"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

A Day in the Solo Life
September 10, 2010, 11:22 am
Filed under: daily life in china, the expat life | Tags:

Back in college, on a typical spring morning, I would wake up to the birds chirping happily outside my window.  These days, I wake up at around seven to the sound of old men hacking up phlegm on the street.

I can hear everything that happens outside my window, even though I am on the sixth floor–more than I heard when I lived on the second floor of my New York apartment. In the middle of the night, I sometimes wake up to a train roaring like an emergency alarm. And I don’t even live in the city proper. Good thing I’m generally a deep sleeper!

Otherwise, my routine is fairly similar to what it was in America. Instead of hopping into the shower, though, I have to wait for the hot water to turn on. In the meantime, I make my (instant) coffee, check my email, glance at the (online) paper and review my lessons for the day.

My walk to work is probably hardly scenic to the locals, but to me it is fascinating. First I pass by a monument called Nine Horses, which includes several statues of naked women whose breasts have been blotted out with black spray paint. I say hello to the people who work at the fruit stands on my street, but I ignore the people who aggressively yell “Hello-a!” I pass by the hacking old men, too–I accept the fact that I have to hear this everyday, but I really try not to look.

Street etiquette is also very much the same here as it is in New York; sometimes there is just not enough room on the street for two people to walk, so one person has to wait a moment. The only difference is that in New York, there is usually a gated tree that takes up space; here, it is a mini-landslide of garbage. So, holding my breath, I step aside to let the other person walk first.

Many things happen in New York–but not everything. In New York, I never would have passed a pick-up truck of goats on my way to work, but that’s exactly what I do here in Pao’ai. Unfortunately, the poor things are only here for the day; later, they will get killed, skinned and roasted across the street. On the street. Poor goats.

I am the only non-Chinese person in this area, and as such, I am a novelty. This sounds pretty scary, but in many ways it’s really cool. Once, I tried to buy a banana and the fruit vendor gave it to me for free. There’s also a restaurant owner who insists on treating me to lunch occasionally; he sits with me and lets me practice my Chinese. No one here speaks English, so I am forced to learn the language. People sometimes come up to me and strike a conversation–hello, Chinese practice!

But there is definite downside to living in a working class Chinese suburb. For one thing, I get stared at nonstop. Most days, it doesn’t bother me because I know that the people are just curious, not malicious. I put on my sunglasses and let it roll off my shoulders. But sometimes it is just unnerving, even scary. On the bus the other day, a man sitting two seats away from me stared at me the entire ride. Finally, I just stared back at him, hoping he would back down. Wrong move. It only encouraged him. He kept trying to talk to me, asked for my phone number (which I of course did not give him), and even followed me when I got off the bus. Well, that’s something that’s not too different from New York: if a guy is creeping into your personal space, ignore him!

But here, I find it hard to trust anyone. If I were a man, maybe I wouldn’t question people’s kind gestures–or maybe people wouldn’t be so nice. Remember the man who treats me to lunch and chats with me? Well, yesterday, he asked if I needed a Chinese boyfriend. I politely declined. Then he kept insisting that I come to his house and watch movies with him. Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen. He lives on my block, though, so keeping my distance is difficult.

Being a solo woman traveler can be scary sometimes, especially where I am, in a fairly remote area.  On the other hand, I feel like a pioneer–as I would say at Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon (our pioneer founder) would be proud.


3 Comments so far
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I’m really enjoying reading your thoughts and experiences. I think you have a good perspective and enough courage to see yourself through. You’ve been through a lot in your life and we all admire you for taking this kind of initiative and being willing to grow from your experiences.
Cousin Ed


Comment by Ed Baugh

Thanks Ed, that means a lot. Sometimes it’s a little tough out here because of the language barrier and not really knowing anyone, so it’s nice to read stuff like this to keep me ploughing through. Hope you, Meredith and Evan are doing well!


Comment by Allison

Dude. Koreans hack away. I nearly jumped out of my skin stepping of the train tonight when a man started going at it right in front of me. It sounds like he could possibly be dying of a phlegm related disease. Dave the Dictator does it too! Well I won’t have too much culture shock when I come to visit. Also, let me know all about your experiences with mah jong I have wanted to learn for a long time.


Comment by Whitney

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