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Exactly 10 years ago, I was living in China. In the summer of 2004, finding it an odd adjustment to return from Iraq and jump right back into the “normalcy” of work life, I decided I needed to embrace my impulsivity and do something. So, without knowing a single word of Chinese I joined a program creatively named, English Teaching Program in Shenzhen China. This was a fantastic program that matched you up with a public school in Shenzhen, China and gave you the tools necessary to make it work. I had planned to stay there a whole year, but after getting sick, I had to return sometime in October. The program also took care of me to get me back to America.  Great program.  But that is another story for another blog post.

However, reminiscing about my experience 10 years ago, I thought I would share with you all, these 5 things I learned while living in China.

  1. If the US and China ever go to war, it won’t be because of us and them. What I mean by us and them, is the average Chinese person and the average American citizen. People in China are cool people. Sure I know in America we like to have a central bad guy and with China’s rise in economic and military might, they make a good hegemony. However, I taught their kids, roamed the streets, and ate the food. Sorry, but the average Chinese person could care less about fighting America. If we ever go to war, it will be because the wealthy and powerful in both China and America have a dispute over an Iphone or something. Just because Chinese people don’t like to be beholden to foreign interest doesn’t make them belligerent. It makes them normal
  2. A tourist can’t fully capture a sense of China. I didn’t live there long due to the illness, but for 4 months I lived there and had the mentality I was going to stay there for the year. Tourist are often too busy roaming the touristy hot spots. Having a Starbucks coffee in the Forbidden City in Beijing doesn’t quite inform. Rather, you got to hit the back streets, random street food, and bargain for prices with local venders. About a few blocks from Tiannenmen Square, we roamed the back alleys to find a small quaint restaurant to eat lunch. We found one with about 4 tables in it. There were more pictures of Mao Zedong in this restaurant than there were chairs. Something about that restaurant blocks from the Forbidden Palace told me it had seen a lot of history. Great food, great people, and apparently really really staunch communist.Image (17)
  3. I should always be gracious when foreigners butcher English because what I did to the Chinese language was worse. Learning Chinese was not an easy task. But living in China, you don’t always have a translator. So you have to be able to order food, change money, and so forth. Many people may not know this about Chinese, but it has 4 separate tones for seemingly every sound that makes it mean a totally different word. So if one were to sound Ba with an up inflection, it means one word. But if someone were to make the sound Ba with a down inflection, now it means another word. Clear? When riding mini-buses to get around in China, you had to inform the driver you were ready to get off at the upcoming stop. Well, I can’t remember the exact phrase I was using, or how I said it, but I learned a phrase I thought was the right word and for 4 months I used this sound to signal the driver. Well, it wasn’t until about a week before I left China, that someone finally informed me that whatever it was I was standing up and yelling was basically the equivalent to “Shrimp”. That’s right, for 4 months I would stand up on a crowded minibus and yell “Shrimp” to stop the bus. But you know what, the bus always stopped. So I blame them for reinforcing my poor pronunciation.
  4. McDonalds is the poor man’s embassy. When living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time, you can often get overwhelmed by the lack of enough “Merica” around you. So in walk’s McDonalds. They are fairly common in China. Granted, they always have few unique to China menu items. However, there is just something settling about sitting next to Ronald McDonald and eating a burger and fries. So if you have to escape persecution in a foreign culture, find the nearest embassy and take refuge. However, if you need a little taste of America to fight the culture shock, flee to your local McDonalds and find a little refuge.Image (16)
  5. Always, and I mean always, be wary of the “Gan Bei”.   Gan bei is the Chinese equivalent to Cheers and literally means, “Drink it all”. So typically used with alcohol, when a Chinese person walks up to you and says, “Gan Bei”, then you chug it all. It was used particularly with a Chinese rice liquor called Baijiu. Very strong, not pleasant to the taste at first, and typically served at dinners. So with China being a hospitable country and all, many locals want to offer a “Gan Bei” to the American or Americans in the room. Great for them as they enjoy their one baijiu Gan Bei. But here is the thing. Everyone wants to Gan Bei the American. So if you are one of the few Americans in the room, well then you might get about 10 Gan Bei and dinner starts to get really interesting. But hey, it would be rude to refuse them. So just be wary and be thankful you walked to the restaurant and didn’t drive.

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So there are my 5 lessons I learned. If you find yourself able, I actually highly recommend living abroad for a period of time. The whole word is a fascinating place after all. If anyone has any unique insights from China or any other countries where they lived abroad feel free to share them. I have some great memories from China and the people I worked with over there. And for the final picture and answer to quiz I didn’t ask you?  The answer is 5.  That’s how many Americans you can fit on what the Chinese consider to be the Center of the Universe.


2 Replies to “5 Things I Learned While Living in China”

  1. Interesting.

    I’v been living in Taiwan for about 6 years now and I can confirm that all of these things are true. Taiwanese people are a little bit different from Chinese people, different accent, and most Taiwanese people think mainland Chinese people are really annoying.

    I’v been studying Chinese for a little bit more than a year now and I still haven’t mastered the tones. I remember, one time, I tried to order a dish called 拉麵 “la mian” (basically spicy noodles) and pronounced it “辣妹” “la mei” (which means hot girl) so I asked the waitress to get me one hot girl. She thought it was funny. I didn’t realize until later…

    Great post!

  2. That’s hilarious, big difference between spicy noodles. That’s awesome you have been living in Taiwan for that long. Chinese is indeed very difficult to master. In 4 months, I got to where I could function a little bit on my own, but there was still a whole lot of charades and pointing to communicate.

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