I have lived in China for four years and I have met people from many other countries that are either living here or passing through on a stepping stone journey to something or somewhere else.
Just to note here from the get go… China is a fascinating place and it is vast. I mean. It. Is. Huge.
It can cover every terrain, weather system or people experience that you can ever imagine and each and every opportunity that I have had to engage in some of the places in China that I have been to, I have never been disappointed.
All of the ‘foreigners’ that I have met agree on a few things that are a must to let other people know about visiting or living in China and one of them is that ‘Nobody hates you and any anti-foreign feeling is minimal’.
There is no crazy government people waiting to lock you up at any opportunity. Sure, there is government control like in any other country in the world and it is more visible in the cities in China than any other city I have ever visited, but this does provide a real feeling of safety. The propaganda that you get fed in the west, the image that is created from that, is a very narrow perspective that drives an ignorance that you should really take the time to get past.
A lesson that I have learned from my time in China is that what is always displayed in the media or what is perceived as the aligned narrative for any country is that it is most likely not true. Don’t get me wrong, I am not proposing that we all run off to visit a war zone, but just maybe… the narrative being portrayed is designed to create more clicks, keep people beholding and just maybe, maybe, we should look behind the curtain.
That’s what I try and do more of now, dig deeper or at least do some further research otherwise I might miss out in some wonderful experiences.
The other thing to know is that the food here is outstanding. Food is central to a lot of what happens in China, it is very much the centre piece in any social gathering. A note on this, food is shared. Sharing food is such a great experience but it is not too common in the west. We might share some of the nibbles, a taste or a little bit of my starter here and there, but in China it is a real community affair. I was once at a table where a new arrived acquaintance from Europe was preparing to eat food with us and he placed his order. Everyone else placed their order and when the food arrived he flipped a bowl of rice on his plate, dumped his full ordered dish on top and proceeded to munch away, very European. Of course, no-one said anything. Chinese people are very respectful of others and things are often not said, as they were on this occasion.
Everyone else placed their order and when the food arrived he flipped a bowl of rice on his plate, dumped his full ordered dish on top and proceeded to munch away, very European. Of course, no-one said anything. Chinese people are very respectful of others and things are often not said, as they were on this occasion.
It wasn’t until later when the group had dwindled in size and became more intimate and trustworthy that someone who lived locally felt emboldened enough to ask me why the visitor had decided to eat in such a way. It was custom for us foreigners, I explained, very European. But I agreed that this is very unusual or different to how people eat in China and it is a learned behaviour from his parents and their parents. Now that I have learned about the community spirit of shared food, then I see the folly of our ways.
It is odd when I reflect back on how we may eat in a less communal way, particularly in the UK, because in much of what I see from many other cultures, even many in Europe, that is how people eat. Maybe its just the stiff-upper Brits and I should get out more.
The other thing on the subject of food is that you can get every western cuisine in many of the big cities if you look for it and in Beijing it is a treasure trove of delights and I have tasted some of the best food I have ever eaten here in Beijing. You have to try it. The other thing you have two try is Chinese food in China. Our version of Chinese food in the west doesn’t even come close to what you experience here.
I was also surprised to find that there are so many regional cuisines and flavours of Chinese food, but then with the size of China and the deep history and the varied terrain that would obviously impact on the variety of available ingredients then I shouldn’t be. Think Europe.
There is local to me, Beijing style food, and others such as Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Tibetan, Mongolian, Xinjiang… there is such a wide variety that the list can go on and on. I think as a rule of thumb that the Western Chinese food is similar to Middle Eastern food, Northern Chinese food is more simple with noodles and dumplings, the food more Central China is very spicy and very popular, Eastern China is lighter and sweeter and Southern China a little more sweet and sour which is probably closer to what you might experience in the west. I might be wrong on all of this, but that is my take on it.
A real foodie would spend a lifetime exploring the extensive variety and they would love almost every minute of it. Some things did surprise me.
The third thing to know about any visit too, or any experience of living in China is that speaking Chinese is not easy. Trust me, there is no, ‘I will lust pick it up as I go’ or ‘I will use the guide book or the pocket phrase book that I have available, to fully engage with the locals’.
Not going to happen any time quick.
The best chance is to get familiar with the apps and trust them, Chinese people have a lot of patience for the Apps and are understanding of the challenge we have in getting the language, which is very dependent on tones.
If you do get some knowledge and feel brazen enough to have a go at some of the language because it is a great icebreaker, it is always appreciated and usually ends up in a comical moment of confusion and delight.
One other thing for the road, this might not be just isolated to china, but electric scooters are fast, silent and can stop in an instant. I know because I have almost been hit three or four times, but each time the skill and quick reactions of the rider has averted any danger… and guess what, it was never a bother to me or to them.
The road etiquette, like the table etiquette, just works in a way.
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