One of my delightful blog readers said she’d love to hear about a typical day in my life, here in China. While I’ve rattled on about various expat experiences, I’ve probably tried to spare you the gory details of my day to day trivialities!
And at the risk of boring you all to tears, mostly my days are not too dissimilar to those I might have back at home.
Still, visitors always ask me, “What do you do all day, here in this mad city?”
Well, in a nutshell, I take my daughter to and from school, I work, I do chores, I have coffee, I shop! The usual!
But wait! Before you hit delete…. there’s (probably) more!
Yes, admittedly, there are a few little challenges/hiccups/weird ‘China moments’ in between that run of the mill stuff.
A year in, for much of it, I don’t bat an eyelid…
Perhaps this is my new normal? I’ll let you be the judge.
Instead of a day in the life, here’s what a “typical” week might look like in the middle of China!
Brace myself for the mad school run! These days most drivers we have (which is whoever happens to be available from the hotel, where we live) don’t speak any English. Like nada!
This means there’s a lot of nodding, smiling and charades. But at 7:50am, charades can be a bit much so it’s with a ‘Nihao’ we roar off along Xi’an’s roads, swarming with erratic morning traffic. Ava is strapped into her car seat, but it’s not compulsory. (She could be sitting on the roof for all they care….Yes really!)
Depending on the driver, I’m either listening to blaring talkback radio in Chinese (at least it sounds like it to my oblivious ears), Country and Western (in English) or some big tunes from seventies rock stars like The Eagles! (Don’t ask me about the latest hits……Ed Sheeran who?) Or it’s radio silence…just the cacophony of horns to hum along to, with the odd crackling of random fire crackers to break up the relentless screeching of horns.
40 minutes later, (at least) 20 near misses with various busses, bikes and trikes (a few expletives under my breath later) and we arrive at school. (For more on what it’s like...you can read this post!)
We stumble out of the car and weave our way through cars coming in all directions to cross the road to school. (In the early days we could be stuck there for who knows how long! I now (smugly) feel quite accomplished at crossing the road.) The security guard at the gate greets us with a big, smiling ‘Zao Shang Hao’ (Good Morning) and we roll in to what is one of Xi’an’s three international schools. Ironically most of the foreigners here, happen to be teachers and their kids (and make up a large portion of my new found friends).
Ava’s school is an International Baccalaureate school with students made up largely of Koreans and Chinese and then about two dozen or so are westerners from England to America, Europe the Middle East and beyond.
At the entrance, a board tells us the temp for the day and the all important pollution levels. If its over 200, it means the kids won’t be playing outside. For most of the spring/summer months it’s low and we don’t think about it too much. Come winter, it’s a different story. Coal powered heaters are fired up across town and it’s a speedy run through the chilled winter air, up to our necks in puffer jackets, scarves and masks, ready to do battle with a smoggy environment.
A year in China and it’s time for a visa renewal run, so that we can stay another year! (If we so wish). Thank God, we are not required to go through the
ridiculous rigorous medical we were subjected to last year! (Read about that debacle here.) Nope this is just a quick sit down in front of a camera for a photo and a very smiley (please let us stay) ‘Nihao’ to the lady, who it seems has the power to push this through very quickly IF we give the right look (and enough cash).
Without the hotel’s HR person to fill in countless forms and visit several different departments, we would be utterly lost! No two ways about it. There is zero English spoken in any of these departments.
I head to school with Ava while the hotelier hails a cab and tells the driver where to take him in Chinese! (A proud moment in itself!)
This afternoon, it’s time for my Chinese lesson, which usually fills me with a mix of both dread and determination. I pick Ava up from school (aka drag her kicking and screaming from the playground) to make the slightly less chaotic afternoon run home.
The driver is asleep as we approach….it seems in China they will take every opportunity for a quick snooze. I have to knock on the window and probably scare the living daylights out of him!
Home (well, to the hotel’s business centre where I have my 1.5 hour lesson) and my Lao shi (teacher) meets us in the hotel lobby (while our Chinese Bao mu (babysitter) who also works in the hotel restaurant, takes Ava (which usually involves too many cupcakes, barbies and some Chinese singing for an hour or two)!
This afternoon we are learning the ins and outs of a house…furniture, computers, washing machines….upstairs, downstairs, front gardens…..I inhale yet another coffee to keep me focussed……
International day at school means everyone’s dressing in their local costume and bringing dishes from all over the world. Small Person is dressed as an Australian cow girl in her Akubra.
Most days after school, I let her play for half an hour in the playground with the other kids who aren’t taking the bus (most do, many of them as young as three). I’m always intrigued by the myriad of different languages that buzz around me while I wait.
It’s interesting to see how birds of a feather flock together. Most of the Chinese parents huddle together in one corner, the Koreans in the other, and the rest of the westerners hang about….(usually waiting for the inevitable scream of a child galloping through the playground in tears of either joy or the ‘someone’s just pushed me’ variety…). The lack of mingling is largely due to the language barrier…
That said, for the Small Person, having children in her class that don’t speak English is perfectly normal and inspiringly, no obstacle to their communication.
There is a huge Korean population in Xi’an due to Samsung having its largest plant outside of Korea, here. Many of my neighbours are Korean and many of Small Person’s classmates are Korean. There’s even a Little Korea Town, where I’ve just enjoyed my first authentic Korean BBQ.
Tonight, I arrive home to a new addition to the house! We have a new lounge! I didn’t ask for it, but it’s all part of the original ‘hotel residence’ plans that went on hold. Now it’s finished, I’m not complaining. But this construction site on my balcony means I’ve had many random strangers hanging outside my home day in, day out for several months, now. Sometimes they are sleeping, often they are spitting, shouting and smoking and occasionally they are eating lunch or dinner with their families (on my outdoor table) as the sun sets! Nice for some!
We (excitedly) have visitors in town all the way from the Land Down Under…and today I accompany them to see the famous Muslim Quarter. It’s Golden Week, so crowds are even more mammoth than usual. We inch through the chaos, shoulder to shoulder. Bikes loaded sky high try to defy the law of nature and squeeze through the solid crowds (hopefully without running over someone’s toes)! Our visitors’ eyes have that boggled look that says, “Get me the hell out of here!” Today smoke is thick in our faces from so much street food being sizzled and seared…. we escape down a side alley way to the Great Mosque entrance for some tranquility….and breathe.
After a wander around, the big question: If it’s not street food, where to eat? We decide, with five kids in tow, Maccas is a good option. For a start they have toilets. The line though is out the door. With a long day ahead, we have no choice but to wait almost an hour in the queue – the only white people being eye-balled up and down by rather amused locals. A few are game to take photos and attempt to snuggle into our small people. There’s a good reason my first words learnt in Mandarin were “Please don’t touch her!”
We pray there is a western style toilet at our destination, but at the end of the line we find three terribly messy (and believe you me, this is being polite) squat toilets …even better with doors that don’t lock and keep swinging open revealing all and sundry! (Those revealed, don’t seem to mind)!
We decide to
grimace grin and bear it and I attempt to give my visitors a quick lesson in the art of squatting, whilst wearing jeans and boots! There’s a lot of shrieking and giggling amongst the undeniable horror!
Chant the mantra:
It’s the Australian Football Grand Final….our expat friends invite us over for a good ole Aussie shindig. How can we refuse!! Of course the number of Aussies in town is few and far between so we rally in the Americans and the English as well (who stare blankly at the fast paced game of footy) and we chow down on some homemade Aussie pies. A non-baker I’m usually the one bearing the cheese platter and wine (also because living in a hotel I’m fortunate to have access to some decent cheese!).
Later and we’ve agreed to meet some newbies in town. An american couple (readers of this blog) have been asked to come on secondment to Xi’an. They are keen to get the lowdown. I try not to scare them too much as they sit with us not knowing whether to laugh or cry, gripping their glass of wine just a little too tightly. (I remember the feeling, well!)
We’ve signed up (or rather my lovely husband signed me up) for a Charity Run as part of the Starwood Hotels ‘Run to Give’ campaign. I am not really a runner, so the fact that we are up early and standing on Xi’an’s ancient city wall on a Saturday morning ready to race around it is in itself quite baffling, but admittedly quite a stunning start to the day! There’s a huge turnout, the sky is unusually blue with not much hint of pollution and it’s warm. As I huff and puff my way around the wall built thousands of years ago, looking at the red Chinese lanterns swinging in the morning light, I wonder how I got here.
A friend’s birthday means we are all going for Chinese Hot Pot, which is an extremely popular outing in much of China. This time we are given our own little pots, which sit just to the left of us on hotplates hidden under the table. Once they are bubbling, you add your fresh meat, noodles and cook yourself. (Note to self: don’t put phone on table near hot plate!)
The hotel is on high alert today, the red carpet has been rolled out (literally)! Despite Xi’an’s location (seemingly in the middle of nowhere), we seem to get a lot of VIP’s popping in. (Indian PM, former US President Jimmy Carter.) Today it’s the Russian Deputy PM along with China’s Deputy. (Both women I might add!) Police have closed off roads around the hotel and seem to be hanging everywhere! A mobile scanner is set up outside the hotel for bags and for a brief period no one is allowed in or out. The hotelier is running around like a chook with his head cut off….(nothing new there) and the grand ballroom is fit for a king!
Later I manage to escape from the hotel to get to the hairdresser for a blow-dry. I can’t mention my typical week in China without mentioning this place. It is a place that has both intimidated and invigorated me over the last 12 months. For a start only one of the dozen staff can speak any English…so over the year there has been a lot of staring at me – repeat, a lot! Thankfully as time goes on we are all becoming more comfortable with one another. I am no longer the foreign species on the block to be prodded and poked.
My visit is not your typical visit to a hairdresser where it’s all about the endless flow of coffee, head massages and trashy magazines. Sadly, there are none of these luxuries….instead, I am given a full immersion into Chinese, whether I like it or not.
My Chinese book is ogled by the locals, keen to see what this strange foreigner is learning….I am made to repeat the words out loud…and conversation is mostly in Chinese. (Which whilst at the time leaves me feeling like I’ve been dragged through a bush backwards is ultimately invaluable.)
This week I’ve been shopping and my excited bevy of onlookers want to know what the crazy lady has in the bags. For a brief moment (again) I feel like I am on another planet ….and then I hear Madonna’s ‘Get into the Groove’ playing across the salon and I smile to myself. You see, I know the words! It’s the one moment in which I have the upper hand in an otherwise alien environment.
I walk home to get ready for the afternoon school run…. I see a mum holding her child over a drain, for the toilet…..someone else is squatting down low on the side of the road eating their lunch (who needs a seat), street carts are parked on every corner bearing all sorts of indecipherable goodies, cars ride along pavements, their horns honking…. and people are generally shouting at each other (all in the name of normal conversation).
Of course, the rest of my week I can be found at my desk, writing, working….doing chores…just like any other working mum.
A week in my life….all fairly normal stuff.
Or is it?
I don’t really know anymore.
This is China.
*Note: I may take creative license with the actual days and times of said events.