I have been in China now for over 6 months and, as with any big decision, I had a few apprehensions about making the move. I had heard so many things about China and Chinese people and most of it was not positive; from the great firewall to the unusual diet, which was rumoured to include dogs, snakes and other unlikely creatures. So, like most people today tend to do, I consulted Google. I did extensive searches on the country and its people, the city I would live in, the journey times, what to do and not to do and so on. The best advice/information I obtained,however, was from friend who had either lived and worked/studied in China or were currently here. So without further ado, here are some of the things they shared with me and a few thing I had to learn through my own first hand experience!
Yeah I said spit. People spit a lot, especially in the winter. I was warned but there’s nothing that can prepare you for the deep throaty sound or how often you will hear it. At times I have to keep my eyes on the ground just so I make sure not to step on any phlegmy fluids. What’s even worse is the it happens both outside and indoors (I don’t mean to gross you out but it’s only uphill from here).
- WeChat is EVERYTHING!
WeChat is a messaging and social media app, like WhatsApp and Facebook rolled into one, except it does so much more! I downloaded it before arriving in China but its only once I got here that I discovered just how important it is. Like WhatsApp and Facebook, it’s enable you to text, voice note and send multimedia messages to your contacts but it also has extra features. For a non-Chinese speaker like myself, the feature I use often is the translation feature which can translate text easily into English from Chinese. WeChat can also be linked to your bank account and you can use QR code scanning to pay for anything, big or small, transfer money to a contact or send red envelopes of money in group chats. It also works like uber and booking.com combined; you can book flights, trains and hotels and if you ever find yourself at a busy station with no taxis in sight, you can hail one on WeChat and when your it arrives, the driver will give you a WeChat voice call and you can send them a WeChat transfer to pay for your fare!
- Fitted sheets? What’s that?
I knew that the fitted sheet is not common in China but somehow in my haste I forgot to get some and the struggle was real!I guess the saying is true, ‘you never miss your water til your well runs dry’. Having always had fitted sheets, I didn’t even fathom a life without them. Fitted sheets can be found on Taobao (Chinese eBay but more on that later) but as far as bed sheets go, they are very rare and can be quite expensive!
- Don’t flush your toilet paper
No seriously, don’t! I had to learn this the hard way when, after only a couple weeks, I had to call in the shushu (uncle) to unclog my toilet and trust me, it was not pretty. Not flushing the TP is in part due to cultural norms, however, the underlying reason for this is the sewage system. Although in urban areas and cities like Beijing and Shanghai the plumbing is being updated, new pipes may still run into old systems so to avoid a whole clogging mess, there’s just no flushing the tissue. But a waste bin is usually provided in public toilet for your convenience.
- VPN! VPN! VPN!
I remembered to put VPN on my laptop and Kindle fire but not my phone and boy did I pay the price! The great firewall does not play. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and it works by bypassing the firewall which restricts certain websites. When your VPN is on, your device looks like it is in the country where the VPN server is, so if your VPN server is in Singapore, you’ll be able to access sites like Facebook or Google which are blocked in China. There are a myriad of VPNs available, some you pay for while others are free. I’m told that purchased VPNs are best but I’ve only used the free and so far I’ve had no issue.
- Taobao is Bae
Ah now to Taobao! Taobao is a Chinese version of eBay and Amazon combined. Not only can you find almost anything under the Chinese sun on Taobao but it is also where you can go to find things you wouldn’t ordinarily find (like fitted sheets) in your average store. To get the best result you’re better using Chinese but since I’m not there yet, I use the photo search option and 9.5 times out of 10, it finds the exact item I’m looking for.
- All eyes on me
There’s something about being black that attracts inappropriate behaviour from Chinese people, most frequent of which is staring. Any day that I choose to step out of the confines of my campus is a day I get stared at. I’m not talking about the staring-until-you’re-caught-and-look-away stares, no. I’m talking even after I have made eye contact, the staring continues. Straight faced. No apology. But the staring isn’t even the worst thing. I’ve had whole families follow me into stores, total strangers record video or take pictures of me without permission and worst of all, I’ve been grocery shopping and people just come and reach their hand into my hair! My swerve game is strong but my fellow afro-haired, kinky twisted, xpressions braided yarn loc’d associates haven’t been so lucky.
What I had to learn from experience
- When the sign says ‘English Speaking Desk…’
Don’t trust it!
I somehow managed to navigate through the airport, find a shuttle bus to the train station and purchased my ticket by pointing and speaking slowly (as if that somehow changes the language). So you can imagine my frustration when I arrived at Beijing Central Rail Station and rushed to the oasis that was the English speaking desk only to be faced by another person who didn’t know how to say passport! I was fortunate enough to have a timetable with the trains I needed to take and a business card of the place I was going to, so I managed to get by by pointing yet again.
- Squat Toilets
After some time on the fast train I was pressed so, as you do, I wondered down the carriages to find a toilet only to be faced by non other than, you guessed it, a SQUAT TOILET! Not only was it a squat toilet, but a squat toilet on a moving train! Mercy! For this, I was not prepared. I soon learnt that squat toilets are very common in China. If ever you find yourself needing to use a public toilet in, be sure to take in some pocket tissues (remember not to flush them though) and hand wash/sanitizer as these are rarely provided.
- Everything is made in China…except for coffee
For the first 3 months (and even to this day to be honest) I just couldn’t believe just how cheap everything here is. A meal that would cost me about £25 in England is the Renminbi equivalent of £4! Everything truly is made in China but if you crave some home comforts (anything imported) it will cost you a lot more.
Bonus: Our version of Chinese food is a lie!
The big big bonus is the food! I don’t know why I expected Chinese food to taste like Chinese takeaway from England. (is it still Chinese food if you’re in China?). China is a HUGE country and the variety of food here is insane! Diets in the North differ from those in the south but even within my small town, the food is varied and spectacular. For those who like to explore through their taste buds, China is not short on culinary adventures.