I’ve been studying abroad in the capital city of Kunming, located in China’s Yunnan province, for three months now. My new ideas of what’s “normal” oftentimes fascinate me. It’s a good thing I began this adventure with no expectations because they would’ve been very far from reality. It’s trite but true—there are so many things that your university’s pre-departure orientation will not prepare you for. But don’t you think they could’ve at least tried to put in a little more effort?
Below are some observations I’ve made and pieces of advice I would like to offer to anyone considering gallivanting through this far-off land.
Being a brown American in China has many advantages. You receive all the same benefits as your fellow white American students without being subjected to the shameless gawking and picture taking on the streets. Disadvantage: no Chinese person actually believes that you’re from America.
The majority of the food you consume will be off a stick or from a plastic bag. Seriously, why isn’t street food served like this in America? You can cook nearly everything on a stick—tofu, baby squid, zucchini, and scorpions, to name a few. Also, I’ve never experienced such an even distribution of condiments than I do when my food (tiny steamed-bun dumplings, for example) and all of its garnishings are happily coexisting in the same little plastic bag.
For the first month, everyday will be a gastrointestinal battle. This is the aftermath of consuming food off a stick or from a bag. My roommate and I never thought that hoarding university-provided toilet paper in our dormitory would become our greatest life skill. It’s necessary when you’re in a constant flip-flop between extreme constipation and explosive diarrhea; no in-between.
Say goodbye to chilled beverages, and learn how to drink tea the proper way. The Chinese have an extreme aversion to consuming any liquid that is less than room temperature. On the hottest of days, you will find yourself drinking boiling hot tea in an attempt to cool down. Every Chinese person swears that this works. Has this been scientifically proven?? Anyways, there is, of course, a proper way to drink tea. As instructed by a Chinese professor, “you must first suck, then blow, then make some noises to show that you are enjoying it”.
Try to avoid fatal mistranslations at Chinese hospitals. One realizes the extent of our cultural differences after a trip to a Chinese hospital, as was explained by my roommate who was unfortunate enough to have to make an emergency visit to one. People pushing and shoving their way to the front of (nonexistent) lines, and doctors performing examinations right in front of waiting patients. This is also where the issue of the language barrier is much exacerbated. Get the facts straight before you leave; one mistranslation and she was emitted genuinely believing that she had contracted smallpox.
There is a time and a place to “do it live”. Spontaneity is great when you’re in the mood for an adventure with your friends in the Chinese countryside. Not so much when you’ve dragged your severely jet-lagged mother on a seven-hour bus journey only to find out that there is not a single hostel or hotel room available that night. Make reservations ahead of time if you have any intention of being allowed to return home one day.
Baijiu can turn even the most mild-mannered people into very angry beings. Known as “Chinese rocket-fuel”, baijiu is China’s infamous white liquor, averaging at 110-proof. We all know that people claim that different types of alcohol make them different types of drunk. The common consensus for the effect that baijiu has on people seems to be unexpected and unprovoked feelings of hatred and rage. This stuff has gotten my tiny, adorable roommate spewing death threats at fully-grown men guilty of nothing other than sitting and trying to enjoy their evenings. Word on the street is that this spirit will soon be making an appearance in the West. America, I caution you.