So you’ve been reeled in and you’re the metaphoric fish out of water living in another country with a culture to its own. The surroundings are different and no matter how hard you try to ditch the comfort zone there’s only so much you can take.
1. Spitting – hock it up baby, the streets are lined with juicy dollops of Beijing honey. Spitting is a daily ritual for most Chinese. Navigating footpaths requires all the cunning of a sharp-eyed sniper eyeing his target to avoid the phlegm-filled pockets of saliva. There’s nothing more unnerving than standing at the urinal doing your business than hearing the piercing “hwaaaaaaak” of someone clearing their larynx of the day’s dose of pollution and cigarettes. The worst experience is hearing it on a bus or subway from the seat behind you followed by the squishing of a boot toe on the floor.
2. Pollution – welcome to smog city where the population is you and the victim is your lungs. The thick haze swallows the city most days, leaving the skyline an eerie twilight zone most hours that allows for the odd, ironically picturesque sunset with rays blending into somewhere where the clouds begin. On good days you can see a clear blue sky, but sadly they’re often preceded by the authorities’ cloud-seeding rockets the previous night to ensure a postcard-perfect military parade.
3. Banking – you’ll never complain about banking or retail experiences until you live in China. Need to transfer some money to an overseas account? Sure, visit your local bank. Oh, queued for hours and didn’t realize as a foreigner your passport was required for a rudimentary transaction? No worries, come back tomorrow. Oh, someone skipped the queue ahead of you before being asked you needed an obscure “swift code” of your bank that could be obtained in seconds on the teller’s computer – but is your responsibility? Come back tomorrow. The bureaucracy is mind-swimming.
4. Foreigner fatigue – China is an ethnocentric culture. Take public transport in most Western countries and you won’t bat an eyelid at your fellow passengers from various ethnicities. Granted, the chances are they are as native as you are – perhaps even more. But as a foreigner in China you stick out as a sore thumb. Kids informing their parents of the laowai (foreigner) standing near the subway door shouldn’t be met with uncomfortable feelings. Rather, I’m bemused by the attention. But when Chinese girls from “Xi’an” corner you in Wangfujing (a popular Beijing shopping street) begging you to buy their authentic “artworks” for exhoribitant prices – yes. Yes, I wish I could be just another face in the crowd treated appropriately.
5. Language – I feel this is a doubled-edged sword. In all, I love China for its fierce pride in sticking to its language and not selling out – for want of a better term – like Cambodia, where every conversation in Khmer would result in locals smiling, effusively complimenting, then answering in English. But there are situations where English, as an international language, should be spoken at some attempt in China. Airports, hospitals, banks, and, well, anywhere people in China who aren’t Chinese are likely to visit. When I was in Kyoto, Japan, a hard-hat wearing construction worker advised me in brave, broken English how to get to my hostel. Complete fluke, I know. Nevertheless, such a situation is a pipedream in China.
6. Crowds – get used to it. Lots of people, everywhere, all the time. There’s a wistful romance to walking down the street by yourself for a few hundred meters, seeing a stranger and politely saying hello and nodding your head. In China, it’s every man for himself. Get used to being pushed into a subway carriage packed well beyond capacity and pressing your cheek against the door window until the next stop where you must grip anything you can hold onto to save falling out.
7. Toilets – I’m no stranger to the squat job. I did my fair share in Cambodia in some nasty digs after terrible green curries. But when I go to a McDonalds, train station, shopping mall or even work, I want a nice john to sit on to read my China Daily. Granted, I have a much fairer deal as a male than the fairer sex. But still, is it too much to expect a marathon train ride without packing pocket Kleenexs and some strengthened quad muscles?
8. Smoking – China in 2011 is like the US in 1931. You can spark up a fag everywhere from shopping malls to maternity wards. The best way to illustrate China’s addiction to nicotine is not through my ramblings, but statistics from the World Health Organization. Over two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers (more than the entire US population) – women stand commendably at 4%. About 3,000 people die daily in China due to tobacco-related illnesses. Suffice to say, smoking is everywhere. The Chinese government has a virtual monopoly on cigarette companies, making for a steady hit of revenue. There’s a lot to be admired in Australia’s tobacco laws despite the complaints of smokers. We have harsh visual images on packages, an expensive cost barrier (the cost of an Australian packet of cigarettes is almost exactly ten-times compared to China) and tight advertising restrictions.
9. Queue jumping – it’s the most popular national sport, behind ping pong and synchronized spitting. Unsurprising, given the competition among a population topping 1.4 billion. Whether you’re in line to buy a cheeseburger from McDonalds or a train ticket to Tianjin, be on your guard. That space between you and the person in front is hot real estate.
10. Great Firewall of China – when I first arrived in Beijing I was upset I couldn’t watch Youtube videos. When I returned to Australia, I felt like I needed a good hot shower to cleanse my soul for checking my Facebook wall without a virtual private network, or VPN as known to the swathe of China expats. Online freedom is hardly a constitutional right. Along with Facebook and Youtube, Twitter and certain articles from BBC, CNN and Twitter are off limits. Most recently, LinkedIn was blocked. The Great Firewall is easily scaled for people like me who don’t mind shelling out US$10 per month on a reliable VPN, but it’s nevertheless a hassle that something like the internet that has the potential to bring the world closer together, remains so tightly guarded in China.