After spending three months working and travelling in China, I have come to the conclusion that it is both absolutely amazing and completely crazy in equal measures.
There are so many things that happen where the only appropriate response is: ‘only in China’.
My internship there, for instance, led to my starring role in the media production company’s documentary on educational differences in Shanghai. The filming day involved navigating pudong’s outskirts whilst clinging on for dear life (my first time on a motorbike, of course), returning to the migrant school from charity day, befriending the principal who spoke no English and then attending a banquet with his two sets of twins.
Only. In. China.
It takes a certain sort of outsider to be able to deal with the country’s culture shock and madness (someone cool, sassy, intelligent- the list goes on, ha). And there are definitely undesirable aspects of life in China: the pollution, the spitting in the streets and doorless squatter loos to name but a few.
Despite this, I fell in love with the country, and so have decided to share a few things that, I think, make it so exciting, bizarre and unique. I think everyone should experience China’s insanity at least once.
1. The bubble tea
No exaggeration, I miss CoCo more than I miss my family who recently moved to Canada (apologies if you guys are reading this; shame on you if you’re not). I know that bubble tea originates in Taiwan, but my favourite chain, CoCo, was a staple of my time in China. I wish I could tell you, dear reader, about the array of incredible flavours on offer there, but I was so consumed with adoration for the 10RMB ‘lemon yogurt and coconut jelly’ drink (don’t diss till you’ve tried it) that I had it every time.
Spending £1 to lift my mood, quench my alcohol-induced thirst and satisfy nightly cravings for dessert? Bargain. I have no doubt that it contributed to my weight gain in China, but since every sip was a refreshing mouthful of heaven, I have no regrets.
2. The shameless selfies
Oh how ‘shameless’ is an understatement in describing China’s selfie culture. Prior to landing in the vain, selfie-stick obsessed nation, I viewed selfies as a mildly embarrassing practice to be confined to one’s bedroom, and only when looking particularly ravishing before a night out. After spending several months in China, however, I learnt that the more public and cringe a selfie is, the better it is. Case in point: a loved-up couple proudly posing for multiple ‘kissing’ selfies on a crowded Beijing subway journey. The experience made me cast any misgivings aside and I am now the proud owner of 20 near identical selfies taken on the Great Wall. Worth it? I’ll let you judge for yourself:
If your answer is a rude no then just feel glad you didn’t have to see the other 19…
3. The language barrier hilarity
Before landing in Shanghai I genuinely expected most young people in China to at least understand a basic level of English.
And so since leaving China, I’ve experienced a profound culture shock, as am no longer accustomed to bothering to talk in restaurants, shops and taxis. So skilled I became in the art of pointing, sign language and showing photos of food stored on my phone, that I took it upon myself to prioritise sleep (and CoCo) over the free mandarin lessons offered with my internship program. No, this wasn’t the wisest choice, but I spent my days laughing at hysterical translations, in a a blissfully ignorant bubble of non-communication. Great fun.
4. The Wechat obsession
Even though Chinese people found themselves unable to verbally communicate with me, the fact that my WeChat has in excess of 70 contacts (yes, I’m proud), is a testament to China’s addiction to the messaging app. I say ‘messaging’, but after a few months in China, I have realised it is so much more. Like Whatsapp but better, the essential networking tool successfully combines elements of Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Tinder and more. With the sheer volume of enthusiasm I possess for it, it’s only a matter of time before Wechat becomes a global phenomenon.
5. The celebrity lifestyle
In England I don’t get asked to feature in photos on a daily basis, I don’t get told I’m beautiful with alarming regularity and I’m stared at no more than the average Joe.
Hard life, I know.
In China a westerner is a rare breed worthy of ogling and photographing 24/7. Though this can get tiring (#celebprobs) it is also very sweet to think you can make a shy Chinese guy’s day by smiling next to him in a photo that will most likely be displayed proudly and instantaneously on his WeChat, alongside the claim that the two of you are lovers. Perfection.
6. The mad nightlife
One of my first tweets upon settling into China was: “In Shanghai, Tsingtao beer is cheaper than bottled water. Loving life!”. Much to my family and my health’s dismay, this sentiment summed up the next few months. Whilst interning, the combination of outrageously cheap alcohol, lots of young people and a place where westerners are officially exotic (and so plied with yet more alcohol), resulted in some sometimes sexual and always hilarious consequences.
My experiences of clubbing in China have been limited to Shanghai, Hangzhou and Yangshuo, but they share some entertaining similarities in that THERE ARE ALWAYS NEARLY NAKED WOMEN EVERYWHERE. I have no particular objection to this but it’s just so random to be in the middle of fighting over free champagne/drunkenly dancing to Shanghai’s Top 40 (I swear that it’s a genuine playlist) and to look over and see a catwalk of strutting Chinese chicks in underwear, or, more regularly, some good old pole dancing.
On a more serious note, a great aspect of China’s nightlife, and general life, was how safe and non-threatened I felt as a woman. I wouldn’t walk the streets of most big cities alone at night, and if I did I would almost expect unwanted attention, catcalls etc. But in China the nearest I came to creepy or gropey was an over-enthusiastic ‘Ni hao’, something I am more than happy to deal with on a night out.
7. The street happenings
I love how much daily life is played out on China’s streets. Not only are they home to my favourite thing ever – street food, they are just filled with so much mad, bustling life that they’re a pleasure to walk through. From toddlers shitting in the streets to sellers offering everything under the sun, there’s never a dull moment.
In terms of character, Beijing’s hutongs are second to none, and in terms of food, Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is bloody brilliant. When I’m sitting in a western office, having popped to an indentikit Pret for a disappointingly average £4.00 sandwich, I’ll be missing China’s streets even more.
8. The unplanned bizarrities
If I hadn’t already mentioned it, China is crazy. It doesn’t do things like ‘health and safety’, ‘politeness’ or ‘planning’. That would be far too sensible.
During my internship, my boss informed me one day that she was going to spend a few weeks in Shaolin shooting a documentary that hadn’t yet been commissioned. Naturally (or maybe just in a typical British fashion) I asked several questions about where she would stay, when she’d be back etc, as she’d never been before. She gave me a confused look, shrugged and replied saying, “I don’t know. It’s China”.
9. The affordability of eating out
If the street food comment and Pret distress passed you by, I’ll reiterate the fact that I enjoy food lots. In the west you have meals out maybe once a week, dress up for them, pay your tenner and leave feeling pretty satisfied that you’re living an enjoyable, sociable life. Contrastingly, in China (and the rest of Asia), eating out is just a mundane part of everyday life, as evidenced by the functional restaurant pictured above.
But what these restaurants lack in glamour they more than make up for in tasty, good value food. My two favourites in Shanghai, situated across the road, were a ‘Hong Kong’ style one and a Muslim-run one. No one spoke English and if I was a hygiene inspector I’m sure I’d leave distraught, but they were great. I spent between £1-4 on dinner every night, and with favourites such as the eggy beef rice and spicy aubergine dish (assumedly, not their official names) I was forever content.
10. The buzz
I don’t know if China’s buzz is due to the fact that it’s now the world’s biggest economy in terms of Purchasing Power Parity, or because it is skyscraper crazy with construction everywhere, or simply because it’s home to nearly 1.4 billion people.
Whatever it is, I love it. People rushing everywhere, fluorescent lights even more everywhere and 24 hour cities full of life. Fingers crossed I can return soon; China’s incredible energy has got me hooked.