China: The Love/Hate Relationship

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The end of this month completes my second year of teaching in China. Living here has been one of the biggest rollercoasters of my life. There are days when I think working here is the best thing and the country is spectacular and there are just as many days where I would just kill for cold milk and babies to be using diapers instead of trash cans to piss in. So, after two years, here is my view of China: the good, the bad, and the adult sh*tting in the street ugly.

The Bad and the Ugly:

In order to finish this post off on a good note, I figured I should start here. Let me preface this with I know I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity and honestly, I wouldn’t change the decisions I’ve made to live here even for a moment. However, the honest truth is some days living in China is just plain hard. There’s little differences like not being able to find cheese and trying to find lotion that won’t bleach my skin. Then there are the big things that I still struggle to wrap my head around.

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  • Anything that involves transportation. First off, I think the cars and scooters here have the horn permanently pressed down. People honk when you cut them off, to let you know they’re behind you, to let you know they see you, and I think just to let you know they have a horn. It can be absolutely maddening. Then there’s the simple hazard of trying to get anywhere. You could walk, but be prepared to dodge scooters and cars that have deemed it acceptable to drive on the sidewalk. You could take a scooter, like I do, but just be aware you might be the only person on the road actually paying attention to where they are going (shout out to the guy who yelled at me last year because he ran a red light while talking on his phone and hit the front tire of my parked scooter). Taxis are almost always a no go for me. They don’t believe in seat belts and most seem to think they’re in The Fast and the Furious. No thank you. Even the buses seem to enjoy squeezing into gaps far too small and turning corners far too fast. That is, if the bus you want even comes. In both cities I’ve lived in the bus numbers and routes seem to change on a whim and there is no such thing as a bus schedule. Simply put: sometimes my biggest challenge is just getting from point A to point B without wanting to curl up into a ball and cry.

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  • The number of bodily fluids that seem to exist. I do have to say that this year has been much better on this front. However, during my year living in Central China, I can safely say I saw enough salvia, urine, and feces on the street to last me a lifetime. Some days it felt like I was walking to a chorus of a million people spitting at once. There were people spiting on the sidewalks, in trashcans, on the train floors, and pretty much anywhere you can imagine. I do sympathize however. After my first year of living in one of the most polluted cities in the country, I felt pretty phlegmy too. That’s just the tip of the ice berg. It seems like the whole world is also just one giant public toilet for children here (and a good number of adults). Perhaps one of the biggest shocks I had was on my first day in China when I watched a 5 year old child squat down on the sidewalk in a pair of pants that split right in the crouch and just go to town pooing. What in the world was I seeing?!?! Then it happened again and again; on sidewalks, on a bus, in the grocery store and with people aged 0-99. Yet, here I am, two years later and I don’t even bat an eye when it happens anymore. I think that’s about all that needs to be said about that.
  • Queuing. It hasn’t been discovered in China and it doesn’t matter whether you’re waiting to weigh your vegetables or waiting for a train ticket: there is no line. Just a giant mass of pushing and shoving.

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  • Saving the worst horror (at least for women) for last: public restrooms. Before you can you even make it in there, be prepared to wait. It doesn’t matter what bathroom you go to or when you go, you almost always will be waiting 20 minutes for a stall. I suggest going to the bathroom way before you actually need the toilet. Then, enter most Chinese public restrooms and you’re greeted with a small hole in the ground called a squatty potty for the obvious reasons. This nightmare should be pretty self explanatory. I suggest having a drink or two before you try it for the first time. On the off chance you manage to find a western toilet, don’t let your guard down. They are usually lacking in toilet paper and it never fails that someone has just decided to squat on top of the seat and it’s a mess anyways. Always carry a large amount of tissue and hand sanitizer or developing a strong bladder.

The Good:

I know I moaned and painted a pretty grim picture above, but would I recommend seeing China and possibly living here if you ever have a chance? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have stayed for two years and be getting ready for my third and final year if the good didn’t out weigh the bad.

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  • The people. As with any country, I think sometimes the worst thing and the best thing can be the people. Obviously, there are assholes everywhere and it’s easier to focus on these negative interactions when you’re so far from home. But, I have befriended, quickly met, and just passed by some pretty great people here. Just to name a few: the fruit stand lady who always seems to let me slide on the one or two yuan I’m short and then passes me some free watermelon. The man who stood up to a guy trying to rip me off by making me pay to park my bike in my apartment complex. The guy who randomly carried my groceries home for me one day when he saw me struggling with a giant bottle of water. The old lady who told off a very strange and creepy man on the bus for me. Not to mention the kids I have taught and absolutely adore and the number of my coworkers who have always been there to help me out.
  • The ability to save money. Working for a school that pays up to $1400 for plane tickets a year, gives a housing allowance that allows you to live rent free, and covers all visa charges definitely helps to save you a few dollars each year. I’ve gotten lucky and have been working at an International School for the last year, but even before that my rent was covered and compared to the cost of living, the salary isn’t too shabby. I have plenty to travel on holidays and have managed to save up enough to take a break from teaching for at least a year (hopefully).
  • You don’t need to know the language. Would it help? Probably. I wouldn’t know. After all my time here, I still don’t even know when someone is asking my name. I know it sounds horrible but I’m terrible enough with languages and when you throw in the fact that Mandarin is a tonal language, I’m out. It rarely affects my ability to function in China, though. People seem to enjoy my poor attempts at the language and then usually play along with my game of charades until something is worked out. I feel like there are few places in the world though, where you can survive for two years without ever needing to know how to say much more than “thank you” and “you’re welcome”.

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  • The ease of travel. China is a great country to travel through and from. Get to Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong and cheap flights are super easy to find. China also has a brilliant high speed train system which makes it easy to access most parts of the country quickly and cheaply. Just make sure you book ahead and don’t end up on an overnight, standing room only train. Otherwise, you might be moving trains from your list of pros to cons.

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  • I have never been as confident as I have been since coming to China. I’ve never been one for make up, curling irons, and straighteners. I don’t know how to do much with my hair besides throw it in a ponytail and I think contouring is just a thing people make up. It has never mattered here. There’s something freeing about walking to the store in my slippers with greasy hair and not caring because I’m not even sure what beauty standards I’m suppose to be living up to here anyways.
  • I bought Nutella that cost 5RMB (US$0.90) this last weekend. Try to tell me that isn’t the ultimate positive!

I could go on but I think you get the idea. My conclusion after two years here? There are good and bad things everywhere you go, especially in a country that is so different from everything that you know. Culture shock is definitely a real thing but you adjust to it after a while. Like a lot of countries, China can be a bit rough around the edges and it’s easy to get bogged down in the craziness. It’s just about finding what you like about an area and focusing on the positives. Two years in China down, one more year to go.

3 thoughts on “China: The Love/Hate Relationship

  1. Good summation, my cohort. I’m not as anathema to taking taxis or buses as you are, but everything else was spot on.

    Here’s looking forward to another (grit teeth for the bad, hope for the good) year in China with you. 🙂

  2. Wow! Interesting post and perspective. I’m a teacher and a travel blogger, but I’ve never lived anywhere like China for extended periods of time. It sounds very challenging! I must say I would definitely be out of my element and a little uncomfortable seeing people use the restroom in the street. Haha – my reaction would probably be pretty priceless as probably was yours. I wish I could have seen your face the first time you witnessed it!

    1. I’m sure the reaction was photo worthy (I’m also sure one of the people taking pictures of the foreigner got it on camera). I’m sure I still make that face a lot too! Things never stop surprising you here!

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