I thought I’d try to make a list of the best things about living in China, in no particular order.
A Simpler Life – I really don’t miss having a dryer or a dishwasher. It is satisfying (in a way similar to shopping at the local market) to hang up my clothes to dry (in my bedroom), and to wash my dishes by hand (and keeps my fingernails clean). I’m sure back in the US I’ll have a dishwasher again, and I will enjoy that, but I hope I will continue to hang my clothes up to dry (except for the t-shirts and towels – sometimes those things make me wish I had a dryer). Of course, after 6 months here, I now I have someone to do all the heavy-cleaning that I never could get around to as often as necessary–washing the floors (a MUST every other day here in northern China) and bathrooms and walls and refrigerator and windows and couch. Somehow with someone to do that, it doesn’t much diminish all the other things there are to do (because though those things always needed to be done, I just rarely got around to them), but three times a week I can walk into my house to find it magically clean for the 2-3 hours before the children wake up from their nap after ayi leaves.
Cheapness – Of course it is no surprise that everything in China is so cheap. I imagine life in the states if/when that happens again will be a terrible shock. We live in a large, nice (other than the lack of sunshine and shady neighbors, which I’m not sure I could escape anywhere) apartment right in the heart of downtown for less than we lived in subsidized housing in the distant suburbs in Minnesota. We can pay for our whole family to eat a good Chinese meal for about $10, so we don’t often eat at Western places, because I find myself balking even at a 120 yuan price tag, which is really only $20, but feels so expensive when you think of it in terms of how much food you can buy for that. (I can get my breakfast muffin for about 30 cents.) This, of course, brings us to the beauty of shopping at Taobao.
Taobao Jie – In America, I hated to shop unless it was at a thrift store or a garage sale. Shopping in China seems perfectly calibrated to teach me what others mean by “retail therapy.” I can’t tell you how fun and exciting it is to walk down rows of stalls strewn about with every kind of thing you could possibly need or want. In America, shopping in malls and department stores was just a matter of necessity, and if I bought anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, I’d leave feeling wracked with guilt. Taobao (and all of China, really) turns shopping into an adventure, and, as long you don’t go overboard, takes away that awful guilty feeling. Just walking and looking at everything is exciting, never knowing what you’ll see when you walk to the next stall–obscure American toys you never thought you’d see in China, Plants vs. Zombies puzzles, Angry Birds underwear, t-shirts with hysterical Chinglish (one of the stranger ones I’ve seen lately was a cheerful shirt with 4 pictures of the same person, Andy-Warhol-style, that said, “Alcoholism”), a Russian version of the game of LIFE, bins of Disney princess Barbies for $6 a piece, and more knock-off Crocs than have ever accumulated in one place.
Grocery Shopping – It’s been maybe 2 or 3 months since I last set foot into an actual supermarket, and I am so happy about that. Everything that I need can be purchased within 2 blocks of where I lived, at tiny local shops, or at the “open air” market (it would be open were it not enclosed in a shed-like way). I can buy two days worth of vegetables for about $1, and maybe a day’s worth of fruit for $2. I just can’t tell you how good it feels to walk to the market and buy a day or two’s worth of food at a time, point to the beef and the grinding machine and have the lady slice a piece off the cow carcass hanging there and grind up a couple pounds for me, or just pick up some fruit from a guy on a bicycle on the side of the road on a whim. This is something that will be hard to give up whenever we make our way back to America (which now seems like it will be a long time from now).
Healthier Lifestyle – I like that the practice (common in most places that aren’t America, or so I understand) of buying food on a daily basis, and fresh fruits and vegetables most of all, naturally creates a healthier diet. I’m glad I don’t have access to convenience foods or much American food that I don’t cook myself, and I’m even glad I don’t have an oven (though I do miss it awfully sometimes). All of these things create a much healthier diet, and even eating out can be healthier than eating in (not so in America). Our processed foods consist of bread we buy at the bakery downstairs, peanut butter, jelly, Cheerios, Ranch and Italian seasoning packets, spaghetti sauce ordered from Amazon (I tried for 4 months to make a sauce my family would eat, to no avail), and the occasional brick of Velveeta mailed from a friend, to make macaroni and cheese–oh and all the snacks people so generously hand out to my children. The healthier diet combined with walking everywhere (both of which Brian has not benefitted from quite so much with his busy work schedule) mean that I may not always have to be “tai pang le,” as a sweet Chinese boy was not afraid to tell me (too fat).
No Car – It is quite a nice thing to not have a car. To be able to get everywhere I need to go using my own two feet, or a bus, the Subway or a taxi, makes life so much more simple, and also, ironically enough, makes me feel like I’m doing my part for the planet (ironic because it seems like, if left to its own devices, China could single-handedly realize the world’s worst fears about global-warming). Not having to worry about gas or insurance or maintenance or car seats is a wonderful thing, and an even more wonderful thing to live most of my daily life within such a small radius.
Free Entertainment – QQMusic, PPSTV, downloading movies and ebooks “illegally” on our computer (something we never dared to do in America, but in China, it’s not actually possible to buy a non-pirated version of a movie, and the ones you download yourself are often better quality than the DVDs on the streets). It’s really nice to be able to get all the music, movies, books and television we want without paying for it. Better even than Netflix, if you can believe that.
Amazon – In America, I shopped at Amazon maybe once a year, but in China, Amazon is the most amazing place, the source of cheap Western goods that I can’t find easily anywhere else (diapers, wipes, Cheerios, Hershey’s cocoa and raisins), which show up at my door the day after I order them, and for which I pay the bearer in cash. We also have it to thank for our vacuum cleaner, our fans (which would have been a huge pain in the rear to lug home in a taxi) and some very useful English books (like “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know” and a Mercer Mayer collection).
Being Able to Just Be Myself – I feel this way for two reasons. The first is simple – Chinese people seem to feel that way, and have no problem singing loudly with their iPods while biking down the street, wearing their jammies to the store, wearing bright, clunky, orange sneakers with a light, feminine sundress, walking through the park doing strange clapping exercises, singing to yourself in a crowded elevator, being 55 years old and rollerblading through the park wearing a fanny pack and carrying a boom box. It seems like anything goes. And even if that’s not the case, I haven’t picked up on it yet, so I feel much less concerned about my personal appearance than I did in America. (I figure that even if I did look appalling, they wouldn’t see past my face or my three kids to notice my clothes.) The other reason is that I am the beneficiary of reverse racism, and just by being white and speaking English, I have something to offer other people. I feel that I have my share of good Chinese friends who are not just using me, but I also feel that when worse comes to worst and I just can’t repay them for all they do for me, I know it just makes them happy to be seen walking down the street holding hands with two blonde boys, or taking five foreigners to the park. It’s nice that something that I just am (white) and can do naturally (speak English) or have attached to me all the time (3 white kids), is good enough when I’m too tired or overwhelmed to do anything else.
Chinese Culture Suits Me – I have come to the conclusion that China is the best foreign country I could possibly live in, because it seems almost impossible for me to be offensive, and considering my tendency to inadvertently stray from one faux pas or another, combined with my natural clutziness, it’s a small miracle. I could easily be in a country where I could give offense or be considered indecent just by taking the wrong seat, or taking the right seat at the wrong time, or making eye contact with the wrong person, or showing the wrong piece of skin. I can even eat with my hands here if necessary and no one is appalled (I can’t manage a chicken wing with chopsticks so they kindly invite me to use my hands). About the only bad thing that I have done is allow my children to soil the white seat covers in a taxi. And only once or twice has that been a problem. You’d think in such a dusty city they might consider a different color.
Kindness to Foreigners – I haven’t encountered any anti-American sentiment yet. On the contrary, as you’ve already seen in the pictures, people are so kind and friendly to us (even if they aren’t so kind and friendly to other Chinese people), maybe more so because we have three little kids in tow. They try to force their kids to talk to us (awkward), and they extend the Chinese practice to us of calling us auntie and uncle, and the children brothers and sister. They are very indulgent with our probably ridiculous sounding attempts to speak Chinese and always say, so encouragingly, that we speak Chinese well (it’s a big fat lie, but maybe they are just surprised we can say anything at all).
Chinese People LOVE Children – Now that winter has gone away, so has much of the unsolicited advice I received on a regular basis during our first few months here. I know it’s just waiting for cold weather to begin again, but in the meantime, I do appreciate how much Chinese people love children. Perhaps a little too much, when it comes to all the sweets they offer my children, but there is also the benefit that they seem to expect a lot less of children (at least until they start school), and are completely unfazed by bad behavior. If my children throw a fit because they want something, people just want to do whatever they can do to make it better. It doesn’t happen enough to damage my children for life, and it certainly makes my life a little easier, not having to add to the stress that is already there when my children fall apart. They are all–men, women, old, young–so friendly to the kids and so ready to play with them. It warms my heart to see how much my children are loved.
Every Day is an Adventure – Every single thing that we do, for better (mostly) or for worse, is an adventure. Just trying to figure out how to pay for something on Taobao.com (the Chinese ebay) requires a trip to the Post Office and a test of my ability to write Chinese characters legibly, and then three hours at home on the computer trying to add the money to my account and find the thing I wanted to order in the first place. Finally getting a haircut, in spite of my complete lack of hair-cut-related Chinese, though terrifying in the moment, gives such a satisfying sense of accomplishment in the end. Just figuring out how to do simple things like that makes me feel victorious. I love walking out of our building and choosing a new direction to walk in, and seeing things we’ve never seen before. The city is full of hidden treasures and strange sights, and it’s hard to believe we could ever get tired of just walking and looking. The kids love to go on “benchers,” too, and get upset if they think we’re turning around to go home too soon.
Physical Affection – I love how affectionate Chinese people are with the people they’re close to. Girls and couples hold hands with one another, men hug each other, public displays of affection are not frowned upon, and people are just not afraid to be close to each other. It’s a strange new experience, but I think I like the fact that whenever Zhao takes me anywhere, she has her arm in mine, or my hand in hers (also kind of helpful, when it comes to not getting lost in a crowd). I know there are a lot of countries where this is not the case, so I appreciate it very much here.
My Children’s Friends – I love that the children my children play with come from such diverse backgrounds–Filipino, German, British, and of course, Chinese. 6 months ago, my children had no concept of language, race or the fact that other countries besides America exist. I’m not sure how much they grasp now, but I’m sure their perspective is much broader than it would have been had we remained in America.