In one of my recent pieces of Chinese homework I wrote the following sentence: 你是否幸福取决在于你对问题所做出的反应，而不在于问题本身。It translates to: ‘your happiness depends on how you react to a problem, not on the problem itself’.
The homework involved writing a list of sentences, each containing one of the new grammar structures for that week. This was just one of the sentences I had come up with. I barely gave it a second thought: it was just a grammar exercise; I was undoubtedly tired and had a long list of other structures to use. However, in the lead up to last week’s midterm exams, I looked back at my work from this semester and stumbled across this sentence. It couldn’t be of a more fitting sentiment given everything that we’re facing at the moment. There is little that we can do to change the situation, but how we react to it is our own responsibility and the main determiner of our emotions during this time. Whether that be through keeping productive and achieving goals that had always been put off due to the hectic lives that we normally live, or through simply appreciating the small pleasures of daily life.
There are so many lists floating around the internet giving tips on ‘how to stay positive’ or ‘how to be productive’ and there is no need for me to create one of my own, especially since I have been the epitome of unproductive and really struggled to maintain an optimistic attitude myself. Instead, I’m going to create a different kind of list of my own. For a while it has been painful to look back on my photos and memories from China and as a result have avoided doing so. They should be a fantastic reminder of all the amazing experiences that I had but for too long they have instead been a reminder of all the experiences I am missing out on due to my much earlier than expected return to England. I’m fully aware of how ridiculously selfish a mindset this is and I’m slowly shaking it off, replacing it instead with gratitude that I am safe and well with so many memories to look back on. Therefore, I have decided to take my own advice, focus on the positive, and list some of my favourite quirks of daily life in China or ‘China-isms’ that I now miss so much but are also the basis of some of my incredible memories that I am beginning to enjoy reminiscing over again.
To start on a practical note, Wechat is the backbone of life in China and scanning QR codes characterized my daily life more so than using chopsticks or even speaking Chinese. It is China’s all-encompassing social media platform used to do pretty much everything from keeping in touch with everyone and anyone (including my teachers, friendly locals I met on the bus and even ‘Bruce Lee’ – a strange man who I once met on the metro and still sends multiple messages a day wishing me a good night sleep, asking if I have a boyfriend and various others that I would struggle to categorize) to booking flights, ordering takeaway and paying in shops and restaurants. Thanks to WeChat, everything was just so easy!
As much as I ended up loving WeChat, we started off on the wrong foot and initially had a rocky relationship. I was locked out of my account 4 times during my first 6 weeks in China, apparently for a combination of harassment and being too friendly.
Once locked out, getting unlocked is a mission and a half, requiring verification from someone who has had their account for over 6 months and not verified anyone else recently. Since everyone I knew had only just made their own accounts, a saviour was hard to come by. On one occasion this even required my Dad finding a South African who lived in Shanghai on a ‘Shanghai Expats’ Facebook group (my own Facebook access was limited due to the ‘Great Firewall’) who then rang me at 3am whilst I was on a night out in order to help me unblock my account.
I am pleased to report that I have since had an 8-month long spell without any hiccups, although due to the teething problems at the start of the year, I will forever be on their blacklist and therefore unable to ever verify or unblock anyone myself. This is potentially a blessing in disguise given how complicated the unblocking process is – I can rest easy that I won’t ever have to get involved.
I discovered a particular benefit of China’s reliance on smartphones and QR codes just a couple of hours into our 7-hour train journey to Xi’An. Just after the train moved off again after its stop in Nanjing, a member of train staff brought a bag of McDonalds to the family across the aisle from us. We couldn’t believe it, what amazing place did we live in that did McDonalds deliveries direct to your train seat?! Considering we had boarded the train hungover at 8 in the morning, a fat McDonalds was exactly what we needed and we endeavoured to work out exactly how we could make it a reality. It turned out to be a feature of a particular app, accessed through scanning a QR code on the back of the seat in front. Once navigating the entirely Chinese app, it displayed all of the upcoming stations that a takeaway meal could board the train and their expected time of arrival to your seat. We ordered both a McDonalds and a KFC which then boarded the train at the city of Zhengzhou and made for a massive morale boost 5 and a half hours into the journey.
Takeaways can be ordered at the ‘scan of a QR code’ in various settings of life in China. However, compared to the chaos of communicating with the delivery driver when ordering McDonalds to the student dorms, or Rory’s experience of having his Taco Bell order literally thrown over the 5 meter high gates, being served directly at our train seats stands out as a definite China highlight!
Despite the obvious benefits of the ease with which takeaways can be ordered, my favourite use of the QR code was ‘Hello Bike’. ‘Hello Bike’ is just one of the various share bike systems found in cities across China, akin to our own ‘Boris Bikes’ although much, much better! The bikes can be found anywhere and everywhere at the edge of the pavement, and so you never have to walk more than a few dozen meters to find one to use, likewise they can be dropped off absolutely anywhere making them the perfect way to get around. Cycling is a massive aspect of Chinese daily life, particularly in Shanghai – the city is perfectly designed for it and every single road is lined with cycle lanes (bizarrely, moped riders still preferred to use the pavement). Access to the bikes is also crazy cheap, I payed (am also still paying because I can’t work out how to cancel my membership) the equivalent of less than £2 a month for unlimited access.
Whilst cycling to class, or sitting in someone else’s basket as we rode from one bar to another on a night out, I would often think to myself how much I was going to miss the bikes once I was back in the UK and I can confirm I definitely do!
Hangover breakfast, lunch on the go, afternoon snack, dessert on the walk back from dinner: all perfect excuses to make a trip to CoCo or 一点点. Over 4 months, I developed a bit of an addiction to milk tea and made decent progress in working my way through the entire CoCo menu. Since moving home, I’ve even tried my hand at making it myself in order to curb the craving.
It is generally understood that China is the origin of tea and it has been a huge part of Chinese culture for thousands of years – so much so that in my first ever Chinese lesson in Exeter my teacher organised our own tea ceremony in order to learn about the symbolism behind drinking tea. China’s tea culture has evolved from that of traditional ceremonies and into that of takeaway plastic cups and straws but it is as prevalent as ever.
Where a British highstreet may have 3 or 4 different coffeeshops, perhaps a Costa, a Starbucks and a couple of independent cafes, streets in Chinese cities are littered with bubble tea shops at a similar frequency. The 20 minute walk from the student dorms to my nearest metro stop would take me past 3 CoCos, 2 一点点 shops, 2 Happy Lemons, and at least 6 other shops that I can think of off the top of my head – one of which had a massive sign in the window saying, ‘Tea is Great’.
I couldn’t agree more, tea in China is great! (Especially in its current, much sweeter and milkier form.)
Alcohol in Shanghai is either notoriously cheap or in excess of London prices. This means that you are often either paying over £10 for a vodka lemonade, albeit with a view of the Bund, or nothing at all for a watered down, lukewarm version inside one of the city’s many EDM clubs, courtesy of a WeChat promoter.
The maddest thing about alcohol in China is the prevalence of 白酒，a 56% spirit which can market for as cheap as £1.50 per litre. The picture below shows 5 litre bottles of the stuff being sold in Walmart for 78元, equivalent to just under £9. I took this picture when Caitlin and I were looking to buy our Christmas Day drinks and needless to say, it was definitely a good decision that we instead bought a taste from home in a bottle of Baileys and Captain Morgan’s.
I started this post with the hope of delving into some of my favourite memories from China and using them to recall the small pleasures of Chinese life that contributed to making them so great. Ultimately I’m unsure as to whether or not my experience of alcohol in China necessarily added to my ‘memories’ but it’s still definitely worth a mention!
Put simply, Taobao is the online shopping experience that Amazon or Ebay could only aspire to be.
Before moving to China, I had never heard of Taobao and even after my friends began raving about it, I was initially reluctant to begin using it myself. I was partially put off by the queue that would form outside the university gates each evening of people waiting to collect their parcels from where they were dumped in a pile on the pavement, and partially concerned that I would fall into the Taobao trap, spending all my scholarship money on cheap clothes and rubbish that I absolutely did not need.
After finally reaching the end of my ability to put up with my ridiculous sheet that fell of my bed every single night, I gave in to the calls of Taobao and ordered a fitted sheet. The whole process was so much easier than I had anticipated (thanks to QR codes again) and didn’t actually involve rummaging around in a pile of parcels on the street – soon I was hooked.
Taobao has everything that you could ever want or need and so, so much more at ridiculously low prices. The range of products that you wouldn’t ever need definitely exceeds the range that you would ever actively search for and so much of their appeal is simply due to the fact that they exist in the first place. Below are some of the strangest items I found whilst doing some Christmas shopping and a huge part of me regrets not taking full advantage of the strange range of products on offer. I feel as though any of them would have been a more apt souvenir to remind me of China than the traditionally decorated ornaments that I did come home with.
Speaking of apt souvenirs, a surprising nuance of Chinese culture, is the country’s obsession with Peppa Pig. Bizarrely it is only Peppa Pig that the Chinese seem to be interested in and the rest of the cartoon world barely get a look in.
These souvenirs were all for sale at a market in Xi’An: the ancient capital of China; a city drenched in history dating back thousands of years and home to the world famous Terracotta Warriors. Spending a weekend exploring such a fascinating city and visiting what is considered to be the eighth wonder of the world before coming away with only a Peppa Pig themed harmonica (Caitlin’s souvenir of choice) to show for it seemed strange but summed up China perfectly.
Squat Toilets Practicalities
The overriding theme of life in China is that there are often solutions to problems before you even know that they exist. Many of these problems are those that we in the West are not accustomed to and therefore encounter unprepared. An example that stands out in particular are the problems surrounding squat toilets – a phenomenon rarely met in the West but difficult to avoid in China. They are far from the most pleasant of experiences but rest assured, the particular problem of ‘where to put your phone whilst using a squat toilet’ is something that the Chinese have thought of.
This post has taken a while to put together because I still find looking back at my time in China difficult and shifting my attitude has not been easy. I hope that continuing to document my 6 months in Asia by writing about it in this way will not only paint a positive picture of life in China and its people, but also help to maintain my own positive attitude.
My blog has recently been added to the ‘Top 100 China Blogs’ directory linked below. Check it out for a list of other brilliant blogs, to find out more about the amazing things that life and travel in China can offer.
Also check out my 好朋友 （good friend）Layla’s most recent post explaining why visiting China should definitely feature on your post-lockdown bucket list!