I believe in destiny. And my coming to China to pursue a college education was nothing short of, as Pablo Coelho put it “maktoob,” or written. That’s the only hypothesis I can come up with, because never in my wildest imaginations could I have imagined my private high schooled self to be out here in the far East, mastering the art of chopsticks, while studying medicine at the same time. But there I was, wide eyed, a brown dot in a sea of seemingly endless people, so different from mine.
The transition hasn’t been smooth, far from it, but through the tribulations and the (not so dramatic) culture shock, I’ve grown to love this place, willingly adopting it as my home for the next 4 years at least. So here’s a list of things I’ve learnt in my, still unfolding, Chinese adventure.
1. China is GLOBALIZED:
Call me naïve, but I expected China to look a little but more like, well…China. Living in the Middle East, my perception of the country was based wholly on doses of documentaries on National Geographic and images of Chinatown I’d seen in Hollywood movies. So imagine my surprise when I get out of the airport, and the city is a jumbled mass of sleek, glass mounted skyscrapers, state of the art shopping complexes and stylish residential zones. This was far from the stone carved, habitations I had in mind, complete with courtyards and pavilions with men in traditional clothing standing outside, sipping hot tea. I’ve been here for about 2 years, and I’ve yet to see a man or woman, out on the streets dressed in the tradition robes we so often associate with the country.
Simply put, you name a brand, they have it. From McDonalds, to Zara, to Papa Johns and dunkin donuts, modern day China is a melting pot of foreign franchises. Don’t get me wrong, this is not prevalent in the smaller cities, but seeing so much foreign influence in a so called “communist” country was uncanny. Ironically, I’ve never eaten so much McDonalds in my life as I’ve done in China. Partly because I’m a lazy college student, and partly because the online, guaranteed 30 min delivery is just too enticing.
2. But…there is a huge language barrier
One of the first experiences I had with a Chinese person was the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport. A minute into an attempted conversation revealed that this ray ban wearing, jean wielding man, did not speak a word of English. If it wasn’t for the placard that came with my admission package, which supposedly held directions to the university (in Mandarin) God known what I would’ve done.
And this is true about the majority of the population of China. No matter how much the people might have adopted western clothing and lifestyle, they still remain a largely rooted nation. Rooted to their customs, rooted to their traditions and most importantly, to their language. If one needs to survive in China, learning the language is imperative.
3. Mandarin is surprisingly not that difficult
..which brings me on to my next point. Before studying the language, Chinese characters looked to me like the footmarks of an intoxicated ant trudging its way through a parchment after it had fallen into an inkpot.
The language has no alphabets, the slightest mispronunciation can completely change the meaning of a word, and it was only Romanized in the 50’s. Yet, amidst all this, mandarin has a certain charm around it, and like anything, the more you practice it, the better you’ll get. I’m trilingual, and Mandarin to me, is not exceedingly difficult than any of the other languages I speak, or have studied.
4. The Chinese love to stare at foreigners
Pardon the bluntness, but it’s true. Allow me to elaborate.
Imagine a fish tank containing only goldfish (no pun intended) and suddenly, a clown fish is put in their midst. This will obviously arouse a curiosity among the goldfish who will proceed to examine the new arrival with a harmless curiosity.
In a country where there are virtually no immigrants in the 1.3 billion population, expatriates stand out like a sore thumb, albeit a thumb that is met with, for the choice of a batter phrase, innocuous observation.
True story; the first time my African American friend landed in China, she was approached by a random guy who asked her, and I kid you not; “Can you wash off the color of your skin” This was by no means a malicious question, but one charged by genuine curiosity. So, if you ever intend on visiting China, apart from the larger, more cosmopolitan cities, prepare to get goggled at. My suggestion: embrace it, they don’t mean any harm.
5. There is so much to see
China is humungous, and the diversity of landscape is a testament to that. With deserts, forests, beaches and snow capped mountains it’s an ultimate destination for any traveler. On top of that, if you know the ins and outs, travelling can be quite cheap. Recently I went on a 3 night hiking and camping trip to Wudang mountains, made famous by the movie Karate Kid. You know, the place where Jaden Smith does his kung fu thing with the snake. Yes, ive been there, and the whole trip cost me around 100 dollars. That being said, we did buy the cheapest train ticket, which in China, happens to be a “standing ticket” So yea..we had to stand for the 6 hour journey, but hey, it was cheap.
6. The people are super diligent and even friendlier
One stereotype that is true about the Chinese is how hard working they are. If a restaurant is supposed to open at 7am, you will probably find it ready for service at 6:45. On top of that, I have yet to find a Chinese person who is not amiable and tolerant of my ignorance of their language and/or culture and traditions. I often say this to my friends, that we get away with so much stuff in China that we never would have back home.
7. That being said, they are a peculiar people
No matter how westernized they might be, there are a lot of things the Chinese regularly practice which are still odd to us. Some examples include:
They always drink hot water, even at restaurants.
There are different slippers for indoors and outdoors.
The guys usually carry their girlfriend’s bags.
Its not uncommon for an entire phone conversation to consists of “hao de, hao de” (translated as good, good).
Common cuisine includes; chicken feet, pork liver and even pig intestine.
Karaoke is huge in China, with the most prevalent karaoke place called K-TV seemingly having branches around every corner.
In a nutshell, China is like any other place in the world — it is what you perceive it to be. If you want to enjoy it, you will fall in love with the country, the gentle demeanor of its people and the majesty of its land, much like I have.