First a disclaimer: China is a big place, and different cities are often ridiculously different from one another. But some things cut across regional boundaries. Here are 10 great things (for expats) in China:
10. Bootleg media:
The classic image: the bored, China-hating expat goes home from their crappy provincial English cram school to find solace: bootleg DVDs of American films. While our (and most others') experience is far better than this, cheap entertainment is still a major perk. But one mustn't try to take these out of the country. . .
9. Western fast food
MacDonald's, Subway, Starbucks: these do not taste any better here than in America. In fact, they taste exactly the same. And sometimes, when you tire of noodles and jiaozi, this is a wonderful thing. McD's is especially nice when you find yourself wanting something cheese, vanilla, or maple-flavored: while none of those ingredients actually exist inside any MacDonald's, even passable imitations are rare here (especially of maple syrup).
None of this applies to KFC or Pizza Hut, China's most popular American restaurants. KFC is considerably worse than in America (if you can even imagine that), while Pizza Hut is truly bizarre: a white-tablecloth date restaurant serving escargot, steak, and tiramisu. Pizza is a single page buried in the middle of the menu. We have not yet been, but will surely find an excuse one of these days.
8. Japanese food:
Already it looks like I'm being snide, making a list of non-Chinese things. But we are at the bottom of the countdown: wait and we will get to honestly Chinese things.
The Chinese hate the Japanese (perhaps a good subject for a future post). But even they grudgingly admit one thing: Japanese food is delicious. For expats, it offers a rare opportunity: actually being able to afford it! All-you-can-eat-and-drink teppanyaki abounds for well under 200 RMB; sushi, ramen, and upscale cuisine are likewise common and cheap. Of course, it's still expensive by local standards. But it is doable.
Chinese parks are small, developed, and, in the North, depressingly barren. But they have one major advantage over their roomy, green American counterparts: the people love them. Every park, no matter how grim, will be filled with people throughout the day: old men playing Xiangqi, factory workers playing Big 2, people of all ages working out on the ubiquitous exercise equipment, couples playing with their children, old ladies singing classical Chinese songs into portable PA systems, Taijichuan and Qigong groups, people spinning tops and hoops and other strange traditional toys, students playing badminton (with no net--more like catch, really) and ping pong and basketball . . . and this is just a sampling.
Sometimes in China, you stop and realize just what 1.3 billion people looks like. On the Beijing Metro, it is daunting. But in the park on every corner, I remember why I like it here.
6. Awesome things Kristina likes
I'm going to lump these because they aren't really mine. She can probably rank them or add more; I can't:
a. Tea: more teas than one person could ever drink, at higher quality than ever found in America, and at low prices (if you know where and how to look: less savvy waiguoren often get taken for exhorbitant rides at "tea houses" near tourist spots)
b. Art supplies: these are readily available and comically cheap, even good brands. Kristina decided she wanted to try painting with acrylics again: numerous Windsor & Newton colors, brushes, and stretched canvas totalled well under $20.
c. Cute design: a trademark of the Japanese, cute character designs on shirts, signs, industrial equipment, political propaganda, etc., have become a pan-Asian standard. We cannot walk down the street without seeing an awesome new cat shirt to keep an eye out for at the market.
d. Clothes: while men's clothes are not so good (cheap polyester and crappy Korean trends dominate), women's clothing is far better than in America: more practical, more aesthetic, and far cheaper.
I thought about taking an airplane to Nanjing. It might have saved me half a day, and maybe could have been only a little more than a train. But airplanes anywhere are unpleasant; I cannot imagine they are much better here, and have only heard they are worse. But the trains---the trains! We took a bullet train from Shenyang to Nanjing in about 12 hours. The cars were nice and clean. Further, though they were full, they were quiet. Sober Chinese travellers are generally quiet and polite, markedly moreso than their American counterparts. Those less sober are one reason to avoid the slower trains.
The trains are comfortable, and reliable: unlike almost everything else here, they come on time and without complication. The view of the countryside is a bonus: we have seen all sorts of farms, towns, and villages, and in all seasons.
4. Public transit
Chinese cities sprawl (some more than others). But in all of them, buses are frequent and numerous; taxis are cheap (OK, not in Shanghai . . .), and subways, where available, are clean and modern. Some expats go to great pains to get a driver's license. I would never bother: they are really, really unnecessary (as all those Chinese people on the buses and trains know).
3. Chinese language
It would maybe be truer to the feel of Zhongguo-hua to title this entry "China Language", in homage to the caveman simplicity of Chinese.
I can talk China language. Weekday Four I go South Capital on High Car. Car open six hour half.
"Che" (car) can mean anything from a bicycle to a bullet train. Every day, I am talking like an Indian in a film from the '50s. Also like a pirate: I will have to break my er-hua habit when I move to Suzhou.
But just as fun is reading. Chinese language really only makes sense if you can read (yet somehow many foreigners manage to avoid learning). The characters are beautiful, and even though I read at a 4-year-old level (Kristina is probably around 7 or 8 now), it feels like I'm smart.
2. My students
Ah, my students. My students are angels, all of them. They don't know this, of course. But they are a whole different breed from American students. (At least, the ones I have known. And was.) Asian students are famous, of course, for being studious, but this is not what I am talking about. On the whole, they are well adjusted, friendly to each other and to adults, and generally interested in the world. When they can be coaxed into talking, they ask good questions and offer their own ideas. I will miss my current classes, but can look forward to meeting new ones.
1. Chinese people
This is a little more general than the above. Almost all the people I have met here have been strikingly friendly to us. Some people online said to expect this, but you really have to live here to believe it. This week, a teacher at my new school has tirelessly accompanied us on our apartment hunt, all the while chatting and helping us. Throughout the year in Shenyang, my homeroom partner has gone far beyond her own responsibilities to make life more bearable not just for me, but for all the foreign teachers. On trains, people ask us all kinds of detailed questions about America. We are getting spoiled.
Stay tuned: next time, we'll have 10 Awful Things about China!