Ahead of Chinese New Year next month, Kaye Holland – a former laowai (foreigner) in China – reveals what she misses most about the Middle Kingdom
In China, English is most definitely a foreign language – I found myself using gestures and smiles to interact with people 24/7. Patience testing? Yes but for me, China embodied everything I love about living and working in another country: namely new experiences and the challenge of trying to comprehend them. And I was warmly befriended by Chinese compatriots, most of whom had grown up without a sibling – a legacy of China’s stringent one child policy.
Beihing and Shanghai may dominate the headlines, but there’s more to China than its big cities. I loved leaving the skyscrapers and luxurious Luis Vuitton stores behind and venturing into the countryside for intimate glimpse into the lives of locals. I’d see old men and women sitting on the floor playing mah jong, while grandmothers gossiped and chewed the fat over endless cups of tea in rural villages where electricity remained a luxury. But to really tune into the China vibe, I’d start my day by practising Thai Chi in a park which – for most of China’s population of 1.4 billion people – are a place to socialise, relax and stay fit.
Want to party like a local and not a laowai? Head to a karaoke bar (aka KTV) to belt out Britney, Bon Jovi, Lady Gaga and the like. Westerners might see it as an odd way to relax and unwind, but once you pick up the mic and play air guitar, you’ll soon discover that it’s actually a whole heap of fun! KTV bars abound all over China so wherever you, you’ll find somewhere to sing. Prices for room hire vary according to time (as a rule, the earlier you go the cheaper it is) but as rule of thumb, expect to pay around 120RMB per room, per hour in a big city like Beijing.
The subway system in China is fantastic! For one thing, it costs about 2RMB (20p) to go ANYWHERE in the city. Not only is it cheap, it’s clean, easy to use and on time. Make no mistake: you’ll never “be held at a “red signal” in China (Transport for London: please take note!). China’s efficient public transportation system made meeting friends so much easier. Speaking of mates, I met like minded people (it’s a certain kind of person that ‘chooses’ China) such as Em, Geraldine, Amanda, Lis, Katharina and Fernando, all of whom have become firm friends for life.
China is chock full of modern shopping malls, but if – like me – you think that sounds too much like civilisation make for a market, where industrious bootleggers will happily test your conscience by offering DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters long before they hit the big screens for RMB12 (approximately £1.20). Here (provided you’re prepared to haggle hard), you can pick up a pair of shoes plus a cute skirt and work shirt for the price of a pizza. Today in London when my friends ask me where my clothes are from, the answer is invariably always: China.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
In China I learned that, despite what I had been brought up to believe in Britain, the most effective cure for complaints isn’t always to be found on the shelves of the pharmacy but within ourselves – and would now always seek an alternative to drug therapy. True TCM isn’t an ideal medical system – certainly it has its limitations in treating serious illnesses that can be seen on a scan - but when it comes to chronic illnesses, it’s a miracle worker! Now whenever I succumb to a cold or a case of the flue, I don’t pump myself full of chemicals. Rather I turn to TCM having discovered, in the words of Mao Zedong, what a “great treasure” this ancient system of medicine truly is…
Chances are “chi fan” (let’s eat), is the phrase you’ll hear most often in China. On almost any street corner, you’ll find food stalls and vendors selling street nosh like noodles, jiaozi (steamed dumplings) and my own personal favourite, egg based jianbing. This sweet, salty and crunchy ‘Chinese crepe’ – a bargain at just 5RMB (50p) – had me practically keeling over in bliss.
Feeling like a celeb
If like me you are/were a laowai (foreigner) who looks nothing like a local, prepare to be stopped by people wanting to take your picture (I suspect I’m on the Instagram feeds of thousands of giggly, teenage Chinese girls). Everytime they whipped out their iPhones to take pictures of the unusual looking creature with the cropped platinum ‘do, I felt – albeit fleetingly – like a Hollywood A lister! Of course not every laowai likes the constant ‘staring and snapping’. Me? I loved it!