Kaye Holland - a former laowai (foreigner) in China - loved her time in China but there were a few things she doesn’t miss...
Being a vegetarian
Good luck being a veggie in China: even seemingly innocuous tofu and celery offerings sold in 7-Eleven and the like have actually been cooked in a meat stock. And I lost count of how many times I ordered so called ‘vegetarian dishes’ only to find, as I poked my chopsticks around, some meat in the middle of my mi fan (rice).
China was a dynamic place to call home, but it wasn’t a healthy one by any means –thanks to the widespread pollution caused by the 1,000 new cars that take to the roads on a daily basis. Subsequently despite sporting a pollution mask that makes me look like Michael Jackson, I still managed to succumb to the China cough – a hacking, lung ripping cough that left me gasping for breath. On occasions, the thick brown stuff was so severe that Beijing International airport was forced to close. Make no mistake, the severity of the smog can’t be denied: lung cancer rate in the Chinese capital has risen by 60 percent (despite a decrease in the number of smokers) over the last decade.
The Chinese are passionate about Baiju - a grain-based distillate, whose principle base is sorghum. It’s China’s national drink but it evokes a mixed response among expats. Much like marmite, some love it and others hate it. I fell into the latter camp. I must have had hundreds of sips of the spirit - that’s often referred to as the white lady - but I never managed to acquire a taste for the tipple. So what does it taste like? Unlike anything you've ever had before… Firewater would be a polite way of describing China's homegrown alcoholic spirit. Alas if you’re living and working in China, you’ll find yourself forced to take part in a Baiju show (read necking the stuff at networking events and business meetings) on a weekly basis. It’s considered rude to refuse...
Hitting a (highlights) wall
Pre China, I was a perfectly passable enhanced blonde with a head of top notch, regularly replenished highlights. During my time in the Middle Kingdom, my hair was invariably the colour of custard. Is it possible to achieve a glossy Grace Kelly shade of blonde in Beijing? Having tried out around 30 salons between us, myself and friends (and fellow blondes) Em and Amanda would answer: no. The prevailing hair colour hierarchy in China is brown whereas blonde, by comparison, is toxic: it’s time consuming, costly and invariably catastrophic.
China’s trains and subway systems are fantastic and put the London Underground to shame. It’s planes? Not so much. Make no mistake: all planes get delayed in China. I don’t think I ever departed on a flight that left at its 'scheduled' time. If and when your flight does eventually take off, expect an entertaining ride: the Chinese will ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ every time air turbulence occurs. At the end of the journey once the plane has touched down on tarmac, your Chinese flying companions will break out into relieved applause before rushing down the aisles so as to be first off the flight.
Planning on travelling to China? Plan on seeing and hearing a hell of a lot of spitting. There have been government campaigns to curb spitting since the 80s but to no avail: the older generation of Chinese simply don’t consider spitting to be rude or impolite. I 'got' that spitting was acceptable form of public behaviour in China but I never got used to hearing that horrendous hocking sound - aka an alarm bell that someone is about to spit.
Banking in China
Banking in China is a big headache. Forget online banking, every single little transaction has to be done in person at a particular branch. Want to open a bank account? That’s done at one branch. Need to charge up your electricity card? Off to another bank you go. Looking to transfer money home? Good luck with that one - Chinese officials will try their damnedest to make sure that your Rénmínbì remains in the Middle Kingdom. Regardless of which bank you visit and why, you’ll be told to take a number (much like going for a blood test in Blighty) and then join a queue snaking out the door. If you’re lucky, approximately two hours later* you’ll finally get to the front of the glass window where the teller will demand to see your passport, pay slips, bank cards and millions of other documents before cheekily charging you a fee for dealing with your request.
*Tip: it doesn’t matter whether you visit first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, the banks are invariably always busy. Apart from at lunch time: at 12 midday on the dot, everyone - customers and staff alike - disappear to chi fan (eat).
Can you imagine living in a world without Facebook? In China, that’s a daily reality. Turns out I not only survived, but positively thrived sans Facebook (not spending spare time checking out pictures of peoples' holidays or new houses or torturing yourself tracking your ex's every move is a wonderful thing). However having to purchase and then fire up VPN every time you want to access a ‘proper’ news website? Arghhhh! And I definitely don’t miss having to always access the internet via a cable modem (nobody at China Unicom - China’s only Internet company - knew how to set up a wireless router in my apartment.) And emails that ‘magically’ disappeared from my inbox...
To read what Kaye misses most about the Middle Kingdom, please click here