Thursday, May 15, 2014

What to Expect When You Visit China

As I await a visit from a first-time China visitor, I decided to put together a list of what she should expect. I realize that this may look a little grim and possibly alarmist, but it's also a good summary of life here for those who haven't experienced it directly.

1. The rights of pedestrians. It may look as though you have the right to cross the street or even walk down the sidewalk, but it's different here. While China's drivers don't want to run you over (because that could potentially land them in hot water), they also have no qualms about cutting you off, blaring their horns, and just in general acting like assholes. Let them win. This is a sanity-preserving device. I know plenty of people here who yell at cars and get all worked up when some driver nearly runs over their toes, but it's not worth it. You'll get there eventually. Bob used to say, back in the States, that my epitaph would someday read "She Had the Right of Way," but in China I let them win. Especially know that "right on red" in China means to hurdle through the intersection at breakneck speed. Don't ever assume that a pedestrian walk sign means it's safe to step off the curb.

2. How to cross the street. Never run, never swerve suddenly, and don't stop if you can help it. While drivers might be blaring their horns at you, they're also anticipating that you behave in predictable ways.

3. Never assume you can let your guard down. Cars will drive at you down the sidewalk, bikes and rickshaws will go the wrong way down a bike lane, and moving objects can come at you from all directions at all times. Pay attention, no matter how safe it seems.

4. Taking taxis. This is generally my preferred way of getting around a sprawling city of 22 million. Yes, the subway is cheap and relatively easy to figure out, but it can be insanely crowded, so crowded that I've known people who missed their stop because they couldn't fight their way to the door, and so crowded that Joanna had an iPod lifted from her pocket as she was listening to it. But taxis are a bit of an adventure and you need to have the right attitude about them. There are no seat belts in the back. This is one reason my friends with little kids sometimes hire drivers with cars that have seat belts. And it's a rare driver who speaks even a smidgen of English, so it's good to have your destination written out in Chinese. On the plus side, they are almost uniformly honest and will hand you back even 1 rmb if you overpay. They don't expect tips. They also almost uniformly drive like maniacs and you suddenly realize you're the asshole now, as your taxi driver cuts off pedestrians and flashes his brights at cars in front of them driving too slowly. Flagging down a taxi means finding one with a lit red light in he windshield. They're not supposed to do this but they will refuse a fare if they don't feel like going in that direction.

5. Lining up. Americans like to be orderly and leave some space between them and the person in front of them. If you do that in China, five people will squeeze in front of you. Pushing, banging against someone as you pass -- not the offense it would be in the US. You would do well to be a little aggressive and assertive in lines -- but not too much.

6. Noise and crowds. Chinese people are generally cheerful sorts and love crowds and noise. It doesn't bother them the way it might bother us. I've been able to find ways to avoid the worst of the crowds in some places and not get too frazzled when someone screams in my ear because they just saw a friend 50 feet away. They also love to shout into their cell phones, everywhere, all the time. The concept of, say, a "quiet car" on the train is ludicrous.

7. Toilet facilities. Some are clean and some are gag-inducing, and there's no good way to tell for sure until you go in to take a look. There are times when the squatter toilets are cleaner than the western ones. There will be times when you have no choice but to use a squatter. If you haven't done this much before I've learned (the hard way) that the trick is to squat so low it almost seems as if you're about to sit. The pee seems to go in a better stream into the hole. Also, many public toilets lack toilet paper so it's a good idea always to carry your own tissues. But many places don't have the system to allow toilet paper to be put in the bowl. There's always a bin for used toilet paper.

8. Food. If you start reading articles like, "The Ten Foods You Should Never Eat in China," you may eat nothing for two weeks. So maybe think of this as an adventure and hope for no food poisoning. Having said that, I do avoid Chinese milk and yogurt, don't eat a ton of fish, and avoid beef mainly because it's terrible overall here. I would also try not to eat huge quantities of rice (cadmium). I do buy fruits and vegetables at the local wet market where they may or may not be treated with pesticides, but I also wash them off with bottled (not tap) water. There's a famous street food called chuanr, which I don't eat since I've heard too many stories about rat meat. I do like other street food such as jian bing, which we will try.

9. Water. Don't drink the tap water. I do use it to wet my toothbrush but I don't swallow it and always finish by rinsing with bottled water. We don't even use boiled tap water for tea because there are substances that can't be boiled out.

10. Air. There are days when the US Embassy advises avoiding outdoor activities. We'll have to play this by ear, since you have such a limited time here. I think you won't do any long term harm to your lungs in a few days. It can spoil views at the Great Wall, but if we hire a driver we may be locked in. My rule is that I don't run when the air is over 150 and don't hike when it's over 500 but that's a very loose standard.

11. Smoking. There are laws about smoking but inconsistently enforced. I generally don't fight this one either unless the person is right in my face. There is smoking in restaurants, like it or not.

12. Spitting. Beijing people, especially old men, will spit a lot. They don't spit on your feet, so it's best just to ignore it.

13. Beds. Chinese beds are hard. If you know anything about the traditional kangs, you'll see that modern beds in 3 and 4-star hotels are not much different. Luckily,  our guest bed has a lovely Japanese-made mattress. When we travel, I guarantee it will be different.

14. Coffee. I never assume that a Chinese hotel will provide coffee -- or anything approximating a western breakfast like bread, cereal, eggs -- so I generally carry instant coffee with me on trip unless I'm going someplace cosmopolitan like Shanghai or Macau.

15. Alcohol. Most Chinese restaurants will offer wine, but it will be bad wine unless you're at a very fancy place. You're better off with beer, tea, or even "bai kai shui," or warm boiled water. Ordering boiled tap water might be a tad too adventurous, but all restaurants have bottled water and Coke. And baijiu, a rice liquor that I find truly un-drinkable.

16. Shopping. The basic big stores like Uniqlo have set prices but there is plenty of wiggle room in other places. I generally have a price in mind before I start. They'll start with something ridiculously high, at which point I'll say to them, in Chinese, "I live in Beijing," and smile. I find that there's no reason for them or me to get angry. It generally works just fine. I never let them grab my arm or hand me the calculator. Once you're holding a calculator, they think they have you and won't take it back. Makes it harder to walk away. Having said that, I also don't try for the most rock-bottom low prices every time. Takes too much energy.

17. Language. Don't assume anyone speaks English. It's rare. You might get some help in hotels or big tourist areas, but China is one of the few places where, even though it's taught in schools, it's hard to find lots of English speakers.

18. Niceties. Chinese people adore their little ones and you can always get a smile from them if you say "ni hao" to their babies and toddlers. They may walk down the street looking like they're pissed at the world but will be smiling at you if you smile at them.

19. Photographs. The further you are from the big cities, the more exotic you'll be to Chinese people. And in Beijing, you'll encounter lots of tourists for whom this may be their trip of a lifetime (too). And taking a picture of you standing next to them will be one of their highlights. ("Look ma! I saw the Forbidden City AND a weiguoren!") The blonder you are -- or however you may not look Chinese -- the more likely you'll be stared at. In fact, Chinese are not shy about getting in your face and staring like you have three heads.

20. Other sanitary issues. Many Chinese babies wear slit open pants so they can pee or poo immediately. Their caretakers will often have them squat in a tree box or pee into a grate. People are increasingly using diapers, but outdoor toileting is still common. It's good to be aware of little kids with their pants down.

21. This is probably connected to the fact that few people wear shoes indoors. Our apartment has pretty dark wooden floors so we wear house slippers to try not to track the world inside.

22. Ayi. Almost everyone (expats and middle class Chinese) hires an ayi (auntie) who cleans, cooks, and cares for their children. It's rare for anyone with kids to have less than a full time ayi. My ayi comes twice a week and serves as my personal organizer (even for things that don't particularly need to be organized, like my sock drawer), health advisor, Chinese teacher, cat-caretaker, and quasi mother. I like her a lot, even if she tells me when I'm getting fat.

All of this might make it seem as if I don't like this place, but I do. I hope you get to see the wonderful side of China: a bit of ancient music being played on a erhu, the sweet surprised face of a dark-eyed baby looking over his grandfather's back, the wide sweep of centuries on the Great Wall, the taste of Yunnan dishes and Sichuan dishes and Peking duck and dumplings, and especially the old folks in their Mao jackets taking in the morning sun in the hutongs.

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