life in china: a sextet of unexpected joys

China gets a lot of flak. I should know – most of what I’ve written on here thus far has been about the terrible traffic, government censoring (still not blocked!), and compatibility with Donald Trump.

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[he’s the gift that keeps on giving]

But in light of the Tangerine Tornado’s inability to last 10 seconds – I’m not exaggerating – without complaining about China in last night’s debate, now seems as good a time as any to throw some love the PRC’s way. For all the things I miss about America here – clean air, personal space, cheese – there are also plenty of things I find myself missing about China when visiting the U.S. 

Being a creative and thoroughly professional sort of writer – shut up, I am – I figured it would make sense to read a few of the many “X Reasons China is Awesome and My Semester Abroad Changed My Life, Like Dude You Don’t Even Know” articles that already populate the internet before getting started. I found some good stuff (like this article about how best to prepare yourself for China), but for the most part, here are the main points I ended up reading over and over: 

 

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  1. the food is good
  2. the public transit is good
  3. the people can be quite hospitable and are unlikely to murder you
  4. the stuff is cheap
  5. the history is historical
  6. the language is mysterious and fascinating
  7. the wackiness is wacky

 

 

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Here’s the thing; those are all true facts but I’m not in a hot semester-abroad fling with China. We’ve been together for two years and love means taking off the rose-tinted glasses and accepting the bad with the good.

If you want to hear someone gush about how Beijing’s subway system – built largely in the past 20 years – is better than our century-old one or how their host family kept giving them food because people are just friendlier here, damnit (they’re not), there’s plenty of material out there for you. And before you accuse me of being up on my hipster high brumby, I’m not claiming to have had some unique snowflake of an experience; my goal here is simply to share a few unexpectedly positive perks of life in the Orient.

1.) You get to be special for no reason (whether you like it or not)

Most of these items are double or triple-edged swords, and this one is no exception. There’s a lot of frustrations to being a foreigner in China – another topic sure to get its own post – but for all the daily annoyances, the fact remains that you are treated anything but normally here. Everyone wants your opinion. People want you to tutor their child without knowing if you actually speak English or have any teaching experience. You become a “regular” after two visits to any coffee shop or restaurant. Hell, people will pay you just to come be the token foreigner at their meetings (that’s a real thing that happens all the time, not some made-up viral story).

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There’s an additional *stealth perk* I only recently realized: decreased clumsiness/dumbass levels. Every paranoid social thought you’ve ever had is true in China. Everyone really is watching, everyone really did see that stupid thing you did, and everyone really is talking about you. Like it or not, you are – on average – the only foreigner any given person has seen all day, and everything you do becomes a representation of what foreigners do/eat/like/knock over. That may sound awful, but I’ve noticed dramatic improvement in my ability to not trip over my own feet and/or tongue after two years of basically walking around trying not to drop my cafeteria tray.

2.) “Seeing the world” becomes far more realistic

This may seem obvious, but I was blown away when I first realized the full extent of my travel options here. Since graduating college in 2014, I’ve been able to go on the kind of trips that make me want to unfriend myself on Facebook. Here – try to read this next sentence without your eyes rolling halfway out of your skull. Ready? Here we go: In the past two years, I’ve gone on a camping tour of Mongolia, stayed at a mountain spa in Thailand, bicycled around the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and next week I’m taking a train trip across the country to see Kashgar and perhaps a bit of Tajikistan.

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I know, I know, but before you close the tab out of pure righteous disgust, hear me out: I didn’t get to do those things because mommy and daddy are subsidizing my nomadic lifestyle or because I’m on my gap year or whatever – I just bought the tickets and went. Those places are all reasonably close by and super affordable, my job(s) are largely remote/freelance and afford me a lot of free time (which is way easier to set up here), so I can take cool trips that would be impossible were I living in the states. 

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3.) The lack of Western cultural norms is quite liberating (in a way)

Once again, there’s several articles worth of material when it comes to…well, what a sophomore who did their anthropology reading that one time might call the “relative cultural differences” and what I might call “the blatantly unchecked jackassery” that goes on here. Lines get cut, spit gets spat, and parents have a horrible habit of just holding their spawn over whatever public thing they’re choosing as the toilet of the moment.

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But without wishing to validate Byron from Anth. 101, there’s something to be said for finding the glass-half-full version of whatever culture you happen to be a part of. In China’s case, that involves getting to stop worrying about a whole bunch of rules you have to play by in the West. Want something in a restaurant? Just yell for the waiter. Want to be across the street? Start walking wherever it’s physically possible.

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Now, there are some foreigners who deliberately act like assholes as a sort of misguided protest, but that’s not what I’m talking about – I still stand in lines, say please and thank you, and generally try to avoid being a jerk. But there’s no question that while some societal pressures are amped up here – eating rituals, insisting on paying for stuff, small talk before business, etc. – others are lifted, and that’s pretty cool.

4.) It really is shockingly safe 

Hey now, look at me repeating one of the points I made fun of earlier! It really does bear emphasizing, though. Say what you will about China’s authoritarian government (thank you: I will), but there simply isn’t much violent crime here. Beijing is a city of 21 million people, and yet the only time I feel unsafe is when traffic is involved. I often joke with friends about how all the classic *danger signs* in America just indicate you’re about to have a fun adventure here. Case in point – when I wander down a dark alley in a run-down neighborhood, I’m not worried about getting mugged; I’m worried about whether I’m going to get food poisoning from my new street food vendor buddy.

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Disclaimer: I am not a role model nor am I endorsing dumb behavior in China. If you come here and get robbed or scammed or stabbed or whatever, don’t try to sue me. That’s not a thing here anyway. Another plus. 

5.) You get front-row tickets to a sped-up, condensed version of modern history

Around six months ago, I moved into a new place. Since then, two new subway entrances have been built, the big local road got three more lanes, all the sidewalks have been replaced (some more than once), my entire apartment complex got a lovely new wall, and there’s a new row of bank-pharmacy-supermarket-bank where there used to be dirt. The overall rate of growth in China may be slowing, but I assure you it’s still surreal to watch the country visibly transform on a daily basis.

It’s not all good, obviously. The few nice old neighborhoods they have left continue to get demolished left and right, more and more quaint street-vendor type stores are being replaced by 7-11’s, and as hard as it is to imagine there being any more cars around here, they’re clearly making it happen somehow. But those are the same complaints everyone has about modern cities, and my point isn’t that it’s good or bad – just that it’s really cool getting to watch it happen so fast. I imagine the energy  here is kind of like what people felt during the Industrial Revolution – sure, there’s a lot of nastiness and human suffering, but everyone knows they’re part of a pretty incredible part of history. Plus, this time we have antibiotics and iPhones.

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6.) Time-Stretching Immortality Powers 

Let me explain. At the risk of crossing the interesting–>pretentious line, I’d like to recommend a book – “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer. It’s about this reporter who went to see the World Memory Championships where people memorize decks of cards and hundreds of numbers in minutes and ridiculous stuff like that. It’s fantastic and not even remotely related to living in China, but this is: a huge part of the ability to memorize stuff relies on infusing mundane things with some kind of novelty. New experiences – not just being happy – are what lock in memories. As he puts it: “monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.” That’s not just a pithy quote; science has repeatedly shown that our perception of time very much depends on memorable events. I’m not gonna try to lecture above my level of scientific understanding, so let’s just say that the more novelty you pack into your life, the longer your life feels. 

Living in China – hell, living in any crazy new place – is, in this sense, the fountain of youth. When was the last time a trip to the supermarket filled you with equal parts anxiety, excitement, and confusion? Discounting trips down the snack isle while enjoying the kind of recreational substances we don’t talk about in China, I’m assuming the answer is either “when I was 5” or “never.” But between my still-occasional inability to read labels, everyone staring at me, and trying to guess which of the many meats aren’t grafted rat-bits, my shopping trips are always exciting. Hell, I spent my first few months having panic attacks every time I approached the checkout line because the lady kept asking me a question I didn’t understand – it turned out she was very charitably asking if I had a membership card. 

My final obnoxious point is this: go spend some time somewhere that’s wildly different than what you’re used to. I’ve been here two years and I still wake up, look outside, and go: “oh right. China. Holy s**t, this is awesome.”

That’s gotta be worth at least a few rounds of food poisoning.

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