I’ve lived abroad for several years in different countries, and I am always so grateful and excited to receive any type of post from home, but when it’s a package, that excitement increases even more than getting a postcard. A huge thank you to everyone who has sent me postcards and letters over the years, I have kept every single one of them and I found some earlier, which prompted this post.
When you have friends of family living abroad, and want to send them a gift, here are some things to consider…not all home comforts can be sent abroad.
First and most importantly, I think you should never send anybody anything valuable. You should send things with the back thought that ‘it might not get there’, because trust me, not all packages arrive. Some are opened by customs or nibbled at by mice before it gets to the receiver and some just never ever arrive at all.
Food and comfort food is always great to send. Always check the date on what you send, as parcels could take from 10 days to 10 weeks to arrive. Coming from the UK, I always request Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and it’s much better to send a multipack of individual bars, rather than a big 500g block. Because if you open a 500g bar, you have to either share it, or eat it all within a few days. 10 x 50g bars last a lot longer. Plain chocolate is always better than anything with caramel or sticky things inside, as they sometimes leak (creme eggs).
I missed cereals when I was in China, and a friend of mine had the greatest idea to send one of those Kelloggs multipack of cereals, you know, the ones for indecisive children. They’re light, so cheap to send and also nostalgic.
Stuff to read
If you’re a book fan, like me, you might run out of things to read. Even with a kindle, there is still nothing greater than a nice paperback book, a magazine or newspaper clipping from home. Most charity shops sell books for between 50p and £1.50, so they are not expensive to buy.
Not all foreign countries have the same brands and types of cosmetics as they do at home. Asian countries that attach a high importance to looking pale, use a lot of whitening products in their cosmetics, so it’s nice to receive some moisturiser or hand cream from home, knowing that it won’t bleach your skin. Make sure it’s properly sealed, cos a leakage of creams could be devastating.
If your loved one is teaching overseas, ask them if they need any teaching aids that you can’t get abroad – like blu tac, ‘well done!’ stickers or colouring books to make photocopies of. Blu tac really isn’t sold overseas!
This time last year, I’d just arrived to China for the beginning of my semester abroad. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was sent this infographic to post on my blog a few months ago by Yang Yang. If somebody had showed it to me a year ago, maybe settling in would have been a bit easier. It includes some really good tips for those who haven’t been to China.
They say that reverse culture shock is always worse than the initial culture shock of going abroad and I know leaving Asia will be difficult. Although China was a hard country to live in because of the language, local people’s culture and of course that horrible 7/8 hour time difference, it was easier than I make it out to be; I only cried twice in China. The first time was the first night I arrived, after almost 24 hours of travelling with a dodgy tummy I just wanted to find my dormitory and sleep but I arrived after midnight at Qingdao university. My taxi driver didn’t know where my dorm was so he just dropped me at the big gate and I was stranded. I knew where my dorm was but the gates were all locked, I woke up several watchmen who didn’t seem to understand or help me and when one started shouting at me I just cried. I was cold, lonely and had no idea what to do until some nice people in the hotel helped me find a hole in the fence for me to climb through. The second time I cried was on the plane to Thailand when I left China. Again, I wasn’t feeling too good after a three hour delay and the reality just hit me that I don’t know when I’ll be going back to China and I may not see some of my Asian friends ever again.
There are so many things that happen in China that I don’t think can possibly happen anywhere else in the world. Even my politest of friends would still spit their chicken bones on the table, people would encourage their children to go to the toilet (both types) on the street and little boys had big slits in the middle of their trousers making this even easier. Curious people would approach me in the street asking for a picture of/with me because I was a foreigner and the people too scared to talk to me would just take a picture without asking. Children would tug at their parents arms and say “Look Mum, a foreigner!” At first these things obviously shocked and outraged me but soon I became immune to the shock factor and by the end of my time in China not much could shock me.
The way of life I’ve gotten used to has been very different. Most days something outrageous, crazy, disgusting or weird has happened to me or my friends. I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected, especially where toilets are involved. But I’ve even adapted to this as I’ve learnt that the previous user might not have cleaned up, that the door might be opened by a middle aged Chinese lady and there might not even be doors in extreme cases.
I think I’ve toughened myself to deal with difficult situations, especially where bargaining is concerned. In all the countries I visited, life was enjoyed outside, on street markets you could buy anything from food, clothes, souvenirs, fake designer goods, magazines and even pets. These markets/streets were always good places to buy things as they were full with locals and prices can be beaten down. What annoyed me was that the vendors, seeing I was foreign would immediately treble the price and assume that because I’m this “rich foreigner” I would just accept that price as their first offer. Although you might think it’s silly bargaining over 20p it was also the principle that I was fighting against. A notoriously bad vendor sold fruit outside our dormitory, he would change his prices depending on who you were and once he sold some bananas to a Chinese girl for 35p/500g, I was next in line and he tried to charge me 45p/500g for the same bananas, I asked why he’d charged her different and he said you’re my friend, 45p is a good price. I knew it wasn’t. This was the last straw for fruit guy as I termed him and as he didn’t drop the price I didn’t buy the bananas or buy from him ever again. Bargaining for fruit was fun for me in China as I learnt the value of fruits, saw which ones were in season and learnt that if you buy a whole watermelon, you can get it for as cheap as 7p/500g if you go to the right part of town off the main roads. So when I’m back in the UK and just pick up the bananas from the shelf in Tesco it will definitely be different.
I developed a love/hate relationship with the street food in China. Normally I would just walk past it and avoid it at all costs after horror stories from my friends telling me how the lamb could be dog or rat meat, the oil has been used thousands of times and it’s pumped full of MSG. But sometimes it wouldn’t look that bad and I think it was ok to eat there occasionally. I enjoyed the savoury Chinese pancakes, with sesame seeds and this sauce I cannot describe. The roasted sweetcorn was always fine and I also liked deep fried octopus from Taidong.
As I’ve mentioned before , I really enjoy Chinese TV, it’s another aspect of Chinese life that’s totally unpredictable. For example, let’s look at a clip from China’s version of Take Me Out. . This isn’t a special minions related episode, it’s only from a few weeks ago. (If you want to see if he got a date or not, skip the video to 19.30). The Chinese reality shows were fantastic and I will continue to watch them in England but it will be weird not having anybody to discuss 爸爸去哪儿？ with. I’ll have to find some Chinese exchange students and get them to introduce me to more new Chinese TV shows. I really want to find a wife swap type one.
With many internet sites blocked in China (Facebook, Youtube , The Guardian etc) the internet has been a strange place to navigate from China. Sometimes the speed would slow down completely for a day or only parts of websites would load. Having a break from being constantly connected to Facebook was really nice, but now in Thailand I find that as before, it’s one of the first websites I open when I turn my laptop on.
It will be interesting to see if I have picked up any mannerisms or habits from China. I know that when I went to Khao San Road in Bangkok, a place with many bars and even more foreigners, I was staring at the foreigners. I hadn’t seen so many in one place for a very long time and I’d forgotten how diverse we look with blue eyes, freckles, curly hair, dreadlocks, tattoos and not forgetting the pink sunburnt shoulders, typical of a Brit in the sun. I’m hoping this will be the only thing I’ve picked up from living in China, as I’ve also seen a lot of spitting, eating loudly, talking at an unnecessarily loud volume, horn beeping, pushing in queues and drinking shots of beer.
I know when I get back I will be quite excited about things like reading the paper and understanding every word, watching the adverts on TV and knowing what products they’re advertising and even buying skin products and not having to worry whether or not it has skin bleaching ingredients. But after a while I think the initial novelty of UK life might wear off and I’ll be wishing I was back in China where people have often said:
“Look at that foreigner with the curly hair, she can’t understand us and we cant understand her, she must be wearing a wig but we’ll never know for sure.”
Only for me to turn around and say, “I do understand you, my hair is natural.”
One time, I was going to a bar for a drink with some friends and my Chinese friend Allen warned me about cases when gangs have made someone pass out by placing bleach or something on a cloth. Then when they wake up the thieves have taken their…..money? bank cards? clothes? mobile phone?
Organs! Well only a kidney and maybe a cornea or two.
This turned into a regular greeting between us, when I would leave he would say “Watch out for/protect your organs!”. This was not too much to worry about however as apparently Westerners blood is different from Chinese, so an English kidney would be difficult to sell on the black market.
There’s so many more things I can say about China but I don’t want to bore you or drag on. How can you condense five months of life into a few paragraphs and photos? China has been a great experience and I will miss it but for now, I’m coming home…someone put the kettle on.
When I arrived to China I was quite prepared with winter clothes but obviously as the weeks passed by the weather got warmer and I was getting bored of the same outfits…time to hit the shops！ But clothes shopping is not all so straight forward in China as I’ve found out.
The good thing about shopping in markets, 台东 for example, is that you can get really good bargains if you haggle with the stallholders over the price, especially if you buy more than one item. However sometimes because I’m a foreigner, the price starts much higher than it should do. In some cases I’ve known a skirt should cost 30快 max but the starting price was 100. So haggling it down to 30 takes a while and you have to go through the whole palava of saying you’re a student so have no money, then telling them you’ve seen it somewhere else for cheaper, then you have to pretend to walk away with your back turned until they shout a reasonable price at you. Only then can you go back and buy the skirt, it takes determination if you don’t want to be ripped off.
Many clothes in the market are one size fits all, sometimes they fit me fine but often they’re a little small for my dimensions. When shopping in the market there’s often no chance to try it on so I get home only to find it doesn’t fit! This has happened twice to me as my thighs and bum are bigger than Chinese girls’. I couldn’t exactly take it back so once I paid another lady 50p to fix a pair of shorts and another time I gave the skirt away to one of my skinny Thai friends.
You’d think shopping in actual shops would be less hassle but not necessarily. Every time you walk into a Chinese shop or a mini shop in a department store or even walk past a shop there’s a lady at the door saying 欢迎光临 (welcome patron) to you. Sometimes they shout it right in your face and I don’t know if you’re meant to reply to them or just to gracefully accept being welcomed into their shop.
When you get inside the sales assistants will come over and try to help you, you say you’re just looking but they will still hover around you or follow you around the shop. Do they think I’m going to steal something or do they want to be right there in case I have a question? It’s annoying and sometimes I feel really uncomfortable.
Then if you do have a question – do you have this shoe in sizes 39 and 40? for example they will look at my feet and say woaaaah are your feet really that big? Yes they are…don’t answer my question with a question please. This lady told me to try on the one in my hand (a size 37） just to check because the 37 might fit me…surprise surprise it didn’t, that is why I asked for a 39 and a 40.
When she came back with the shoes, the assistant kneeled down in front of me and insisted on doing the buckles up for me. It was totally unnecessary and I told her not to but she was straight in there doing the buckle for me, poor girl. When I stood up I was showered with compliments – they look so beautiful, the colour is great for your skin, they look very comfortable, those shoes really are amazing, you’re so beautiful, I really like your eyes. I felt like screaming shut up and let me find a mirror to see the shoes!
This is also a problem with shopping in China, the shop assistants put you off and are clearly only interested in the sale. They forget to tell you that the strap doesn’t fit too well, that after a week the colour fades and that they’re not actually real leather. I feel that in the UK assistants will do as you ask them, bring you the size you want and that’s it, whereas in Spain the service doesn’t exist at all. There is no need to flatter the customer with compliments just to get a sale.
Then there’s the confusing prices…in China the discount is backwards, so if a label says 90 discount, you pay 90% of the price, so 10% off in total.
The label probably says in small character print somewhere that the price has already been discounted but if I see a 80快 top that says 80 discount I think wow, 20% off but the 20% will have already been taken off.
Because there a lot of people in China, the changing room queues are also always really long, making shopping a bit of a 麻烦. It doesn’t stop me from shopping though!
KTV stands for Karaoke Television, before coming to China I’d heard how there were more karaoke places than clubs and bas in Chinese cities as they love singing. When I arrived I expected that every weekend Chinese people would be inviting me to KTV and that every Chinese person would have their own special playlist of songs that they like to sing but from my experience it’s not like that.
The first time I went to KTV there were about six of us, we had our own private room with a big screen TV and a little one where you choose the songs. Straight away my friend Karen ran over to the ‘jukebox’ and started choosing songs to sing, then Alex also went to choose his songs. Then they told me to choose some songs, it was difficult to choose as they had so many, was I in a 90’s Spice Girls mood, did I want to go for a serious Westlife one or choose something current like Katy Perry? I chose a few songs and it was fun singing them. We had tambourines and everything.
It was more fun than I expected. The idea of going sober to sing karaoke at 2pm was a bit of a nightmare. I thought I’d be too embarrassed to sing with no Dutch courage but I got into it and with Karen sung some Chinese S.H.E songs （one is above, you can listen to it). When we finished, Karen told me that I hadn’t got into it enough and that I hadn’t given my best. She was disappointed I didn’t sing more but I didn’t get chance to sing as they were all hogging the mike!
The second time I went to KTV was with a different set of Chinese friends, it was last Sunday. There were only four of us as everybody is studying for exams and they don’t have time to socialise. They told me to choose the first few songs so I flicked through, chose a Britney one, a Beyonce and a Spice Girls to get started, expecting them to choose more songs whilst I was singing..,but they didn’t. They sat there watching and listening to me sing, too embarrassed to sing themselves. They told me I sang really well so should choose some more songs. After the 9th one it became clear that I’d be doing most of the singing today. I didn’t mind too much as I like singing and there were lots of throwback 90s tunes that I hadn’t heard for many years. After an hour, my throat hurt a bit so I told them they had to sing something and Emily chose 倔强, my friend Karen’s favourite song. It was nice to have a little break but after they gave the mike straight back to me for another two hours.
Both times, although not perfect were really fun and I wish I went to KTV more times during my time in China, I fear now there’s not enough time and everybody is too busy with exams. Each week I know more Chinese songs so can join in when my friends choose Chinese songs, even though the lyrics on screen are often Taiwan traditional characters it doesn’t make much of a difference. I just make up the sounds.
I leave you with Karen’s favourite song, Stubborn.
For the past couple of years I have been scared of Chinese, not Chinese people or food, more like Chinese popular culture – music, TV, films, literature etc. Mainly due to the vast amount of Chinese characters and the tones that mean I could hear “My Mum runs very quick” but the actually meaning might be “My horse runs very quick”. That’s the first example that came to my head but there are more serious misunderstandings than that due to a difference in tones.
But now? I’m not scared, well not as scared. I’ll happily sit in my dormitory, doing my Chinese homework with the TV on. When I first arrived in China my TV channel of choice would be BBC World News as it was English speaking but now I always have some other Chinese channel on in the background. Sometimes it’s a dubbed Korean soap opera, sometimes a program where adults interview children and ask them questions about how to lose weight etc and the children have funny methods to solve their adult problems. My recent favourite background TV is CCTV 15, it’s a music channel and the simplfied characters on the bottom of the screen give it a KTV feel without the complicated Taiwan traditional characters.
A few weeks ago all the American dramas I was watching came to an end and I was stuck with nothing to watch, which is a very big dilemma when you’re a student, trust me! Instead of choosing something I wasn’t interested in (Game of Thrones)， I started to watch some Chinese reality shows: 爸爸去哪儿？， 花儿与少年 and my new favourite 花样爷爷. 花样爷爷 sees four grandads (old famous movie stars) go to France travelling, as they are old they are a little impatient and they argue quite a bit, even over silly things like who is the eldest. I love the way Chinese TV is so colourful with so many different things going on. They also have funny sound effects, superimpose pictures and add speech bubbles to the people as well as having the subtitles below.
I often pick up a magazine from one of the news stands in town and whereas before I would just skip through and look at the pictures, if I am concentrating I can actually read a fair amount. I cannot by no means understand every word and every character but I understand the general meaning and that is my aim. It already feel likes I’ve achieved so much just by buying a magazine and having confidence that I will be understand parts of it. Sometimes I look up words that I don’t understand but mainly I just skip them and move onto the next page instead of looking in the dictionary – I would be there forever.
Watching television has definitely been my best part of Chinese popular culture. Not only can I learn new words from it and practice my reading and listening skills, it also gives me something different to talk to my Chinese friends about. Over the past few months I’ve become tired of explaining the differences between the UK and China, telling people my opinion on the one-child policy and trying to argue that the UK still has financial problems. So when I can switch off from all of those and talk about how hilarious it was when that guy from 花儿与少年 begs an American tourist for a sandwich (and gets it), it’s a really nice change.
Sometimes when the weather is really good (or really bad, or when it’s Friday) we watch Chinese films in class and although they don’t have the drama or comedy that the American blockbusters have they’re watchable and are not all kung fu related! I still don’t have the confidence to buy a Chinese book, my excuse is the lack of punctuation and spaces between words. I hope when I get back to the UK I’ll still be interested in Chinese TV as at the moment I really enjoy it and am anxiously waiting for the next episode of Grandads in France to come out!
I’ve met some really nice Chinese friends here at Qingdao University and several of them have invited me to their family homes for dinner. As having a foreigner around for dinner is a special occasion, normally 饺子, Chinese dumplings, are made. Everybody is expected to sit down on one of the tiny stools and lend a hand wrapping them up. Homemade Chinese dumplings are probably one of my favourite Chinese foods and I’m keeping note of the best ones I’ve had so far:
1. Allen’s Grandmother’s in 济南
2. Color’s Grandmother’s in 农村
3. Jim’s Mother’s in 青岛* pictured above.
Despite how much I love wrapping dumplings and eating them there’s one thing I don’t like about going to my Chinese friends house to eat….the eating part. Why? Because everybody encourages me to eat, eat, eat. When eating in China there are a mixture of dishes and plates in the middle of the table and everybody has their own chopsticks to take what they like. Because there are no individual plates of food it’s hard to see how much each person has eaten. So they tell me to eat more. I’ve discovered that the elder the person the more they will encourage me to eat. I respect grandparents very much so always feel obliged to eat when they point at the roast duck bowl. Here are some things I’ve noticed about eating at a Chinese family’s home:
I have to do some stretches before and after to prepare my back for sitting down on that stool
Leona, if you want to eat something from the other side of the table make sure you’ll be able to carry it back across the table to your mouth without dropping it
Eat slowly! Eating dinner can take up to an hour so eating slowly and chewing a lot is better for digestion
If I tell them that we don’t eat 西红柿鸡蛋, tomatoes and eggs, (or any other dish that’s on the table) in England, they will tell me to eat more of it
Some dishes will be cold and not just the salad. There seems to be also a one-wok policy in China so each dish comes out of the kitchen one at a time
You drink the soup from the bowl, if everybody used spoons there would be so much more washing up to be done!
If you’re asked to toast always try to clink your glass lower than the other person to show that they have a higher status than you – but the Chinese may put their glass lower which makes things awkward
Only say yes to drinking beer if you really want it. Even though the glass is small it’s expected to be downed and refilled whenever anybody says 喝酒 or 干杯 （drink up or cheers)
If you propose a 干杯 – cheers, you’re asking everybody to down their drink so maybe wait until your glass is nearly empty
Bones, shells and other uneaten bits of food are to be placed/spat out onto the table, it’s fine
It seems the only acceptable thing to eat with your hands is chicken feet
It’s a noisy affair with often three conversations happening at once and people talking with their mouths full
The pattern seems to be that whilst making the 饺子 we will all talk together and the pace of the conversation is slow so I can understand but when it’s time to eat, everybody talks fast and I’m not expected to contribute, even if they are talking about me
If you give a grandparent eye contact they will point at something and not stop pointing until you eat it
Chinese people play things down a lot, so be prepared to hear comments like “I don’t know why you’ve come here, this is the worst kitchen in China” or “we’re the low of the low” despite their home being lovely and the food delicious!
You can relax after eating dinner, there won’t be pudding but there may be dumpling soup.
I was talking to one of my Chinese friends last week and she mentioned how she has grandparents who live in the countryside. I was really interested and told her I’d love to go and visit a Chinese village but I’ve never had the opportunity. I wasn’t inviting myself but she then told me that she would go back to her hometown next week and I could go with her.
On Tuesday after class we set off, from what she’d told me I was expecting us to get on a bus to Yantai and then we’d get off in the middle of nowhere and walk for however long before we got to this cute little village. I was wrong. Color (her English name) met me at the university gate with her ‘Auntie’ (may or may not be a blood relation). Then her stepbrother came to pick us up in the car. Ok, so we were driving, that was fine. But first we had to take a detour to the airport. This hadn’t been mentioned before and I was starting to worry we were flying to this village until Color told me her Mum had been on a business trip and we were picking her up.
After a few hours we arrived to the city of Yantai which I thought was only a small city but according to Wikipedia the population is still 6 million. We went for dinner where I got asked the usual questions – how long have you been here? Are you used to Chinese food? Can you use chopsticks? Then we went to Color’s home, a cozy, lovely decorated flat in Yantai – so far no countryside.
In the morning after breakfast we went on a wild goose chase trying to get Color a new ID card, we went to so many police stations I lost count. Then we stopped off at her Mum’s hardware shop, I was starting to think I’d never get to the village! But after lunch, me and Color took a bus to a little town which reminded me a lot of Cholchol. There was one main road and as it was just after dinnertime there wasn’t many people around except for this little puppy
and a man eating lunch in his tractor.
Color told me there were no buses to her village and her grandparents had no transport so she didn’t know how to get there. I told her we could hitchhike but she didn’t seem very keen on the idea so we waited for her grandad to find a neighbour to come and pick us up. In the meantime we sat on the side of the road and watched these women across the street. They arrived on bikes, each carrying their own little stool tied on the back of their bike. They sat down and chatted whilst eating sour cherries.
We got the to village and it was like everything I’d expected but the houses were closer to each other than I thought they’d be, it seems Chinese people prefer intimacy to privacy across the country. After meeting her grandparents who were incredibly adorable and not as fat as she’d said they were, we were sent to go and pick plums and cherries from some nearby trees.
Out of nowhere a herd of goats came scattering down from this hill, bleeting and nibbling away at the bits of rubbish. I jumped a bit as I thought they were a pack of dogs but then I relaxed when I saw they were just goats.
We climbed to the top of a small hill and could see the whole village, it has about 200 people living there. We could also see surrounding villages and the fields were green and yellow.
There’s something refreshing about being in the countryside, I could forget about all the worries I normally fret about in the city. My mind was clear and me and Color had a really nice long chat about well pretty much everything – life, death, our countries, our families. I feel that even though we’ve only met a couple of times being isolated on the hill and talking through all these things made us understand each other more. It was such a great experience and I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world, it didn’t feel like China at all, despite us talking in Chinese.
The colours, the air, the smells, the peace, the slow pace – this wasn’t the dirty, messy and crowded China I’d been exposed to before. Many of the fields were yellow because of 糜子, it sounds like maize so I called it maize but now I’ve checked and it’s actually corn millet…maize is easier for me to say and I think they’re similar, agriculturists feel free to correct me! We saw a basic combine harvester? cutting down the maize grains and other people helping out to work the land.
As we walked back down we saw some of the local people and Color told me all the relations – that lady was her Father’s younger brother’s wife but her grandparents don’t like her because she talks too much. She told me she didn’t like the gossiping ladies of the small village but she seemed to be up to date on who is who and who likes who!
When we got back to the house we helped wrap dumplings before being told to have a nap. I wasn’t tired but when a Chinese Grandad tells you to have an afternoon nap there’s no saying no. We woke up when Color’s Mum and brother arrived and it was soon time to eat. We crouched down around the tiny table on the tiny stools and ate roast duck, (black) duck eggs, cucumber in soy sauce and garlic, baked pork, sweet tomatoes and finally pork and red onion dumplings.
It was a truly amazing experience and even though I was only in the countryside for a few hours I enjoyed every minute and despite there being no flush, just a hole in the ground that led under the house, their toilet was much cleaner than others I’ve seen in China! I’m not sure if I’ll have another opportunity to go back but I have been invited so we’ll see if there’s time.
Living in China isn’t easy. I could write a huge post about all the dirty, disgusting and dangerous things I’ve seen happen here but not today. Here’s a list of some simple thing that make a day in China a little bit brighter.
Saying something to a Chinese person and them understanding you the first time
Boneless chunks of meat
Being able to read and understand street signs
The weather being good and your teacher playing a movie or Chinese TV instead of class
S.H.E songs on the radio
Crispy 1¥ notes
Getting a seat on the bus for the whole journey
New sets of animated stickers on Wechat
When there’s a blue sky and sunshine
Making new Chinese friends, especially the excited type who start planning all the cool things you’re going to do together
When the green peppers in your dish are actually green peppers and not chilli peppers
Only 30 seconds of Youku adverts instead of 60
When the price is so low there’s no need to bargain
When there’s toilet paper inside the cubicle and hand soap in public toilets.
Are you living in China? What brightens your day? Leave a comment below.