Having the great Chinese adventure

By Matt Doran (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2007-07-05 15:52

Prior to my departure earlier this year for what was supposed to be a mere four months in China, my friends questioned whether I'd be homesick, whether I'd have culture shock, and whether I'd be kissing the ground when I returned home in May.

Thing is, I never went home in May. After a month studying Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) in Haidian District, I decided four months just wasn't enough, and re-applied for the fall semester. In between, I'm working full-time for Chinadaily.com.cn and living in an apartment that my boss helped me find, in the northern reaches of Chaoyang District.

And, five months into my China experience, I'm happy to report that there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

That's because the last few months have been some of the best I've ever had - I've had a stronger dose of independence and adventure since I got here than I'd experienced yet in the States, and I love it.

When you move to a place without speaking a single word of the language, every day and every little routine aspect of your life becomes an adventure, as you try to grope your way blindly through the various situations that would be rote in the States.

Riding the bus somewhere? All well and good, provided I can figure out which bus I need to be on. Recently, a co-worker's husband kindly pointed out the bus I needed to get over to BFSU from my apartment. He got the bus number right, but unfortunately guided me in the wrong direction. I ended up somewhere past the Fifth Ring Road, on a dirt road in the middle of an orchard, near the bus depot when we reached the end of the line. I probably should have realized earlier that I needed to get off and go the opposite direction, but it was an adventure, and I saw a new part of the city that otherwise I'd have missed. Then there's the constant adventure of trying to feed myself. Back near BFSU, there's a cornucopia of small, cheap restaurants and street food vendors catering to hungry and hard up for cash students. In my new neighborhood, no such luck. My room-mate and I spent two solid days unsuccessfully combing the neighborhood for a new eatery to call "The Food Spot."

"The Food Spot" is basically a restaurant that college-age guys go to pretty much everyday for a quick, cheap and filling meal. It's usually a mom-and-pop operation, the wait staff know what you're going to order every time, and you get to fill your stomach without emptying your wallet.

I lost 10 pounds before my room-mate finally found "The Spot" last week, at an outdoor food court in front of a supermarket just a minute's walk from our apartment. For just a few kuai, we can get all of our favorites: fried noodles, fried rice, and jiaozi (dumplings).

A lot of Westerners get their rear-ends kicked by China; they can't handle the linguistic and cultural barriers, the pollution, the spitting, the apparent inability of Chinese people to ever line up for anything, and the sometimes less-than-efficient manner in which tasks are handled. I figure if I wanted to avoid those sorts of hassles, then I could have stayed in America, and what fun would that have been?

If we're in an asylum, and many of my fellow ex-pats think we are, then I've taken a "can't beat'em, might as well join 'em," approach, and joined the inmates, turning weaknesses into strengths.

The language barrier? It actually provides a nice layer of insulation from the swarming crowds of the city; being the dumb foreigner actually helps get a lot of things done with minimum hassle.

The spitting thing? Hey, if the Chinese think Americans don't know how to hock a loogie, they'll think again when I let one fly on the sidewalk. If they can do it, I can do it.

Lining up, or rather not lining up, is my favorite part. Why? Because I'm bigger than 99 percent of the Chinese people I've ever seen! Who's going to get in my way if I want to be the first onto the bus? Me or The guy who's 5 feet tall and weighs 100 pounds? For the first week or so, I was always getting shoved aside by tiny old ladies, but I finally learned that you have to be aggressive, and now I will not hesitate to drop the hammer if someone cuts in front of me.

And that's the key to a great China experience: don't fight the insanity, but rather, revel in it. What a great country.

Matt Doran is a polisher for Chinadaily.com.cn.


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