Expat Magazine

The ‘Little Things’ I Took for Granted Before Living in China…

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

Kangaroos in Australia

You know you’ve landed ‘down under’ when the waitress at the local pub tells you, the chef forgot one of your meals because he had an…um.. “brain fart!” 

My eyebrows arched in amusement, I gigged…but it was oddly comforting.

I was home.

Then, later, she seemed to have no trouble keeping an eye on our table should we need anything else, like say, another drink! Yes please!

I didn’t have to frantically wave my arm off and shout at the top of my lungs “Fu wu yuan!” (Try saying that in a hurry!) She even offered to clear away the empty plates before the table resembled a 15-plate pile up! 

It’s the little things. 

Like the ‘small talk’ for instance….yes, it can be slightly annoying sometimes when you just want to do your thing and the retail assistant is asking you how your day’s been and you want to tell her it’s been crappy but remain polite…and then it gets even more intense when she won’t stop… and practically asks what colour undies you’ve got on! FYI, in China, when they can’t speak English they just follow me around very very closely, almost nipping at my heels, eagle eyeing everything I glance at. Sometimes, I’m not sure which is worse. 

But what about when you really do want to engage in small talk, just a little “how’s your week been?” In a country that speaks a totally different language to you, where ‘hello,’ ‘see you this afternoon,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘see you tomorrow’ is the limit in small talk, it’s enough to have you crying into your Chinese book.  

Watching television is also one of those little things I used to take for granted. You don’t really ever stop to think about how it might be if they weren’t speaking English. It’s a guessing game at best. There might be fifty-plus channels on China television but none are in English (apart from BBC and CNN, of which I am extremely grateful to have access to, living in the hotel). You can appreciate my recent obsession with Netflix….and absolute devastation that it’s soon to be banned to all those using a VPN.

TV in Xian

Let it not go unsaid though, I do try to watch local TV. I’ve found myself on more than one occasion watching a Chinese soapie, in silence. This one’s set in the military (actually most of them are) and I think I’ve even worked out the plot. Enough said! 

You can imagine how mesmerised we are in Australia by the little things like, those pesky, annoying adverts! And don’t get me started on those new shows like “Married at First Sight!” One treasure-laden episode of trashy TV and I was utterly hooked! And of course, there’s morning television, which, as intended, makes it feel like I’m hanging out with my mates (English alone is enough in common, for a lasting friendship, surely?)   

Then there’s driving. When you drive everyday, well.. I can hear you thinking it’s kind of a burden isn’t it?! You jump in the car, throw your bag in (forget the keys), start it up, sigh…petrol’s low…go through five hundred toll gates, in bumper to bumper traffic. It’s all a bit tiring. (And let’s not forget the expense of owning said car…let alone the cost of petrol. (It’s been so long since I’ve fuelled up, I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous at the pump. Last time I put petrol in, I was a bit flustered, walked off and left my phone on the car roof!) 

You probably think having a Mercedes waiting at your beck and call is “like totally awesome!” Sounds all a bit celebrity-like doesn’t it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to shy away from a bit of Hollywood action, but in Xi’an having a driver is a necessity not a luxury. 

Driving here would be sure to send you into cardiac arrest. And while it’s easy stepping into the back of a waiting car  jolted off, horn’s screeching whisked away to your destination without much thinking (apart from the brain strain of trying to use your mandarin to communicate where you’d like to go to the non-English speaking driver), it also means a distinct lack of freedom. With a detailed itinerary of your week required well in advance, spontaneity is right out the window. Want to head to that cafe on Friday, you need to let them know on Monday! Change of heart on the way home…errr it’s not in the itinerary love, forget it! The car is booked for another event. (Except of course, he wouldn’t be saying that and I would need to make a few phone calls to someone who speaks English first to find that out.) And just quietly, in celebrity land, I’m sure the driver is not slumped over the wheel, asleep when you come to get in the car.

So these days, jumping in the car and cruising up the road, music humming, is one of those little things that gives me a tingly feeling of immense joy and freedom! You can picture the scene! Yes, I can go anywhere I like without being held hostage by my itinerary and my language! Road trip, anyone?!!  

Road rules in Xi'an

I would like to point out though, having become a little bit used to China’s slightly ‘laissez faire’ attitude on the roads (i.e. seatbelt optional, helmet not required, eating/talking on phone ok, five people on a bike perfectly acceptable — (side saddle if necessary), sitting in the tray on the back of a small three wheeler ok, road rules optional, every man for himself…) it’s fair to say, I did find Australia a little… rigid. 😉

I mean, drivers actually waited at pedestrian crossings for people to cross the road, they managed; for the most part, to stick to their own lanes and drive at a similar speed, let alone abided by rules of wearing a seatbelt, a helmet, not using phones and parking in a manner you might regard as courteous (aka between the lines). 

There is also that feeling in Australia that somebody’s watching over your shoulder. Oh wait! They actually are (and that’s not just the hundreds of street cameras, waiting to catch you out for any minor mishap). 

Indulge me for a minute while I relay this little tale. It’s the Easter weekend holiday – we’re cruising down the highway (the police presence is in overdrive, as you’d expect), I am NOT driving. I am in the back seat, seatbelt on! But…one of my bad habits is putting it under my shoulder. (I know!!) I mean really, they should be lucky I’m wearing one, I am after all Chinese now. 

Anyway as I was saying, I had an eery feeling someone was watching over my shoulder, glanced out the window….and… a few expletives under my breath…there’s a police officer on a big, bad motor bike right beside me, peering in my window, madly gesturing at me…in the middle of the highway!! Did I mention we are not stationary!

I looked up in a panicked state, I couldn’t for the life of me think what I had done, except perhaps I wasn’t even allowed to be on my mobile phone in this country anymore, in the back seat?! Was it a new rule, I’d missed? Then it dawned on me, my seatbelt!! I quickly shifted it over my shoulder and he gave me the big thumbs up and roared off! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but in all honesty, I was pretty impressed. Now that’s looking after your people isn’t it? FYI, the road toll over Easter was zero.

Did I mention I’m on the market for a scooter in Xi’an? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em, I say! (May start with push bike first!)

So, while I found myself giddy with excitement over the driving, I also found myself in a frenzy over the food! It seems cafes and restaurants have taken things to a whole new level. Just between you and me, I am ‘advised’ to eat gluten free food, but living here in Xi’an, it’s nigh on impossible, unless I live on one type of bland, boring piece of bread for the duration of my time here. 

My excitement at gluten free wraps and well, pretty much GF everything was palpable, let alone the ordinary staples…one trip to the supermarket and I’m in paradise (and I don’t even cook!). 

Of course, I don’t mind Chinese food (in fact I had it for dinner last night) and I’m especially partial to a good plate of Dim Sum, but in Xi’an, spicy may be everything, but variety is not the spice of life. 

Still on eating, kind of…one thing I’ve come to take for granted living in China, is that, just about every cafe has a power point at the table to charge up your phone….here I was in ‘Straya’ – sleuthing past cafes looking for a plug! Never mind about the food they were selling!  

I’ve said it before, and you’ll no doubt agree, everything is made in China, right? But, to most people’s surprise, it’s not sold in China! This means I am faced with the awful task of living and breathing the shops for much of my days, for the entire holiday. Such a chore isn’t it?! 😉 The mere fact that I no longer seem to know how to use the card machines has not stopped me in my tracks. I keep apologising and find myself embarking on a big explanation of how I don’t live here, only to be looked at like I am indeed an alien. “Just put your bloody pin number in, love!” (But I don’t have one…..)

Now, many of you who’ve lived in China, will say ‘bollocks’, you can get everything you need here….and while that may be true….partially…..if you can in fact get it, usually it’s just one single brand and usually there is no English on the packet/box/tube, so how do you even begin to know what it is? I am learning Chinese characters but with 50,000 of the buggers, at this point, I’m unlikely to decipher much more than ‘made in China’. (Like the time I bought face wipes that were actually wipes for um, ladies’ parts.) 

Of course, there is as always an upside to this shopping frenzy I must embark on …..for the rest of my time in Xi’an I don’t ever have to go to the shops out of necessity. Nor do I have to have any appointments because I’ve just spent my entire holiday stocking up, replenishing, rebooting, reinventing, reinvigorating!! 

That includes ’maintenance’ …as a woman over, um 29…I need stuff! Waxing doesn’t take place in Xi’an, period. Facials are not really the order of the day, and well don’t get me started on hair! I will say though being able to get a decent blow dry for under $20 in my Xi’an ‘hood is not to be sneezed at!! (Yes that’s US$20 ladies.)   

Then there’s medical! I used to take the fact that I could go to a doctor, whenever I need to, for granted. Who doesn’t? Now any trip out of China will have me booking into a doctor, usually begging for an arm’s length list of drugs. 

Of course before I lived in China, a sunny, blue day, was just that, a sunny blue day. Nothing more, nothing less. Today as I look out of my window at the hazy, brownish sky, I’m trying hard to remember the high definition, oh so blue, sharp, clear skies that had me staring up into the cloudless abyss more times than is probably deemed normal. And, don’t mind my husband, who’s launched himself onto that brilliantly green grass alongside the footpath to take a feel! “Is it fake”, he says? “No honey…this is just normal grass.”

Expats repatriate

And I guess that’s just one reason stepping outside your comfort zone is totally worth it. 

To make you appreciate the little things.

Down Under....pollution free

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