When we’ve filled a small bin liner with rubbish, we leave it on the kerb across the way from our apartment. Along every road, at intervals, you will see the odd bag of rubbish, wilted bouquet of parched flowers, a pair of old shoes, bits of wood and glass and anything that’s no longer needed. Most is taken away by workers on electric bikes trailing steel carts, who slowly weave up and down each road on the lookout. Savvy OAPs can be seen rooting through other people’s rubbish before it’s whisked away, on the hunt for anything valuable. Some want clothing, others are after unopened food, but the treasure of choice for many is recyclables. As you walk through campus, it’s not uncommon to see an old person rummaging through a bin with the ferocity of a late night shopper in Morrison’s (i.e. 5p-pie-o’clock). And no-one thinks it’s odd. No-one bats an eyelid. In China, no-one thinks the weird stuff is weird, because it’s not weird. It’s normal.
After thinking about the different stages of transition, it seems I’ve now reached a period of partial acclimatisation. The initial culture shock, feeling miserable as I hosed myself down in my bathroom/kitchen after an arduous day of miscommunication and mild heatstroke, is a distant memory. I’ve stopped taking photographs of crazy Chinglish signs. I don’t think twice when using a squat toilet, and I often forget that I’m not Chinese when wandering around campus. I have routines and I know the bus routes I need to take and I have learned some key words which always manage to get the job done. I buy my fruit and veg on the streets, and I buy snacks from the street vendors. I haggle with the plant sellers when I want to buy a plant AND a pot together. I ask how much things cost, as though their answer will inform my decision because I’m playing the world on my own terms.
Amidst even the biggest life changes, it’s human nature to establish some routines, some familiarities, to stop from having a nervous breakdown. I’m thankful for that. After 7 months here, I feel in control. As opposed to the bizarre ethereal world it felt like at first, this now feels like a reality. It feels normal. But sadly, a sense of security and normality comes at a price. These days, a lot of the weird stuff passes me by. I think it’s important to remember that amidst the warmth, hospitality and familiarity of my Chinese life, the quirky and crazy is definitely still there.
So here’s my humble top 10 list of everyday things that remind me that I’m in a different world:
1. Animals for sale on the streets. Whether it’s a cage of ratty looking dogs, a crate of fluffy chirping chicks or an underwhelmingly sedate tortoise, if you want a pet you don’t have to go far.
2. Physical contact. Girls hold hands when they’re talking, walking, eating, all the time. And it’s totally normal for boys to link arms with each other, share umbrellas, and carry man-bags. I actually saw all three on the go at once last week during a particularly heavy downpour. Physical contact is a normal part of every conversation, whether it be an arm draped over a shoulder, a slap on the thigh or a pat on the behind. Such innocent displays of kinship are warming to the heart, and a world away from the deeply ingrained British etiquette of ‘man must never touch man’. There’s no stigma attached to this body language, and it’s quite cute once you get used to it.
3. Being stared at. No-one looks twice at the old lady who’s head and shoulders in a bin, but see a foreigner and you might as well be from Mars sometimes. As I spend most of the time on campus, this isn’t a big deal anymore because the students are used to it. But step outside and prepare to be looked up and down by at least 60% of the people. Imagine that feeling that someone is looking at you, judging your clothes, your hair or your make up. If you’re having a good China day, this is easy to combat, and you can shrug it off as genuine curiosity, and not soul-destroying judgement it would be at home. But if you’re having a bad day, even the smallest glance can send you off the rails. Last week, I was at a crowded bus stop when a man spotted me, and full on turned around and stared at me. I glanced at him, expecting this to help remind him that I wasn’t a statue but an actual person with functioning eyes who could see him staring. But nothing. He remained unmoved. On the way to the bus stop, a woman selling water had stopped what she was doing and just looked at me as I walked towards her, and as I passed she turned around to carry on looking. Although if you’re having a bad day it can be uncomfortable, you have to remember that staring just isn’t considered rude here. If you’re curious about something, you stare until your mind puts the pieces together. I don’t think a single kid here has ever been told that it’s rude to stare.
4. Vacuum-sealed chicken’s claws. Spicy or plain, your choice. Sold everywhere.
5. Suddenly, you’re an expert. A reference book, a grammar master, a cultural tap that anyone can drink from if they’re thirsting for a bit of Western knowledge. It’s very normal to be approached by stranger and asked the difference between the Mormon and Baptist church, how much the Eurostar costs from Venice to Istanbul, or which university (in the whole of the Western world) would I recommend for postgraduate electrical engineering courses. My other areas of speciality include the defence of British cooking (our reputation for uninspired food has come under fire more than once by proud Chinese students who are happy to shoulder the ancient glory of Chinese cuisine without ever having cooked more than a bag of instant noodles in their life), British soap operas, British regional accents, Wales, and so on.
6. Buying food clearly labelled as beef/chicken/pork, and it quite obviously being neither. If you’re paying 40p for a bun the size of your face packed with meat, you’re a fool to believe the sign. In these instances, the only thing you can trust is your taste buds, and if it tastes fine then just roll with it. On a similar point, you can order a dish called Da Pan Ji, which literally translates to ‘big plate of chicken.’ The chicken has been dismantled, but it’s all there – succulent wings, tender breasts, claws, neck, head, the lot – and slathered in a delicious spicy juice. It’s a genuine delight once you learn to swerve the beak, but never let your guard down – we ordered this the other day, and there were definitely more heads than you’d normally expect to find on a typical chicken.
7. Cakes. Visually, they’re stunning works of art, each worthy of its own spotlit podium in the Saatchi gallery. But they taste awful. Honestly, you feel like you’re having some sort of brain malfunction when your eyes take their magnificent splendour Your brain just can’t compute that your tastebuds are beholding the same object as your eyes are. In your mouth, those decadent pillowy clouds of cream turn into frothy lukewarm silt. The moist and bright rainbow cake becomes an oily three-year old carwashing sponge at the bottom of the cleaning cupboard. The shiny red cherry filling is the only thing to partially redeem this nightmare, but even so it’s little more than overly sweetened Calpol. My options were thus: don’t eat cake, and lose potentially tens of pounds, or start baking and eating carrot cake like it’s one of my five a day. The latter prevailed.
8. The struggle for Western shoe sizes. H&M has proven to be my sole footwear provider these past months, but as the prices are the same here as they are in the UK, it’s an expensive option. The reaction when I ask in Chinese shoe shops for my size usually falls somewhere between ‘look in the men’s section’ to ‘is that a real question??!’ to just plain ‘no’. All in Chinese, of course.
9. Sleeping in public. Days are long and tiring, and post-lunch naps are the norm. It’s not uncommon to walk past a police car in the middle of the day to see the seats folded back and the defenders of the law lying back, eyes closed, mouth open, snoring away. At least once a day I have to poke a student to wake them up. Here you can see a security guard for one of China’s largest national banks taking a nap. To be fair, it was 2pm, so I guess it’s safe to assume criminal activity is postponed until after they’ve had chance to catch 40 winks.
10. One of the most common words you’ll hear is ‘neige’. Literally, it translates to ‘that one’, but it’s used the same way we say ‘erm’ or ‘uuum’, but with far more frequency. It’s dropped in at the beginning, middle and end of sentences, and is quite contagious. Language is contextual, and so the fact that it sounds EXACTLY like the N word in English doesn’t mean a thing to Chinese people. But I was quite taken aback when I first got here and wondered a) how do Chinese know this word? and b) why do I keep being called a N all the time? But now, when I’m trying to stumble through a Chinese sentence I’ll use this as a filler word without a second thought.
Although not really a quirk of China but more of my circumstance, learning to ask people for help is another big reminder that I’m a million miles away. Until you’ve lived here a good few years, have mastered the language and the intricacies of dealing with Chinese people, you have to rely on others. On a daily basis. For small things like adding credit to your phone, for asking which character means ‘fat’ on the nutritional value of a carton of UHT milk, to internet shopping, to finding out when a film is coming out at the cinema, to figuring out where to eat, to actually ordering food once you get there. Most things require the help of someone else at first, and unless you carve out a tiny little world of monotonous routines that you’ve mastered, you have to bite the bullet and keep asking people for help. This was hard at first, but so rewarding when you feel your narrow world uncurling and open up bit by bit, with every plunge you take.
These few observations are just the tip of the iceberg. Usually, it’s the sheer randomness that gets you. Such as this guy, airing his week’s laundry on a subway entrance in the middle of the city. This guy was by no means the strangest thing I’ve seen even today, but he can take home the award for Top China Person of the week because he sat watching as we struggled to fit a massive box into a taxi, failed, then waited 30mins for some guys from the university to pick us up around the corner. When we drove past, he and his ventilated kecks had magically vanished.