Get ready for China

Get ready for China

If you have been to France, you will know the difference between Paris and “la province”. This is how the Parisians call the “rest” of France, the deeper France of medium to small size towns, the rural France. La province is almost a derogatory term. Unlike in the capital city, restaurants stop taking orders after 9pm.

A few months ago, we moved to the “province” of China, or what the world of economists and expats call a Tier 2 city. In the deep north of China, just like in the north of France, people eat early, restaurants stop taking orders early, night life is limited, and foreigners are a curiosity, an entertaining site for the locals. But the comparison stops there. We have previously experienced life in villages or small towns of different countries, but China being China, a provincial town hosts an easy 7 or 8, even 9 million variably happy souls.
China
In a Tier 2 city, the locals still get very excited or very worried when they see, meet, or have to deal with a foreigner. From the shop assistants who panic a little when presenting an item, to the elderlies pointing at your glowing white legs in shorts, or the school kids who want to touch blonde hair, expect to be stared at. Put your best smile on, get your sense of humour out of your pocket, and just… improvise. Some weeks ago, a friend of mine, stared at by a whole bus while stopped at a traffic light, suddenly started blowing kisses at the intrigued locals. This certainly provoked a few smiles among the bus passengers and the other expats standing next to her.
On a more practical side, once you leave Shanghai or Beijing, everything gets a lot more complicated. Your cherished credit card becomes almost useless and when feeling ill you will be advised more often than not to get better by drinking a lot of hot water. Away, very far away from the cosmopolitan Beijing or Shanghai, this is real life, real China, you are in the water without a buoy, time for you to swim.
Live with cash. Because in most places you won’t be able to pay with your foreign card, and unless you work with a major foreign company that organises a chinese bank account and card for you, you will learn to live with cash. Some british expats we know paid their furniture cash. So did we, one piece of furniture at least. One major exception, Ikea… that’s IF the city you have moved to has an Ikea OF COURSE.
Learn to cross the street: forget red, or green. Although you are likely to be fined by the police if you cross the street when the little man is red, most cars will turn right or left when it is the turn for pedestrians to cross. Cars, bikes, and other mopeds, will come so close to you when you try and cross a major street that you will gain your first white hair. My safest place when I have to cross a main avenue is in the middle of the crowd. Very much in the middle… and if the car coming towards the crossing crowd is a taxi, and it is blowing its horn, get ready to run.
Accept curiosity: in most parts of the People Republic of China, being an expat or a tourist, you will get the attention of the locals. And the Chinese love asking questions. You don’t need to understand Chinese to know people are talking to you, and it is quite clear that they are asking you something. More often than not, your get out of jail free card is making people happy with a small detail about yourself. Ideally, tell the little girl in the shop, or the taxi driver, where you come from. Because realistically, this is most probably what they are wishing to know. I got many smiles from taxi drivers indicating my nationality, or even better, indicating the various nationalities of the expats sitting in the taxi or standing in a queue with me. If you can accompany the nationality with the name of brands of cars, you will most probably get extra points.
Eat out and take away. I have not found much that cannot be taken away in China. As the Chinese love ordering a variety of dishes to share, there are often a lot of left-overs. All restaurants will kindly wrap up the food you cannot eat. Adapting to this take away market, Pizza Hut, even Ikea’s restaurant, have boxes available to take back home your food portion. Two weeks ago, a friend who had one too many drinks in a hotel bar, had her last Margarita put away in a take away coffee cup… with the plastic lid.
The sun is your enemy… or at least the one of the Chinese. Chinese pretty girls (and the less pretty too) do not tan, do not walk, talk, or sit in the sun. Umbrellas are for the rain, sunbrellas are obviously for the sun. But so are scarves, hats, masks, or the surprising facekinis. Really, anything that will protect the face from sun rays.
Just like in Victorian England when women’s beauty was described along with the fairness of their skin, Chinese girls feel prettier when pale. If you come to live for some months, or years, in China, your favourite cosmetics will have the skin whitening formula. If you already feel pale and don’t wish to become ghostly, pack up your cosmetics from wherever you leave from, or make a short stop at the airport duty free.
A photo is worth a thousand (Chinese) words. From a photo of a street sign, to a photo of food, of your friend, or a product you are wishing to buy, or a type of drink you wish to order, a photo will very often make the request a lot easier.
Side street in Beijing

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