Newcomer

My husband Rora arrived in China on June 2. It is only his second time to be out of Egypt, and while the first time was only a short vacation in Germany, he has now moved to China for good. This interview was conducted by me, Cairene, on the evening of June 8, less than a week after his arrival.

Cairene: “Hi Rora, after a few days in China, what are your first impressions?”

Rora: “My first impressions? Well, I was expecting a big culture shock, and the shock for me was that there was no culture shock. I feel that I simply moved from one area of Cairo to another area of Cairo somehow. Not that Hanzhong is like Cairo in any way, it is much greener, and much nicer than Cairo, but the general atmosphere, in my opinion, is not that far from what I’m used to.”

Cairene: “What would you say are the biggest differences?”

Rora: “The biggest differences are that there are Chinese characters everywhere and that I don’t understand them, which is nice, because now I don’t have to take care of so many things anymore.”

Cairene: “And what would you say are the biggest similarities?”

Rora: “Today we were walking in the street with some friend of yours…”

Cairene: “I didn’t know the person! …. Now she’s a friend!”

Rora: “… and I realized that we are walking in the middle of the street…”

Cairene: “Instead of the sidewalk…”

Rora: “Exactly. Because this is China, and it’s more like Cairo in this regard. If this were Berlin or some other European city we would have been walking on the sidewalk.”

Cairene: “What is the most difficult thing for you here?”

Rora: “The crappy internet. Ah, and the chopsticks. I’m still learning to eat with them. It’s difficult, but if I don’t want to starve I will learn it eventually.”

Cairene: “What do you think about the people?”

Rora: “Well, there are two kinds of Chinese I have met until now. The one kind are in big cities like Xi’an where people are basically ignoring you, and might even bump into you sometimes – this seems to be the same in every big city in the world, though. And the other kind are people from a smaller city like the one we are in now and they are more curious about you, they smile at you and they are more relaxed and nicer.”

Cairene: “And they might even start a random conversation with you in the street like the lady today. How do you like the food?”

Rora: “It’s Chinese food. It’s delicious! I like it a lot. Even the spicy stuff. Well, until now I haven’t eaten anything really spicy, but I like it!”

Cairene: “What do you miss most about Egypt?”

Rora: “My family of course, but so far nothing else really.”

Cairene: “Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?”

Rora: ”Next time you come to China make sure that your roaming and internet service are actually working, because if not you might get lost in a big big country.”

Cairene: “That’s coming from an IT guy.”

Rora: “Exactly.”

Cairene: “From an IT who didn’t make sure that it’s working before he left… Hehe… One last question: what is the weirdest thing you’ve seen so far?”

Rora: “Little kids peeing and shitting in the streets. That’s nasty!”


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Settling: Leisure

Working only 20 hours per week, I have a lot of free time. You might wonder what I do with all that downtime, and what Chinese people usually do when they don’t have to work – many work long hours, often 12 hours per day, 6 days per week.

For one, I love reading and listening to audiobooks. Since coming to China two months and a half ago I have finished 18 books, and, by the time I publish this post, I might have finished another two. The audiobooks I’m currently listening to, with a few exceptions, are autobiographies, and the books I’m reading these days are either collections of short stories, novels, or non-fiction. The books relevant for this blog, i.e. China related, that I have read in the last few weeks are W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, On a Chinese Screen, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words. Betimes I will write reviews for them and publish them on this blog.

Chinese people like reading, too. Many of my colleagues read books in the office once they are done with lesson planning and grading. I, too, frequently read e-books on my  phone during breaks. There are bookshelves in each classroom and in the hallways, and many kids read when they find time to do it – some even read during class time… Bookshops are popular and often crowded, and while the foreign language sections are usually not well stocked, I still enjoy browsing them.

Another important part of Chinese people’s daily lives is physical exercise. At school most students use all the free time they can find to play some sport or other. My students have a 30 minute PE lesson every morning, as well as another one throughout the day. During their other breaks they can be seen in the hallways playing catch, hide and seek, shuttlecock, dancing, or inventing their own kind of games, or they are outside playing table tennis, basketball, badminton, football, rope skipping, or running. Many teachers join them in the activities, or play sports during their own breaks.

Whatever time of day one goes out into the streets of Hanzhong one can find people playing sports. In the mornings grandmas and grandpas can be seen in parks and squares practicing tai chi. Throughout the day people exert themselves at outdoor gyms or go for a run along the riverbank. In the evening aunties and some uncles can be found dancing in the squares and parks. Even at night people still play sports: the local bike club, for example, meets at 7:30 pm every day, and returns well after nightfall.

I frequently ride my bike around the countryside or explore parts of the city. Sometimes I only take short 10 km rides to the city center and back, at other times I ride up to 30 km through villages, rice fields, up and down hills, along the river or tributaries, on proper streets or dirt roads, through open spaces and forests. I love this way of exploring my surroundings, and now that I own a lightweight hammock, I’m always well equipped for comfortable breaks with a view, provided I find two trees that grow close enough together.

On weekends and particularly on national holidays, Chinese people will flock to the countryside to go hiking, see colorful flowers in bloom, climb a mountain, visit some historical sights, or have a barbecue far away from the city. In short, Chinese people love the outdoors! And given the fact that the countryside is simply gorgeous I can’t blame them. This, however, often leads to the scenic spots being crowded, the ways to and fro clogged with traffic, and the natural places full of litter.

Chinese people also love spending time with their children and grandchildren. Families are close-knit, and grandparents often live in the same home as parents and children. Not only do they spend time together at home, but also outdoors: when you see Chinese parents with their little child you can be sure that the grandparents are nearby.

Chinese elders seem to be very well integrated into social life, and wherever I go I see elderly people. This is a stark contrast to other countries where old people waste away in retirement homes, hidden from the public eye. Nearly every day I see groups of old folks playing cards, Chinese chess, or mahjong under some big tree on the pavement, in parks, or on squares. As I mentioned above, many older citizens engage in physical exercise on a daily basis, and are thus quite sprightly.

With my internet addiction I fit right into Chinese society. I spend many hours of my day online, both on my laptop and smartphone, usually surfing on Facebook, chatting with friends on WhatsApp or WeChat, watching movies or clips on Youtube, or reading the news. Chinese people LOVE the internet. They do a lot of online shopping, order food, taxis, or many services from their phones, pay on the go with their WeChat Wallet, play video games, share selfies, livestream their activities, blog, comment, and watch films. Of course Facebook and Youtube are blocked here – yet still accessible through VPN and proxy servers – but China has QQ and WeChat, Sina Weibo, Taobao, Baidu, Youku, and many other websites instead.

Last but not least is of course food. I, and the Chinese, love to eat. Which comes as no surprise, because Chinese food is just extremely delicious, and offers a lot of variety. In only a short time I’ve had a barbecue with my friends at least three times, hot pot at least once a fortnight, and random other food outings with others at least once a week. While food at restaurants is usually quite good, it’s even better to be invited at some family home. These Chinese aunties really know how to cook up some treats!

This account of leisure time activities is of course not exhaustive, as there are many other things that can be done here, and that I do here. I will surely write about others in the future, but for now this shall suffice.


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Surprise

Walking towards the exit, I saw a big sign with my name on it, and the Chinese woman who held the sign, Rita, was smiling and waving at me. Approaching, I noticed that there was an older foreign lady standing next to Rita, doing the same thing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed who the lady was! J. from Australia, who has been living in China with her husband A. since 2012. We used to be living close to each other in Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi for several months when I was still in China, and often met each other. We had stayed in contact for some years, but as I am somewhat lazy when it comes to responding to e-mails, I hadn’t heard from them in some time, and wasn’t sure whether they were still in China, had moved elsewhere, or gone back home to retire. They moved to Shaanxi province some eight months ago, and by chance J. had heard on Friday afternoon that Rita was picking up some German teacher from the airport the next day.

After check-in, I spent the afternoon at See Tang Hostel near the Southern Gate, getting to know some Buckland employees, and catching up with J. and A. over some tea and Muslim noodle soup. On leaving the small Muslim restaurant, I noticed that I had been in that street before – six years prior, on my first trip to China, I had visited a tea shop there.

Later that day, after the two Aussies had left, I was joined by university student Heather, who has been a friend since my teaching days in Yongzhou, Hunan, and one of her classmates, Ava. In the evening we went to one of my favorite places in all of China: Xi’an’s Hui Muslim Snack Street! We shared many delicious, local specialties, such as 羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo), a mutton stew with pieces of bread, also known as my favorite dish in China, 肉夹馍 (rou jia mo), aka. Chinese hamburger, 菠萝 (bo luo), aka. half a pineapple on a stick, some rice cake, and some other snacks. While talking to some friends in Egypt later that night, I commented that I had eaten a bigger variety of flavors in one night in China than I had in four years in Cairo!

On Sunday morning I had some sheep intestine soup for breakfast – it tasted much better that it sounds!

J., A., and Heather were not the only friends from bygone days I met so soon after my return to China. Sunday noon I met my Hawaiian friend B., who has been living in Shaanxi for five years, and he introduced me to R. from the US and J. from Scotland. Our plan was to have biang biang noodles (aka. belt noodles) for lunch, and I’m pretty sure we told the waitress the correct thing in Chinese, but we were served some bowls of 羊肉泡馍 instead. We then headed to one of the countless shopping malls, ate donuts, and the others bought some imported goods they can’t live without. B. and J. soon headed back to Weinan, while R. and I explored some more shopping malls and haggling markets. After a short stopover at a cake shop we decided a foot massage would be the thing to do.

Oh, what a pleasure!

In Egypt massage parlors are hard to find and treatments only for the wealthy. Not so in China: most neighborhoods have at least one massage parlor, and they are often very affordable – but some can charge a fortune, too. R. and I opted for a foot massage, which cost 30 RMB (a bit over 4 US$) each, and lasted about one hour. The perfect thing to do after flying halfway around the globe!

R. proved to be a good resource for information about my new school and home in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, as she previously lived and taught there for two years. As there are not many foreign residents or travelers in Hanzhong, online information about the city in English is rather scarce – a circumstance that will change with this blog. I had many questions that R. was able to answer, and I became more and more excited about finally reaching my new home.

Sunday evening I went to the Hui Muslim Snack Street for another round of food, and on Monday morning I packed my bags once more. Before departing to Hanzhong, however, it was time for the mandatory health check. Five years prior I had to take the health check in a grubby, cold hospital in Guilin, Guangxi, where people were smoking inside the doctors’ offices. Not so in the hospital in Xi’an: clean, organized, people waiting in lines, nobody was smoking, the rooms were heated, and the doctors spoke English!

After that was out of the way I had lunch with Rita and Joanna from Buckland, and then was on my way to the bus that would take me to Hanzhong.

Departure: 40 minutes delay.

The bus ride was quite comfortable, and I was very much surprised that the bus not only had seatbelts, but that use of them was mandatory!

Four hours, fifty two tunnels, and some stunning mountain vistas later I was home: Hanzhong, Shaanxi, People’s Republic of China.


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Breakthrough

أُولَـٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

THOSE ARE UPON [RIGHT] GUIDANCE FROM THEIR LORD, AND IT IS THOSE WHO ARE THE SUCCESSFUL. [Al-Baqarah 2:5]

On March 17, 2017, I, Cairene, finally got on a plane from Cairo to Guangzhou. The days before I received my visa, I had been busy with checking flight schedules and prices. After some digging, I eventually found the perfect connection: a direct, red eye flight from Egypt to China on Friday, a hotel for the night near Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, and an onward flight to Xi’an on Saturday morning. I could have found cheaper options, but they would have been less convenient, as not only would they have been very exhausting due to several long transits, but also would not have allowed as much luggage as Egyptair does – 46 kg plus carry-on.

As I had reserved an emergency aisle window seat, I had all the legroom I could wish for, and was able to get about 5 hours of sleep above the clouds. This amount was enough to get me through Friday afternoon and evening, and ensured that I could go to bed in a timely manner in the evening. I spent the remaining flight time eating and watching the Academy Award winning musical “La La Land”. Despite the high praise from critics and success with the audience, I found the movie a little boring, and the music average; I think there are much better musicals out there, “Dancer in the Dark” is one example.

Once I reached Guangzhou, it was time for immigration, baggage claim, and customs. As Guangzhou is quite a busy airport with many flights arriving simultaneously, the waiting time to go through immigration was about an hour; reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies helped pass the time. The immigration officer was friendly and quick, something you don’t find at every border, and there was no further wait for luggage or customs. Make sure to have a pen ready to fill out the arrival form.

I then proceeded to the hotel information desk in order to find out about where to board the free hotel shuttle. The nice lady behind the counter told me where to find it and I followed her directions, only to find out that her directions didn’t make any sense. The next person I asked was from the bus ticket office, and her directions – different ones – weren’t helpful either. Fed up with being misdirected, I figured I could just as well take a taxi for the short distance. The nice driver helped me with my luggage and asked me whereto I was headed. In response I showed him the address on my phone and asked him to call the hotel for directions. They connected us to an English speaking lady who told me to get out of the car and wait for a few minutes where I was, a driver from the hotel would come and pick me up. The taxi driver unloaded my bags, we said goodbye, and a very short time later I was picked up by the shuttle. I would like to note that the taxi driver did not ask for any money for his help – in Egypt the same situation would have required some baksheesh.

Another thing I would like to mention is that the hotel I originally booked for the night is one that only accepts Chinese guests, not foreigners; a fact I wasn’t aware of at the time of booking. Nonetheless, they arranged a room at another hotel for me that would accept foreign nationals, albeit at a somewhat higher price, but with great service. (I’m speaking of a price difference of roughly 15 Euros, so no big deal.) The hotel provided the airport shuttle both ways, a wakeup call, and a private ensuite room; all in all it cost around 25 Euros and proved to be more convenient and only slightly more expensive than spending the night at the airport on a bench, eating expensive food, and paying for a shower and luggage storage over night. After a long, hot shower I was quite refreshed, and got a good night’s sleep. The time difference between China and Egypt is six hours, and I was easily able to adapt to the difference.

On Saturday morning the hotel staff woke me up, I packed my bags once more, and was taken to the airport. All went well and I boarded the plane, a Hainan Airways flight to Xi’an. Rarely have I been on such a turbulent flight! There must have been strong winds above the clouds, as we were shaken about half the time. Regardless, the plane was comfortable with enough legroom, and the staff professional and courteous. The pre-departure flight safety video was more interesting than that of many other airlines, as it showed the beautiful Hainan beaches, and emphasized protecting the environment. On arrival there was no wait for the luggage, and I proceeded to the exit, where I was to be picked up by Rita from Buckland.

I was in for a surprise!