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As promised, here’s the follow up to my “10 Things I Hate About China” post with some things that I love about this country.
When most people think of China, the first thing that comes to mind are mega-cities with congested roads, massive crowds of people, factories churning out cheap goods, and a thick gray sky full of smog floating overhead. If the only images of China you get are from Western media, it makes sense that this is your perception. After living and traveling here for a few years, though, that’s not what springs up in my mind when I think of the Middle Kingdom. Rather, I see the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the bewildering karst mountains of Guangxi, the sheer beauty of Jiuzhaigou national park in Sichuan, and the rolling rice fields of southern Yunnan. Even around Beijing and Shanghai, you don’t have to go far to be near a towering mountain or a majestic river. Get out of the concrete jungle and explore some of China’s natural beauty, because it’s all over the place.
Zharu Valley Eco-Tourism Hike in Sichuan.
Coming from the Detroit area, I didn’t grow up with much exposure to public transportation. After all, it is the Motor City – everyone drives and options are limited and unreliable when it comes to public transport. In fact, this can be said for the entire United States. Planning a big trip via bus or train can be tricky if not impossible in the US, where outside of a few major cities public transportation is laughable at best. That’s not the case here in the Middle Kingdom, where you can travel to all corners of this massive country by bus or train. It’s astonishing what China has done in the past decade in terms of train travel – it now has the biggest high-speed rail network in the world, with nearly 7,000 miles of track. There are plans to double this by 2020, and lofty talks of building lines to connect China with London, Singapore, and even the United States. The high-speed trains are great and all, but I also love taking the older, slower trains when traveling. Hard-sleeper bunks are affordable and actually quite comfortable, and a long train journey in China is a great way to see the country and mingle with locals. I’ve had tons of fun on train trips in my years in China, including a ridiculous, drunken, shirtless photo shoot with some guys on the way to Changbai Mountain. The massive train and bus network in China allows you to travel more for less, and it assures you can go just about anywhere you want without a car.
My love for Chinese street food is no secret, as it’s a topic that regularly comes up in conversation. People often ask me what food I miss from America, but to be honest there isn’t much I can put on that list. While not exactly as good as at home, it’s not hard to find a sandwich, burger, pizza, or even BBQ here. It is, however, impossible to find a delicious jian bing (煎饼 – jiān bing) or rou jia mo (肉夹馍 – ròu jiā mó) outside of a bar back in the US. When I’m back home visiting friends or family, I find myself daydreaming about Chinese street food and drooling a little bit. Some people may shutter at the thought of eating mystery meat on a stick in some random dark alley of a third-tier Chinese city, but that’s probably one of my favorite things in the world to do. No matter where I travel in this country, I can always find a place to sit down on a tiny stool, crack a lukewarm Tsingtao beer, and dig into a delicious feast of assorted snacks.
Check out some of China’s best street food.
In the last post, I mentioned how the degradation of traditional culture is something I hate about China. While it’s true that I could do without the thousands of KFCs and mega-malls that have sprung up here, I still know where to go if I want to get my fill of Chinese culture – a local park. Regardless of where you are in China, you can always find locals gathered in the park doing exactly the kind of stuff you may have expected to see here: tai chi (太极 – tài jí) practice in the early morning, rowdy group games of majohng (麻将 – má jiàng), line-dancing, dudes jammin’ out on an er hu (二胡 – Èr hú), old men engaged in a heated game of Chinese chess, and so much more. Whenever I feel like I’ve had a bad China day and I find myself frustrated with something here, I just head to a local park and go for a stroll. Watching people singing, dancing, and playing various games reminds me what I love about China and leaves me feeling refreshed and calmed down. I loved the local parks so much in Beijing that I even put them in my Top 10 Places in the city countdown.
After living in China for a few years, going out to a restaurant back in the States simply isn’t exciting. After all, it’s hard to beat the dining out experience that the Middle Kingdom has to offer. Restaurants here are crowded, hot, and noisy, and every meal out with friends is an occasion. There’s no need to worry about politely getting your waiter’s attention – just yell! Don’t worry so much about your table manners, either – slurp your noodles, pound your beer, yell across the table, and just enjoy yourself. Ordering in a Chinese restaurant is so much better than in a Western one, as you order tons of dishes, place them on the lazy Susan, and share with everyone. Ordering a side salad and an entree each is just so boring compared to the Chinese way of dining out. Don’t go hungry and learn how to order in Chinese with this post.
China is a huge, fascinating country with so much to see, and I love getting out and seeing it bit by bit. I love traveling here so much, in fact, that it’s possible I’ll visit every part of China before I visit every state back home. From the mega-cities, to seaside hotspots, to holy mountains, to stunning national parks, to historical sites, to tiny remote villages, China literally has it all. Getting out of your comfort zone here and heading to lesser known destinations is a rewarding experience as well, since you’re forced to use your Chinese, eat local food, and really dive into the heart of the country. I always loved traveling outside of Beijing, because it reminded me that I actually lived in China. Working as an English teacher in a place like Beijing, it was easy to get sucked into the expat bubble, but there’s no such thing in most places you go here.
There’s just something about ancient Chinese music that I love. While I don’t know a whole lot about it, I do know that it sounds good. I got so interested in traditional Chinese instruments that I wrote an entire series for the blog about them (you can check out the first post here), and I had an amazing time researching the posts and watching tons of YouTube videos. From the pi pa (琵琶 – pí pá) to the ge hu (革胡 – gé hú), to the xiao (箫 – xiāo), traditional Chinese instruments produce an amazing sound. But it’s not just the traditional stuff I dig here – there’s plenty of great modern music as well. No, I’m not talking about “The Little Apple,” although I’ll admit that song is catchy. Before I came to China, I wouldn’t have believed that there was a band of Chinese guys who call themselves LSD (龙神道 – lóng shén dào), have dreadlocks, and play a mix of reggae, ska, and punk. They do exist, though, and I’ve seen them in concert at least ten times. There’s also an awesome band called Hanggai (杭盖 – háng gài) who blend traditional Mongolian music with rock and punk. Despite what you may think, there’s a substantial music scene in the bigger cities of China, and exploring it has been one of my favorite parts of living here.
Did you know that there are actually 55 ethnic minority (少数民族 – shǎo shù mín zú) groups in China? While Han Chinese people make up about 92% of the population of mainland China, there are ethnic minority groups all over the country. We covered them in a post a few months back, so check it out to learn the name’s of all 56 ethnic groups in China. Each group has its own unique architecture, clothing, food, holidays, music, and more, making China quite a culturally diverse country – something I didn’t expect before coming here. Perhaps the best place to learn about the ethnic minorities of China is my new home – Yunnan province (云南省 – yún nán shěng) – as it home to 26 of the 55 groups. I’m thoroughly looking forward to exploring this amazing part of China and diving into the local cultures here in the coming years.
Long, but good… a documentary on the ethnic minorities of China.
Oftentimes when people back home ask me how China is, I simply answer, “It’s a silly place.” If you don’t believe me, then just walk around aimlessly for an entire day in a Chinese city and take notes of the random, goofy things you see. From funny Chinglish signs, to dancing donkey toys in the street, to babies running around with split pants on, there’s never a dull moment here. Any time I feel bored, I know that all I have to do is take a walk around the neighborhood and I’ll see something interesting, strange, or downright hilarious. China may drive me crazy sometimes, but more often than not it just makes me laugh.
Learn the 20 most common Chinese characters with me!
Sure, Chinese is hard as hell to learn. With four tones and 10,000+ characters, it’s a daunting task to take on. Although my Chinese is not nearly as good as it could and should be (that’s what happens when you teach English full-time!), I love learning the language and doing my best to use it on a daily basis. Languages really do open doors, and when you can speak Chinese – even just a little – people are much more receptive to you and start to let their guard down a bit. Of course, I’ll always still be a 老外, but being able to speak a little Chinese goes a long way in making friends here and has been the catalyst for lots of incredible experiences. Of course, if you want to learn Chinese as well, you’ve come to the right place!
If you’re curious, the good definitely outweighs the bad here – if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have stuck around for so long. I’m on my fifth year in China and already thinking about adding a sixth. It’s such an amazing, diverse country with a fascinating history and culture that you could spend a lifetime here and not even scratch the surface. If you’re on the fence about visiting China or potentially moving here, just do it – it might be the best decision you’ll ever make.