China may be becoming more and more Westernized with each passing year, but for the long-haul expat, it can still be a pretty bizarre place. From human-super-soaker toddlers to dead-eyed taxi drivers, even the most experienced of expats in the Middle Kingdom have their bad China days. Take a look at some of the weird experiences you may undergo in China.
Things you love can and will vanish without warning
Fucking awesome – Vanguard have started stocking Campbell’s cream of tomato soup! I’ve only got 50 kuai on me, so I’ll grab a couple of cans and come back next week—
Aaand there’s no soup left. When will it be back in stock, you ask? How about the day after never?
This is an extremely common occurrence in China. For reasons locked within the inscrutable minds of supermarket stock managers, much-loved products will simply vanish and never be seen again. Soup, condiments, bread, milk, you name it – if you’re attached to a particular product, chances are China will hey presto it away sooner rather than later.
What’s more, sometimes you can’t even buy things that are in stock. If you take something to the checkout that doesn’t have a bar code, you can forget about a price check. Your sullen cashier will simply tell you that you can’t have it and toss it aside. No amount of expat rage mode will ensure that you get the thing you want – you simply can’t have it.
This isn’t limited to supermarket items. That awesome pizza place you order from three times a week? It’s closing for renovations for a month. Then two months. Three years later, it’s still not reopened, and you have a sneaking suspicion it never will.
Hot pot fans are in luck, though, since they open around fifteen new ones a day.
Taxi drivers are total cunts
You may think that’s some harsh language up there, but I simply cannot overstate this enough. Taxi drivers are soulless, dead-eyed fucksticks that seem to take the utmost amount of pleasure in never actually doing their jobs*. Thankfully, China is modernising when it comes to transportation, and you can avoid having to deal with the indolent bastards more and more.
If you do have to take a taxi, though, try not to do it after lunch. Or on a national holiday. Or in a busy area. Or ever. Drivers will often prop up a little yellow ‘fuck you’ sign which technically means that they are about to finish their shift and so are not accepting fares. In practice, this means that they pop the sign up whenever they don’t feel like picking anyone up, which seems to be around 80% of the time. This goes double if you are Johnny Foreigner; drivers tend to assume you’ll stick a piece of paper in their faces telling them where to go, which they hate more than an honest day’s work.
Assuming you do manage to pin one of the fuckers down and actually get them to take you somewhere, your woes won’t necessarily end there. I’ve had one drive for about 200 metres, sigh pensively, and then realise that he’s not had his lunch yet and is regretfully unable to take me further. Not only are you back to square one, but you’re now on the side of a busy road and even less likely to get a taxi.
I could write a novel on the intricacies of taxi douchebaggery – we haven’t even got into overcharging, picking up other people along the way, and getting lost but refusing to actually admit it – but suffice it to say that you’ll save yourself a stress-induced coronary by using Didi Che (Chinese Uber), a bike, or the subway.
*Nb. as with all generalisations this is clearly not 100% the case and should be taken for the tongue-in-cheek comment that it is. Some taxi drivers are, believe it or not, nice blokes just trying to earn a living.
You will get gawked at
Unless you’re of Asian descent (in which case, I hope you’re not going for a TEFL job), then people are going to stare. You’re a foreign visitor to a largely homogenous country that’s only recently begun to open up to outsiders. You’re still a curiosity to a great many Chinese people. Kids will point, people will stare, and in some areas you may take on semi-celebrity status as people crowd to take pictures with you. Sometimes people won’t even want a picture with you; they’ll just straight-up photograph you.
I know a lot of foreigners who hate this. They’ll shout, get aggressive, or employ the classic reverse-photograph technique in order to embarrass their photographer (note: this doesn’t work, as Chinese people are largely immune to embarrassment). As far as I’m concerned, it’s part and parcel of being an expat here. There are going to be a lot of things that stress you out, but this shouldn’t be one of them. You signed up for this when you decided to come here. Get over it and get used to it.
“Manners” as we understand them don’t exist here
This is a big sticking point for many foreigners in China. There’s little in the way of “please” or “thank you”. Queuing up is an antiquated British notion that has no bearing on ayis as they treat you as a sort of inconvenient fog. Cashiers may ignore you in favour of Chinese people. Waitresses will lecture you on your food choices and flat-out tell you that you’re choosing everything all wrong.
It really isn’t easy to get used to. I’ve been in China for 12 years and I still feel a spike of rage when someone saunters past me and thrusts their money in the cashier’s face. The only advice I can offer is to kill the Westerner inside and go full Chinese; push back, don’t take shit, and call people out on it. Usually they’ll apologise and get in line.
And try to understand that Chinese people don’t really mean anything by it; China is a heavily populated country and folk tend to focus on their own goals. This may lead to counterintuitive situations like a dozen people crowding into a lift before letting people out, but it’s just a fact of life here. Getting all pissy about it only raises your blood pressure, not theirs. Try to hit that zen state of not giving a fuck that most Chinese people have; your life will be much smoother for it.
The more Chinese you speak, the less you will
This is one of China’s great paradoxes: the stronger your ability in the language, the more guarded you become about using it. Why, you might ask? Because once that table of drunk guys next to you realises that you can speak the lingo, they will not fucking leave you alone.
Sometimes you’re in a sociable mood and are happy to chat, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes you just want to have a quiet beer and bitch about how shitty your TEFL job is. I know I’m not the only Chinese-speaking foreigner who’s ting bu donged a baijiu uncle, quite simply because you could do without the hassle of five guys invading your personal space for the next three hours.
This leads to awkward situations where you speak quietly, try desperately to attract the waiter’s eye without shouting (more difficult than it sounds) and occasionally let one of your friends take a bullet because you don’t want to reveal that you speak Chinese.
This also applies to other situations. If you’ve got one of those TEFL jobs that I’m so fond of, you don’t want the kids knowing you speak Chinese, and you certainly don’t want the parents to know. The kids will stop bothering to speak in English, and the parents will corner you for half an hour after class for a free one-on-one consultation.
You will meet all kinds of lunatic expats
Every country has its weirdos, obviously. But for a community as small as an expat one typically is, you’re going to meet a lot of people that will test your patience.
No two nutjobs are the same, but after a while you start to recognise certain ‘types’. There’s the China Expert, who’s been here six months and knows it all. There’s the Embittered Accidentally Married Guy, who got hitched within a year and now has the rest of his life to get way too drunk and hate on the Chinese. There are, ironically enough, a whole bunch of hardline right-wingers who hate immigration and think Obama is the devil.
A lot of these people don’t much care for China and will bitch about it non-stop. Yes, I realise I have been doing this for the past 1500 words. Which leads me to my last point…
You are a guest in this country
China is not your country. You are a guest here, and you’d do well to remember that. I’ve met way too many expats who are bitter about life here, who have begun to despise Chinese people way past the point of outright racism, or who simply think they are somehow better than the locals.
But let’s not forget why you came here. The living costs are low, people are (generally) friendly, and the wages tend to be pretty damn decent. China is also a stunningly beautiful country in many places – you could spend the rest of your life exploring it and not see everything it has to offer.
This is why it’s important to maintain some perspective, and why it’s very important not to turn into a recluse who lives on takeout McDonald’s and binge-watches Netflix. It’s not healthy and it’s ultimately a wasted opportunity.
It’s also worth remembering that it is your job to adapt to Chinese culture, not the other way around. Too many expats think that they can ‘educate’ Chinese people and teach them how to act, in their minds, in a ‘civilised’ way. Don’t be a dipshit. Chinese people have their way of doing things, and you’d better get used to it. As the racists like to say: if you don’t like it, go home.
You came to China for a reason, and they welcomed you for a reason. Respect the country and its people.
Except for taxi drivers. Those cunts can eat a bowl of dicks.