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

Riding in Cars with Aiyi
November 1, 2015, 9:01 pm
Filed under: daily life in china, dalian, the expat life | Tags: ,

To hail a taxi with the attitude of “Ha! This is only two dollars!” is pure economic freedom.

It’s not something I can do in America. In Dalian, though, it’s worth budgeting for even if your earnings are meager, for there will be days when 5 o’clock rolls around and thought of getting hit by a bus actually sounds better than that of having to squeeze into one. Just picture that hot summer’s day, roiling in the stench of humanity . . . and a raw garlic-eating portion of humanity at that.

There’s another bonus attached to taxis, for those expats who are learning Chinese. When I had first moved to China, my principle teachers of Chinese were taxi drivers. (Then I started running out of money, and I sought to learn Chinese from fruit vendors.)

And once you get some basic communication skills, you realize that every taxi driver is different. I re-learned that during this past trip. However, because I was with Lipeng, most of them would ask him all sorts of questions about me–“Where is she from? What’s her job? Does she understand any Chinese? Wow, she’s really white/beautiful!”–as though I were his exotic pet. Once, we shared a cab with an older lady in the early evening. She and the ruddy-faced, accelerator-happy driver cackled as they tested my comprehension of Dalianhua. Oh God, I thought, they’re drunk. They’re drunk and we’re gonna crash and the last thing I hear before I die will be coarse ers and ars and ahs of Dalianhua.

(We did not die.)

My favorite taxi driver of all, however, is a woman who goes by Aiyi. Bless your heart if you get the privilege of riding with her. She will get you where you need to go, and she’ll chat you up in her grade school English, which remarkably she still remembers. She’s a woman cabbie and she’s no pushover.

“Go! Fuck!” Beep beep. “Move! Go, baby!” Another punctuative honk, and the car that had been blocking the intersession moved to let us pass. “Thank you!”

Yet you can hear the warmth, the toughness, even an almost nurturing lilt outlining her thick Dalian accent, even if you can’t speak Chinese. When she speaks English, the thing that comes out is her joy.

“I pick up a Colombian girl at the Shengri Di La hotel. You know? I speak English, she so surprised! She work in the hotel be a singer, and she give me a free concert! In my car!”

As an English learner, Aiyi is an interesting case. She’s one of those people who doesn’t let a limited command over a foreign language get in the way of expressing herself. “I love English,” she told me.  Her dream was to be an English teacher–but she now feels too old to pursue formal study. Because her parents didn’t have a lot of money when she was growing up, she was unable to go to college. That opportunity had gone to her brother, who now works in a multinational corporation and frequently travels to other countries on business.

Like many Chinese, things are turning around for the next generation: her daughter, 23, is finishing her last year of college, and to make that happen Aiyi has taken the night shift while her husband drives a daytime taxi.

And as far as English goes, I think Aiyi seeks out opportunities to practice just because she enjoys it. She pays 150 RMB a month to park outside the foreigner clubs (JD’s, Suzie Wong’s, Shengri Di La). So if you’ve gone out and you’re ready to call it a night, look for a female cabbie–it could be Aiyi!


Eating from the Wild
August 29, 2015, 8:45 am
Filed under: daily life in china, food | Tags:

“Allison! Come out here!” came the shrill command of my mother-in-law. Lipeng had already met her at the front door, but I’d been lagging behind. I shuffled out sleepily in my nightgown, not in the mood for what I anticipated to be another reminder that we should carefully organize our new life together, cook healthy meals, make money, that kind of thing.

I did not expect to see this:

mao haiyen1

Because Lipeng’s parents live near the beach, his mother makes a habit of going swimming every night. She’s not alone–the whole neighborhood is out there enjoying the cool refuge of the ocean. It doesn’t seem to matter that the city is erecting a bridge over the water, and that grime from the construction has been reaching the shore. Rain or shine, pollution or no, every night these Dalianren flock to sea.

So during her swim, she managed to catch wild seaweed–a rarity these days.

“When I found it, I yanked it out from its roots–like this!” She hunched her shoulders together, lifted her leg like a baseball pitcher and yanked the air. 

Filled with the power of her victory, like a hunter enjoying her spoils, she hurried/hopped to the kitchen to dump the tangled mess into a pot and start cooking it. And that’s what we ate for breakfast the next day: fresh seaweed braised in garlic and vinegar.

I’m sorry to say that the seaweed was largely neglected in favor of other, more flavorful dishes. OK, so I’m not the only one, I thought, who doesn’t like seaweed! To be more accurate, I hate seaweed in all its incarnations. Even my love of vinegar and garlic was simply no match for this hate. We did nibble at it out of politeness, but . . . but . . . there was so many other wonderful dishes on the table, like fried fish and eggs with tomato . . . I hope our reluctance to eat didn’t damper her sense of accomplishment!

Dalian and the Children of the Sea
March 27, 2015, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Chinese culture, daily life in china, dalian | Tags: ,

A centerpiece of the Dalian local’s identity is that of being a child of the sea.  That’s true, at least, of my husband, who needs to live near water to feel content. He shared with me a song about growing up by the sea, called “Big Sea, My Home,” (大海啊故乡)which every Chinese person knows. So here’s a bit of Chinese culture:


And for those of you learning Chinese, here are the lyrics and their translation:

When I was young, my mother told me
that the big sea is indeed my home.
海边出生 海里成长
Born by the sea, raised in the sea,
大海 啊大海 是我生长的地方
 oh, big sea, the place where I’ve spent my life.
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
 As the sea wind blows, an electrical current drifts in all directions.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh, big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
When I was young, my mother told me
that the sea is indeed my home,
海边出生 海里成长
born by the sea, raised in the sea,
大海 啊大海 是我生长的地方
oh, big sea, the place where I’ve spent my life.
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
As the sea wind blows, an electrical current drifts in all directions.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
大海啊故乡 大海啊故乡
Big sea, my home; big sea, my home;
我的故乡 我的故乡
my home, my home.


Dalian, a city on the edge of a peninsula, is ringed with beaches — so it’s no surprise that it’s the place to be during the summer. After the long winter (seriously long — 7 months at least), everyone emerges from their homes and offices to play badminton, dance, play majiang on the street corners or just walk around the beaches.


A misty day at the beach.


Fujiazhuang Beach

After a long week of students crying in my office over grades, paperwork and the general motion of my daily routine, I find myself longing to chill on a rocky beach in Dalian, enjoy a cold beer (yes, you can find them in China) and munch on barbecued seafood.


Me, enjoying a bite-sized abalone.

So excited to be going back for a short visit this summer! See you then, Dalian!

Things that go “beep” in the night
February 21, 2011, 1:19 am
Filed under: daily life in china, TIC | Tags:

While the bombs firecrackers exploded outside our windows during Spring Festival, we had a noisy incident of own.  Last week, I returned home from work one evening.  At first things were quite normal–I said hello to my roommate Pam and her boyfriend (some of you may know that I recently moved in with a friend) and started to warm up something for dinner.
Then our neighbor walks in through the bathroom.

Our apartment is actually two apartments: Pam and I share a fairly sizable portion (two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a dining area), but there is another part that is closed off from us, which belongs to the landlord’s brother.  We all use the bathroom; otherwise, it’s like a completely separate apartment.

So we weren’t completely staggered when a middle-aged Chinese man came out of our bathroom.  We were, however, annoyed that he came to fiddle with our breakers in an attempt to restore electricity in his apartment–and in the process took out most of our apartment’s power.

That isn’t exactly a tragedy; we still had one good outlet, and outside it was cold enough that we could move some of the food to our patio over night.  The real tragedy was the smoke detector.  It beeped.  And beeped.  About every ten seconds.  Four people got up on a chair and tried to deactivate it, but to no avail.  Apparently, in many Chinese apartment complexes, the smoke detector is powered electrically rather than by battery, and it starts to beep when it doesn’t have enough power to work properly.

Our neighbor’s brilliant suggestion was to close the kitchen doors.  Yeah, thanks.

We ended up having to do this:

Yes, that is a pillow taped to our ceiling.

It did muffle the sound a bit; at first, we were patient.  We could bear it.  But after two days of waiting for someone to fix it, we were starting to go a bit crazy.  On Valentine’s Day, Pam went out with her boyfriend, and I ended up going to a bar by myself just to get away from the noise.  It was just fine, though–I ran into some friends and had a good time.

Finally, a few people came to deactivate the smoke detector (we have to buy a new one), but only yesterday were we restored to full power.  The guy next door says to keep a receipt for the bill and give it to the landlord.  But the landlord is in Korea and has been there for a while!  Somehow, I don’t think we will ever get that money from our neighbor.  If only we could lock him out of the bathroom…

A second new year
February 15, 2011, 2:41 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, daily life in china, holidays | Tags:

When I was a kid, I remember feeling sad that fireworks were outlawed in New York (except for at official events, of course). My dad used to take me to the roof on New Year’s to watch them; but with the new law, that tradition ended early.

But after experiencing Spring Festival (otherwise known as Chinese New Year) here in China, I get it now! Whenever we heard the sky rumble, my first thought was “We’re being bombed!” Whenever I heard a loud crack behind me, the New Yorker in my screamed, “Gunshot!! Where??”

People here use fireworks and firecrackers to stretch out the New Year for as long as possible; it starts a week before the holiday, and usually ends a week after. And they go off everywhere. In the sky. On the ground. Even walking down the street is an exercise in caution; a firecracker could go off mere inches away from you at any time. At any time–morning, afternoon, night. There have been many mornings when, after a late night, I wake up at 7am to a barrage of firecrackers right outside my window; I usually end up screaming “SHUT UP!!” before I’m even fully awake.

Given that I am the kind of person who jumps when the phone rings, you can imagine how much I love Spring Festival.

But that really isn’t a fair assessment of this holiday, which is so important to Chinese people. It’s really just a minor inconvenience compared to the other ways in which China shifts during this time of year. Everyone has been so much happier. My co-workers looked forward to their long holiday with their family. My students have all been a little more crazed than usual, and say goodbye and “Happy New Year!” to me with a little bounce in their voice. Red lanterns adorned the streets; gaudy flashing lights hung on the trees. Aside from the fact that it felt as though we were living in a warzone, Spring Festival managed to break the gloom of winter.

It depresses me a little that, like Thanksgiving, I spent Spring Festival in a bar. But it happened to be a bar in a really cool district of Beijing (Sanlitun) with other awesome expats. Here is a photo of the fireworks we saw at midnight:

View from The Stumble Inn bar (Sanlitun, Beijing)

In Beijing, I stayed with a friend, who tirelessly showed me a good time. We were even invited to her Chinese co-worker’s home to bao jiaozi (wrap dumplings) in honor of the New Year. I have never been good at wrapping Christmas presents; apparently I’m not cut out for wrapping dumplings, either. But it was good fun struggling with the other expats there while my friend’s co-worker, and her elderly parents, patiently helped us. Here we all are, trying to be Chinese:

Me, Amy (purple shirt) and her friends/co-workers boaing jiaozi

Wrapping dumplings is a bit of an art in Chinese culture. Some people even wrap them in the shape of flowers. Ours looked more like lumps. But these were, hands down, the best tasting lumps I have ever eaten. If only a Chinese mom would adopt me…

Anonymously Known
September 28, 2010, 4:02 am
Filed under: daily life in china, the expat life | Tags:

“One of the pleasures of travel is being anonymous,” writes travel writer Paul Theroux.*  But travel in China, for me, demands a different kind of anonymity, a visible anonymity.  In New York, anyone can be anonymous; no one looks at one another, no one really cares who you are or where you’re going.  Here, everyone looks, everyone cares.  Or nearly everyone.

An anonymous person in China will be showered with attention: I get stared at, I get special treatment from street vendors, restaurant owners and locals, and I can expect that someone will try to engage me in conversation.  It is this kind of anonymity that makes China seem like a “dangerous” place, as though anything can happen at any time; simply walking down the street is an invitation to some kind of interaction with a fellow stranger.

By “dangerous,” I really mean unpredictable, which is very intimidating when you’re new to town.  There have been several times when the unpredictable has knocked on my door and given me a scare.  Once, the unpredictable decided not to knock but simply let himself in; I’m pretty sure someone had broken into my apartment a few times, not to steal anything, just to look around and see how the foreigner lives.  (I changed the locks, and haven’t had a problem since.) Other incidents have been minor: a man on the bus pestered me for my phone number (I told him I didn’t have one) and then followed me when I got off at my stop; or, while eating lunch at the market, a crowd surrounded me and watched a man stuff a bunch of bank papers in my face–he wanted me to transfer money to an overseas account.

But China is really not a very dangerous place, especially not for a foreigner.  If anything, most people have been nothing but warm and hospitable to me, to the point where I have to struggle to contain the ever-suspicious New Yorker inside of me.  Nothing is free–right?  Sometimes, it isn’t; Chinese culture operates on a system of guanxi, or connections–if you help a person, then you’re free to ask them for a favor later on.  Admittedly, knowing this puts me at ease; I don’t have to worry about people’s real intentions might be.

Often, however, my visible anonymity makes another Chinese quality visible: simple, unconditional kindness.  Some people–strangers–don’t expect anything in return.  During my first week here, I kept getting lost and couldn’t understand people’s directions when I asked for help.  So they would take the time to walk me to wherever I needed to be.  On the buses, groups of strangers would keep an eye on me to make sure I got off at the correct stop.  When a seat on the bus is free, someone will always insist that I sit, and I in turn fight to let them have the seat (luckily, they still understand me when I accidentally say “please come in” instead of “please sit”).

I don’t expect this kind of hospitality to continue much longer; it’s already waning, since I’ve more or less adjusted to daily life here and can manage on my own.  But knowing that people have my back makes trying new things a lot easier.  Just a few nights ago, I wandered into a real Chinese restaurant by myself.  I had avoided going into restaurants before because there’s so much on the menu that I can’t read.  So it was with some anxiety that I stepped into this crowded, noisy restaurant.

The laoban (restaurant owner) was so excited that a foreigner walked through the door that she insisted that I stay, even though there were no seats.  I ended up sitting with a man and his mother.  For a few minutes, I studied the menu as though I could actually read it.

“Excuse me,” I said.  “Can you recommend something good to eat? I can’t read the menu.”

“Don’t worry,” said the woman.  “It’s our treat.”

Immediately, I assumed that this tired and delicate-looking mother and son duo was out to rob, kidnap or kill me.  Because really, would this ever happen in New York?

I liked the mother a lot.  She regarded me as something akin to an orphan and took it upon herself to be a mother to me for the evening.  She warned me never to share important information with anyone, never give anyone my phone number, never get into a car with anyone: “There are good people in Dalian, but there are also very bad people.”

Like a good mother, she seemed to worry about me.  She thought the neighborhood where I live is unsafe and advised me to move downtown.  Like many people, she asked my age, and when I told her I was twenty-two she nearly went into hysterics that reminded me very much of my Nana: “Twenty-two! You’re just a child! How could your parents let you come here by yourself?”

After dinner, she took me outside and, clinging to my hand and my arm, showed me which taxis are safe to take and which are not.  We exchanged email addresses and said goodbye, and I offered to treat them next time.

I checked my wallet and bag. Everything was there.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t been killed, and I promise you right now that it is really I, not any kidnappers, who is writing this.

*From Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through 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.