Thursday, August 27, 2015

No burping or farting in the store!

tourists at the Forbidden City, photo by Kim W
One thing I've noticed during the ten years I've lived in China, Chinese people love to travel. As the economy has grown, allowing more and more people have disposable income, the number of Chinese travelers has risen markedly. Domestic tourism is a huge industry in China, and I find that the Chinese tourist industry does a lot to cater to their countrymen, while surrounding countries go out of their way to cater to foreign travelers. Catering to foreign tourists usually means have English signage, English-speaking tour guides, and pizza on the menu. But in many places, that's changing. More and more countries are implementing tactics to attract Chinese travelers and their money. Hot drinking water, free tea, noodles for breakfast, and luxury shopping excursions along with Chinese-language menus and signs, it's all becoming the new standard in many travel hot spots.

But how do people feel about this new influx of Chinese tourists? The feelings seemed to be mixed. Some welcome them with open arms, as they appreciate the money Chinese tourists spend while on holiday. Others are annoyed, unable or unwilling to understand Chinese habits. I can speak to this firsthand, as I'm often mistaken as a Chinese tourist due to my last name. When I check-in to my accommodation, I am often met with interesting comments. One time, in Indonesia, I arrived at my guesthouse and the owner looked at me.

"Your name's Zhao, but your not Chinese?" she puzzled.

"No, I'm not, but my husband is," I explained.

"Well, I'm glad you're not. Those Chinese, they make such a mess, and sometimes they even bring rice cookers and use them in their rooms," she lamented.

I was a bit offended on behalf of all Chinese, not to mention I had just told her that my husband was Chinese. I realize there was some truth to what she said, after having run a hostel myself, I know that Chinese people generally leave a room messier than guests from many other countries. But I felt torn. How much do we expect foreign guests and tourists to bend to our standard when visiting our city or country? And how much should we cater to them as they spend their hard-earned cash and help fuel our local tourist industry and economy?

I was discussing this with one of my Chinese friends recently. She lives in Germany, so she is used to seeing the world from two different perspective's--as a person who grew up in China, but has spent much of her adult life in the west. I told her about a picture that I saw posted on WeChat. It was taken at a German shop and listed a number of rules, clearly directed at Chinese visitors. I've translated it into English below:
list of rules for Chinese tourists

Please don't eat or drink in the store!
The store is not a rest stop!
Please don't clip your nails in the store!
Please don't use toothpicks in the store!
Please don't spit in the store!
We politely refuse to haggle, but you can have receipt for duty free!
Please don't talk loudly, in order to avoid disrupting other customers shopping.
Please, no burping or farting in the store!

We both agreed that this was over-the-top and a tad offensive. I can understand asking customers not to eat and drink in the shop and I think posting a sign not to spit is, unfortunately, still a needed reminder for many older Chinese tourists. But I so rarely see Chinese people using toothpicks (especially outside of a restaurant) or hear them letting one rip in public (elderly men excluded), I don't think it needs saying. If I were Chinese and saw such a sign, I think I would kindly move on to the next shop.

What do you think? Do you try to adapt your habits to local culture when on vacation? Do you think we should afford some leeway to how foreign guests act when they visit our country?

Monday, August 24, 2015

China: What I'll miss about you

As of last week the date is set and flight is booked, the flight that will take me back to the US. . . permanently. The reality of the situation hasn't fully hit me yet. In truth, I've been desperate to move back to my home country for awhile, since William was born or perhaps even before. It's hard to remember exactly.

I know returning will be challenging. I've read blogs about it. I've had friends who have done it, who shared their stories of reverse culture shock, their struggles to reestablish themselves in a place that is familiar yet. . . yet not. After being away for awhile, the place you once knew so well, the place you may have called home most of your life, seems a bit foreign.

With the exception of my time in college, my entire adult life has been spent in China. Ten years. And now it's quickly coming to a close and I don't know how to feel about it. I want to enjoy my last weeks here, while at the same time just wanting them to be over with. I am ready, so ready, to move on with my life. But I know I will one day, perhaps one day very soon, I will miss China. I once wrote a post detailing the reasons I want to leave, but today I will write about what I will miss, reasons that I may have liked to stay.

always something going on on the sidewalk
1. The hustle and bustle (or what is known in Chinese as rènào) 
Chinese people love rènào and many of those who come to settle in the US lament on how quite and empty it can be. Even when I visit downtown Chicago, I am taken aback by how little is going on during the (work)day. Sometimes I struggle with crowds and noise that comes with living in China, but I think I've come to appreciate it in some ways.

 2. Attitudes toward cross-race marriage and biracial children
Compared to many countries, China is incredibly accepting of mixed race couples and children. That's not to say some people don't take issue with it, especially when it occurs withing their own family, but I think Chinese society as a whole is more open to it than Americans. Thanks to our little "mixed blood" ("hùnxuě" as biracial people are usually called in Chinese), we face a constant barrage of admirers whenever we are out and about. While it can be overwhelming, it is also sweet that people take a positive interest in our cross-culturally family.  P.S. Check out Ruby Ronin, who writes an enlightening post about her experiences as a biracial woman living in both Japan and China.

local small business
3. Endless possibility
If you are business-minded (I'm not, though getting better), China is ripe with opportunity. This is the place where rags to riches stories happen, where a good idea or the right connections can turn you into a millionaire overnight. With the rise of the Chinese middle class, there's also a market for many items and services that could only cater to a niche market a decade ago. In Chengde, western-style cafes and photography studios are popping up everywhere. Locals are taking an interest in foreign foods. Everyone with even the smallest amount of disposable income is planning a vacation. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, this is the place to be. I may have tapped into that side of my personality a little late, but perhaps there could still be another business venture in my future....

4. Language
While I sometimes missing the ease of being surrounded by my native tongue, I have totally fallen in love with Mandarin. Sometimes while looking walking home, I look around and marvel at all the Chinese characters that surround me--a system of writing that once seemed so exotic, so impossible to learn. The fact that I can now read it still surprises me. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would study Chinese. I don't know if I could have ever succeeded without being totally immersed in the language and I don't know how I will continue (my life long goal of fluency) being away from it.

Jiuzhaigou, China 2013
5. Travel
Of course, my love of travel is what brought me to China in the first place. For those who love adventure, Asia is a great place to be. It's diverse and generally very affordable. I am sad that I may never again visit southeast Asia and disappointed that I never made it to Nepal or Korea. But I did make it to many other wonderful places. Some of my favorites include my fist solo trip within China, to Guilin and Yangshuo in 2005. I also (in hindsight) loved the very intense trip I took to India in 2010 and my crazy adventures in Sumatra a few years ago. Next frontier? North (and one day South) America. This fall I am planning to visit friends in Texas and New Jersey.

6. Safety
Safety means different things to different people. The kind of safety I'm talking about is the ability to walk down the street alone after dusk as a woman. I have that in China. While the ability to cross the street without the fear of getting rundown by an Audi still alludes me, I've long come to terms that I may meet my maker under the wheels of a speeding Chinese motorist. With only three weeks in China left, it seems I may make it out of the country unscathed. Fingers crossed.

7. Food
my m-i-l making dumplings
Chinese people are incredibly proud of their cuisine and tout it as the most diverse in the world. Let me let you in on a little secret: Chinese food is actually not my favorite. While American food holds a lackluster reputation internationally, I swear we are not all Big Macs and hot dogs. You can find a variety of cuisines pretty much anywhere in the US and in larger cities, your options are endless and often very authentic. Unfortunately, I've had pretty crappy luck finding decent Chinese restaurants in my hometown and even the good one (tipping my hat to you Emperor of China) is nothing like what we'd eat in China. I'll miss zongzi and Peking duck. I'll crave shuǐ zhǔ ròupiàn real kungpao chicken. But at least both my husband and I are able to cook many popular Chinese dishes and my mother-in-law makes excellent dumplings.

Have you ever missed the things you left behind when moving from one place to another? How did you cope?


Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Interview on the Love Blender

Chengde, 2014

I follow several blogs, most of them by women who live and date in Asia. One of my favorites is The Love Blender which is written by an Italian woman, Marghini, who is an interior designer (and it shows, her blog is very pleasing to the eye!) who has lived as an expat in a number of country. Marghini's blog chronicles her life and experiences abroad, as well as dating cross-culturally. Recently, she is featuring a series on expat women and asked me to partake in an interview. You can check it out here!

Do you follow many blogs? Which one is your favorite?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Crazy $h!t that's Happened to me in Asia: Vietnam edition

I was looking through my Facebook profile and found some old "notes" (a now defunct feature on the site). This is one such note that made it on Facebook and never on my blog. It dates back to June 2008 and details yet another crazy incident that I experienced while traveling in Asia. I'm not sure if this one is more terrifying or less terrifying than being taking hostage by an orangutan. I'll let you decide!
Ho Chi Minh Statue, downtown Saigon, 2008
In Vietnam, they have this sweet little deal offered by most traveler cafes--the open bus ticket. With this ticket, for a mere US$27, you can get from Saigon in the far south all the way to Hanoi in the far north. In other words, you can travel from Vietnam's bottom to top (or top to bottom, if you prefer), which consists of some 1300 miles. You are also allowed to make stops in cities along the way. This is a fantastic price, but it leaves you at the mercy of the travel cafe and what bus they put you on.

All the way to Hue, my second to last stop, I'd been lucky. All my buses had been comfortable sleeper buses with working air-con. When I went to confirm my departure for Hanoi (my final destination) at the travel cafe in Hue, the agent tried to bully me into upgrading to a sleeper bus. My ticket was only for a sitting bus. This had happened to me once before. I had declined the sleeper bus, not wanting to shell out an extra five bucks for it. Turned out, they still put me on the sleeper bus. I was wise on their tricks. . . I would stick to my sitting bus ticket and wait for my (free) upgrade.

I was told to come back at 5:30 pm the next day and my bus would pick me up at the cafe. When that time rolled around I was feeling pretty confident, just waiting for my big, flashy sleeper bus to pull up. Instead a decrepit looking sitting bus came.

"You go Hanoi? Sitting bus? Here!" The agent motioned to me.

I looked around at the other foreigners waiting in the cafe. None of them moved. I was the only idiot who hadn't upgraded. Ah, well.
Minh Mang Tomb, near Hue, 2008
I boarded the bus, which was air-conditioned. So far, so good. It was already about a third full, but I found a window seat near the back. Window seats are essential. Great for their scenery and their head support. If luck was somehow on my side, the bus wouldn't fill and I'd get two seats to myself. Luck was not on my side though. Surely you could have guessed that much by now. A young Vietnamese woman and her small child ended up sitting next to me. They even gave people little plastic chairs to sit in the aisle. The bus was well past capacity.

By 7pm it was dark and I could no longer enjoy gazing out the window. I listened to my iPod while the young Vietnamese woman rested her head on my shoulder and her little boys legs sprawled across my lap. Personal space. . . not important. I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after ten.

I was awoken, quite suddenly by screams. Everyone on the bus was screaming and our bus was suddenly on a 40 degree angle. Oh my God, I am going to die. I am going to die with a Vietnamese woman and her son. I hugged them. The bus is going to roll over and explode. I am going to die alone in Vietnam. This cannot be happening. With my impeding death predicted, the bus came to a stop--though still at a precarious angle. I was scared to look out the window. Perhaps we were hanging off a cliff. I was at the back of the bus; I'd never make it out before we plunged to our death. I looked out the window. A field. Never have I felt such relief. We were only in a ditch, not dangling over a ledge. 

me at the Citadel, Hue, 2008
I waited for the bus to unload a bit and finally made my way to the front, shaking. The entire windshield was cracked. Did we hit someone? I was really in no mood to see the bloody corpse of a motorbike driver. I turned to exit and found the entire door and steps leading out were mangled. I managed to step through the debris and got out. I surveyed the damage. The bus had managed to go over the guardrail, into the ditch, and then came to the stop with the help of the electric pole we hit. The front tires were now gone, as well as much of the paneling from the side of the bus. What had happened?

Well, there was no one to ask. I was the only foreigner on the bus; the rest of the passengers were Vietnamese. Vietnamese who couldn't speak English. I had to come to my own conclusion on the matter--my guess is that the driver fell asleep.

Now there was the matter of getting my bag and getting to Hanoi. I motioned frantically to people standing around. "I need my bag, it's under the bus!" I pantomimed. People just shook their heads. No, No, No. I had to get my bag. Everything was in my bag. Most of my money (what was I thinking?) and all my clothes. Do you realize how difficult for a girl my size, or anyone over a size 2, to find clothes that fit in Asia? My clothes are nearly priceless! I would not leave the side of the bus until I got my bag. I would camp out all night in rural Vietnam if I had to. I was getting that bag! 

lantern kiosk, Hoian, 2008
I was nearly in tears. But crying in public is incredibly faux pas in Asia. I had to keep it together. I would ask one more time about my bag. I tugged on the sleeve of one man and did my pantomime. I pretending to be carrying a heavy backpack and then frantically pointed to the side of the bus, where the luggage was stowed. The man motioned for me to go to the other side of the bus. I went around to find them unloaded everyone's stuff. Everything was going to be okay! I was going to get my fat-girl clothes. I would get all my money! All the little presents I'd bought people, they would be mine again. I wouldn't have to camp out next to the bus in the middle of nowhere. Life was good!

I saw that a few buses had stopped for us further up the road. They were taking on what passengers they could fit, although most of them were at or over capacity themselves. There must have been nearly 70 of us waiting for a ride. But a Vietnamese man waved me over to the first bus. It was a sleeper bus full of Vietnamese. There were no beds left on the sleeper bus, but no worries, plenty of floor space. I went to lay down on the floor and spent the next 8 hours trying to sleep.

Sleep did not happen. Every bump we hit sent me into a panic. We are going off the road! We are plunging to our deaths! There are way too many bumps in Vietnam. But we did, of course, make it to Hanoi alive. Fourteen and a half hours after leaving Hue we made it. I went to my hotel as quickly as possible. I needed the comfort of a real, stationary bed. 

Have you ever taken a long bus ride? What was it like?

Hanoi street, 2008

Monday, August 10, 2015

Past its prime: Expiration date debate

Awhile ago, one of my friends from back home sparked a great debate on Facebook. The debate over yogurt, specifically, yogurt passed its “eat by” date. Naturally, my friend took to social media to decide what to do—to eat or not to eat? I, ever one to live dangerously, was solidly in the “Eat it!” camp.

“Give it the sniff test,” I encouraged her, “If it passes that, then take a small bite and if it tastes good, go for it!”

Others were vehemently opposed.

“Don't do it! It's not worth the risk! You could get food poisoning!” her best friend warned.

In the end, she ate it. And lived to tell the tale. I'm fairly certain she didn't get food poisoning either.

Many Americans are obsessed with these dates. The problem is, they are confusing. There is “sell by,” “best by,” and “eat by” dates. What's the difference and does it matter? Many reports claim these days are arbitrary, yet lead us into believing we must trash any food passed the marked date. According to this article by National Geographic, over a billion tons of food is wasted globally each year; in other words, roughly a third of food produced annually is thrown away. That's got to be enough food to feed most of the world's hungry.

I didn't think any nation could trump Americans obsession over expiration dates or surmount our food waste (the average American family throws out US$1500 worth of food a year!) but leave it to the Chinese to outshine us, at least on the former front (I'm sure they'll catch up to us in waste soon enough). They have taken expiration labeling to a whole new level. Never mind food, anything is fair game--there are expiration dates on perfume, hand tissues, and printer paper. But it goes deeper. Last week, I realized the full depth of the insanity.

photo via

“When does wine expire?” my Chinese friend asked, in a tone that sounded like I'd be graded on my answer.

“Expire? Wine doesn't expire. But I've heard that after 150 years most wines turn to vinegar,” I told her, almost certain of my answer.

She smiled at me knowingly and replied, “Well, Chinese wines expire. I saw in the supermarket that Great Wall red expires after ten years."

I don't know, but a little part of me died with the knowledge that the Chinese nouveau riche may never experience a good vintage out of fear of expiration. Then my most painful realization occurred, Chinese cheese connoisseurs may bypass a tasty aged cheddar for some seemingly newer, fresher cheese. I hope it isn't so. Some things truly do get better with age.

But the real question is: where is this paranoia coming from? In the case of China, I think expiration dates give consumers a false sense of security. They provide them with a feeling that the food is safe if eaten during a certain time frame, when the reality is food quality is poor due to reasons outside of age and freshness. Anyone living in China knows that food safety scares are unending. This summer it came to light that decades-old meat was being smuggled in China. Talk about being past its expiration date, yuck. Labels mean little. When eating in China, one has to be careful, but also realize you may end up eating something questionable no matter what precautions you take.

Do you check expiration dates carefully? What kind of things do you do to ensure your eating healthily?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

My guest post on Speaking of China

For anyone who reads my blog who doesn't follow Jocelyn's fantastic AMWF (Asian male/Western female) blog, Speaking of China, please check out my recent guest post, Why Did I Assume I'd Never Find a Man to Date in China. I write about a failed blind date with an Asian man and how it affected my perception of Asian men and myself. You can also read another guest post I wrote on Speaking of China about meeting my husband, Ming, Enter Zhao Ming. . . China's Answer to Arnold Swarzenegger.

Banbi Mountain, Chengde, China. 2014

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Tips for China Newbies

My friend M, who I mentioned in an earlier post about our crazy trip to Sumatra, is moving to China! Her husband, who works for a large American company, got offered a two-year position in western China and they plan to make their big move next month. Sadly, they will be arriving around the same time I will be returning to the US, but I am no less excited for them.

If anyone can handle a move abroad, M can. She's traveled and lived in countless places. She even came to visit me in China back in 2006. The trip was plagued with various illnesses, horrendous toilets, and epic bus and train rides, yet she took it all in stride. Though there may be some hiccups along the way, I know she's in for a great time and adventure in China. 

M and me, Yunnan Province, 2006

Inspired by M and also by The Love Blender's excellent posts about living abroad (her advice on improving your social life, beating culture shock and staying healthy is spot on), I thought about what advice I'd give to anyone who is about to move to China. Take it or leave it, here are my two cents:

1. Study the language This one seems so obvious, but once you arrive in China you will quickly find many foreigners, some who have lived here for years, can barely speak the most basic phrases (you'll also meet those who have lived here for a year and can speak like a native). I made hardly any progress in learning the language my first year and even after a decade have not yet achieved fluency. You can absolutely get by knowing very little of the language and locals won't even fault you for it. But you are doing yourself a great disservice. Since improving my Mandarin, my world here has been opened up exponentially. I understand so much more about the culture, the people, and the food because I am able to speak and read Chinese. Don't put off learning, no matter how long you plan on being in country. Try to find a class or tutor as soon as possible so you can get off the ground running and establish good study habits. It is absolutely worth the time and trouble.

with my long-time friend, Apple
2. Make local friends In my experience, locals are very interested in foreigners and many would like to make foreign friends. Making friends with Chinese people isn't hard, but creating a true and lasting friendship may take some time. There can be a number of cultural and language barriers to overcome at first, but with some effort you can learn a lot from each other. I met some of my closest Chinese friends during my first year here. Throughout the years, they have helped me understand everything from Chinese pop culture to traditional medicine. I've taught them things such as English internet slang and how to bake chocolate chip cookies. Best of all, I feel like they know a side of me many of my friends back home don't, my "China side."

3. Network on WeChat I am not much for social media. I try to avoid Facebook and I haven't even dabbled into Snapchat or Twitter or whatever people are using these days. But I do use WeChat, which is probably the most popular way to connect with people in China these days. Connections in China are important, so this is a great way to network and organize all your contacts. WeChat allows you to post short messages with photos or share articles. You can also text or voice message and video chat. And it's free! I definitely recommend downloading it to your phone if you'll be living in China.

4. Learn how to use Taobao I can't believe I survived as long as I did without Taobao in my life. Taobao is a bit like Ebay, without the auctions. You have thousands of "stores" to shop at, most of them specializing in a certain type of product. Prices are very competitive and many sellers offer free shipping. You can find lots of import products too, some of them well-priced. I buy books, art supplies, trinkets, and even food on Taobao. I've had very few problems and usually when I have the seller has given me a refund. Taobao is almost entirely in Chinese and if you have any issues with the product or delivery you're obviously going to have to speak Chinese or find a Chinese friend or co-worker who can help you. I also recommend China's Amazon which is a little bit more foreigner friendly (there is an English language option on the site) and slightly more expensive. As for payment, sometimes cash on delivery is available, otherwise you'll have to have a Chinese bank card and get yourself setup online. Have a Chinese friend help you with this.

made possible by my oven
5. Get a VPN If you want to surf the web freely, get a VPN (virtual private network) BEFORE you arrive (you may not be able to access the site once in China). Most people know Facebook is blocked here, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs and western news sites are blocked or slow to load. Accessing Gmail will make you want to rip your hair out. The list of sites behind the great (fire) wall is long. Do yourself a favor and purchase a VPN. Yes, purchase. I am a cheapskate, but I've learned the hard way that free VPNs never last and aren't worth the frustration. I have used Atrill VPN for the past few years and they have great customer service and allow users to pick from a variety of servers. There are a number of other VPNs to pick from, but try to do some research into which one is right for you.

6. Make it feel like home This was one thing I failed to do when I first lived here. I figured I wouldn't be in China long, so I didn't want to spend money on anything. Specifically, I longed to have an oven, but it seemed like too frivolous of a purchase. I waited years before finally caving and it was one of the best purchases I ever made. It cost about 400 rmb and was worth every mao. You can't put a price on fresh baked focaccia or Black Magic Cake. Do yourself a favor and splurge on a few things to make your house (apartment) feel more like a home.

7. Get into a routine Your life may feel like it's been turned upside down and shaken when you first arrive, but before long you can establish a routine. While in China, I've always had an odd work schedule so this is one aspect of life I've struggled with. Try to set aside part of the day for exercising or studying Chinese. Try not to binge on too many late night sessions of Netflix (or beer). You'll get so much out of your time here if you get out and explore. Which leads me to. . .

me in Cambodia, 2007
8. Travel I've made it a point to travel as much as possible while living in China. I tried to live simply to save up for such trips, knowing that once I move back to the US my chances of returning to Asia for a vacation would be slim. At first I was nervous to travel on my own, but after a few months in China I took a week long solo trip to Guangxi Province and quickly overcame my fear. I went on to take numerous trips throughout China and neighboring countries. Use your vacation time and put aside some extra cash and JUST DO IT. Travel in China and particularly in Southeast Asia and India is very affordable and in many places tourism is developed enough that transport and accommodation is fairly straight forward.

Do you live abroad? Do you have any advice to add to the list?