10 unexpected things I love about life here

Lately I feel my posts have had a more negative slant, so in a bid to inject a note of positivity into proceedings (and out of slight fear that I might get deported if I don’t write something nice about the country soon), I present a list of things I actually like about life here in BJ.

1. The rudeness
Surprising, I know, considering I come from a nation famed for its good manners. But actually there is something liberating about people having ill manners. Or, should I say, different manners (let’s not get all colonial now – we are not better, we are just different). I mean, I still get annoyed when people are rude, but I do not often feel obliged to take the moral high ground or be passive-aggressive about my irritation as we tend to back home. I know I can easily get away with being abrupt or curt – it is everyday behaviour, almost expected. I don’t need to acknowledge shopkeepers if I don’t want to (though I do of course, if they acknowledge me. Which they often don’t). Not only does walking into people elicit indifference, it is actually an unavoidable everyday activity and generally requires no reaction except a side-step. It can also be amusing just how bad-tempered some people are, even as they are doing something kind like giving you directions. In short, all the hidden incivility, belligerence and boorishness that I have for so long repressed in the name of polite society is being unleashed by the lack of courtesy from everyone, everywhere.

2. The lack of self-consciousness
A vague link to no. 1, as some of this behaviour can be considered ill-mannered, but I personally love how un-self-conscious I feel here. For example, table manners are very different – non-existent in some cases. So I happily dig into my rice with my chopsticks and eat with gusto, and don’t feel bashful if I accidentally splash a bit of my soup noodles around. I can wear anything at all and it wouldn’t matter; there will always be someone worse-dressed than me, guaranteed. I wish my self-consciousness had dropped to the level where I could burst into song if I felt like it while walking around in public but I’m not quite there yet, though I feel a mixture of amusement and envy when I witness other people doing this with abandon. I also love how I can (should I choose to) amble around in public slapping and kneading my thighs, and that’s normal here. What? It’s good for the muscles and circulation. On the crowded tube people will just loudly say “move down the carriage!” or “I’m getting off now!” unlike in London where we apparently hope to communicate our wishes via telepathy to surrounding commuters as we mutely struggle and squish. People are practical and not precious about their behaviour here, and I like it.

3. When the air is clear
It does happen sometimes. Trust me, when the pollution is bad, it’s BAD, but when I wake up and check the Air Quality Index app on my phone and it tells me today’s level is “moderate” or even “good”, my spirits lift in jubilation and my heart feels lighter (not to mention my lungs). It is hard to describe the suffocating feeling when the air, all around, inescapable and all-pervading, it essentially poison, and likewise the supreme relief when the smog lifts and one can see the sky again. It is like going from apocalypse to paradise one day to the next.

5. The public tai chi/gymnastic ribbon twirling/dancing with swords
I like seeing people, mostly on the old side, unabashedly doing their daily exercise routines out in the open air. Especially when it is cool, choreographed tai chi, or involves props such as gymnastics ribbons or wooden swords. Though I do worry about their lungs, as their aged limbs slice lithely through the smog.

6. CHINESE BABIES
And little kids in general. Cutest in the world, though less so when they are defecating in a public bin or on the underground. Oh, it happens. A lot.

7. The flexibility
Wanna bring your own drinks into a restaurant? No problem! This club says it is charging entry? Negotiable. Too embarrassed to ask for freebies? Don’t be. Taxi won’t let five of you in? It’s ok, this hei che (illegal cab) will! The lack of rules can be frustrating but it can also often be turned to great advantage. Perhaps a legally dubious advantage, but it does simplify things sometimes.

8. The respect for old people
“There’s an old person here, give up your seat!” This is the kind of announcement you’ll hear on the bus by the conductor. I suppose it is necessary when there are so many people all around. In any case, in China respect for the elderly is palpable and very important.

9. The philosophical Engrish
The front of one of my notebooks reads “Pioneer: whatever you can do, or dream you can begin. boldness has genius, power and magic in it [sic]” Truly inspirational words! In fact, reading the fronts of notebooks in a stationery shop provides endless entertainment, not to mention profound insights into life and love. You will find many deep and meaningful messages in grammatically questionable English on stationery – quotes about love and loss, determination, youthful folly, you name it, they have it. I kind of love it.

10. Fwends!
Well of course I couldn’t forget my new dear friends who are my only source of comfort here (apart from Chinese food), without whom I would have no understanding audience for my ranting, railing and ravings about the petty injustices I face everyday, nor people with whom to party and laugh and commiserate our miserable expat lot. Though I do have one (one!) Chinese friend here who is lovely and provides some vital insight into the Chinese mindset, not to mention essential language practice. I have met and hung out with pretty varied groups in my time, but the people here have taken it to a whole new level. My social circle encompasses super-conservative, die-hard Christian Americans (I know you’re trying to convert me!) to über-liberal Europeans, and various odds and ends in-between, and it is a most fascinating social study. Plus of course sometimes one just needs a hug or a friendly conversation while far away from home in a very strange land, and I do love my new fwends for providing.

Please, I’m not Chinese…

This evening, sitting in the lobby of my residence with a white person on either side of me, an American girl came and addressed herself to one of my companions, saying she had to give out some flyers to foreign students. She proceeded to hand one to him, and then another to the person sitting on my other side, and did not even look at me. It was like I did not exist.

This offended me more than any Chinese person mistaking me for a Chinese person ever could, because usually foreigners can tell fellow foreigners apart, and besides, what would your average Chinese girl be doing in the foreign student dorm sitting between two blond boys, speaking in English? On reflection, maybe she was actually just being a bitch.

Being mistaken for a “real” Chinese happens with depressing frequency. I also regularly find myself sandwiched between two blonds; for example in the first week of lessons, walking to the classroom with my two blonde friends, some men handing out booklets on tourism in English actually retracted their booklets when they came near me, but hastened to hand them to my classmates. The irony being that neither of my classmates are actually English, but I am. I just said loudly, in Chinese, “why aren’t you giving me one?” and finally got my crappy validation and a crappy booklet, which I immediately thew out.

It’s tiring having to endlessly explain myself, and I know I am not alone. There are a few others like me, the “special” ones, who look Chinese and get all the extra aggro with it. Just this evening a Canadian Chinese friend was telling me how she was at dinner with some white friends and a Chinese boy came directly up to her and asked her in Chinese to translate some things for him into English. The presumption of it is astounding (not to mention rude… interrupting her meal anyone?) Firstly, those white people could actually speak Chinese. Secondly, why the hell should she do some shitty translation for a stranger?

I don’t mind when Chinese people ask me where I am from, or say “you are not Chinese, are you?” when I stumble over my Chinese. I gladly reveal where I am from, and in a big city like this it is not really met with surprise. I don’t mind acknowledging that I am foreign. What does bother me is when I am treated differently from my foreign peers, my equals, when I am standing right next to them, clearly one of them (and sadly it usually is very much a clear case of “them” and “us”). I also hate being made to feel that I somehow need to be surrounded by foreign-looking people to validate my shiny “foreign” status. I feel like I’m in a much, much milder version of 12 Years a Slave or something. I’m different, I swear!

All this is doing is making me extremely patriotic. This evening I actually said the sentence “England is the best country in the world. Excluding perhaps Canada and Switzerland”. It might have been serious, or a joke, I don’t even know anymore…

My possessions are getting weirder and weirder

It’s not that I really desired to own a water bottle in the shape of a giant red pencil, it just kind of happened… And my brightly chequered pencil case was the least garish or sweetly girly thing I could find. One of my favourite things to do in a foreign country is explore the unfamiliar aisles of a local supermarket, and our on-campus student stores certainly provide much rich fodder for contemplation. Unusual snacks aside, doing a spot of shopping for everyday use items today was a challenge. I physically could not prevent myself from wrinkling my nose in distaste at the prospect of having to actually buy some of the stuff.

Let me explain. I am someone of simple tastes, even by western standards. My favourite colour to wear is black (which is not even a colour), I like neutral tones and I generally avoid patterned things or anything too frilly, fussy or colourful. Yet fussy, frilly and colourful is more or less what everything is over here. There is a serious Asia-wide penchant for cute things (think Hello Kitty), and this invades even the most mundane of household items. Clothes shopping is draining for the sheer effort of finding something that is not adorned with some picture, garish ornamentation, or strange English. Even just buying a plain mug is nigh on impossible; there will be something or other printed on it.

I was obliged to buy a patterned pencil case, though a plain one would have been preferable, and after spending an unreasonable time staring at water bottles, I finally plumped for the one shaped like a pencil, for its practical qualities naturally, rather than its… interesting form. Of course when I use the word “weird” I am imposing my own western tastes and perspective on another culture’s. It is simply a matter of difference in partiality, and I find myself increasingly purchasing things I would not normally in England; though out of sheer necessity, rather than delight at their design. An alarming proportion of my possessions are now bright pink.

Admittedly my school notebooks all have some picture or pattern (and sometimes funny Engrish), though simpler designs were available. Back home I would never buy a notebook emblazoned with a picture of Tower Bridge, the Union Jack and the word ENGLAND on the front, but I saw it and couldn’t resist; there was something ironic yet oddly comforting in it. I’m actually starting to have fun. I also bought a, ah… a brown bin printed with a metallic gold fake Louis Vuitton style pattern. And I kind of like it – but in an ironic way, of course!

Sometimes, you just have to go with it.

Having a premature expat breakdown

All expats here have one sooner or later, I am told, but usually it happens after a number of months or years. Three weeks in, I think I am in the throes of a low-level China expat breakdown, right now.

I am displaying what are (I assume) the classic symptoms: generally hating everything, making gross generalisations about the country and its people, feeling rage and bitterness, finding comfort only in moaning about things with my fellow foreigners. My thoughts are going something like this: “I hate this place. I want to go home. I hate this place. I want to go home.” I knew that this country is governed by neither law nor reason and I prepared myself for the ridiculousness before I got here but my tolerance is wearing thinner and thinner as the smog gets thicker and thicker.

The trigger for this meltdown was leaving a hairdresser at 1.40am this morning, after a traumatic six-hour session in which my hair was dyed and washed five times because they messed up the colour so badly that I actually cried. Now it is in an acceptable state, but it was not worth it, at all, and not what I wanted. The people were actually very nice people, but terrible hairdressers.

It was definitely not a language problem because I could say what I wanted, plus I had a PHOTO. I knew already from previous bad experiences that it’s not a language barrier, it’s a stupidity barrier. They just don’t listen to you. This is why I brought photographs along… but OH NO even that wasn’t enough. A PHOTO breaks all language barriers, but the two massive, isolated, uneven blocks of bright yellow blond (with about an inch of brown roots) on either side of my otherwise brown hair looked nothing like the photograph. When, in my despair, I held up the photograph and tearfully asked them, again and again, if my hair looked anything like that, it was like they couldn’t hear me. They just kept asking what was wrong… er, HELLO? 

So, I feel like I’ve had it up to here with this place and its ridiculous ways. First, it fucked up my phone. Then, it fucked up my hair. Soon, it will probably fuck up my lungs and god knows what else to do with my health, considering I’m never sure of what I’m eating, or whether I can even really drink the bottled water. Nothing really terrible has happened, thankfully, but the accumulation of ludicrous, nonsensical occurrences everyday are grinding my determined patience down. I can’t even take a deep breath to calm myself down because I want to inhale as few pollutants as possible.

This is not a precious western princess’ tantrum because things are not as I like, and not going my way. I don’t have silly little complaints like “I don’t like the squatter toilets” or “Why are there no forks, only chopsticks”. I get shouted at virtually everyday by serving staff and it doesn’t even bother me (well, it does now that I’m having my breakdown. Shouted back at someone today). The loud spit-hocking sound amuses me more than anything; I share a room without complaint; I don’t throw a strop if I can’t understand some Chinese because I realise that’s my problem, not the Chinese people’s.

My frustrations are both everyday and political. China must be the only place in the world that is prejudiced against you if people think you are NOT a foreigner. The silly things that happen are not one-offs; this is the reality of living in China. The smog-ridden air is not a temporary issue. The inefficient, ridiculous and time-wasting administrative processes are here to stay.

Plus I don’t know what products they were using last night but my hair fucking stinks.