When I first arrived, the other expat moms I met here didn’t bother to sugarcoat their experiences in China. “I’m going to be real with you,” they said. “Be prepared to have good days and bad days. When things start to go downhill, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘It’s China. That’s just the way things are.’ And then move on.”
I’ve been pretty fortunate since arriving that my good days have far outnumbered the bad, and yet one day last week, I was walking home and the sights and smells and sounds of China—the tuk-tuks driving by, the language I couldn’t understand, the slight smell of smog in the air—left me wishing for home.
I had gone out to run errands. The plan was to do some quick odds and ends and then come home and still have several hours to do some writing and prepare dinner before picking up my kids from school.
I ended up coming home with every single thing on my list unaccomplished, even the simple items that I do all the time. I didn’t even pay my utility bill because the office couldn’t give me a fapiao (an official receipt that I need to submit to the institution my husband works for). For the second time, I was told to come back in a week to pay my bill and they’d be able to give me the paperwork I needed then.
It’s a small thing, I know. But that morning, it was one thing after the other until I got to the bottom of my list and found myself coming home, my entire morning vanished and absolutely nothing accomplished. It was a bit disheartening.
That night, I whined to my husband telling him about my useless morning and asked, “When can we go home? Can’t we go home for a little while?”
He listened to my whining and then reminded me, “Lonna, I think you’ll find that when we do go back, you won’t know the rules there either. Things are changing while we’re away. It isn’t the same country you left.”
I know I just happened to have a bad day. I also realize that for every frustration that China throws at me, there is something else I love—something that my family and I wouldn’t have if we weren’t here. (I’ll talk about those next week.)
And yet, the US is still my home. Even if I spend all my time on the opposite side of the globe. Even if the election has made my home country a mockery to my European friends. Even if it’s changing in the years I spend away. It will always be home. There are several things I have while in the US that I miss every single day. Here are five.
1. Grocery Shopping
I live in an area of Beijing where many other expatriates live. There is a grocery store here called Jenny Wang’s that specializes in serving expats. It’s filled with foods imported from the Americas, Europe, and other continents. And yet, as much as I love Jenny’s, there is nothing like going back to the States and spending time in a grocery store.
Here in China, I feel like I know nothing about the foods I buy. I don’t know where my fresh produce comes from or what chemicals were sprayed on it. In the United States, I can read the food labels. In China, all the information is in Chinese. I sometimes can’t even read the information on the foods imported from the US because the nutritional panel is often covered with a sticker that gives the information in Chinese.
There are always tricks expats learn. In Korea, I was able to order many hard-to-find foods through www.iherb.com, an online store kind of like Amazon that specializes in health foods and has really affordable international shipping rates. I was hoping I could use the same service in China, but iherb hasn’t yet worked through customs issues when shipping to China. For half of the orders I’ve made here, my box has arrived having been opened and some of my paid-for items confiscated. Until these issues are resolved, I won’t be using iherb in China.
As wonderful as Jenny’s (the foreign foods market) is, there are still things that I’ve never been able to find here—things like masa harina for making homemade tortillas and date crumbles that I like to use as a sweetener in baked goods to replace some of the sugar. There are some things that I use in my cooking quite frequently that are on the shelves one week and then gone for several months—simple things that you would never think would be hard to find. When dried lentils appeared in the supermarket after months of my looking for them, I bought ten bags. It’s a good thing, too, since they were there for only a couple weeks and haven’t returned since.
Things have gotten better and easier in the eleven years I’ve been overseas. Years ago, in Korea, when we first started giving my son regular cow’s milk, I wanted to buy whole milk. I looked at all the jugs of milk on the shelves in the supermarket labeled in Korean, and I had no idea how to tell which was what. I took an educated guess at what could be the whole milk by looking at the nutritional panel and picking the jug that had the highest number for what I guessed was the calorie count. Now you can use apps on smart phones. The Google Translate app allows you to take a photograph, highlight the text you want to translate, and it will recognize the characters and translate it for you. It’s so handy (as long as you have a VPN since Google is blocked in China).
In the US, I can find everything I want and even have a choice between several different brands. So many choices, in fact, that it’s sometimes overwhelming.
It might sound odd to those who go grocery shopping in the States all the time, but when we visit the States, I love to leave my kids with someone else and go to the grocery store to peruse the aisles, reading the scintillating information on the nutritional panels of processed food that I probably wouldn’t buy anyway.
2. Understanding the Language
My friends back home would probably be surprised how much two people can communicate with each other without speaking the same language. There have been a couple times while living abroad in which I’ve felt like I’ve had complete conversations with someone without either one of us actually understanding the other’s spoken words.
And yet, with the day that I had last week, I needed language. I needed to communicate questions and wished that I could understand answers. There are always tricks and tools that expats pick up. There is a handy app I have on my phone called iTranslate Voice. I speak into the microphone, the app recognizes my speech, and then translates my sentence into Mandarin. I’ve used this when I needed to communicate with a worker who came to my house to fix something for me. Unfortunately, the app needs to have functioning internet in order to work, so when my phone malfunctions (like it did last week), I get stuck without the tricks and tools I’m used to having.
Mandarin is hard and it takes a long time in order to have conversational language skills. I’ll probably leave China by the time I’m able to have a simple conversation with a Chinese speaker. It’s sad to think about how richer my experience of China would be if I could just learn the language.
3. Fast and Functioning Internet with Pages that Aren’t Blocked by the Government
Before coming to China, I lived for ten years in Korea—the country with the fastest internet connectivity in the world. The internet is so slow here in China that I’m convinced I will lose months (years?) of my life waiting for pages to load and then re-load after they are dropped. In China, our internet connection isn’t just slow, sometimes it stops working completely.
On top of that, the Chinese government blocks certain pages—pages that I use all the time like Facebook and Google. When living in Korea, I depended very heavily on Google’s tools—the calendar, contacts, GoogleDocs, and gmail. Inside China, you can’t access any of these without a working VPN. And chances are, this month’s working VPN might not be working anymore next month.
4. Fresh Air all the Time
I’ve written in a previous post that I was pleasantly surprised at the air quality in China. I had heard horror stories about the quality of the air, and I had prepared myself for the worst. I talk to the other expats who have been here for years, and they tell me that it wasn’t all that long ago that the horror stories were true. They tell me it has vastly improved in the last couple years and that they anticipate continued improvement. That is certainly something to look forward to.
My attitude about the air quality in China is pretty positive because I was so pleasantly surprised to find that it was not as bad as I expected. And yet the Air Quality Index (AQI) is still something we pay attention to here. It still gets high enough that sometimes we need to change our plans and stay in rather than go out. Having a weekend when I ask the kids to stay inside the whole time makes for a pretty long couple of days.
5. Driving a Car
I know many expats here who have gotten their Chinese driver’s license and chosen to drive in Beijing even with the obscene traffic and absence of driving rules. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
I find the blatant disregard for traffic laws to be incredibly intimidating and scary. Add to that the warning I got from other expats here—“If you get in any kind of accident, as a foreigner you will be blamed even if it’s not your fault. You’ll have to pay the other driver an exorbitant amount of money, and they will probably yell at you a lot in Chinese. It will be a nightmare.”
That’s enough of a warning for me. I’m anxious enough driving in my home country. Add to it my lack of language or understanding of Chinese road-rules and I’ll give a hearty, “No thanks!” to taking the test to get my license.
Unfortunately, the public transportation system in Beijing is not what I was used to in Seoul. In Seoul, even without my driver’s license, public transportation was so extensive that I still had an incredible amount of freedom. I could go anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted.
In Beijing, that’s not the case. Taxi drivers won’t stop for me. When they do stop, I tell them where I want to go and they tell me they won’t take me there. The area where I live doesn’t really offer a bus system. And the nearest subway stop is quite a hike away. The best solution I came up with was to get a tuk-tuk so that I can go to my children’s school and grocery shopping and other close-by places whenever I want. Anywhere else I want to go, I can either go to the closest subway stop and use the subway to go downtown, or I can hire a car and driver and pay an hourly rate.
All the errands I do here, even the simple ones, take much more time and planning ahead. I miss the days, years ago, when I lived in Michigan and had my own car and could always go wherever and whenever I wanted. I knew that I could drive there and other people would follow traffic laws. I knew that when I arrived, I’d be able to find a place to park. I don’t have any of that in China.
I don’t want this to be a negative post.
I’ve just been in a funk lately and missing the United States. Next week I’ll talk about all the things I love about living in China. There are just as many (maybe more) reasons to love it here.
I look over my list and some of these things I miss about the US seem so silly. I guess gratitude for the little things is one of the blessings China has bestowed on me. Grocery shopping and clean air. Reading nutritional labels and playing outside. Driving a car and speaking in English. Such small, seemingly insignificant things. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the mundane as a blessing until we don’t have it anymore.