I’ve really struggled to write this post. I’ve procrastinated. Oh how I’ve procrastinated…sometimes choosing washing and window-cleaning over writing! Yes. I know. 🙄
It’s just that – how do you sum up two years in this place? How do I describe my feelings without giving you the usual spiel about crazy drivers, squat toilets and constant fireworks erupting into the morning sky?
Whilst there probably hasn’t been a day go by in these last two years where I haven’t thought, “What the heck are we doing here?!” – the ancient city of Xi’an, for all its complexities and challenges has become my home away from home, tucked in the middle of the world’s most populous country.
This ‘experience’ that we’ve had (and survived) has been beyond even my wildest imagination.
I often see pretty, no – make that ‘stunning’ pictures of my old, beloved home towns, Sydney and Hong Kong – on social media – and yearn for their beauty and comfort.
But for all their pull, I still wouldn’t swap this journey for all the tea in China. (I know, I’ve used that line before, ironically as the title for my first blog post and two year anniversary in Hong Kong! Want to read it? Here it is.)
Of course, the daily obstacles are at best, annoying! At worst, ‘crazy pulling hair out’ inducing!
The necessity to stock up, when I’m out of town, with enough medication for any medical emergency that may crop up is constantly exasperating. (Thank goodness for friends who happily share their drugs when you forget an essential item!)
The inability to use anything remotely technical (like a computer) with the simple push of a button, torments me. The fortnightly bouts of nausea from food, water, lack of hygiene, or whatever it may be – drains me. The impossibility to find a hairdresser who colours blonde hair or someone to wax my unruly eyebrows and so forth in a city of 9 million frustrates me.
My incapability to decipher a full conversation in mandarin after studying the language consistently for two years pains me, as it does the hotelier (and many other expat workers) along with their daily frustrations at managing businesses conducted in a way that is generally foreign to us.
The layers of bureaucracy for something as simple as buying groceries or getting a visa both amuse and perplex me. My lack of independence at being unable to drive bothers me and the mental muscle that’s required just to go for a coffee can be exhausting.
Winter’s harsh pollution can get you down… and the constant flow of expat friends trailing out of our lives saddens us.
Yet for all of these challenges, I have found myself richer in the knowledge and experience of a culture that is far removed from my own. (Not to mention given my sense of humour an incredible work out!) 😉
China is a country that is evolving like no other country on the planet. No nation has ever risen as quickly or modernised as rapidly in human history as the Middle Kingdom, that is China.
I know we’re witnessing a truly fascinating time in history.
For all of its economic glory, constant progression and seemingly infallible growth, Zhong Guo (China) is still a developing country.
As I try to capture this moment in time for my upcoming book and speak to many locals and expats on the ground, I’m learning so much about these people who are known by many in the western world for little more than their uncouth behaviour when travelling overseas and a soaring economy that is currently only second behind the United States.
But it is a country that until just a little over 30 years ago was utterly entrenched in poverty, having endured decades of chaos. While most people had a job, they had little money and basic commodities were scarce. In the late seventies a sign of wealth was having the so called “four big things” – a bike, a radio, a sewing machine and a watch.
The People’s Republic of China is run by the Communist Party of China and has been for more than 60 years and while there’s been unprecedented change, tradition runs deep.
There is still an authoritarian rule from above that commands its people under a banner of glowing media headlines that constantly sing China’s praises.
Most people have an overly-inflated view of their home country, which is possibly not a bad thing because the country appears united in its love for ZhongGuo.
Most are oblivious to the perils of the Great Fire Wall and insist they are happy to have one party in power. Anything more and there’s a grave fear the country will fall into chaos and disunity.
With a 5000 year history firmly etched in their minds, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who can’t recite a famous line from one of China’s ancient dynasties or rattle off a centuries old poem and you’ll be just as hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe in the powers of warm water.
Chairman Mao who infamously ruled China from 1949 to 1978 is generally hailed a hero, despite the atrocities during his reign. His face appears on China’s currency and pictures and statues are easily identifiable around the country. His legend lives on.
Education is the lifeblood of Chinese. This nation’s children live and breathe it from the moment they are born until they finish university. In a country of 1.4 billion, it’s considered the only way to get ahead.
Despite being the factory floor of the world and churning out almost every product known to mankind, China’s own shop floor is lacking in goods. All is not lost though because almost every one is a mad ‘Taobao’ shopper. An online eBay equivalent, where you can order almost anything you could dream of and at a fraction of the cost. Little Tuk Tuks race all over the city, piled high with parcels to deliver!
Despite having more universities than you can count, many who train medical students from all over the world and develop groundbreaking medical practices, the standard of healthcare outside the first tier cities is questionable by western expectations. Some doctors still smoke in hospital corridors, hygiene is debatable and most women have little knowledge about life saving procedures like pap smears.
The one child policy has recently been relaxed but abortions at very late stages are still taking place, legally. Busses proudly display large signs advertising the best place to get one. “Don’t feel bad if you are pregnant by accident. Easy to solve if you choose wisely.”
The gay and lesbian community is largely underground….(at least in most cities outside the capital). It was only in 2001 when homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in China.
And political correctness isn’t really a ‘thing’ yet, (as you may have noticed on a recent China Air travel magazine doing the rounds on social media).
The gap between the rich and poor is ever increasing…. there is an elite group of Rolls Royce driving, cigar smoking, designer bag-wielding patriots who rule the masses, but overall most of China’s people are still living below the poverty line. But, there’s a but… in their minds they are rich. What they all have now compared to just a few decades ago, when most people could not eat much more than scraps is insurmountable.
And it shows. These people are fiercely proud.
Family is everything….oh and food! Chinese don’t greet you with how are you? If anything it’s “Chi le ma?” Have you eaten?
When they are younger, grandparents take care of their grandchildren full-time, while parents work – often having them live with them. That is a given.
The very elderly are automatically taken care of by their children, usually living under the same roof and that is also non negotiable.
Society still believes that women should be married by the age of 27 or they’ll be tarnished as ‘leftover’ women. Thankfully, despite the ongoing pressure, most of the young women I know aren’t buying into this anymore!
China’s other relationship is with ‘Guanxi’ (which translates as ‘relationship or connections’) and is otherwise known as giving money and gifts to solve everything and anything. Guanxi is ingrained in society from the bottom up, in almost every aspect of life.
Currently, health and Safety is largely an after thought. Whilst many thousands of years ago this country built things to last for many thousands of years — today they live only for tomorrow.
China has admittedly for all intents and purposes been so busy building itself from scratch to become a viable country, it’s only now that it seems they have time to turn around and reflect. Time to start educating the masses on etiquette, hygiene and manners and time to start caring for the environment. You can appreciate, it’s a mammoth task. How do you educate over a billion people?
For all of its discrepancies, China is a country where it’s (mostly) safe to walk down the streets at night, people are always happy to help you (unless you are injured and they will steer clear for fear of being held liable) and are often as friendly (and curious) as a new puppy.
As much as they admittedly talk in circles and it’s often hard to know what they’re really thinking, we’ve been lucky enough to witness their kindheartedness firsthand and make some special friends.
From acupuncturists who make me lunch, to hairdressers who take me for coffee, waitresses who look after my small person and locals who’ve brought me soup when I’ve been sick. To locals who’ve translated for doctors when my child’s been sick, translated for me many times, at all hours of the day and night and given us gifts beyond their means. People who’ve basically helped us adjust to life in a foreign country.
There is an enduring innocence, in a place where Tai Chi, Calligraphy and Mahjong are still the hobbies of the day. Most have never travelled overseas (only six per cent have a passport) but as the country grows along with people’s individual wealth, they are now starting to embrace their newfound wings.
This is nation of people who are emerging like butterflies from a cocoon, ready to fly….
But you can rest assured, they will always come back to their nest.
Two years in, this is what I know now.
This is China.