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My Frustrating Love: What Is It Like To Live In China?

Photos And Story by Daniel Wallace

July 2005

This article is a goodbye to the country I’ve lived in for ten months – travelling, living with a local family, teaching English. This is an account of the good and bad things I’ve encountered, and as a result is inevitably a series of generalisations – there are lots of exceptions to the tendencies I’m describing. Also bear in mind that most of my experiences in China have been in the western provinces, and the south western city of Kunming in particular – I’m sure life in Beijing or Shanghai would be different in many ways.

All that aside, let’s begin with:

The food here is amazing. I eat in simple restaurants for almost every meal of the day, prices are very low, and variety is seemingly endless. What we see in Chinese restaurants in the West is a tiny fraction of what this country is cooking, and each region has its own style. My favourite is the painfully spicy Sichuan cooking, with the red chilies and brown “numbing pepper”.

While the chili may take some getting used to, even the street food is unlikely to make you very ill, as most dishes are cooked at volcanic temperatures. And while it’s tricky to be a “purist” vegetarian here (the same wok is used for all dishes), getting food with no meat in it is no problem, and there’s a vast array of vegetarian options. Most cheap places display their raw ingredients for you to select and point at – so it’s easy to try lots of dishes even without speaking any Chinese.

A lot of Chinese spit in the street, drop chewed bones and unwanted food on the floor of restaurants, are chronic smokers and litterers. City rivers are frequently disgusting with all the rubbish floating in them, and the public toilets are like nowhere I’ve seen in the world. It’s hard to feel hygienic sometimes.

That said, the Chinese have their own system of hygiene, and they consider many of the things we Westerners do to be disgusting. Many people eat in KFC or McDonald’s with a plastic glove over their hand – touching your hand to your mouth while eating, or touching your food with your fingers, is thought unsanitary by many. Chinese believe Western style toilets are unclean (everyone shares that same seat) and so actually prefer the squat style toilet. Stay with a family and you may be encouraged / forced to wash your feet in scalding hot water before getting into bed every night.

If you come to China expecting a life full of tea ceremonies, traditional music, theatre – you may be disappointed. China often feels like a crude place – full of the same repeated pop songs, shopping, computer games and eating. Chinese people revere their history – yet the country is tearing apart anything old in order to make space for the new.

It can be frustrating, to ask Chinese friends about Chinese poets, and always hear vague enthusiasm about Tang dynasty poetry. Are there any modern Chinese poets, I asked? My friends shrugged: Maybe.

I imagine Beijing would certainly be more of an artist hub, but in general, China feels like a country that has lost a lot of its past, but where there isn’t a lot of modern cultural creativity to take its place.

But, while artistic or classical culture might be not so strong, this is an immensely diverse country, especially here in the south west. One statistic is that 93% of the population is the majority “Han Chinese”, but the remaining 7% of 1.3 billion is still an awful lot of people. Non Chinese races in China: Tibetans, living all over the most western provinces as well as in Tibet itself – more than one old traveller claims that western Sichuan province has the most “untouched” Tibetan culture of anywhere in the world. Muslims, the Hui here in Yunnan and the Uighurs in Xinjiang; the minority peoples of the south west – Dai, Yi, Naxi, Mosuo, Bai, Maio… Those tourist hill treks you did in Thailand, many of the same peoples live here, unhassled by crowds.

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It is an enormous country, and you should have no hope of seeing everything. Beijing and Xian’s ancient history, booming Shanghai, mountains and deserts in the far west, ex colonial Hong Kong and Macao in the southeast.

Parts of Chinese life are very hard to adjust to. It is a place that is just different to the West, both in terms of traditional culture and how life has been so hard here for a long time.

Something I think stuns most visitors is how rude Chinese people can be – staring at you, ignoring you if you ask for help (or just grunting “no” or “meiyou”), pushing past you in queues as if you don’t exist. Some Chinese people act like: if I don’t know you, I have no obligation to you at all. Trust between strangers seems very low – Chinese friends were shocked when I said my parents leave spare front door keys with the neighbours.

It is a tough society. Bargaining might sound fun for antiques, but bargaining for the simplest, daily things (like bottles of water) becomes tiresome. People, particularly in cheap restaurants, will try and rip you off, saying extraordinary prices sometimes, and they don’t care if you realise and start shouting. Nothing you can say will upset them, they will wait for you to pay and then forget about you. I watch Chinese people just shut down when a situation gets unpleasant – customers are shouting at a waitress because their meal hasn’t arrived, she can’t answer back, can’t hassle the kitchen, so her face just goes grim and she endures everything she has to. A Chinese person once told me an old proverb, “Bully the weak, fear the strong” – and then remarked, “This is everyone in China”.

Excerpted from “My Frustrating Love: What Is It Like To Live In China?” in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 72.

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