Come August, I will have been in Asia for one year. My life will never be the same again.
What’s it like for a BGN in this part of the world? Well, I can tell you this: I get stared at A LOT, and the natives sneak pictures of me on the sly. Sometimes, the stares come with smiles; other times, it’s just outright shock. This is typical for a lot of the older Chinese, as many of them may never have laid eyes on a black person before. I always smile and say hello, because if I am their first, I need it to be a positive experience.
My hair is practically a rock star. I wear it big and curly, and of course, people want to know what it feels like. After making it clear that I would slap the snot out of anyone who just randomly reached for my head, I’ve had no problems with strangers trying to touch my hair. But they stare in amazement.
Mind you, it isn’t the natives who attempt to touch my hair; it’s my White co-workers.
Learning my way around has been (and still is) an experience. I have a Metro card and every fifth vehicle is a taxi, so transportation isn’t a problem. I don’t know nearly enough Chinese to give directions to where I want to go, but fortunately taxi cards exist for almost every place people want to journey to. Since my job is so time-consuming, I’ve not taken the time to explore the city at my leisure, which is why I elected to remain here for summer vacation. This city is full of interesting places to go and things to see, and now I have time to explore.
My diet has changed. I don’t eat fast food anymore, and don’t consume not nearly as much processed food. I drink a lot of tea. I can get fresh fruit anytime I want from the fruit hustler on the corner, Mr. Dong Peng. There are wet markets in walking distance where one can purchase fresh meat and vegetables and fruit…but beware, because you’re likely to see meat products that you won’t find at Kroger, Publix or Whole foods…such as whole turtles, live chickens and ducks, and parts of the pig you’d rather not see. Some of the wet markets smell…and I avoid those.
Typical expats travel with backpacks and shopping carts, as it costs extra to get plastic bags for groceries. Refrigerators are a third the size of a standard US fridge, and you have to buy groceries every few days because the food doesn’t contain preservatives. I have become proficient at using chopsticks, as that’s the only utensil you get at a lot of regular restaurants. Some foods I’ve come to love are egg pancakes, hotpot, dumplings (fried and steamed), mangosteen, pomelo, ramen* and dragonfruit. Street food is something you have to be ready to try, and by “ready,” I mean updated on hepatitis shots and probiotics on deck. The reason for this is because the food is prepared and served right there on the street, on a food cart or table…and there are no sinks, bathrooms, or porta-potties available. But the food is simply amazing, and cheeeeeaaap.
*Ramen over here is the real freaking deal; none of that 10 for $1.00 Maruchan crap that we all ate in college.
As I no longer have to drive, I walk a whole lot more than I used to. A standard city block is 1 square kilometer. Walking down the street is always an event, because the sidewalks are littered with vendors who sell everything from flowers to clothing to movies, dishes, headphones, and food. Fresh juice is squeezed on the side of the road: pomegranate, mango, pineapple, coconut, but it isn’t served cold for obvious reasons.
You’re liable to see large groups of women dancing and doing tai chi. You will see parents and grandparents out playing with the kids. The mandatory retirement age here is 64, and since many senior citizens are still hale and healthy at that age, there’s not much for them to do if they’re no longer working. So if they have grandchildren, they’re responsible for them while the parents go to work. And it is delightful to see them out with the children. Children actually play outside over here; they’re all over, running, skating, cycling, or scooting…and laughing. Family is extremely important over here.
I am safer here than I was in the States. If I wanted to take a walk at 2 a.m., I could do so with no worries. No one will bother me. I have friends who have admitted to leaving bars dead drunk with no clear idea of how they got home…but it was safely. You can’t play those kinds of games in the States, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve begun reading books by Chinese authors: Nien Cheng and Xu Lei, to name a couple. I’m absorbing nuances of the culture via these words and they’re finding their way into my writing. Even though my command of the spoken language is pathetic, I’m actually learning how to read the pinyin with the help of a great book: Chineasy. I’m up to recognizing 15 characters and understanding the basics of how phrases are formed. Good stuff.
I have two indulgences: the Fabric Market (because I can have anything I want made, and usually great quality…also cheap) and the massage parlor across the street. A 90-minute massage is all of $50, and a 90-minute foot massage is $25. It’s like…how do you not take advantage of such cheap deals? And the masseurs are fantastic and fairly enthusiastic.
This country is the knockoff capital of the world. You can get some quality knockoffs for the cheap, but you have to know where to go and who to see. I get my purses from “Junny,” my Beats by Dre from “Linda and Helen,” my watches from “Peter,” and my glasses from “Marc.” All of these individuals were vetted by other expats who’ve shopped at their stores, and the rule is once you bring a friend, you get the “friend” price. Haggling for prices is serious over here, but it isn’t something I’m good at. I really don’t have time to go back and forth; if I want the item, I just pay for it, and if I don’t, I just leave. Some of my friends live for haggling with the store owners, as it is a time-honored practice.
I’ve got another year on my contract, and as of right now, I don’t know if I’ll remain in China beyond that. The air is ridiculously bad, and there are two seasons: the wet and the dry, and the dry season is hotter than the seventh layer of hell. It’s so hot that I’ve seen Satan having a Corona at the Mexican restaurant on the corner. And it’s not that I’m unused to hot weather; I grew up in the South…it’s the oppressive humid heat combined with the pollution that makes one seriously consider moving on. I have one air filter and am about to purchase another one. They’re terribly expensive, but worthwhile. Whenever I go to place with breathable air, it takes a day for my lungs to clear; until them, I’m coughing so hard and so much, you’d think I have cancer.
So there it is, a summary of my first year as an expat. What I can tell you is that, barring some majorly significant event or circumstance, I have no plans to return stateside to live. Visit, yes…live, no. There’s so much world to see and experience, and I’m going to use this opportunity to see as much of it as I can. Traveling around Asia is cheap and I’d be a fool if I didn’t take advantage.
If you find yourself with an opportunity to live or travel abroad, by all means do so. My life experience just got 1000X richer, and I wouldn’t trade the past 11 months for anything in this world.
Featured image from: http://mldiaries.com/