Oh, China!

Daily life in China can be strange, infuriating, illogical and altogether baffling. “Oh, China!” is sometimes the only thing that can be said.

This is the only possible response when there is no obvious feasible explanation for peoples’ behaviour, someone’s choice of outfit, events, plans, constructions, signposts… the list goes on. Essentially, everything is done in a distinctly Chinese way and reflects modern Chinese life. What more can you expect of one of the largest countries in the world?

This utterance is already becoming a stock reaction to things that surprise me; it’s trend reflecting my life in Beijing. I say it almost everyday, and I feel like this is only going to increase as I experience more of this insane city. It’s a way to acknowledge the differences I notice and to appreciate how each piece of the puzzle informs my understanding of the Chinese mindset. Plus it’s the best way of turning something potentially frustrating into something humorous… a sense of humour feels vital for survival in Beijing.


  1. All foreigners have go through a basic health check early in their stay (required for the residency permit application), which involves queuing for hours, proving your identity, and paying for the privilege before it’s even begun! Once you’ve stated you don’t need extra tests for HIV, malaria and other serious diseases, you queue outside room after room for your tests. They test your sight, blood pressure, height and weight, take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound of your organs. It’s pretty disconcerting, being herded from one test to the next and not having any communication with the doctors and nurses. They clearly do this same thing every day and have no need to communicate beyond “lie down” or “press” (after taking the blood sample), but it certainly made me feel like I was in some strange sci-fi world where foreigners were treated like cattle.
  1. Though Ikea is essentially the same everywhere, there’s a different cultural significance to it here. An Ikea trip is a social outing for the Chinese, many of whom dress up for the occasion, scouting out ideas for their own homes (nowhere else in China would you find design ideas laid out like this). Others sit or lie down to take long naps on the beds and sofas for as long as they like. One can almost imagine a Chinese couple going to the Ikea cafeteria on a date.
  1. Chinese shops don’t seem to sell ANY fresh milk (in bottles, cartons or bags). I bought two bags of UHT milk the day I arrived (which tastes rather less than desirable in English-style tea). My attempts to replenish the stock with fresh milk resulted in a large stock of 3 types of yoghurt (one huge bottle, several small bags and the yoghurt pots I actually MEANT to buy) and one bottle of flavoured milk. I’ve given up and gone back to UHT.
  1. A lot of men have VERY long nails. Mostly on the little finger and fourth finger, rarely on all five fingers. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands. It’s not really popular among Northern Chinese (Beijingers) because it’s not a farming area, nor an area known for it’s factories, but Southerners still grow their nails to reflect their escape from farm work (probably the family business). Many of the images I’ve seen of the imperial family show them with nails about five inches long.
  1. There are public toilets all over the place. A lot of bars and restaurants, particularly those in the Hutongs (old, traditional-style streets with elaborate tiled roofs and walled courtyards) don’t have loos. Public toilets are kept pretty clean and are all squatters for the most part, many don’t have cubicles or even dividers, they often don’t have hand-washing facilities and none have loo paper or soap. If you’re prepared for it (and able to set privacy aside) they’re brilliantly convenient.
  1. There really are bicycles EVERYWHERE, going in both directions, carrying an assortment of people, animals and belongings. I’ve seen some hilarious bike and motorcycle riders thus far, the most memorable being a woman in high heels and a short, tight, shiny silver dress, whose dog was sitting between her feet on the motorbike and poking his head around her leg to get a better view. Cyclists don’t usually ride on the roads – most of the roads are several lanes wide but have a partition between the road and the bus-motorbike-cycle lane. As a cyclist, the only time you come into contact with cars is at the huge junctions, where bikes and motorbikes wait and cross with the pedestrians. Bells and horns are used A LOT, mainly as notifications of “I’m here and coming past” than an aggressive “move out of my way”. Most people don’t lock their bikes when they leave them (hardly anyone locks their bike TO anything – there are no railings actually designed for the purpose), so there are rows and rows of bikes left standing, and thus loads of bike theft.
  1. Every year on October 1st, China takes a holiday for National Day. This year, as part of the attempt to elongate the holiday by as many days as possible, we were required to work the Sunday preceding the holiday and the Saturday after it. This enabled us to have a full 7 days off work, without having to miss a full week’s classes. However, there’s no standard timetabling for weekends, because we don’t usually teach then. As is often the case in China, the announcement (and probably the decision) regarding which day’s classes we’d teach when, was left until the very last minute. When, finally, it was announced, we discovered we’d be teaching Monday classes on Sunday 28th and again on Monday 29th. It was like living the same day two days in a row. And for some reason, I decided to teach Groundhog Day… which meant I watched the film 4 times in 48 hours. Perhaps the Chinese insanity I describe is affecting me more than I thought.

Oh, China!


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