So, it’s almost three weeks into this “journey” and I’ve had some time to exhale and gradually ease myself into life in China.
Ahhhh ‘Life in China’ — even saying it out loud feels like a strange out of body experience.
Me? In China?! How did that happen?
I’m rediscovering that adjusting to a new city is by no means a quick process. For me, it’s about slowly ticking the boxes, finding a routine of some description and getting used to the surroundings.
In Xi’an, our immediate surroundings are by no means alien; a plush 5-Star hotel, leafy green streets, trendy cafes, bars and big shopping centres….all seemingly normal things, found in many parts of the world, right?
But it’s the little things that jolt you back into reality. Did somebody say NO chocolate?!
‘Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ (Care packages welcome.)
Yes, the little things…for a start, cars are driving on the wrong side of the road! Now, that I can cope with…but they are also driving all over the road, not to mention on the footpath! (Yes, you can imagine the less robust pathways are in a constant state of repair.)
There are no rules, or so it seems! If there are, they are of the unspoken variety. It’s perfectly ok to cut across four lanes of traffic without so much as a flick of the indicator, or heaven forbid even the slightest pressure on the break. Drivers obliviously weave in and out from one lane to the next, all the while incessantly beeping (which in itself is enough to cause a small migraine, let alone the narrow misses and heart failing site of cars coming directly at you)!
It’s fair to say the one road rule that does apply, is ‘whoever’s biggest gets right of way,’ and that includes pedestrians.
You know those little green pedestrian lights – usually people or signs that say ‘walk’ or ‘cross’? — they differ in every country but generally it’s universal for ‘you may cross safely, cars will stop.’
But not here.
Here, you take your life in your own hands.
Bikes, cars, trucks, busses and tuk tuks – will just keep on coming without slowing down (not even a little). In fact if you’re in the way, you’re likely to get a rather filthy look and a shake of the head.
Miss A is learning relatively fast to proceed with caution in any public space! (Explaining to a small person why the cars don’t stop when they should is a little challenging.)
To add to the rather hairy situation, motorcyclists don’t wear crash helmets, like ever. And it’s a mode of transport that more often than not applies the “kid sandwich” theory.
Dad on the front, mum on the back and junior in the middle…or juniors!
I am impressed though, with their nifty raincoats and umbrellas attached like mini tents for those wet and wild days.
Speaking of the weather, there’s the little fact that the sky is more often than not a hazy shade of grey. Of course having lived in Hong Kong for four years, I am used to 50 shades, but here the pollution, brings a slightly more consistent shade to the mix.
Having teased my British husband for being the eternal weather optimist for years (Him: “I can see a small patch of blue sky in the far, far east…there, can’t you see it??!” Me: “NO, it’s raining!”) I now find myself desperately throwing open the blinds each morning, looking up and searching, squinting, scanning the sky, for a more favourable shade of blue-grey. To Xi’an’s credit, we have had some beautiful summer days I must admit, to keep me sane. (Whistles tune “Always look on the bright side of life…..”)
What the weather lacks in colour, the city’s architecture certainly makes up for.
Oriental and ornate, rooftops are classically Chinese traditional styles and Xi’an is not short on stunning monuments, to gaze at in admiration. The city is vibrantly lit up with red lanterns and there is a genuine love affair with giant LED screens.
For the most part there are no English signs, that’s zero, zilch! Unless the retailers are going for the quirky “look I have hip English store name” that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – (but of course that’s not the point).
What these shopping centres may lack in Gweilo-friendly fare, they certainly make up for in kid friendly fun!
There are more ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ style ‘fun centres’ than any parent could dare to hope for. (For the record, I have discovered Zara, H & M and Starbucks, so I am essentially able to survive, despite the distinct lack of good chocolate and Mint Mochas!)
Fun centres and chocolate aside, there is however, the small problem of bathroom visits, which with a three year old, come far more often than I’d like and naturally at the most inopportune moments. I’m used to hightailing it to the nearest loo, but even when you make it in time, the challenge is not over.
The ever present ‘squat toilets’ occupy most shopping centres and public places. (Note to self and anyone visiting: never leave home sans tissues.) Squatting is clearly an art one must master and one I’m not all that keen on getting the hang of… but, I fear we have little choice round these parts. Good for the thighs they say!
Anywhere in a public space, the level of staring is at best intense….I am now empathizing with Brangelina as I walk the streets, acutely aware there are pairs of curious eyes everywhere giving us the once over. (Who needs Hollywood!)
The number of photos taken/asked for is slightly overwhelming….
Mostly they want a piece of mini blondie and it usually evolves like a scene from The Bodyguard – me at close range, sizing up the crowds for any sneaky phones pointing in our direction and fending off over excited locals who can’t help themselves from reaching out to pinch Ava’s white chubby cheeks or twirl that long golden hair.
Anyone requesting photos is told to ask the celebrity herself and if she says no, then the red carpet is unfortunately not rolled out.
Then there are the children who are literally thrown at Ava, their parents desperate to hear little Johnny or Jill rattle of his or her newly learned English. Say “Hello!!” they implore (the poor child often anything but keen to drape her arms around a child she’s never laid eyes on). The parents unwilling to lose this photo opportunity, smile through clenched teeth, refusing to leave the scene until child cooperates and much wanted picture is captured.
And all this, just on our way to coffee!
Thankfully they are generally friendly and (provided we’re not in a hurry) we can manage the paparazzi – but I can’t help but notice the tiny toddler fact that many of them are wearing pants with the bottoms cut out! (FYI – that’s toddlers not parents.) Ah yes, you might guess what comes next…apparently it makes for easy toilet access….. I can’t quite grasp the concept but it appears to be a popular one.
I guess there’s nothing to say but, bottoms up!
After all…This is China.