Obviously, I started putting this together before I actually left China. But I left and went straight to India and completely immersed myself in that incredible experience. (It deserves a separate blog. Soon.) Nevertheless, seeing as how I am still in Asia, I still find most of this relevant.
I didn’t have the time of my life in China, as most of you may already know, but there’s nothing like some hindsight, and some new experiences, to give you a better understanding of the why’s. Of course, there are never any written confirmations that we’ve indeed discovered the right answers. And I am still debating between which of my purported reasons could be why I was called to go there in the first place. But, I guess in the end it doesn’t matter right? I went. I did what I did. And now it’s over. Here are some reasons why I am happy it is so:
1. The air pollution
Do I even need to expound on this? I had such a lovely apartment on the 21st floor in an area that most people considered the “suburbs” of Shanghai (I still don’t see it), which gave me quite a nice panoramic view. When I first walked in, I had imagined myself regularly sitting by the window and writing my moon intentions or meditating, doing yoga or even just looking out the window and thinking. Then I moved in, and I did none of that. Firstly, because I never seemed to ever have enough time for anything. But also, mostly, because most times when I pulled those lovely curtains aside, all I saw was haze. Some days, I could still make out a few shapes. Other days, it was like looking into emptiness. Let’s not even talk about what that air did to my body.
2. The water (heavy metals)
Four months into living in China brought me to the decision of cutting off almost 12 inches of my hair. It had been breaking and falling out in an excessive manner and it got to a point where the ends were simply too thin. Recovery began once I got a shower filter. My face and my stomach took a little longer to adjust.
3. The spitting
On the bus. In the train. Right beside you. On the sidewalk. In a restaurant. Once you go, you know. I hear the sound in my nightmares sometimes.
4. Loud inconsiderate chatter on flights
Never before had I ever even considered that a flight could sound like a Juta bus from dung a country or downtown market pon a Saturday morning until I started taking trips from Shanghai. My first flight out was to Krabi, Thailand, and we left China at something like 1 am. When I tell you there was nonstop loud chatter THE ENTIRE FLIGHT. I’m still mad. But I guess it’s better than getting so tired of dodging photographs from the guy in the aisle seat infront of you that you have to ask the flight attendant to be moved. This leads me to my next point…
5. Being photographed/stared at
Like a regular animal in a zoo. No matter where you are. Or what you are doing–and god forbid you’ve got another person of colour with you … there’s a Chinese person, somewhere in your vicinity, pretending to take a selfie/play a game/be on a video call just to get a photo of or with you. If you’re lucky, they’ll ask. If it’s a normal day, they won’t. If you say no, they probably won’t listen. If you say yes, get ready to be bombarded by all the ones who were standing by a little less brazen but just as eager to get the damn photo. I still can’t make up my mind whether I believe it’s true ignorance and innocence or not, but whatever it is, good riddance. I have never had my boundaries invaded so much in my entire life and I hope to never have to experience it again.
6. The smells
Honestly, I don’t know how to expound on this without maybe being a bit offensive so I will just say this: maybe it’s because I have been vegetarian for awhile now, but I have never ever smelt animals like this before. And I know what death smells like. My relatives hunt. This was not just the smell of decay. The stench that hits you every 10 steps of walking through the city … is .. deplorable. Mix that in with a population of folk who brush their teeth maybe once every other year and.. yeah. Pass
At the risk of being blacklisted, I’ll save this expansion for one-on-one conversations.
8. Being pushed and shoved on the metro and, everywhere, really
Personal space, what’s that? “Excuse me”? Never heard of such a thing. “Sorry” Shénmē?
I don’t know if there are any real hygienic standards for any kind of business or establishment. If there are, no one follows them. I can’t tell you how many times I got a stomach bug, from either cross-contamination or just plain nastiness. The bathrooms, which you can always smell from way down the street, never have toilet paper and you can forget about soap. No one washed their hands any way. It was honestly the biggest uphill battle trying to teach the children to wash their hands after they use the toilet (and also to flush) because no one in their culture seems to do it. Then they go to lunch with those dirty hands and they eat off the table and off the floor and just way faster than necessary, getting food all over their face and stuffing their mouths to the point of almost choking. They have zero table manners, and it’s the same for the adults. They also use the toilet any and everywhere and when they spit or blow their nose in their hands, they wipe it on wherever or whatever and keep on with their day as if nothing happened. No hygiene, no table manners, no social etiquette… which leads me to my next point…
10. The entire culture/lack of social etiquette
Ahh. This one is loaded. I still have so much trouble wrapping my mind around so many of the things I experienced while living in China. And of course, as a well-traveled person I always do my best to find appreciation for cultures that I get to be a part of for a brief moment in time. This was a hard one for me, though. Truly. I didn’t make any Chinese friends who would’ve been able to give me some history or innerstanding or even just contrast of what I was experiencing daily until my very last weekend in Shanghai. I was actually invited by the parents of one of my students to spend the weekend with them in their home town. During that trip, I got some much needed perspective from history lessons that could’ve really made all the difference had I learned sooner. The family’s generosity and openness gave me a little glimmer of hope that maybe not everyone there is so detached from humanity, coexistence, and consideration. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I still left with a general feeling of displeasure for the culture. I had some nice interactions with the natives, but most of them, by and large, were not.
11. Having to rely on people to get anything done
I didn’t anticipate so many people not being able to speak a single word of English. Even people at the U.S. Embassy, or at airline call centres or the post office or at the police station… I also didn’t anticipate for so many people who not only have zero desire to learn or try to understand your language, but who also have zero desire to try to understand their own language if you attempt to speak it but maybe without good pronunciation. They don’t want to learn English. They don’t care what you’re saying. You trying to talk Mandarin is not impressive and now you’ve just wasted 2 minutes of their life, and 20 minutes of yours. Find a friend.
Oh. Did I already say that? The lack of communication between the Chinese staff and the foreign staff is absolutely deplorable. The production that is that school and its teachers is fit for a television show.
13. The picture-taking
If you think the western world is bad.. wait until you’re walking the streets of Shanghai and see a little boy well poised next to a nice garden with a rose in his hand and his other hand in his pocket. Nothing happened if there’s no photo to show for it. You didn’t eat dinner unless I saw your selfies at the restaurant on WeChat. All 20 of them, with the filter that makes you the whitest and gives you the biggest eyes and the slimmest face.
14. Lack of authenticity
I guess this part maybe goes hand in hand with having a photocentric society. Everything is about how it looks. From their education (Surprise! They buy their grades) to their relationships with people. No one says how they really feel, and they could honestly win some awards for slapping on the fakest smiles and showering you with compliments when they really hate your effin’ guts. Count me out.
15. General universal incompetence
Here we have a group of people who question nothing and simply do what they are told even if it makes absolutely no sense. There is no question of why. It’s either do, or do not. It might even be a little bit impressive, to be so .. absent.
16. The void
There is an energetic silence in this country that is completely deafening and, ultimately, quite maddening. I grieve in melancholy to think of all the spiritual work that was undone just by my being there for a year. I was void of almost all energy, feeling, and connection for the entire time I was there. I actually feel lucky to have made it out alive with a little bit of my soul left. I fought so much with my decision to stay there, despite all of what I saw coming, and I cried and cried in India when I found out just how much damage was done. But my faith is still here, underneath all of this. And I still believe in my decisions. I’ve no choice but to keep going.
What I will miss
I couldn’t make an entire post of the bad without also including some of the things I will/do miss.
1. My children
See my last post.
2. My pay
This is the only time in my adult life that I never ever ever had to worry about money for a second. Want laser eye surgery? Ok. Want to fly to Timbuktu? Let’s go. Massage at least once a week? Why not. And I’m taking a DiDi home too because I can’t be bothered to deal with the train.
3. My apartment
Like I said, 21st floor. Panoramic view. No money worries. Living by myself. With a kitchen and a nice shower (after the filter came). Solitude can be addicting. Especially if the world is just below you whenever you need a bit of stimulation.
4. The cost of living
I honestly wasn’t getting paid much more than I was in the US. The difference is, what I paid for in my daily life was like 1/3 of the price, if that much. I paid my rent two months at a time. And still had money to blow on Taobao.
Yo. Amazon who? I can literally take a photo of an item and upload it to Taobao and in 10 seconds have it in my cart, and the next day, in my hand. This coupled with Instagram ads that read your thoughts and prices less than 5 USD made for a pretty crazy combination. I had to learn self-control. Still working on it.
The. Most. Convenient. Application. Of all existence. On WeChat you can pay your bills, buy anything from anywhere just by scanning the QR code. Transfer money to people like you’re sending a text. Be in a group chat about anything that interests you. Order food. Hire a bicycle. Get coupons. Follow travel groups and other businesses. Buy movie tickets and train tickets. Chat. Post moments. Do I need to continue? It’s honestly the greatest thing ever. I never walked with cash after receiving counterfeit money. And thanks to WeChat I also never had to walk with my bank card. Super comprehensive and we are so behind in the West.
7. Hot pot
A place where you get a pot on a fire and an endless buffet of things that can go in it. It was one of the only places I would go to eat Chinese food because.. well, I was making it myself. But that doesn’t downplay the dopeness of it. It’s a great place to go with a group of people and spend an evening. Especially if you’re into soup. And eating.
8. The safety
I am not sure there’s a safer place on Earth to live actually. Not a city anyway. I never had a single moment that made me feel like my safety was under threat. I mean, Chinese people aren’t very threatening in general but for such a big city, it’s pretty amazing how little crime there is. Almost none. In fact, one morning I woke up to find that my front door was quite literally wide open, and not a single thing was taken. Nor did I feel particularly unsafe after that. (I had the locks changed, though, out of common sense.)
9. Ear cleanings!
You thought you knew what pleasure was. You don’t know real pleasure until you’ve had a traditional Chinese ear cleaning. I promise. I will fly back to Shanghai JUST to go get my ear cleaned. In fact I am already looking up tickets…
They’ve since really upset me but I guess I will still write about them because they really were a good, useful company for me while I was living in China. First of all, the only time I have ever gotten my money back from a flight has been through them. They also provided me with fapiao’s very easily and quickly whenever I needed them for tax purposes. AND THEIR REPRESENTATIVES SPOKE ENGLISH. Hello. Win win.
11. Acro Jams
The only socialising I did during the entire time I was there was going to the weekly Acroyoga jams on Sunday. Through acro I was able to meet a lot of good people, with energy, and it was always rejuvenating. I even got to see many different parts of the city thanks to these jams. I wasn’t always up for the one-hour long train ride, but whenever I did make it there, I never regret it. It gave me a small sense of community, of belonging, and dare I say it, even pride. The organisation, the dedication, and the consistency of the AcroMonkeys in Shanghai has been unmatched so far.
12. The tea!
I really and truly solidified my love for tea by being here and being able to visit tea farms and see the different processes of the real and only true tea. Prior to going, I had learned about how everything we know as “tea” in the west isn’t really tea because “tea” is actually a single plant called camellia sinensis. Well, I met camellia, and we became really good friends and she carried me through every trying time in China. I left the place with an entire suitcase full of tea, and I still fear the day that I run out. I’ve been actively thinking of contingency plans in order to always have a good stash on deck. Honestly, you’ve never had a really good cup of tea until you’ve had it in China. Preferably in a tea ceremony where you sit for hours just smelling and sipping tea with different levels of oxidation. (By the way, did you know you could drink rose tea? A parent gifted me some high quality rose tea and honestly I wanted to drink it all the time because it smelled so good and I thought maybe my sweat would start smelling like flowers LOL.)
Also, give thanks for high quality green tea and for pu-erh and oolong and the fruit teas that took me through the summer. And give thanks for the multitude of tea ceremonies and the friends I shared them with.
Speaking of friends..
13. Arie & Ina
Last and most definitely not least; may I never forget the impact these ladies had on my experience in China and how I probably wouldn’t have made it without them. For all the times I didn’t want to go home and I stayed on their couch and played Sims all night. Or the nights me and Ina spent drinking tea until we(I) fell asleep. Or the nights we sat and watched Hidden Colours and talked about aliens and ghosts and the meaning of life. This is what I miss the most.