Experiencing the real China

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March 8th 2012
Published: June 26th 2012
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Catching a bus from Shanghai to Jiangyin turns out to be easier than I thought. They leave every 30 minutes from Shanghai's Long-Distance Bus Terminal, which is located within walking distance from the Shanghai Railway Station metro station. I copy the Chinese characters for 'Jiangyin' onto a piece of paper, show it to the lady selling the bus tickets, nod and smile when she asks me a question in Chinese, which prompts her to shoot me a weird look, but I just keep nodding and smiling bravely until she gives me a ticket.

I have enough time to grab a bite before my bus leaves, so I check out a baozi stall to see if they have vegetarian ones. My standing around awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other gets me some attention from the locals around me, of whom two middle-aged men start talking to me, using various gestures, all of which I can interpret only as something along the lines of "Come, come! Eat, eat!", which is nice of them, and gives me the chance to finally blurt out with "我吃素", which is supposed to tell them that I'm vegetarian, but apparently it just means: "I eat vegetables". To my surprise, they start aaaahing loudly, repeating what I said, then asking the baozi seller a question, to which she replies "méi yǒu" while wagging her right index finger at the same time. The two guys look at me apologetically, repeating what she already said. "OK", I say with a smile, which makes them laugh out loud. "OK, OK!" they imitate, laughing and smiling and waving me goodbye.

Little did I know at that time that this constituted a historic moment, as I'd just been mei you-ed for the first time on this trip. It means 'no have', and is probably one of the most important basic Mandarin expressions to know and be able to recognise, as it's used all the time (naturally, just like 'yes' and 'no' in any language). The thing is, it can also mean "OHMYGOD a laowei, that's so awkward, I knew I should have practiced my English last night instead of drinking all that baijiu while watching pirated Korean drama DVDs at my friend's restaurant...OH NO, he's trying to talk to me...what is he saying, is that supposed to be Chinese? He does look very funny, I have to admit...what's that in his ears, makes him look a bit like Buddha, haha! What is he looking at in his little book? What book is that, I need to know it now! Oh no...he's pointing at something in the book...he wants ME to LOOK AT IT! Oh, it just says 'I eat vegetables'. That's great, but what does he want from me? I better tell him 'no have' to save face, and release some more endorphins.", which can be more than just a little frustrating.


Two and a half hours later, I arrive in rainy Jiangyin. I line up to catch a taxi, show the driver the address on a slip of paper, and 15 minutes later, he drops me off at the gate of a high school, where my mate Félix greets me with a big man-hug. Those of you who can't remember Félix, he's the Québécois mofo from A dip into Burma. Also, he's American (now you're confused, eh?). To act out his strong sinophile tendencies, he moved from Thailand to China a while ago already to teach English and drink beer with hot-panted Chinese chicks.

We go by bicycle to the nearby little town of Shanguan, which is actually closer to the school than downtown Jiangyin. Félix takes me to a Muslim Chinese restaurant there, the owners of which are from central China (Qinghai province). The unrivalled specialty of these little restaurants, which are to be found all over China, I am told, are hand-pulled noodles aka lamian. What that means is once you place your order, the chef takes a lump of dough and stretches it repeatedly to produce many strands of long, thin noodles. It doesn't get fresher than that. They usually do it right next to the entrance, and it is quite a sight to behold for the culinary curious. I lean back and let Félix do the ordering, taking advantage of his excellent Mandarin. I get a big dish of noodles with crispy wood ear mushrooms and some greens in a spicy red sauce. The smooth, chewy texture of the thick, white noodles (not unlike Udon, just fresher), which absorb the sauce perfectly, paired with the yumminess of the mushrooms makes this one of the most incredibly tasty dishes full of noodly goodness I've ever had!

Afterwards we go to a nearby teahouse. Being the only customers, we are led upstairs to a private section in the back by the lady of the house. She puts the water to boil, gets the green tea leaves, the pot and the hot plate ready and brings us some savoury snacks. After the leaves have infused for long enough, we start pouring the tea into our tiny cups. We sit there for a few hours, downing cup after cup of tea, munching away on sunflower seeds and rice crackers, cracking bad jokes and laughing and catching up. Maybe it's the vast amounts of tea settling on the noodles inside my stomach, or the general coziness and jovial atmosphere, but while our session is in progress, a feeling sets in that I've truly and finally arrived in China.


Over the course of the next few days, more yummy food is eaten, Chinese beer is introduced, a few trips to the market are made, and some Québécois films are watched. We go on an excursion to Jiangyin itself, which takes us a good 45 minutes by bike. A familiar stereotype is confirmed: Chinese people can't drive. Fuck's sake. If you happen to be a poor arsehole on a bicycle, they won't even acknowledge your existence. Don't expect them to brake or give way for you. They think they own the road. The worst are rich fucks in their posh SUVs or German cars. They race through the streets, permanently blowing their horn to let everybody know they should make way or, better yet, get off their road. There is absolutely nothing that could possibly be used as an argument to justify such behaviour, except for (in their minds) "I'm rich, you're not, so get the fuck out of the way!"

There's not that much to see in Jiangyin, that's for sure. It's a rather strange city, with roughly 1.5 million people living there, it still somehow counts as a part of Wuxi, despite the fact that Wuxi is one hour away. Thus, it doesn't feature on most maps. Can you imagine a city of 1.5 million in your country not finding its way onto a very detailed map? I sure as hell can't. That's a bit like Hamburg not being on the map, just size-wise.

We go to a tiny Sichuan restaurant, where Félix orders four dishes, a big pot of rice, and two beers. After about two minutes the food arrives. We have Mapo Doufu (麻婆豆腐), an excellent tofu dish with hot chili flakes in a spicy red sauce, bok choy, which is called bái cài (白菜) in Mandarin, and the undisputed star of the feast, my new favourite dish, spicy and sour shredded potatoes a.k.a. suān là tǔ dòu sī (酸辣土豆絲). A sweet roasted corn dish serves as a dessert surrogate. I'm starting to get shocked at how good the food is, and, especially, at the variety and ingenuity of the dishes. This is more than just a world apart from the "Asia Wok"-eateries back in Europe. This is palatal paradise for the Palatinate pariah.


For the weekend, a bunch of Félix' Merkin friends arrive. And then some more. And another one in a taxi. We go downtown to a nice Turkish restaurant (why? why not!), where I ostracize myself on purpose, spinning a cocoon of indifference and cynicism, while drinking some excellent ayran. The Merkins think it's gross (the ayran - not the cocoon), except for one, the most pleasant of the lot, but he's a Bosniak Merkin, so he should be used to a substantial Turkish influence anyway. The Merkin couple to my right doesn't stop fighting and shouting at each other. Actually, they're probably not really shouting, that's just the way they talk. Like how Germans are portrayed in Hollywood films. Always barking orders and using a very limited vocabulary consisting mainly of 'Nein', 'Scheiße' and 'Achtung!'. The ranga Merkin to my left keeps talking to the typical New Yorker across me about work and finance and economics, and what he'll be doing "when the bubble bursts". Good for him that at least he can see it coming and is already prepared. I'm actually being a bit unfair, all of them are pretty nice, but as an old German saying goes: 'Nice is de little brozza of shite'; plus they're Merkins after all, so somebody has to give them crap, AND IT MIGHT AS WELL BE ME!!!

Afterwards we go to a bar in a street that appears to be particularly expat-friendly. Surprisingly, the majority of people inside are Chinese, but there are quite a few Whities as well. We settle in with a beer and watch the show, which is three Filipinas, one too big and adipose, one too small and anorexic, and one relatively reasonable, butchering 90s Dance hits using their vocal chords while attempting to dance in a sexy sort of manner. The fatty one is the worst. Why she's wearing this black dress, which is way too tight and too short, I have no way of knowing. It literally starts just above her boobs and ends where her thighs begin, with some excess flesh being pressed out at the seams. She knows mostly only the choruses of the songs, and every now and then breaks character during the song, standing around, moping and looking confused, getting out a lyric sheet, studying it for a few seconds, then getting back into the song. Needless to say, we are highly entertained and amused.

The crowd is also quite interesting. Some of the tables are occupied by groups of Chinese businessmen, who have several bottles of liquor sitting in front of them, a few 'service ladies' next to them, and who down the drinks like no tomorrow, all the while acting boisterous and loudly laughing and sleazily gesturing towards the poor Filipinas. Then there's groups of expats, some with a token Chinese amongst them to show how intercultural and cosmopolitan they are. There are a few pairs of dolled-up Chinese females, who are obviously only there for the expat blokes. Also, there are a bunch of single Chinese males, who are obviously only there for the blonde expat chicks. Some tiny, skinny Chinese males, who I'm guessing are there for a different type of expat guys, round up the picture.


The following day, we go for a hike up a hill close to the school. Félix and the Merkins are all incredibly high, thus they keep acting like a bunch of little kids let loose. They throw rocks and roll bigger rocks down the slope of the hill, they try to play boules, hitting a specific rock with their rock, they attempt to split smaller trees with their big rocks and they seem to want to cause a rock slide. They take big sticks of bamboo and swordfight with them, and even bigger sticks of bamboo they throw like a javelin down the hill. As the only sober person, I feel a bit like the carer of a group of mental asylum inmates on a trip to the country.

One cannot state that the nature is pristine where we hike. Most of the trees on the slope of the hills have been cut down. The view to either side consists mainly of buildings and buildings being built, all covered in thick smog and haze. Blue factories and toxic-looking lakes linger somewhere underneath. The curious thing about all that incessant building is that once the endless blocks of apartment buildings have been finished, nobody seems to move in or make use of them. We pass whole quarters with new high-rise condos that appear uninhabitated. I can only guess that there must be a lot of fishy business going on.


After the Merkins have left, I stay for another day or two. During the course of my visit, I get to know Félix a lot better. He says 'my penis' a lot, which is probably due to the Frenchie cultural influence. When he goes to take a pee, more often than not you can hear him giggle audibly about previously undigested conversation snippets. Underneath his living room table, he keeps a little box where he collects his toe crud. For what purpose, I can't fathom nor do I care to find out, but it makes me shudder even as I'm typing this. He knows all the lyrics to all the songs of Jon Lajoie by heart, which is more disturbing than amazing. His Mandarin skills are already very impressive, and he learns Russian, German and Spanish on the side, just for the fuck of it. He has adopted quite a few Chinese cultural values, like selfless hospitality and to an extent the importance of face. Most importantly, he has seemingly endless reserves of energy at his disposal, he still loves to travel off the beaten path, and he's able to maintain a good balance between not giving a fuck and being able to fit in and make a living to empower him to give even less of a fuck.


I know, I know. The thing with the title. How dare I, who has been in China less than a week only, claim to have experienced the real China, where you, most venerable expat, have been living in the country for two and a half years teaching English, know 7 (seven) Chinese characters and where to get the best pizza and burritos in your town, have slept with dozens of hot Chinese part-time prostitudes/expat honeys/passport anglers and thus contracted a wide variety of authentic STDs?
Here's a few reasons why:

• I don't look down on Chinese culture or think my own culture is superior, which is an important prerequisite if you want to be able to really experience a different culture

• there's next to nothing for tourists in Jiangyin and around; people just go about their daily lives; Shanghai and Beijing seem to be a world away

• I was able to take advantage of Félix' Mandarin skills to finally find out WHAT THE FUCK THEY'RE ALWAYS YAKKING ON ABOUT

• nobody tries to rip you off, as the vast majority of locals is not used to foreigners, so they wouldn't even understand the point of ripping you off or overcharging, for ultimately, they would never be able to make a living off that anyway

• there are no pre-packaged, well-rehearsed scams waiting for the tourist, as there is no tourist

• the food is cheap, amazing, and is brought to you in a jiffy by friendly locals eager to please

• there are no flashy malls designed exclusively for tourists or expats; I went to the same cheapo shops as the locals and gave them advice on shoes they were trying on

• I've seen first-hand how dodgy and unreliable they can be when it comes to things like computer repair, and how quick and uncomplicated they can be when it comes to stuff like shower door-repair

• I've almost been run over several times on my bicycle by reckless drivers who shouldn't have a license in the first place

• I've become more reckless and daring myself in the progress

• I've witnessed expats acting the maggot, which is what poor Chinese people have to put up with all over the country

In the end, it doesn't matter what or where the real China is, or whether or not I've experienced it. What matters is that I've had a great time catching up with my mate, eating fantastic food, and getting to check out a 'smaller' Chinese town, complete with everything that encompasses. Onwards to Nanjing 'tis now, fellas.

Additional photos below
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26th June 2012

Great blog!
As an 'expat of 2.5 years in china' myself, I absolutely loved reading your well-written blog, funny, anecdotal and very recognisable! Xie Xie
26th June 2012

Thanks for the kind words Mr. Traveler, glad you liked it! :)
26th June 2012

comment #2
Maybe schould have logged in before commenting he he.
27th June 2012

I just recently started following you...
and appreciate your blunt language.
27th June 2012

Um, thanks Bob! Was that sarcasm? It's sometimes a bit hard to tell on the internets... I'm quite a straight talker, though, and I don't like to mince my words, if that's what you mean. Thanks for reading and following! Cheers, Jens
27th June 2012

Not sarcasm at all...
you just tell it like it is, which I appreciate!
27th June 2012

Rape plant
There actually is a plant called Rape. An unfortunate name for it, in my opinion, because it has some very good health attributes, because its seeds are rich in omega 3 oil, which is something many of us are short of in our diets. It is called Raps Ol, in German. There probably should be a umlaut there someplace, and umlaut is probably spelled differently. Grammar, especially Germany grammar is not my area of strength. :)
27th June 2012

Thanks for the comment, Mell! :) I learned the thing with Rapsöl being rapeseed oil fron an article in an Australian newspaper a while ago. It said they had to change the name to the more politically correct sounding 'canola oil', and they thought this would boost sales as well. I never knew that you could eat dried rape plant, so I was quite happy to see it in China in a supermarket, full of rapey omega-3 goodness! :) Cheers, Jens
30th June 2012
Enjoy losing your face!

Enjoy the ride...and don't get run over...embracing Chinese culture...great way to go!

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