I am in a silly and reflective mood so I present to you 12 things I have learnt since coming to China. This is a sweeping generalization, in no particular order and meant to be taken in utmost seriousness.
Beijing is a great place, if you have not been, you should go. If you are currently stuck in a rut and are desperate for a change, come to China and work here! It’s challenging but very rewarding, you wouldn’t regret it. (*or maybe you would, I don’t know you)
Here are some things I’ve learnt as an expat in China:
Cultural overload – As an expat in Beijing you get exposed to so many different nationalities and cultures, in one evening you might meet a very concentrated version of a German, Italian, American, Mexican, Polish, Korean, Swede, Australia etc… I use the word “concentrated” because a lot of the people have only lived within their country and are deeply in-bedded within their culture. They might be passing through, or on a contract through work. It’s interesting to learn about other cultures and notice certain commonalities and differences. I love to watch people switch from language to language, or fishing for the right word, asking “what’s the word for ____?” and you having no idea because in English there is no word for that, or maybe there is but I don’t know it. I find it really endearing when people do that.
Posing for photos –I never used to make peace signs in photos but thanks to China, peace signs are my go-to pose. I noticed it has also rubbed off on my foreigner friends too. It’s easy and effortless and gives you options. Rather than a forced smile, why not throw in a peace sign to offset the fake smile? Another thing I’ve noticed is the variety in poses when I see Chinese people posing for pictures at tourist sites. While we stand together and smile, Chinese women will stretch their leg out behind them, do an elegant variety of what appears to be the slower version of the YMCA dance, sniff a flower, look hopelessly in love… they are very creative and have endless ideas. It’s also quite fun to watch.
Clouds and icy blue skies are truly beautiful – I’ve always been a big fan of clouds but I just always figured they’d always be there for me to stare at when I felt like it. Living in Beijing, the sky has a very one dimensional look, it’s either gray or gray. You rarely see large, puffy, cumulonimbus clouds perched up against a sharp blue sky, moving and forming. It’s so therapeutic to watch them as they expand and slowly break away from each other. On the days when there are clouds in the sky people are stopping the street to get a picture and Chinese social media becomes flooded with photos of the sky. I’m one of the people who stop mid-bike ride to take a picture and post on Chinese social media.
I know what it’s like to be famous – Or rather I can get a smidgen of a sense of how it would feel. This isn’t really China specific though, while growing up I lived in countries that made people cry at the color of my skin. I remember in Ghana every now and then we cleared out stuff in the house we didn’t want, threw it all in the trunk and took a family road trip to a village to give it all away. This was most euphoric feeling because they were so beyond overjoyed with even something so small as a pen, they would literally run and jump in joy. It felt like we were Santa. I remember one small village we went to, everyone slowly came out with huge white smiles against their dark skin. This little boy wanted to see what all the fuss was about and came waddling out behind his mother and looked at my family with such horror and terror he literally shook and screamed as huge tears poured down his face. I bent down to give him a pen and he battled between the sheer terror of this white horrible ghost and wanting the pen, the desire for the pen won out and he cautiously reached for it and then quickly retreated behind the hut. Everybody was laughing at this poor little boy. But in the Chinese subway or strolling down the street you occasionally get stares and people who snap photos of you in a not-so-discrete kind of way. You will also get the people who actually want to take photos with you, which I imagine is Angelina Jolie’s life on a daily basis. It’s kind of cool to feel like a celebrity every now and then.
Chinese traffic– Driving in China is a sort of artistic organized chaos. You need to learn to get in sync with the disorganization or be in Canadian-pedestrian-mode and never even so much as cross the street. When I first arrived in Beijing I got a job that was a trek from my apartment and biked to work. I would arrive to work with my pupils dilated, twitching in terror and almost a half hour late because I followed the street signs. Eventually I got it, I merged with Chinese road manners and video-gamed my way to work, listening to music and cutting people of left right and center, arriving at work right on time. When in Rome.
Phlegm spat everywhere isn’t a big deal – Watching stranger’s hork up phlegm from the pits of their soul isn’t really that gross. Just kidding, it really is and I never got used to it. I still get startled to my core when I’m in a cab, mellowed out from a joyful night with friends reflecting on happy times when I’m suddenly interrupted by my cab driver as he dramatically gathers up a wad of phlegm and leans out the window, spitting it out with such force you can hear it land. During the winter at my office I had the pleasure of listening to a symphony of my colleague’s horking up phlegm into little cups. I didn’t want to be the foreigner princess frolicking around saying “ewwww” so I stuffed my earphones in and tried my best to block it out, losing my appetite in the process.
China is on fast-forward – According to ancient legends, life in China moves at a significantly faster pace than anywhere else in the world. This is because a mysterious creature in the sky accidentally stepped on the remote control for China, hitting the fast forward button in such a way that it got stuck. Unfortunately he’s got way too much on his plate right now and hasn’t noticed it yet. I have mentioned this before many times but it really feels like China is on fast-forward, chipmunking sounding voices and all. Which is a good and bad thing, when I first came here it felt like learning to surf. Constantly falling down, adjusting, falling down, making mistakes, crying, laughing, making friends, losing friends, getting jobs, losing jobs, inhaling water… you get the point. Every now and then you land it all right and you get up and glide and it feels amazing. Then you’re hit by a wave of yet another change so you stay in the water a bit, figuring out what went wrong and then try again.
You can make, create and reinvent yourself as many times as you want – Obviously goes for anywhere in the world and is a part of being a human but I never fully realized it before now. As I mentioned before, China is in a vortex so time goes by faster than normal, which means people, things and jobs do as well. You have no other choice than to move on, learning and growing from each experience, tweaking yourself in the process. Since there are so many different experiences, there are so many things to learn from. We as humans are constantly evolving and growing. Our personalities, interests and passions are dynamic and impermanent. We don’t need to keep holding on to something because it’s been a part of us for so long. We need to shed layers, it’s a part of being human. Life is all about creating and recreating and leaving room for the new you (you go girl!). It’s actually quite cool how we hold the paintbrush to the canvas that is our life!
Wechat is the best – But I also only really ever used text messages and facebook messages before coming to China. In China, everyone has wechat, you can do everything on wechat from phone calls to voice messages to sending stickers that are perfect for those times when words just don’t suffice (which is almost all the time). If you don’t have wechat, get it.
Beijing for expats is Never never Land – As an expat in Beijing you rarely feel the cues that you would in Canada (or your home country). The Nevernever land we know in Peter Pan is the coolest, but unfortunately like all those Disney movies, it’s not realistic (in case you thought it was). It turns out, the real Never never land is in Beijing and it contains tons of alcohol and incessant partying. It can be a place that pulls you in because if you chose to, you never really need to grow up in a traditional sense. No one will tell you your drinking is out of hand because it’s a part of expat culture. You can be at a bar at 60 years old, drunk out of your head, clubbing and taking shots of tequila with 21 year olds and won’t be questioned. It’s an easy place to become unproductive and non-motivated. Alcohol is cheap and there’s always a party. It takes a bit of self-discipline to stay on track of what you really want rather than floating through life doing what’s easy, predictable, comfortable and bad for your liver. As the wise Cheshire cat once said, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
Always take pictures – This is a personal motto for me, and I have always been avid photo-taker, but being in China allows me to embrace my photography nerd and go crazy on taking pictures on whatever the hell I want. I sometimes held myself back before in fear of annoying others, I know it occasionally annoyed some friends when I’d over-do it on the photos (when alcohol is involved I tend to go overboard). I realize that sometimes being overly eager to take photos can reduce your ability to enjoy the moment for what it is, and because of that I also have learned to counteract my photo frenzy by sitting back, taking a mental note and being a part of the moment. If anything I think it helps me to savor the moment even more so. Also, without photos memories are much more difficult to recall. Your memories are constantly reconstructed each time you think of them. I read an article that said, “we tend to experience memories like little movie clips that play back in your minds causing us to believe they are stored in entirety and never change. But memories aren’t movie clips that are stored in the brain like files on a hard drive. They are nerve pathways that are firing anew each time we remember the event.” So each time you think of back on something, it changes slightly and gets altered by each new experiences. Taking photos helps to keep you on track just a little more. Also, how much fun is it to look through old photos? So much fun.