Life in China is tough. Maybe not Chicago-level tough, but definitely not for the faint-of-heart. There are numerous indicators that you’re not going to hack life in China, and regardless of whether you’ve been in the country for five days or five years, you’re likely to be familiar with at least some of them.
You’re sitting outside on a dusty patio, enjoying a chocolate-flavoured milk tea drink you paid too much for. Your only respite is the fleeting thought that “At least it’s not as expensive as it would be in the US”. The more pressing problem is that every time you want to take a sip you have to remove your mask as the PM2.5 levels are over 500.
Across the narrow street from the patio, through the sulphur-smelling haze, you see a garage-turned-disposal facility with its gates wide open. Workers are starting collect bags of trash from the street and carry them to a rusty trash compactor. They throw them inside, and the whining sound of working machinery begins.
The smell of decomposing food and general bin juice from the makeshift disposal facility suddenly hit you. You leave your tea on the table and make haste to the sanctuary of your air-purified apartment for a glass of filtered water.
2. Public defecation is still not feeling normal
You’re happily driving home from work on your diàndòng chē (电动车- electric scooter), avoiding taxi-drivers who work as four-wheeled hit-men on the side. About 50 meters ahead of you, a black Audi Q7 pulls over and blocks the bike-lane next to an overpass.
The passenger door swings open and a Chinese lady in a pink velour tracksuit with a LV bag jumps out. She opens the back-passenger door, from behind which you see a plume of smoke emerging -- the driver has probably just lit his 20th cigarette of the day.
On overtaking the vehicle, however, you see the woman is assisting a not-so-little girl who has squatted down on the sidewalk, doing her business right there. This is not the first time you’ve witnesses such horror, but you still almost fall off your bike.
It hits you all of a sudden; that burning sensation again. You know it all too well, it’s right there, in your gut. Beads of sweat start to form on your forehead as you pick up the pace to locate the nearest toilet. There’s no need to second-guess what caused this intestinal uproar – it’s the spicy lunch you had at Zhāng Māmā a couple of hours ago.
As you finally locate the porcelain trough room, you enter through the brown and yellow plastic curtains and are greeted by five squatting middle-aged Chinese men, all of whom instantly halt their jovial conversation to stare at the sweaty foreigner that just entered.
Naturally, the squatting toilets have neither doors nor walls, making your express visit all the more intrusive. At this point you realise you also don’t have tissue. You vow to avoid spicy food for the rest of your time in China.
The adjacent building has been chosen by the local government to receive a free renovation. Three weeks later the workers have already finished and left, leaving piles of trash all over the courtyard. Armed with an ancient broom you permanently borrowed from a nearby trash bin, you decide to sweep all the glass fragments and debris down the ground drain, hoping no-one will notice.
Before you finish the deed, that chatty old man limps out of the entrance of your apartment building. He immediately spots you and picks up the pace before you can scurry back into your apartment.
Your neighbour gesticulates with Italian-like energy and precision – at the ground, at the broom, at you, at the building itself and at the sky. He merrily keeps talking. You have no idea what he’s trying to say, so you nod near-constantly and throw in the occasional “duì”(对 - right) in a miserable attempt to appear sociable.
After what feels like an eternity, he gives you a friendly pat on the shoulder and limps over to his drinking buddies on the other side of the courtyard. You quickly finish your public duty and lock yourself up in your apartment for the rest of the day. The worst part is that you don’t really know why.
As you repeat the sentence for the third time, “Wǒ yào yī píng pí jiǔ” (我要一瓶啤酒- I want a bottle of beer) the tall blonde guy with a jaw carved out of stone behind you leans over the bar and repeats the exact same sentence with a charismatic smile. The cute bartender blushes, commends his impeccable Chinese and forgets to charge him for his beer. Meanwhile, your parched request is forgotten.
Blondie turns around, puts an elbow on the counter, sips his free beer and humbly explains to you, “My dad’s in the upper management of Apple in Beijing, so I went to Harrow’s for high school. I won an award in a Chinese language contest last semester.”
Before you have a chance to reply with something snide, his chubby, balding wingman wades through the crowd and whispers something in his ear. A grin spreads across Blondie’s lips as he smoothly replies “Oh, Japanese you say? I’ve never tried one of those. Lead me to her”.
As the faithful wingman leads him to his next prey, Blondie turns around and gives you a double thumbs up and a childish smile. You then realise he forgot his beer on the counter. You decide you deserve it more than he does and secretly hope he fails at life.
If these situations sound all too familiar to you, maybe you're not going to hack life in China. You can leave, of course, but the alternative is that you grit your teeth (not too hard though – dental care is expensive) and double down on your mission to be less negative. I doubt your cynicism will evaporate over time, but you may just come to accept it.
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Keywords: life in China
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