The communist party took over mainland China in 1949. February 1972, I was 9 years old and President Nixon became the first president to visit the PRC, People’s Republic of China, ending 25 years of no communication or diplomatic ties between the two countries. His visit also allowed the American public to view images of China for the first time in over two decades. Other than whatever knowledge a 9-year-old would get in school, Nixon’s visit sparked my interest in the “Middle Kingdom”. It was finally in 1978, under Deng Xiaoping, that China opened its borders to foreign visitors. I remember thinking it would be cool to see/walk the Great Wall of China. The next time I remember hearing/seeing big news from China was June 1989 and the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square.
The Tiananmen Square incident recently marked its 30th anniversary. It was all over Facebook, but I never saw or heard about it on any Chinese social media. Why? I’m not going to get into politics here, but one reason is Social Media in China is government controlled…..no Facebook, no Instagram, no Google, not even Pinterest UNLESS you access the internet using a VPN (a virtual private network). Known as the Great Firewall of China, the PRC has even been known to block VPN’s when they feel it necessary. One thing I won’t miss when I leave China is having to log onto a VPN!
I’m starting off with a negative because as I am writing this, I am multi-tasking. I’m blogging while attempting to use the internet. I say attempting because my VPN continues to drop, my Wi-Fi is almost nonexistent, and it’s frustrating………
Ah, China, 中国, Zhōngguó, the Middle Kingdom, land of 1.4 billion, the place you hate to love and love to hate, the place I have called home for 4 years. Before arriving, my thoughts/images of China were The Great Wall, a funny language made up of stick pictures instead of letters, dumplings, eating with chopsticks, cheap merchandise, technology, General Tso’s chicken, rice, kung fu, tai chi, and pandas, to name a few. I knew its history/culture was deep in tradition. What I didn’t realize was just how deep and important these cultural traditions were in everyday life. After arriving, I quickly learned I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and there’s no cheese in China. What I mean is, China is very “Eastern”, unless you are in one of the bigger/popular cities, you will be hard pressed to find “Western” products/amenities or English language. What you will discover is an amazing culture, kind people and a beautiful country.
One thing I will miss are the “round table” dinners. When a group goes out to eat, they are seated around a large or ginormous, depending on the number, round table with a rotating top. When everyone is seated, dishes of amazing food start appearing. A little side note on tradition, no one sits until the host has arrived. Often, being a foreigner, I was the “guest of honor” and there was a certain position at the table where I had to sit. This position would be the center of the table facing east or facing the entrance to the room. Also, it is considered unlucky to start eating until there are a certain number of dishes on the table. These feasts are amazing and will be missed. One thing I won’t miss at these dinners are the chicken feet, various innards of animals, dishes of grubs/bugs eaten like peanuts and tofu. I’ve also discovered, I really like to eat with 筷子 kuàizi or chopsticks.
I’m not sure I will be able to eat Chinese food in America when I return. Chinese food in China is nothing like what we know. They have an amazing way with seasonings and sauces that I only hope to be able to duplicate in a few dishes. Other than missing the food in general, I am going to miss 面条 miàntiáo or noodles, but more specifically 兰州拉面 Lánzhōu lāmiàn. I love almost all the noodle dishes in China, but I will miss the Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles the most. I’m not sure I will be able to master hand pulling, but I do have a pretty good idea how to reproduce the broth. Which reminds me, Chinese soup spoons are the best. With the little hooked end, they don’t slip into the soup bowl. I need to bring some back with me.
Speaking of food, which by the way is incredibly cheap and delicious…..Chinese home delivery. There really is no reason to cook if you don’t want to. Simply pull up one of these apps you have installed on your phone; 美团外买 měi tuán wài mǎi or beautiful food buy outside and éle me饿了么 or are you hungry?. Then choose from hundreds (seriously even in my small town) of restaurants, pick your dish(es) and in 30 minutes your food arrives and remember “no tipping”. I will miss that too. I did feel bad that one time I didn’t realize the elevators in my building weren’t working and I live on the 24th floor. I ordered a 肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó or a Chinese hamburger, which really translates to meat folder. It is shredded meat, often mutton or pork stuffed in a pita-like bread with hot peppers. This I will miss but think I can make it at home. I often order 2, because at a buck each they make a nice breakfast sandwich when you add an egg. So, back to the day, my elevators were not working and I ordered $3.00 worth of food (2 Chinese hamburgers and a water). The delivery guy knocked on my door, out of breath and in a complete sweat. He had come up 24 floors or 48 flights to bring me my food. I felt bad and he refused a tip. I am going to miss the convenience and low cost of Chinese home delivery.
One of the first things I recommend someone coming to China do is download 微信 Wēixìn (pronounced like we-she) or WeChat. China’s answer to Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and Paypal (but better) social media app rolled into one. Named by Forbes as one of the most powerful apps in the world. Post pictures, links, message or call your friends and so much more. What I love best, is it is linked to your bank account and is used to pay for everything everywhere. Just scan a QR code at the supermarket, restaurant, taxicab, massage shop, noodle shop, post office, Taobao, wài mǎi, even the little old lady on the street selling mandarins from a wagon can be paid by WeChat. Most everyone in China pays for goods and services with WeChat. I rarely see cash or credit cards being used, although I always carry both. I just haven’t quite got comfortable with carrying no cash. Funny story….I was at China Post shipping one of many boxes back to the states. There are a few things at the post office for which you must use cash. The Chinese gentleman in front of me needed 20-yuan cash or a little less than $3. He spoke to my friend Alice who I took along as my translator. He asked her if I had 20 yuan (I did) because foreigners always carry cash. He would pay me back by WeChat. I handed over a 20 and he scanned my QR code and 20 yuan appeared in my WeChat wallet. China, I will miss the convenience of WeChat.
Ok, we have Amazon and a few others in the states, but nothing can compare to Taobao, China’s online shopping website. From crazy to quirky and everything in between, if it exists in the world you can buy it on Taobao and usually pretty cheap…….“made in China” after all. You’re a farmer and need a castrating tool….Taobao! Enjoy eating goat brains…Taobao! Need a live peacock…Taobao! Missing cheese, because there’s no cheese in China? Taobao! Although I have learned not to purchase cheese on Taobao in warm weather, it comes packed in dry ice and styrofoam, but by the time it arrives in my rural village, it’s a melted lump. Other than food and a few necessities, I buy/have bought most everything on Taobao, including toilet paper, mustard (no mustard in China either), coffee, small appliances, sheets, Beefeaters gin, my cell phone, etc. You get the picture. Taobao you will be missed.
Since I mentioned toilet paper, no matter how healthy or so-called natural it is to poop while squatting, I don’t think I will miss the beloved “squatty potty”. That and the fact that you almost always need to have your own TP or tissue. Picture this…..there you are in a squat, reaching for TP, none is provided and you forgot to get yours out. Bad knees, balancing a squat, trying to keep your pant legs and crotch out of the way while you look in your purse for tissue…..NOT FUN! I understand why so many people wear pants cropped at or above the ankles and they are tight to their legs. Unless you have been squatting your entire life, when you’re 50 something with bad knees and then a broken back, squatting isn’t the easiest way to go, haha. I can and I have for 5 months when I lived in Hunan Province, but if I’m honest I really won’t miss it.
Most everyone has heard stories of pollution in China. Until you have experienced an AQI (air quality index) of over 400 and can’t see the building behind you, you have no idea what air pollution is. In northern China, pollution is usually the worst during the winter months. This is because in some areas, mainly rural/countryside, coal is still burned for heating purposes. That along with multitudes of factories, car emissions and even the occasional sandstorm blowing through from the Gobi Desert contribute to the pollution problem. I usually wear a mask if the AQI goes above 150, which is often in the winter. China is doing a lot to “fix” their pollution problem, but I’m afraid clean air in China is a way off. I won’t be missing the pollution.
I seem to be getting a bit long winded here so just a few more things I will miss:
High-speed trains, but not the crowds, especially during a Chinese holiday
My once or twice a week $5 per hour massages
Chinglish/lost in translation
The variety of unique fruits and vegetables some I never saw until I came to China/SE Asia
The low cost of most goods and services (I’m sure I will have sticker shock back in the USA)
Cushy work schedule
Baijiu, although a few mornings after a night of baijiu, I’m pretty sure I said I never wanted to see it again.
The beauty of the country….I have been blessed to have travelled a good deal in my 4 years. There is a beauty in the culture and the land that will always stay with you.
There are a few more things I won’t miss but aren’t worth mentioning unless you have experienced them and China is way more than those things.
Here’s where I could get weepy. More than anything, Chinese hospitality is beyond amazing. Yes, I know Chinese people get a bad wrap in many foreign countries as being rude, loud and pushing their way to the front, etc. I too have witnessed this, but since living in a country of 1.4 billion people, I have a better understanding of why this is. I’m not going to defend it, just that I understand. For the most part, you will find that the Chinese people welcome you with open arms. Once they get over their initial curiosity you will soon be part of the family. More than anything, it’s the people I have met along my journey that I will miss the most. Those crazy kids I spent 2 weeks with in Beijing, Alina, my go-to person in Xiashan, James Allen from Xiashan who took his English name because of LeBron, Summer, my guide in Harbin, Yulia my roommate, Rabbin and his family in Changning, Paul, Skenny, Erwin, Erin, Jon, Sallen, Hety, Doris, CiCi and all the other staff at Champa Flower Kindergarten in Qingdao, my sweet Marlon and his mom in Qingdao, Amy and Harrison in Weifang who shared Christmas with me, Peter, Peter’s cousin and his wife, Phoenix, Alice and too many to name from my life in Dong’e. I can’t begin to explain how each has made a mark on my heart and soul or begin to mention all the heart hits China will leave me with. And what about all my students, the 1000’s of kids I have taught. Those smiling faces will be missed, oh so much!
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” Maya Angelou
There may not be any cheese in China, but I discovered more than enough wonderful people and things in this country to make up for it. Thank you, and much love to everyone who has shared my journey.
Some Chinglish aka Lost in Translation