S’long, China expat. Your bags are packed. Your flight is waiting. But are you sure you’re really ready to leave? There are some things all expats need to do before they leave China. While immigration might happily give you an exit stamp in your passport, you won't be able to truly say you're done China until they've been accomplished. So, in no particular order, you can't leave China until you’ve…
1. Eaten something freaky
Not everyone has the fortitude to stomach scorpions on a stick, stir-fried pig brain or still-hopping shrimp without upchucking, but Chinese cuisine has so many eccentricities, it would be rude not to try one or two. Brave stinky tofu if nothing else. It doesn’t taste half as bad as it smells!
Sometimes it's fun just to be a tourist, and the Great Wall is the ultimate place to do just that. Most people visit when they first arrive in China, but if you’re still to make your pilgrimage, don’t delay. One of the Wonders of the World, it’s truly is a marvel to behold. Plus, it’s probably the first thing people back home will ask about.
It’s definitely an acquired taste, but Chinese opera is undeniably iconic and undoubtedly beautiful in its own way. If your eardrums can take it, buy a CD after the performance and play it at home as a way to get rid of dinner guests who've overstayed their welcome.
A rite of passage for any China expat is appearing in the snapshots of Chinese people they don’t know. Usually initiated by rural Chinese who may not have seen many foreigners in the flesh, these forced photo shoots are proof you've really lived (in China). If your time in China is almost up and you've somehow yet to accomplish this, go to a local park, find some camera-happy aunties and flash your best peace sign.
A former coworker once told me he went his whole six-month contract in China without ever using a public toilet. While this is an achievement in itself, I can’t help feeling he somehow missed out on part of the reasons for travelling to a foreign land in the first place – to see how different cultures provide for basic human functions. The squat toilet may not be as comfortable for our un-springy Western leg muscles, but frequent them enough and you’re bound to come home with one heck of an anecdote. Oh, the things I’ve seen!
Most expats in China hit the highlights: the Yangzte River, Shanghai’s Bund, Beijing’s Forbidden City. That's all great, but China is also full of smaller, domestically-oriented tourist destinations, some of which are weird, wonderful and downright hilarious. For example, I once visited a town that attracts busloads of domestic tourists to look at a big door. Yep. It’s a big door, alright.
While binge drinking is quite a serious societal problem, it can also be a heck of a lot of fun as an expat in China. Chinese-style drink-offs usually happen at work events or family banquets when the host feels a need to personally welcome each guest with a “ganbei”. Literally translating to “dry glass”, when faced with a ganbei, you’re expected to see off a glass of fiery baijiu or (if you're lucky) lukewarm beer. What usually happens in these situations, however, is that the guests in turn feel the need to toast their host for his or her hospitality, plus all the other guests in order of seniority. And if you’re a foreigner at a Chinese function, you can expect to rank pretty highly. If your time in China is running out and this is still on your to-do list, crowbar your way into someone else's celebration by going to a restaurant or bar, finding a table of already drunken Chinese people and shouting out “ganbei” with your glass raised. Works every time.
Spend the morning at remote farming village before visiting a spanking-new shopping mall. The contrasts of China and the rapidity of its development are two things that make it such an interesting country. Don’t leave without witnessing the extremes with your own eyes.
Most foreigners make an attempt at speaking Chinese, not only to be polite to their hosts but also to make life here easier. But not everyone attempts writing characters. The experience will take you straight back to kindergarten, when you didn't even know how to hold a pencil. While in some ways difficult and frustrating, it can also be good fun and rewarding, especially if you can return home with a crowd-pleasing phrase in your muscle memory. Most enjoyable is when you show your efforts to your Chinese friends and watch them try not to laugh at your child-like scribbles.
Karaoke is a must-do activity in China. Unlike the West, however, this is not an opportunity to lampoon yourself. Most Chinese KTV-goers sing pretty well and belt out their favourite pop songs with no sense of irony at all. Most of my Chinese friends also wouldn’t dream of singing a song at KTV unless they'd practiced it at home. So take it as seriously as they do, and come with your A-game to a KTV session before you jump countries. For MASSIVE bonus points, learn a Chinese song and watch the room erupt.
So there you have it, my tall-nosed friend. Ten tips for how to leave China with a clear conscience, knowing you've experienced the country to its fullest. Man zou ( 慢走 - go slowly/take care).
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Keywords: China expat
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