Top 9 Things to Know about Expat Life in Rural China
No, Dorothy, You're Not in Kansas (Let Alone America) Anymore: Top 9 Things to Know about Expat Life in Rural China
The international media is chock-full of China-related news these days. Back in the U.S., I was inundated with story after story about what’s going on in China—that behemoth of a country modernizing at breakneck speed. But all those stories failed to prepare me for what daily life in the “real” China is like. I’m not talking about expat lifestyles in the glitz and glamour of Shanghai or Beijing. Oh, how I wish I was. I’m talking about what life is like for those of us expats out in the Chinese sticks. Those places like Haiyang, Shandong Province, where I live, and where the cracks in the façade of modern China are quite visible to the expat’s naked eye.
1. Now you know what it’s like to be an animal, trapped in a zoo. As a kid growing up in the U.S., I learned pretty early on that “it’s not polite to stare.” This isn’t the case here in Haiyang where, as a laowai (foreigner), you often feel like a novelty item, that sore thumb always sticking out. Workers in the grocery store will pick up items in your cart and study them. Cars will slow down, cross the center line, and creep up next to you as you jog along the country roads. At first, I found this odd and slightly amusing, if not flattering. Now, it’s just annoying.
2. Communication 101: When polite conversation isn’t so polite. Certain conversation topics are off-limit back home and in many European countries I’ve traveled to. But there’s no holding back in China. It’s not unusual upon meeting someone for the first time to be immediately asked for (1) your cell phone number and (2) your salary information. And those are just the warm-up. Be prepared for complete strangers to ask about your children and, if you don’t have them, get ready to swat away questions you typically only get from your mother and grandmother. Why don’t you have them yet? When will you have them? You get the idea.
3. Transportation modes will never cease to amaze you. Sure, we’ve got all kinds of motorized and non-motorized vehicles back home that get us from point A to point B. But our options are less extensive than those available here. China has quite a range from the rusty single speed bicycle favored by the elderly, to the motorized tricycle-cart that is favored by farmers and somehow able to seat one to half a dozen folks, to the newest black -- always black -- Land Rover, BMW, or Audi favored by Party members. Though these modes of transportation all look very, very different, they do have one thing in common: they are more than happy to run your laowai a** over should you get in their way. The pedestrian is the lowest man on the totem pole in China. Consider yourself warned.
4. Bodily functions will never cease to disgust you. I’ve been living in rural China for exactly one year, yet I still can’t help but cringe every time I hear the dreaded sound of someone hawking a loogie. Everyone is an expert in loogie hawking (ahem, spitting loudly and violently) here from the barely mobile old dudes who shuffle along the country roads sporting their Mao suits to the young, trendy women in their three inch knee-high boots milling about the grocery store. Your taxi driver will have no problem rolling down the window to spit at 65 km/hour (or stopping to take a pee on the side of the road while you wait in the car). Most shocking of all, your aiyi (maid/nanny) will have no problem hawking one into your sink as she goes about her work.
5. Developmental pains are your new norm. It’s true that China’s construction boom is, well, booming. In our slice of Chinese countryside, cranes clog up the skyline, trucks zip along the roads hauling supplies, and migrant workers take their breaks and naps right on the side of the road. New communities are built in no time but then sit empty for months, if not years. New water lines are added seemingly every week, which interrupts our water supply, sometimes for the whole day and often without warning. When the water returns, we have to flush the pipes to get rid of the murky, dirt-brown liquid that comes sloshing out. Oh yeah, the power grid is constantly being tweaked, so it’s not uncommon to lose power for a day here and a day there.
6. Outdoor activities require a cost-benefit analysis. There’s no doubt about it: pollution is a real problem in China. We are lucky here in Haiyang to live near the Yellow Sea and miles away from heavy, industrial areas. During the spring, summer, and fall, we can hop on our bikes and ride for miles on the country roads. We can hike Tiger Mountain or The Bamboo Forest in Zhaohushan National Forest Park, no face masks or inhalers required. But in the winter, even we have days when the sfmog is so thick we receive travel advisories warning about the dangerous driving conditions. These advisories are unnecessary. We know the sfmog comes from the coal stoves that heat the simple, concrete homes in the farming and fishing villages scattered around us. When we wake up in the morning and can’t see the building 25 yards across from us, we know the sfmog is bad.
7. Pack accordingly: winter in Haiyang is harsh. The damp, bitter cold that hangs in the air and seeps into your bones is hard to shake off when you’re out and about in Haiyang. This is mainly because the shops, restaurants, and public buildings are not heated. Seriously. Even the local schools are unheated, which makes me feel extremely sorry for the kids in our area. Get used to bundling up before you go out. That bulky coat, those long johns, wool socks, and other winter gear you (hopefully!) packed will come in handy when you are riding in cold taxis, searching the aisles of the grocery store, and scarfing down your food on the rare occasions that you venture out for dinner between December and March.
8. The lunar markets inspire both wonder and awe. Lunar markets are outdoor markets that are held every five days all over Haiyang. These are great places where you can find pretty much anything from fresh produce to clothes and cleaning supplies. You won’t believe the dirt cheap prices for it all. But there are a few things you should know before you go. If crowds bother you, don’t go. Actually, just scratch China off your must-travel-to list if this is the case. You will find yourself elbowing your way through the market (and most of China), getting pushed by other customers and prodded by the vendors. If you’re squeamish, reconsider this particular adventure or at the very least avoid the meat section. It’s not uncommon to see various body parts of donkeys and horses hung up by meat hooks, fur and all.
9. Dining out requires a sense of adventure. Many Americans think they’ve had Chinese food, but the take-out you get back home is completely different than the food in China. Sometimes that’s a surprisingly good thing. Ever had a chrysanthemum salad topped with walnuts and chilies in a tangy vinaigrette? You should. But other times it’s a decidedly bad thing. You know that Peking duck dish that you just love back home? Oh how fun it is to make a little pancake with the duck meat, scallions, onions, and plum sauce! You can get that here, too, but the Chinese will think you’re odd when you decline the soup served with it, which includes the duck’s head and blood. There are many more options available that I’ve never encountered back home. For example, the famous sea cucumber. It looks like a black, slimy slug with little nubs all over its body and its taste and texture resemble a plump rubber band. This litter critter is featured in every restaurant menu in Haiyang, but I for one don’t get what all the fuss is about. Especially after reading this.
Please know that the above list isn’t exhaustive. Since it’s a lucky number in China, I decided to only highlight nine things about what living in rural China is really like. There are many other things I’d love to tell you, both good and bad. But my word count here is limited, so please check out my blog for more insight.
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Contest Comments » There are 20 comments
I love how you prepare those of us who haven't been there for "what to expect" upon arrival if visiting. It's always good to be prepared when traveling to a foreign country. And it's nice the way you follow up with tips for how to deal with the unexpected. Thank you for the heads up!
A couple of years ago, my husband asked what I wanted for my 40th birthday. Being the awesome sister that I am, I suggested flying Nancy to China for "the experience of a lifetime". I was so excited! Oddly, over the course of the next 2 years, she found all kinds of excuses as to why she couldn't make it. Finally, about a month ago, she broke down and said "Alicia, you've spent 4 years warning me about crazy drivers & accidents galore, food that would curdle your stomach, non-sexual fondling (if that could possibly exist), power outages, constant airport delays & cancellations, algae blooms that turn water into meadows, and pollution. Why would I ever want to visit your village?" (sheesh!) As I was reading your latest blog entry, I must have looked like a bobble head doll (uh huh! yep! So true!). Perhaps Nancy has a point? (HA!) I think I'll just take her to NY instead :-) On a serious note, your post is hand's down one of the best I've read regarding our life in the village. Definitely true to form. Great job. Sincerely, Your neighbor who lives 25 yards away (visibility is pretty good today, don't yha think?)
Great article for those who will be traveling to China. I would have never known that it was normal for people to ask you your salary and having people spitting all over the place. Thanks for the tips for traveling to China!
I can attest this essay is concise and factual because I am an expat living 200 feet from this exceptional writer :-)
I can attest this essay is concise and factual because I am an expat living 200 feet from this exceptional writer :-)
Thank you for your blog post. I thought I knew a lot abt Chinese culture from documentaries and spending time in Chinatown, Philadelphia. I was wrong, so very wrong. I am so touched and saddened by the classroom experience. I can not imagine how any children read or write under such cold circumstances. I think your article as a whole is so well written and informative that I want to read more. There is no better way to learn abt a culture other than being immersed in it. Thank you for sharing and wow the cab driver stopping on the side of the road. He has Philly, New York & Baltimore cabbies beat by far. I thought I had experiences, wrong again. I look forward to reading more if your experiences!
Thanks for sharing these tips. This, along with Alicia's comments above, makes me really want to reconsider a visit someday! ;) That being said, what you describe has to bring out the adventurous in you and who doesn't like a good adventure (as long as you don't have to relinquish your salary history or cell phone number)!
Hello! Who wouldn't want the duck's head and blood?! Sign me up! I love this and I love the blog, too. Thanks for sharing.
I've really enjoyed vicariously traveling around China and elsewhere through your blog - especially the great photos! I previously considered myself an adventuresome omnivore, but you've given me reason to back down from that a bit - at least in regards to dirt mooncakes and rubber bands of the sea...
It's been almost a decade since I've lived in China, but this article is pretty spot-on in its insights. Even though most of my time was in the sprawling city of Shanghai (where most buildings, unlike Haiyang, were heated) this post definitely took me back to the craziness of living in China for 7 years. I wonder if I'll recognize the country if I ever head back after all these years.
I love your take on living in China! I think a lot of people glamorize living somewhere else, in another country, but few know what they are really getting into. Enjoy the ride and that every weird, good or bad moment is still contributing to this incredible experience. Thanks for taking us on your journey, offering some tips and please, be sure to dodge the spit!
so fun to live vicariously thru ur venture in rural china by reading the blog. it definitely is not a sugar coated comment on chinese culture but a realistic view of what ur experiencing and that is very refreshing because i think we all thought a lot would be different - with all the hardships i know ur growing cause u truly r living its the journey not the destination - glad u have prepared me since i have commited to coming in the spring and can't wait to do ur daily routine together …, seeing is believing !
Thanks for sharing the real picture of rural China. Definitely good things to know before considering moving there. I especially appreciate your sense of humor while dealing with all these things. Great article and great blog!
You describe everything with such inside details, that, in spite of all negative things, I feel "I wish I can be there". Thank you for keeping us posted.
I enjoyed your post. My family and I spent 2 years in Haiyang. The first year we lived in town. It made the experience worthwhile. The second year we were moved into the "Expert Village". We made a lot more trips to Qingdao that second year. I found that one of the best ways of keeping my sanity and perspective was blogging and studying the language. Good luck with the tour. I am definitely going to add your blog posts to my bookmarks page. BTW, just talking to expats who recently hui guo le from Haiyang, I can't believe the changes. in just a year and a half since I returned.
Really enjoyed reading this and I feel like you really have taken me on a true life experience of living in rural China. From the open air makets to the duck head soup it sounds like a great journey. I want to visit! Enjoy every moment, taste everything, and go out and stuff the universe in your eyes. Thanks for sharing! Patrick
Thanks for sharing our Haiyang Top 9! Neither of us will ever take the simple things for granted anymore. But hopefully we will look back in 2 years 11 months 18 days 1 hour 12 minutes 38 seconds at our time in Haiyang and reminisce about how quickly the time went. By then we would've already extended our contract stay for Unit 3 and 4 :) Follow the blog and maybe find out!
What a great blog! Very helpful for those of us considering a visit. I'll have to work on my loogie skills!
Duck's Head.....with blood? Sign me up and book my flight! Very interesting tidbits on your life in China. Wonderful article!
Wow!!! I'm not a fan of body functions, but your journey sounds like such an amazing adventure!! I'd love to hear the stories that led to these 9 things!! Awesome!