It’s more than a month since I arrived back to the UK from Beijing, and in the typical fashion of a freshly-returned, well-travelled and irritatingly nostalgic bore (if you hate reading solipsistic indulgence, don’t read on), I’ve been musing over what I miss the most about expat life in China. I could also say that these are aspects of China which I’ll be happy to be reacquainted with if (hopefully, when) I return at some point in the future, in whatever capacity. These are just five things which I thought of really quickly off the top of my head, I suppose in some sort of order of how much my life is simply a misery without them.
Some love two-day-long train journeys, or the cities’ occasionally pungent subways, or the buses, and some loathe them. I had some really memorable nice train journeys (such as the 35-hour train to Xinjiang in the far west), although I also (as I imagine any commuter would say) found the twice-weekly subway journey to my English teaching job mind-numbingly dull. Yet the ease and cheap price at which you can get around both Beijing and China makes a laughing stock of the UK. I’ve never experienced a line closure, strike or delays in transport anywhere in China. A single-use London Underground ticket costs about £4. In Beijing, it’s 20p. That’s all I’m saying.
4. “FOREIGNER” CONVERSATIONS.
This is probably the most unexpected one on here, but striking up a conversation with a total stranger (or having one started for you) is by no means uncommon, especially if they somehow pick up that you can speak a bit of Chinese. They can strike at inconvenient or stressful times (such as one example of comparing tuition fees in China and the UK while we were trying to haul heavy bags through a bus station), which sometimes makes you want to strike back with a good kick, but it’s all part of the experience and, most of all, 9 times out of 10 it’s out of well-intentioned curiosity and interest for your life.
(A side note on conversations – and something I’ll also miss – is being able to talk about people in English in crowded places on the assumption that they probably won’t understand. I wouldn’t recommend this 100% of the time, though, after a few embarrassing experiences.)
It’s not as cheap as it used to be, and in certain places it’s all too easy to get ripped off (*cough cough the Silk Market*), but everything is generally cheaper in China than in the UK. Transport (as I’ve already mentioned), food (as I’m about to mention) and services are all significantly cheaper than at home, which left us more money to go on trips exploring the China outside of Beijing.
2. GOOGLE MUSIC CHINA.
This really would have been at number 1 if it wasn’t soon to be taken down because of some strategic business reason. Basically I downloaded a huge amount of music (with any artist or album already released for a few months available), for free and legally. I still have no idea how the whole funding/copyright issue worked. If it were still around, then it would probably encourage me to become one of the first people ever wanting a VPN to China rather than out of China (which is what many Chinese-based expats do to circumvent Internet censorship and access Facebook, YouTube etc.).
Obviously this is the main reason I’ll come back to China. If the bland anglicised nonsense that we Brits buy at the local takeaway is good, then the real thing is mind-blowing – it’s a huge variety of food cooked in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of sauces, from filled steamed buns (包子baozi) and dumplings (饺子jiaozi) and big oily crepe-like things called 煎饼jianbing to fried noodles and spicy home-style tofu. There are the chickens’ feet as well, for the real adventurous types. Some people are put off Chinese food when they come to China (and fair enough, because it’s really different), but I honestly can’t say how good the real thing is. The best thing of all – we ate out in restaurants pretty much daily, and it rarely crept above £2 per head.
It’s great being back in the UK now for lots of different reasons, although I’m finding it hard readjusting to being extorted on the trains, not having my blonde hair scrutinised and fondled by strangers, the moral dilemma of “do I or do I not pay for music”, and Marco Polo’s bastardisation of noodles. It’s nice to know that all these things will be reversed when I go back, hopefully sometime soon.