By Natasha Blackburn, Summer Teacher in Xuzhou (2016)
Above: Visit to Pearl Tower in Shanghai, Natasha on the right
China is one of the three biggest countries in the world and has a population of 1,383,438,708 people with its boundary covering more than 20,000 km and it’s land area is about 3.69 million square miles. I always knew China had a huge population and that it was a fairly big country, but I didn’t realise just how big it really was until I arrived and it took so long to travel anywhere. I knew that going to teach and travel for 7 weeks would not be long enough to see and do everything I wanted to but here’s a short guide on my own adventure in China and how to make the most of it with the time you do have especially after spending such a long time travelling there in the first place. Here are some tips for surviving daily life in China.
Nothing I have experienced in my life can compare to the daily experiences of being in China. Everything was so different. Food, transport and the theatre were just some of the few things that were strange to me as a foreigner, it was a whole new world that I was an alien to. However you soon become accustomed.
“Foreigner” directly translates to “alien” in Chinese which is always interesting when it comes to filling out landing cards and handing them over to the security desks because for something so serious, it sounds so stupid.
Eating out and buying food.
Every daily task in China is 100x more complicated than it is at home and takes so much time and effort. For example ordering food consists of pointing to pictures, taking pictures of your food in case you need to order it again, using a translator app, drawing pictures, acting out foods, hand actions and if none of that works texting your Chinese teacher to translate it for you like phone a friend on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” So a guide to eating out in China-be prepared when going out to eat and have some idea of what you are fancying because if you have no idea and the restaurant doesn’t have pictures then it is going to take you a while to order food. Go for food at a restaurant before you get hungry because by the time everyone has managed to order what they want you will have been waiting a while anyway and you might be really hungry by this point. Some of my fondest memories in China are when we all ordered food as it is never a dull moment and you will literally look so stupid just so you can order something. It would sometimes take all 4 of us to order 1 meal and we would all be using different techniques to get what we wanted.
Pointing to pictures doesn’t always work as sometimes the picture looks nothing like what turns up on your plate in front of you. This happened to me. I was in one of the restaurants where we went quite often and thought I would try something different and so I ordered something which looked really tasty on the photo. The picture looked like chicken, veg with some kind of bread on top, I thought this was a safe option when the waitress couldn’t understand me. I was actually really looking forward to this meal. It was cooked, I paid and I took it home to eat and when I was tucking into it at first it was really tasty and full of flavour but I spoke too soon. I then found a chicken heart in my food ( assuming that it was a chicken heart) and if this isn’t bad enough, I then found a chicken foot, the spiky part of the chicken’s head and something which looked like it had a nail on. After spotting the heart I didn’t eat any more of that meal even if the added extras were a delicacy. A few days later we returned to the restaurant and the lady behind the till pointed to the same picture, suggesting I should try the same thing again. The answer to that was a definite no.
Supermarkets are very interesting over in China and it is always a fascinating experience when you visit a supermarket. In Britain I find food shopping such a chore and effort but it has got to be done and there is nothing unusual being sold, in China though I would often find myself browsing up and down every aisle to see what interesting things I could find whenever we needed to get food in. There were things like pigs trotters, chicken feet, whole ducks (head and feet included), a various range of chickens (including black ones which you would never see being sold in England-also with the head and feet still attached). However there were also live animals in the supermarkets where you could choose which one you wanted, these were animals like lots of different types of fish, frogs and turtles. It is just a completely opposite way of life to what we are used to and it took me by surprise when I first saw this but it also taught me a lot about the culture.
Chicken feet in a supermarket
How to get around China?
Some methods of transport in China are similar to ours in Britain and some are totally different. The easiest and most luxurious way to travel between provinces is to use a CRH train which is also known as the bullet train (the fastest train in the world-hence the name “bullet”) as this train can currently travel at a top speed of 186 mi/h (300 km/h) and it is planned to increase to 217 mi/h (350 km/h) in the near future. Using this train makes travelling to other parts of China not so much of a tedious and dire journey because of its high speeds and modern interior. However to travel within provinces buses and taxis are cheap as long as you know where you are going because the taxi and bus drivers have very little/poor English. In Xuzhou, the city where I was based, buses cost 2 yuan (20p) to get to wherever you wanted to go within the province but if you do not have 2 yuan change then you will end up paying more for your bus fare.
As there was 4 of us who tended to travel together, taxis were just as cheap and got you where you wanted to be quicker than a bus. Before we went anywhere we would get the address of where we wanted to be in Chinese from the Chinese teachers which meant we ended up where we wanted to go 99% of the time.
When we went for a weekend to Beijing we decided to get a taxi to the Great Wall of China and be on the wall for sunrise. So after only having 2 or 3 hours sleep we got dressed and jumped in a taxi at 3 in the morning hoping to be there by 5 o clock and ready for sunrise at 6 o clock, therefore leaving ourselves an hour to get onto the wall and find the perfect photo spot for the sunrise. Taxis in Beijing were more expensive than we were used to in Xuzhou and the meter was increasing dramatically but we only noticed after about an hour into the journey so we didn’t know how much we were going to end up paying to get there, but there was no way we could turn back now and we certainly wouldn’t be able to hitch another taxi ride in the middle of a motorway at 4 am. We had to bite the bullet and just carry on.
We thought that we were so clever to think of this idea and thought that we would miss traffic and the main crowds at the wall by getting there for sunrise. It was about quarter to 5 in the morning when we started seeing tourist signs directing us to the Great Wall of China which meant our plan was running smoothly so far and our timing was perfect. When we got closer we saw the wall in the distance but we couldn’t find a way of getting to it and we had lost direction signs. We drove around trying to find the wall until 6 am but still had no luck, by this point we were all hungry so the taxi driver pulled over and took us for breakfast in a back street cafe where he paid. We got back on the road after dumplings for breakfast and finally found the wall after hours of searching but by the time we arrived we had already missed sunrise which we were all disappointed about. The wall didn’t open till half past 7 anyway so even if we had wanted to get there for sunrise we wouldn’t have been allowed on it. It seemed like a good idea but we should have done more research so we didn’t end up searching for it and maybe we should have stuck to a guided tour from our hotel. We slept on a bench for an hour before buying tickets and heading off up the wall. This is a story that will stick with me for the rest of my life because apparently you can see the Great Wall of China from Space and we couldn’t physically find it and that would be the reaction from people when we told them we couldn’t find one of the 7 wonders of the World.
Make sure that when you get a train that you go to the correct station as one station tends to be for bullet trains and one tends to be for any other train but in bigger cities there may be more than two train stations. I know this might seem like a stupid thing to say but I thought that I was heading to the correct station in Shanghai but I ended up missing my train back to Xuzhou because my ticket just said Shanghai. I thought it must be the train station where we arrived in Shanghai a couple of days earlier, so that is where I went. I arrived with little money because I was supposed to be going home the next day so didn’t think I would need much and I had spent the rest. I couldn’t see my train on the boards so after rebooking my flights for the following day and rebooking my train home for the morning I slept the night on the station floor with my dress over me as a blanket and rucksack as a pillow. My train arrived at 6am the next morning and I had never been so happy to see my train flash up on the board.
Living like a local: street BBQ in Xuzhou
How to live like a local?
We tried to embrace as much culture as we could whilst in China and get ourselves involved in things that we wouldn’t dream of doing back home and I think that when you are away from home this long it becomes more of a cultural experience than a holiday. We danced in the park late at night with all the locals trying to teach us the dances, we ate in local back street places which we wouldn’t go anywhere near at home, we went to the local theatre and we didn’t understand a thing but we enjoyed watching the different acts. We tried lots of different restaurants with our bosses including hot pot and also Japanese style cuisine, we went to a street BBQ and tried all of the foods we would find revolting at home, we went to KTV and sang our hearts out, we visited the hospital and bought a sick man some food and we travelled to different cities in China. However we did still not fit in as a local because of our hair colour and accents which is why we were asked to star in a film called “Thousand Faces Paparazzi” as background extras. My friend Ciara also made it into the Chinese local newspaper for her fashion sense and how good her outfit choice was. On a daily basis locals would try and take sneaky photograph of you with them and it would probably get sent around all of their friends on “We-chat” as if they had just bumped into a celebrity. Sometimes people would ask you to be in a photograph and other times they would just take it without thinking that you realised when the camera was pointing straight at you for your picture. At first I found the stares and the photographs quite off putting but once you have experienced it for a few days you no longer take note and you understand they are just curious about you and have probably never seen many foreigners from Britain before apart from on the TV. In bigger cities, the locals do not take as many photos but in cities like Xuzhou you appear to be like an alien as they are not used to foreigners. Things like this do not sound realistic but in China anything can happen at any time and you have just got to roll with it and take it all onboard as these are the things you will never forget and the reason why a trip like this is different from going anywhere else in the world.
Natasha’s class with signed England flags at the end of summer.
The most annoying thing is the fact you want to share these memories with people from home but they will not find them funny in the way you did because they just weren’t there and it is so difficult to explain why such little things were just so funny. The only people that will truly understand the memories and stories from China are the people who travelled with you. I literally had the best summer and I would do it all again in a heart beat. I have learnt a lot from this trip and it has made me a much more confident person because I have done things that I never thought I would be able to do for example dancing and speaking in front of hundreds of people. I have never laughed so much as I have when I was over here and I would really recommend this trip to anyone who was thinking about going because it truly was amazing. I had the pleasure of sharing my trip with lovely Chinese and foreign teachers who I am now very close to.