My Changing Life In China

It’s hard not to notice that my life here has changed. When I arrived in January 2005 everything here was non-permanent. Things I bought were “if it lasts eight months, that’s good enough” and emotional investment in a place or people was kept in check due to eminent departure.

Even well passed my scheduled “leave date”, I had maintained many of these ideologies and it’s only been recently I’ve noticed they’re wanning … giving room to new concepts of living here. More and more I see China as a long-term place to live. As my language ability increases (at a snail’s pace), I find living here more and more palatable and sometimes even down-right enjoyable.

However, waking up at about seven this morning – to the same sledge-hammering that woke me up yesterday and is sure to continue to wake me up at sunup every day until the apartment they are smashing to bits is done renovating – got me thinking.

It got me thinking about negativity of expats in China, and how it’s not necessarily a bad thing (inspiring the “Positively Annoying” post at Lost Laowai), and it got me thinking about some of the things I use to love about China, but now loath.

So, here is my list of things that I once thought were great about living here, but have soured to me over time:

  • Cheap Things: Top of the list. I used to LOVE how everything here is so cheap compared to back home in Canada. But, as mom used to say, nothing comes for free. The reason everything is so cheap is not due to some altruistic pricing plan sympathetic to Chinese cost-of-living. It’s also, despite the logic, got little to do with everything in the world being made here. The things are cheap because, well, they’re cheap. There’s little to no quality control and it all breaks or makes you sick after use. From beer to boxers, I’ve learned the hardway that paying for quality is generally worth it.
  • Ting Bu Dong: This used to be my ‘get out of any situation free’ card, but now it just represents failure. Initially though, I truely loved it. I could attempt to say little things and then when the cabbie or shopbunny went into extensive detail, I just “ting bu dong”d and we all had a good laugh. Now I know that we were laughing for very different reasons. Me because it was a comical experience in another country and them because it confirmed their belief that Chinese is completely unattainable except to Chinese (and Da Shan). There’s a great post that touches on the beauty of language naivety in this country over at Sinocidal, for anyone that’s interested.
  • Curious Chinese: In my China prep I had heard that Chinese people, on a whole, were quite inquisitive and were very likely to ask me lots of questions. In the formative months here I thought this was a bit cute, and happily answered their questions. I was awe-struck by how interested everyone was in me and generally felt fanfrigintastic about it. Now I know it’s considered just as rude here as it is anywhere, and by answering I only fuel the masturbatory nature of Chinese fact-finding. Chinese will rarely, if ever, ask extremely personal questions to fellow Chinese they don’t know – and on the off chance someone does ask, a straight answer is not likely. However, foreigners with our suíbiàn attitude, are fair game to reinforce the plethora of stereotypes that make up the country’s rather limited external view.
  • Bargaining: If there is a more capitalist function than bargaining, I’ve yet to meet it. A price is given that you know is too high, and the game begins. Working out all the angles, trying to maintain the proper disposition, express enough thoughtfulness about the item, feint possible dislike, launch your counterattack. Repeat. This was fun in the beginning. I liked going out and buying a pair of shoes and feeling I got them much cheaper than everyone else – because the shopkeeper really liked me. Bunk. Not only was I fleeced every time, I was fleeced for crap merchandise (see the first point). Now, fixed pricing never felt so good. Sure it’s generally more expensive, but it’s also much more likely to be real.
  • Chuar: This one quite possibly hurts the most and was one of the last to be tainted. For the record, I LOVE chuar, and whenever I’m in a more upscale Uighur restaurant, it’s the first thing I order. However, what I loved best (as my video blog showed) was going to dingy little places with a few friends, drinking a bunch of beer and eating loads of random meat. Now here in Suzhou it’s not as common to see it on the street, and for some reason that leads me to think that it’s a shady business, and with shady business comes shady animals on sticks… sigh. Having had serious food poisoning twice now (despite of my own accord), I’m just not willing to push my luck as much as I used to.

There are many more things that have changed for me over time here, and many of them are likely very positive. Alas, I just cannot think of them with all the pounding.

8 Responses

  1. Great post. I got sick of the bargaining the very first time. I hate it because I know I am getting ripped off, and yet I hate the bargaining so much and the spending 20 minutes to save a dollar so much, that I just can’t do it. I lived in Turkey for a year and I used to love bargaining there. There, it’s a friendly social thing. You talk soccer, you bargain, you talk weather, you bargain, you talk politics, you bargain, you drink tea, you bargain. In China, it feels like life or death.

  2. Bargaining has never been my forte either. It just feels so slimy.

    I let two of my students bargain for me once, a CCP member and one aspiring to be so, very upstanding gals and nice in class. They were helping me shop for a scarf and beanie, which would have cost 30 kuai. As soon as we get into prices, they start laying into the shopkeeper, just letting her have the full salvo. I didn’t follow any of this, but it all sounded like they were insulting each others’ ancestors eight generations back while putting me on some grand pedestal because I’m an ESL teacher. After a few rounds of this, I was ready to say: “Just leave the poor woman in peace. I can afford 30 kuai.” They wouldn’t let me, of course. While one argued, the other told me, “Don’t worry, she’ll get it down to 20.”

    She did, but I’ve felt like a bad person ever since. It was, perhaps, one of the more frightening things I’ve seen in China.

    As for the rest, I’m hitting saturation point on Ting bu dong (hence the Chinese classes) and the questions. But I’ll stick by chuar for now. Can’t get enough of that stuff.

  3. I have actually entered a new period in my bargaining life. I kind of like it again. Since Xiang Yang market was taken of the map I haven’t been doing a lot of it since I happily pay a kuai too much in the fresh market. Last Sunday though, due to a baby boom among my friends we had to get gifts so we set out to one of the Xiang Yang replacements on Nanjing Xi Lu and I rather enjoyed it. Maybe there’s something wrong with me:)

    I’ve never been too thrilled about too curious people, whether Chinese or else. I do occasionally have a nice face off with Chinese at parties when they start asking me about my salary. I mostly ask them whether they ask their fellow country men the same after 5 minutes of knowing eachother. That a. ends the conversation right away or b. results in some excuse and the end of the conversation

    Like you said, it’s considered just as rude here as it is anywhere. It’s a tad sad though as I consequently become vaguer in answering whatever question regardless who’s asking. You work? Yes. What do you do? Internet. You? Business, What kind of business? Buying & selling.

  4. The bargaining thing for me is just lose/lose. I get ripped off and I’m left feeling like I’ve caused the family of the shopkeeper to go without food tonight (which, of course, is not the case… but is definitely the feeling I’m often left with). While my family was visiting for the wedding I had to do a lot of their bargaining (at least initially).. and while bargaining in shops is a pain… bargaining for souvenirs is a papercut on the sphincter.

    CLB: Man, I need to go to Turkey.

    Chris: I can’t get enough of it either… I walk down the little hutong to my community and there’s always a chuar grill going… and my mind lights up, my mouth starts salivating… and just as I’m about to order I look at the squaller around me, and realize there’s one less stray… and I walk on.

    CS: Yep, I think there’s something wrong with you 🙂 But I definitely hear ya on the becoming vague thing. Perhaps this is why it takes 50 questions to get a simple sentence answer from most people here.

  5. Good post, man! I enjoyed it. I bet there would have been lots of things about Barcelona that would have bugged us, if we had all stayed longer.

    Oh, and I TOTALLY agree with you, on the cheap thing. I am a big believer in paying extra, to ensure quality. Both for service, and goods. It’s just better that way, and totally worth the extra few bucks to me.

  6. I think it was right around my second year that I really started to get disenfranchised with the whole “living in China” thing. I think it was a matter of knowing enough to get me angry but not enough to really solve things (particularly in terms of language). The Sinocidal post you linked to is bunk, IMHO. For every pain that actually understanding what’s being said around you brings, it helps you about a thousand times. If I had to do all over again I would have holed myself up in some little village with nothing but my books and people that couldn’t speak a word of English for the first year and gotten where I am now first, and then got on with my life here.

  7. @JohnB: I totally agree about knowing the language being a major assister in making life here easier – I just liked the boyz at Sinocidal’s take on it. I doubt there was much seriousness intended by it. Still, it does piss me off to understand more of what’s being said but not have the suitably suave language to defend myself. I can be extremely polite and extremely rude… but not so much the “subtle” in-between.

    I also agree that learning the language first would of course be great… generally life never works that way though, eh?

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