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


A Normal Life
September 21, 2010, 2:51 am
Filed under: daily life in china, the expat life | Tags:

If you search for Dalian on the internet, you will find websites that boast about its charm and local fame for being a tourist-friendly resort area by the seaside.  When I got picked up at the airport, I asked the Chinese teacher who met me if it was true that people came here for vacation.  She looked at me doubtfully.  “Maybe.”

So, would-be tourists, beware: Dalian is not the place to go to send postcards or T-shirts that say, “My sister went to Dalian and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”  Not only will you not find these T-shirts, but you won’t even find postcards.  If you are competent enough to read a bus or train map, your skills would be of little use because no such maps exist.

But if you stay a little longer, you will find a glimpse into ordinary Chinese life.  Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out what “normal” means here.  Since I live out in the burbs, I do lead a pretty modest life with the other Dalianren (people from Dalian).  Like anyone, I have places where I need to be, but unlike a lot of expats I try to use taxis as infrequently as possible. To get from here to the city–or anywhere, really–I follow the other Dalianren to the bus stops.

There are several routes, but it seems like most people only know the lines that they need to take.  Each ride costs one yuan, and considering that anything to do with traffic in China requires you to take your life into your hands and pray, it’s pretty good for what you get.

I can’t help but think of these buses as old toys.  On the outside, they look tiny and beat-up; inside, you can feel every single bump.  The horn has a kind of hollow ring to it, too; you can feel it reverberate under your feet.  Sometimes I wonder if the bus drivers think of these buses as toys, too  They seem to like taking deep, sweeping turns and honking at anything that either breathes or exudes carbon dioxide.  I wonder if bus drivers feel immensely powerful behind the wheel.  In Dalian–in most Chinese cities, I think–drivers have the right of way.  A moving vehicle will not stop for anything or anyone, even if it’s very clear that someone might get hit.  I remember that, back when I studied Chinese in college, there was a chapter in my textbook about traffic in Beijing.  In the dialogue, a guy got hit by a car, and the police officer came over and scolded him for not looking both ways.  I’m starting to think that’s not such a stretch.

Crowds are a big problem on Chinese buses, but it’s something you just have to live with.  I’ve never known how to say “excuse me” in Chinese (except “qing wen,” which you say before you ask a question) because I’ve never heard anyone say it; most people just plough through the masses.  There’s no such thing as a queue.  Even my old life of commuting during rush hour in New York has not prepared me for the absence of personal space in Chinese buses.

There have been a few times when the bus went over a bump in the road and we passengers were briefly flung into the air.  Nobody batted an eye.  Now, if this were a crosstown bus in New York, I bet people would be complaining, whispering, maybe even chewing out the driver.  But this is just normal life for Chinese people, and it has become normal life for me as well.  It’s these episodes of normal life that make me wonder why foreigners come to China–and what drew me in particular.  Why China?  What makes China seem like more of an adventure than, say, Japan or Korea or some place in Africa or Europe?  I still don’t really know.  It could be because of it’s rising status as a world power.  Is it also because, on some level, China is more “dangerous” than America?  In many ways, compared to America, it feels lawless, like anything could happen at any moment.  Then again, maybe it’s just that I’m still new here and don’t know my way around.

In any case, there’s only one thing to do: adapt.  I think that my new education has made me a little more daring, a little better at thinking on my feet.  A few days ago, I had fought my way through a crowd to get off at my stop…then I realized that it was not actually my stop.  The bus was starting to leave, but I noticed that the backdoor was still open. So, in my flats and skirt, I ran and leapt onto the moving bus.  Everyone started yelling at the bus driver, “Wait a minute! Stop the bus!”  It stopped, but I was already on.  An old man turned to look at me and just started cracking up.

So maybe there are some surprises for Chinese people too.

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

how do you translate, “omfg”? i know you’re nodding and knowing. you signed on. live it, write it, gather the reading crowd. hey. you’re still young.

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Comment by susiedec4

Well put – and you wouldn’t want to be in a touristy spot anyway.

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Comment by Barbara Kiperman

While I am slightly bummed about the lack of postcards in Dalian, think about the creative possibilities of creating your own! Photographs, paper, glitter! The world is your oyster. Except you probably can’t find any of that in Dalian either. Hehe 🙂

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Comment by jrarcieri

Just a first glance from your old SR teacher–I can’t wait to read more…

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Comment by mary

Way to hop the bus!

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Comment by Faye




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