China! It’s the country on everybody’s lips. The topical talking point on the global table.
But aside from being home to the world’s biggest economy, what is it really like living in one of the 654 cities, outside of Beijing or Shanghai?
Ask anyone who’s lived in the megalopolis that is China and they’ll tell you (surprisingly) that every city is different, really different.
Xi’an is commonly known as a second-tier city. Even though around 200 Chinese cities have more than one million people, the only first-tier cities are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – largely due to their size, economic development, infrastructure and cultural significance.
I’ve only been here four months, but what I’ve witnessed so far (as a foreigner) is a city with a fascinating fusion of sheltered innocence and simplicity perched on the edge of aggressive progression.
For me, it’s both intriguingly exciting and at times, scarily confronting….(if not a little mind boggling and mind blowing)!
It may be 2015, but here in Xi’an, North West China, people are still smoking like it’s 1975.
In what is most likely a win for smokers (but perhaps not for the rest of the population), smoking inside is still a perfectly normal pastime, even though it was banned a few years ago.
Bars, lobbies, restaurants and often toilets are peppered with people inhaling and exhaling with vigor. I’ve even seen a bus driver lighting up on the school run.
There are no road rules. Crash helmets are not critical, in fact they are not even considered… and the more bodies squeezed onto the back of a bike, the merrier. Traffic for the most part is manic and let’s just say you could be forgiven for thinking some driver’s licenses were retrieved in the bottom of a cereal box. For more on this read School Run in China.
Kids, forget about singing to the tune of “Let it Go” – the temperatures might be on the chilly side up north but it’s not cold enough in town for ‘Frozen,’ yet.
You won’t find Peppa Pig jumping in muddy puddles or the latest episode of Disney movie, Planes buzzing through the cinemas. Super heroes like Batman and Spiderman are not required here. Barbie is still queen of the toy kingdom and Mickey and Minnie are still prince and princess of Disney. Even old faithful, Winnie the Pooh is met with a puzzled look from locals.
Roller blades reign supreme….kites are a fashionable mode of fun for kids and the good old Rubick’s Cube is making a popular comeback…or perhaps it’s yet to be solved in this part of the world.
Forget about leaving a message on somebody’s mobile phone, voice mail simply doesn’t exist. Receive a missed call and the etiquette is you’ll call right back – ASAP.
The mobile app What’s App doesn’t get a mention up here, but We Chat is where it’s at. A cross between Facebook and What’s App everyone and anyone is on this app.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are banned but Weibo and Baidu take their place.
Internet is patchy and compared to the western world, notoriously slow, but the only people you’ll find complaining are the pesky foreigners!
You won’t see people glued to their phone on the streets (just as well because cars are driven on the footpath, so it’s important to keep your wits about you)!
You will find Samsung’s US$7 billion semiconductor plant on the city’s outskirts (the single biggest inbound investment on the mainland) along with one of the largest aviation industry manufacturers in China; not to mention 50-plus universities.
That said there are pharmacies dedicated solely to medication. Rows upon rows, boxes upon boxes bearing Chinese labels are yours for the taking, including antibiotics sans prescription.
On the other hand, finding good old fashioned Vicks, Panadol and cold & flu tablets is a task in itself. Got a stomach bug? Rehydration drinks are yet to be flavored. Hydralite who?
Retail shops and giant shopping malls are definitely in abundance – but just because almost everything is “made in China” doesn’t mean it’s here on the shelves. I wrote this post on that!
It’s back to the basics when it comes to stocking up on cosmetics and toiletries in supermarkets. Dental hygiene is clearly priority, with rows and rows (and rows) of toothpaste and toothbrushes up for grabs; along with a plethora of shampoos and soap!
Forget about anything more advanced in the beauty department. Hairspray (at least more than one or two brands), hair product, face wipes and makeup brands are still minimal.
Exposure to the western world is coming, slowly but surely – with some global brands like Starbucks, McDonalds (as recently as five years ago), KFC, Haagen Dazs and designer clothing stores like Gucci, Hugo Boss and those famous high street stores H & M and Zara making themselves heard, but for the most part, Xi’an is still a city in ‘big brand’ lockdown…
With counterfeit culprits on every corner, every cashier you meet will scan your notes through a machine to ensure it’s the genuine thing! When it comes to using credit cards, most places will only take Chinese credit cards.
The local fare in Xi’an, is generally a mixture of the spicy, meaty and a little greasy.
Shaanxi noodles are a hot favorite and every Chinese meal inevitably ends with a big bowl of these thick noodles, (of which it is considered highly rude not to finish). The province’s famous Han Bao Bao is a tasty version of the western hamburger using a pita bread type bun to sandwich a pork filling. Pigs brain, lungs, ear; lamb’s stomach, sheep’s blood (need I go on)…is all perfectly normal fodder for a dinner date. Let’s just say nothing is off limits or left to the imagination.
Western staples like cheese, bread, butter, chocolate (yes, I call this a staple), pasta, sauces, herbs etc are available (through stealth investigation) but don’t expect to get more than one or possibly two brands to make your selection from.
When it comes to alcohol around here, it’s all about Baijiu. This is China’s infamous 60 per cent proof liquid you could be forgiven for thinking was the elixir of youth or the toast of the town! It’s been brewed for thousands of years and even today at every business or formal gathering, guests must individually toast the host with a shot of Baijiu… and the host must return the favour with everyone (which can make for a very tipsy host indeed – just ask my husband). More on that here!
Taste buds are evolving with red wine or “Hongjiu” starting to make its presence felt, but tradition dies hard, locals still preferring to scull it in small shot glass sizes over lunch or dinner.
Outside of five star establishments, here in Xi’an, white wine is still to make a name for itself and (much to my disappointment) not to be found on too many beverage lists.
In this nation of tea lovers, coffee has only recently come into play and quirky “cafes” are springing up around the city bearing menus with Mocha, Cappuccinos and Lattes, but by and large don’t expect low fat milk, that stuff is for the faint hearted. It’s full cream or go home.
Recycling is yet to make a name for itself, in fact it’s non existent.
The pollution can be every bit as bad as you hear and masks are as much of an accessory as a hat and gloves. You can see it, smell it and taste it. Alternatively (and strangely) it can disappear as quickly as you can click your fingers, making way for crystal clear blue skies and sparkly sunshine.
Despite a burgeoning population of 8.5 million people, Xi’an is a city where daily life still remains relatively simple.
A city where the past and present is rapidly colliding, creating a culture that shyly teeters on the edge of change. One foot in, one foot out – it’s tradition versus modernity with every step.
This is life in an ancient Chinese city.