. Each day when I step out the front door I wonder what new chemical emanation will greet my nostrils as I hold my breath on the way to class.

Don’t let the diminutive frames of the local population fool you; you need to be tough to live here!


Chinese Chivalry

One of the most remarkable differences in youth culture I have noticed between Chinese university students and English is the attitude toward romance. The Chinese are certainly more traditional (see convent-like rules for my residence) and generally more conservative and old-fashioned. Plus I’m sure a contributing factor is the fact that karaoke is the preferred leisure activity as opposed to clubbing i.e. getting drunk and accidentally-on-purpose getting off with strangers/your friends, etc.

In any case, I have been (pleasantly?) surprised by some of the practices I have witnessed amongst Chinese couples. Here, boys are much more attentive to their girlfriends; perhaps a little too much so, from a western perspective. They treat their girlfriends like princesses – literally. When walking together in the street, boys carry their girlfriends’ handbags for them. Men always pay. Not accompanying your lady home? Unspeakable.

Things I have personally witnessed have made me rather wish I had an attentive Chinese boyfriend of my own. Last weekend, while sweating under the sweltering sunlight during a tour of the Forbidden City, I saw an elegant Chinese girl looking lovely and fresh under her umbrella while her boyfriend stood by her side and fanned her. Later that day, exhausted and feet aching from walking all day, I saw a couple lounging in the shade on a bench; he was massaging her feet.

Chinese men are on the whole very respectful and gentle toward women (at least in my experience). I’d be more surprised than anything if a male companion didn’t open doors for me, etc; it’s just standard behaviour. As someone who hugely values chivalry, and often is made to feel traitorous to the cause of feminism or unrealistically old-fashioned for it, it’s refreshing.

Of course, on the flipside girls here are expected to be demure, submissive and obedient. Bubble burst.

A giant in a yellow land

I am above average height for a girl but I think most people who have seen me would not describe me as “big”. However, here in Asia, where your average woman has the bone structure of a 12-year-old girl in the West, BIG is indeed what I am. Trawling the clothes markets can sometimes make one feel rather obese, or at least like one is shopping in the children’s section.

I’ll never forget that time at Mongkok Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, with an English friend of tiny proportions. We were hesitating over whether the clothes would fit us, when the girl at the stall, no doubt in some misguided attempt to make us buy her wares, stretched out her largest pair of shorts to its maximum elastic capability and said matter-of-factly, “Look, so huge”. Ouch.

Also I don’t know how shoe sizes work here, because they seem to follow the European system, yet I am a size bigger here than my usual size in Europe. At least I can still (just) find shoes that fit me; not so for the girls with feet upward of a size 6 (39). Women with feet that size don’t exist in China, apparently. Buying tops is not generally a problem, though trousers are a shady area, with waistbands that look more like wrist bands and jeans that look like they’re for holding chopsticks, not human legs. My very skinny Spanish friend today was struggling with a very tight pair of shorts she bought at the market, the biggest size in stock. WOW this is just great for a girl’s self-esteem…

Why I love clubbing in China

Clubbing is a universal truth these days, but there nevertheless remain some significant differences in the clubbing experience between England and China. I’m not a huge one for intense clubbing all-nighters, but I pop out now and then with my buddies for some Chinese party times. Here are the reasons for which clubbing in China is that bit more special…

  1. No-one gives a crap what you are wearing – Last week a decision to go out was so spontaneous I was wearing a My Little Pony t-shirt and spectacles and had sweated off my makeup in the summer heat hours before. In short, I looked a state. No-one batted an eyelid. Likewise, you can dress up as much as you want, and that’s fine too.
  2. Crazy Promos – Here, in the university district’s party area, on Wednesday nights it is open bar night. Yes, open bar, where guys pay something like 50 yuan and girls 20 (so, £5 and £2) to drink as much as they want. Open bars are not even legal in England. Similarly, Thursday is Ladies’ night, so girls get free drinks. If you’re Asian (i.e. lightweight), that is ample to not need to spend a penny all evening, and even offer a drink or two to your guy mates.
  3. The atmosphere – is chilled. I never feel intimidated or harassed. It’s true that Asian men are somewhat more reserved, so you’re less likely to get someone grabbing you and grinding unceremoniously on your unsuspecting behind.
  4. The Chinese guys – are always good value. You get the odd abnormally brave one who will approach a group of foreign girls and work his geeky Chinese charm. Most of them are shy, though the odd one might wave at you. If you do get talking to one it’s likely he’ll be thrilled to buy all your drinks all evening, as is the custom here.
  5. The free cloakroom – speaks for itself really. Bonus.
  6. The ever-present staff – There is always personnel waiting on standby to swoop in and collect glasses as soon as they are empty – sometimes even before. Toilets are constantly attended, so very clean, normally with a lady there to point you to the nearest free cubicle if you are too blurry-eyed to spot it yourself. There is always some staff member or other in sight, and standards of hygiene and order just seem generally higher.
  7. The favouritism – toward women, I mean. Being a girl is pretty jammy in Beijing. Aside from above mentioned ladies’ nights, entry to places is often free for girls, while guys have to pay; or at least girls pay less. And of course wherever the girls go, the guys follow.

The one major disadvantage (and it’s quite a big one) is the music. You’ll hear the same Justin Bieber song five times in one evening, and there is not much variety in genre. Thankfully the alcohol’s relatively cheap and/or free, so the chances of that bothering you are smaller. Beijing is supposed to have a really good live music scene in any case, which sounds much more interesting. I’ll keep you posted…

I think I’m turning Chinese…

Banana I may be, but growing up with Chinese parents and going back and forth to China over the years has nevertheless made its mark. I still feel very foreign here, but it is only when I am with my European friends who have had little to no exposure to Chinese culture do I realise that I am more Chinese than I give myself credit for. They are little things like being more skilled with chopsticks and using an umbrella when it’s sunny, and not flinching when I hear someone hocking spit, but it all adds up. The more time I spend here the more I adjust, and things of which I was aware and found difficult to accept before, such as a rather different concept of manners (see hocking spit above), I now barely blink an eye at.

The question of manners is a big one, as I am from England where manners count for everything. My behaviour is rapidly shifting into Chinese mode, in which when people push in front of or shove by me, I am no longer ruffled or affronted, as it is normal behaviour here; I just push and shove right back. My road-crossing behaviour has taken a dramatic turn, and I have less regard for my fellow human beings in general. With such a vast population, there are just not enough hours in the day to be courteous to everyone, especially as no-one is bothering to do the same for you.

On the contrary, Chinese culture is big on respect and courtesy, it just depends on the context; don’t expect to find loads of it on the street. Last week my friends booked a table at what turned out to be a very fancy (not to mention pricey) restaurant to eat some famous Peking Duck. So I might not frequent this kind of joint everyday of the week, but I saw nothing strange in the four ladies dressed up in qi paos lined up on the steps outside the restaurant who bowed us in and chanted a greeting, and did the same when we left. I found it vaguely amusing, but my friends (French, Spanish, New Zealander) were bewildered and found the entire thing absurd.

Food is a big one. There are loads of things I see in our impressive multi-storey university dining hall which I don’t necessarily know the names for in Chinese nor in English, but which I have either tasted or seen already, and which appear bizarre to my foreign buddies. I know what will be spicy (a rookie mistake my friends are making everyday and, being white folk who can’t take spicy food, suffering for), and nothing amongst the various colours and shapes and textures looks weird to me.

I don’t hesitate to shout across restaurants to get the attention of serving staff these days. During my first few days I tried to speak kindly and quietly to waiting staff, and they would literally look straight at me then walk on by. It’s like the opposite of England here; as a general rule, the nicer you are, the less people are inclined to treat you well; the more rude and abrupt you are, the more people treat you with respect. Though it’s not always like that. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been pleasantly surprised: shop staff sometimes even smile.

Of course there are some things I will never quite become accustomed to. It is never pleasant seeing people, particularly children, lying on cardboard sheets on the street, right outside the club where you’ve been spending a frivolous evening drinking and partying with your friends. Health and safety is not really a known concept here, and I am a little disquieted every time I pass close by an open building site where they are chucking around poles and planks and whatnot, not to mention trying to hold my breath to avoid breathing in whatever toxic chemicals they are using.

On the whole I, though not particularly precious before, am becoming rather a lot more thick-skinned and brazen in my day-to-day life. I’d blend right in if it wasn’t for my gargantuan height and red hair. And the fact that I can’t speak Chinese.