China: Frustrations and Fascinations

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In my last blog I spoke about why I came to China and where I have been so far. This time I am looking at something else I mentioned before… the more frustrating side of life in China and of course the fascinating. As an expat we are of course often on a back footer, learning the ropes of our new homeland whether it’s a temporary stint or a more permanent fixture. Here goes…

FRUSTRATIONS:

1 TRAFFIC TURNING INWARDS EVEN IF THE PEDESTRIAN LIGHT IS GREEN
This is one of the first things you learn in China. NEVER trust the green man to walk as vehicles still have right of way. Having a head that can swivel 360 degrees would be useful, oh to be an owl.

2 ‘I DON’T KNOW’ IS NOT IN THE CHINESE VOCABULARY
Ask for directions they say in the guidebooks but here’s a very good reason why doing that in China is not a good idea. The Chinese are very friendly and very generous. They will bend over backwards to help visitors to their country. For this reason they especially don’t like to look stupid or lose face. This means that they will either point you somewhere (even if they don’t know) or they will scrutinise your map for hours if you let them when it is quite clear they haven’t a clue what you have asked them (even in Chinese) or where you are trying to get to. Note they are not being malicious they just don’t want to appear stupid and want to help.

3 NO-ONE TELLS YOU ANYTHING
A good example of this is you fancy a shower, a cup of tea or you need to wash your hands only to find… the water has been switched off with no warning whatsoever and if that isn’t bad enough there’s no telling when it’s coming back on.

3 CLOSED HOSPITAL DEPARTMENTS AT CHINESE NEW YEAR
Getting sick at CNY is not an option even in big cities, many wards and departments ‘close for holiday.’ Hooray for common sense!

4 CATCHING A PLANE DURING MONSOON SEASON
So you’ve finally decided on a break BUT it’s the height of summer and both your airport of origin and destination are suffering delays due to adverse weather. The positive here is that in a country where health and safety is not err… fully realised, they do at least stop you flying into a severe storm. The downside is the chaos in not really knowing what’s going on and being stuck in an airport cul-de-sac for hours on end then flying at any hour – meaning you can arrive way after the last metro or your hotel may have sold your bed to someone else.

5 TRAVELLING DURING ANY PUBLIC HOLIDAY
Assuming you know how to buy tickets and there isn’t a monsoon/landslide (insert natural disaster) happening, the next thing you need to know is when you can go.

6 CHINESE WEBSITE EMAILS ALMOST NEVER WORK
No matter how snazzy the website looks, you can bet the English version has no contact and even if it does will most likely be a dead end mail that just rejects straight away. Failing that it’ll be picked up by someone who doesn’t understand English and you’ve guessed it, hitting delete is an easier alternative than using Baidu or Bing translate (no google here of course – at time of writing anyway).

7 THEY NEVER ORDER NEW STOCK BEFORE EXISTING STOCK RUNS OUT
Every time Starbucks have a new special coffee, they never have it; not one branch but EVERY branch! But this is not just Starbucks this is an all round occurrence, same in Walmart etc.

8 MORE ADD-ONS THAN A NO THRILLS AIRLINE
If you go for a massage, the dentist, or other such service you can be sure that having given you a quote and even if you’ve paid they will without fail come up with another way to extract more money out of you:

Shop seller: oh, you need this.
Westerner: how much?
Answer: Usually almost as much as you’ve already paid. As far as I know this is not a scam – this has occurred in several different scenarios from a specialised masseuse to a rather plush dental clinic. It is just how they are. *ps the dentist gave me the Bono shades.

9 PEOPLE WHO USE THE FREE EXERCISE APPARATUS AT THE PARK AS A BENCH TO TEXT/WE CHAT
I do love the Chinese but like any relationship they at times can test that love by testing your patience! Duh! I think I’ll just sit here on these exercise machines for hours, I mean no-one will want to use it for exercise especially not a westerner. Duh… yes we do! That is if we could get on it in the first place. *note, if you ask them they will usually move at your request but it’s a bit of a pain having to ask and not knowing what response you might get, all good so far.

10 METRO STATION ESCALATORS THAT ONLY GO UP (or down)
OK some metro stations do have escalators that run both ways but a great deal don’t meaning if you have a big bag you have to lug it up or down four flights of stairs. This is equally annoying for the Chinese themselves, especially the very feminine girls who struggle with huge bags. I have helped a number of students and elderly women with moving bags/trolleys up or down stairs because of ill advised planning which brings me to my next observation.

11 METRO STATIONS THAT ARE ONLY PARTIALLY OPEN
Another cultural quirk of the orient. In the UK when we build something, we finish it then open it. China operates slightly differently. You want Exit A but only Exit D and E are open and will put you on the wrong side of the road or where you want/need to be.

12 DESIGN FLAWS
From metro stations to urinals (see above and 17) there’s no shortage of these.

13 THE PHONE YOU WANT AND HAVE SPENT AN HOUR ASKING ABOUT IN PIDGIN CHINESE ISN’T ACTUALLY AVAILABLE
You’ve chanced on a phone, it’s the right size, the right price but you need to know if it does certain things or how much memory it has, not easy when your Chinese is poor to put it mildly. You’ve struggled for a fair while in the shop with a combination of sign language, hand gestures,  body language and Chinglish so much so that it feels like you are doing some kind of dance the locals might do in Harbin or Inner Mongolia to keep warm. Finally you’re just about ready to take the plunge when the smiling shop assistant tells you…

oh, not available.
Westerner: Huh! What do you mean?
Shop assistant: Just for show.
Westerner: WHAT!!! (almost crying) WHY!?
Shop assistant: Company policy.
Westerner stares an ‘if looks could kill’ face before leaving minus product, wanting to cry and kill shop personage at the same time.

14 OPEN THAT AILSE, LANE, WINDOW
Like other countries China has a phobic reluctance to open another window/lane/aisle regardless of how busy it is. This can occur at immigration, banks, supermarkets. There is no excuse for this in China – they have a big enough population to cover this so open another channel!!

15 EMPTY BANK ATMs
You queue, you finally get to the machine to find… the WITHDRAW CASH option isn’t there. The person before you hasn’t said anything because of points 2 and 3. You queue again and it’s all pot luck here in la la land.

16 ROAD CLEANING WATER JETS
This one is a frequent menace; these guys do a good job of keeping the sprawling metropolis clean but the jet spray is so powerful it protrudes onto the pavement meaning you often need to do laundry and/or have yet another shower from whatever has been swept up by the spray and given you a facial you didn’t want!

17 BADLY DESIGNED URINALS
And speaking of the wrong kind of spray – obviously I don’t know how it is for the ladies – but as a guy I sometimes have to wonder quite why someone would commission urinals that spit as much of yours and whomever else’s pee back at you – especially around the ankles and lower legs; really bloody annoying! Where possible I use a five star hotel’s loo though these days some of them have gotten wise to this by making their lobby loos accessible only by room key. Can’t say I blame them but it was a nicer alternative to the prehistoric and smelly Chinese public versions.

18 YOUR PERSONAL SPACE MAY BE AT RISK
And I don’t mean on the metro. No, much as I like the Chinese they are sometimes like toddlers in their skills at walking backwards into you, across you or stopping dead in front of you (especially irksome at the foot of escalators!). In other words personal space doesn’t really register with them.

19 A SHOP CAN DISAPPEAR OVERNIGHT!
Fancy a German sausage in a bun? In a rush for lunch? Need a light bite? No worries you know where there’s a really good bakery or similar but as you get there it’s either vanished (shut down) or there is another shop in its place! Even if you were there a few days’ earlier there is no warning from staff who must know what is coming. So far this has happened to me three times. See point 3.

20 CARS DRIVING ON PAVEMENTS
Another irksome annoyance and note I didn’t even mention the internet!

FASCINATIONS:

FESTIVALS
Whether it’s Tomb Sweeping Day, Ghost festival or moon cakes China is never dull.

THE LANGUAGE
It’s still amazing seeing the red squiggly neon and knowing that it actually does mean something!

WATER CALLIGRAPHY
Squiggles with water!

FREE EXERCISE IN THE PARK
The parks (sometimes on the side of a road) are amazing and feature FREE exercise equipment. Good news for us, not so good for the legions of gyms and their trillions of staff hanging around outside with flyers to entice your joining. Of course this all relies on common decency as to whether the Chinese hog the apparatus for an hour or are using it as their work space to socialise! See point 9.

THE SQUARE DANCE
Seeing the happy grannies (the dama) shaking their thing in public squares is one of the most beguiling factors of living in China (unless you happen to be Chinese it seems).

THE ASPECT OF TRUST: EG BORROWING AN UMBRELLA FROM 7-11
The Chinese can be very trusting, thus a (mostly) happy and harmonious society.

EVEN A SUPERMARKET IS AN EVENTFUL EXCURSION
It might say TESCO, it might be WALMART, it could also be CARREFOUR but make no mistake, though some of the things you miss and crave are here it is still very much China. Expect green tea and red bean bread.

THE ROAD NETWORKS
Some of these looping, curving, swirling multi-level transit ways are so high it feels like flying! Below are vistas of the city as you’ve never seen it before and if you suffer from heights may never want to!

THE FACT MOST OF THE NEW GLITTERING CITY BEFORE YOU HAS BEEN BUILT IN THE LAST DECADE!
Yes, incredibly you only need to look at Guangzhou’s Zhejiang New Town or Shenzhen to gaze in awe at the sheer level of speed in which these mega-cities have been developed.

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2 thoughts on “China: Frustrations and Fascinations

  1. China, you either love it or hate it. Mel’s spent 4 loooong years in Shanghai and the daily living has been well summarized in this post. Indeed what would he had done if he knew what he was headed for, if time could be wound back!

    • Indeed. I certainly failed to fall in love with Shanghai. I tried for Singapore but they politely declined and asked for my understanding. I still don’t though I would settle for Shenzhen (mini-Singapore). Thanks for your comment, wishing you well with your blog, future travels and a prosperous xmas and new year.

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