I felt it was time to evaluate my life in China so far, what with the dawn of the Chinese New Year fast approaching and the Year of the Horse wielding unknown potential.
I'd like to share with you some things I have learned from living in this amazing country:
1. No matter what ailment is troubling you, be it a headache, menstrual cramps, a cold or the flu, a chesty cough or generally just feeling a bit under the weather, hot water will be your best friend and ally during these tenuous times!
You will be hard pressed to find a Chinese person, especially where I live, without a flask, mug, glass jar or some other nondescript container filled at least three quarters of the way with hot water.
Now don't get me wrong, I already understand the value of water; it's good for your skin and keeps your body hydrated, it provides much needed moisture to maintain strong brain power, it can even aid digestion. However, it is not just the miracle of water that the Chinese understand and appreciate, oh no! It is hot water, with its glorious cleansing steam gliding up into your sinuses, it is the warmth spreading through your chest into your stomach and down to your toes as this apparent heavenly hand guides its warming embrace throughout your entire body.
Whenever in the past year and a half, I have experienced any kind of medical annoyance, the first thing any of my students or Chinese friends have advocated is this, 'Drink hot water, keep your body warm', and although sage advice, it is not only this, but also an undeniable truth.
I drink hot water in restaurants, at home, whenever I feel a cold coming on, or am experiencing particularly uncomfortable cramps - out comes my very own flask which locks in the magical heat and within a day or two, I am back to feeling tip-top again.
2. You will never be as popular anywhere in world with people you've never met, than you will be in China.
Every single day, I walk to school, or I get a bus or a taxi into town; I meet my friends, I go shopping, I'll stop in somewhere and maybe have some hot water (with tea in it!) - I do a myriad of things throughout my weeks and months, often different things or trying different places, or trying to find the place I really like but that appears to have closed down...! One thing however remains constant:
Every single person you walk past will either want to, will know how to, or actually does say one or all of the following phrases to you...
'Hello' / 'Nice to meet you' / 'My English is very poor'
I have made more friends on the streets of this town, in the short space of time that I've lived here, than I have in my previous 20 odd years in the UK.
Everyone is so desperate to interact with a foreigner that they usually pluck up the courage and put their limited knowledge of the English language to use.
The best part is, that if these brave souls happen to be girls, usually of any age, or younger boys, when you reply to their 'Hello' with an equally matched response, they will giggle, run away and then point and talk about you with a group of their friends who never seem to be very far away.
It has gotten to the point now where I genuinely cannot remember if I've met, seen or even spoken to this person before me offering a cordial greeting as it happens so often, I've almost lost track.
3. People you have never met, or have perhaps met during one of the aforementioned bravery conversations, will have photographs of you on their cameras or their phones and they will have passed these photos on to at least 5 of their friends, or better yet, they will simply have posted these pictures on to one of Asia's many social outlets. QQ, WeChat, Weibo etc.
My first encounter with the stealth photographers happened when I arrived fresh-faced and excited in Beijing. The sights, the smells, the immense number of people, the strange language on every sign, the incredible feat to find and navigate the subway system (read some of my earlier blog entries for that thrilling debacle!)
It was however, on the subway, that my suspicion peaked... through the wonders of peripheral vision.... I saw them.
Slowly, almost unnoticeable to the human eye, people's mobile phones were creeping up over other passengers’ shoulders, heads, arms, each one pointing their judgemental camera's eye directly at me.
I waited for the sound, the give-away that a picture had indeed been snapped, but nothing.
Just as eerily as they had appeared, the phones slid back into pockets and bags, calculatedly waiting for their next prize photo opportunity.
4. At more than one interval throughout the day, you will eat an entire meal from a plastic bag:
It doesn't matter how much money you do or don't want to pay for your food, whenever you buy food outside or even from a little shop, you will be served your succulent meat or soup or rice or noodles, all together, in one bag (after all - it's going to end up like that in your stomach once you've masticated it!)
Once you've gained the skill of not eating a little piece of the bag with each bite, you get to really understand and enjoy the bohemian thrill of it all - no plates to clean, no cutlery to wash; you just put the disposable chopsticks you were given into the empty food bag, tie it off in a neat little bow and boom, straight into the bin it goes.
Restaurants, of course, have a little more western etiquette to them, you get to enjoy your food on plates with sturdier chopsticks and separate dishes for you to portion out your required amount of food. There is demonstrably the added benefit of once again, not having to do any washing up or tidying up of any kind; but to think you escaped the bags?
How foolish of you.
Once you've eaten your fill, the kindly waiter or waitress will appear with several empty bags, pick up your leftovers (from the serving dish, rather than your individual plates or bowls) and pour said contains into the plastic bags.
Taking home any uneaten food is very important here, again, at least where I live, as the government is trying to cut down food waste and if you don't want it now, you'll probably want it later so why not just pop it in a doggy bag and take it home with you?!
The same practise of using a bag over crockery also applies in Qingdao during their annual beer festival - instead of tables for you and your friends to sit around and discuss current affairs, there are hooks on the walls for you to hang your beer bags on.
(It saves space, allowing more beer bags to be purchased by more patrons)
5. If you have any colour hair, other than black or dark brown, you are suddenly the Messiah:
My Australian friend who lives here with his beautiful Chinese wife once told me that he had a friend (male), with shoulder length blonde hair, who took a trip on one of the marvellous trains we have all over the country, and decided to take a nap as it was going to be a long journey.
When he woke up, he saw before him several concerned and awe-stricken Chinese passengers staring at him.
Now given the previous points of foreigners being interesting commodities, it would appear to be understandable to have a group of unknown voyeurs to this man's train journey.
It was however the large chunk of hair he was missing that these travellers were more put out by....
During his nap, someone had decided that his golden locks should be shared amongst his earthly comrades and thusly cut off a large piece of his hair as a keepsake.
As a fellow blonde, my roots ache for that man's lost locks, but luckily (for me!) I have yet to encounter any serial hair collectors.
My hair dresser here does however tell me, more often than not, that my hair is too soft to do anything with.
I take that as a compliment!
6. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend in China, not only will your parents be thrilled, but so will clothes manufacturers throughout the country:
The Western world is already aware of the massive influence Asian countries and their trends have had on popular culture; Hello Kitty, Sushi restaurants, glasses without lenses (Asian Hipsters!), coloured contact lenses, brightly mismatched clothing etc.
What the Western world has yet to cotton onto is the booming market of girlfriend/boyfriend shops.
Now don't get me wrong, we have 'His and Hers' towels and bathrobes, but we’ve got nothing on the Chinese niche for boyfriend/girlfriend matching outfits.
That's right folks.
Couples in Asia don't just want you to know they’re a couple, they want to show you through the medium of fashion.
Whole boutiques dedicated to sweatshirts and hoodies sporting the same colours and logos - bigger sizes for him; petite, perfectly figure-hugging sizes for her.
This phenomenon even extends to shoes, hats and trousers.
You and your partner can walk into one of these boyfriend/girlfriend shops and kit each other out in perfectly harmonised ensembles.
7. Poorly translated and often comical signs and menus:
When picking your food in restaurants or trying to figure out where you are in the major metropolis can be daunting, but fear not, because someone, somewhere, with a basic understanding of English has attempted to assist you in this ordeal.
Pictures, clear as day, show you a delectable dish of Chicken with potatoes and vegetables in a colourful blend of culinary excellence, and although the Chinese, if you're fortunate enough to understand it, tells you that that is indeed what this dish entails, the English version will probably put you off eating for the rest of your life.
I once saw a similar dish described as 'Flavoured Fungi and assorted entrails', even though the Chinese characters told me it was Chicken and vegetables....
The fun continues with warning signs or polite notices.
In a hotel I saw a sign in the corridor outside the elevator, with a picture of pursed lips and a single finger laying gently over them, telling me to 'put it mildly, and then put it mildly'.
Common sense would dictate that this probably means, 'Please be quiet when walking about the hotel so as not to disturb other guests', but alas, this elegance was somewhat lost in translation.
Another interesting warning came from what I presume was a 'Slippery when wet' or 'Uneven steps' sign in a tourist attraction of ancient art and temples, with a sign that simple read 'Don't fall down' accompanied by a picture of a foolish naysayer falling down some steps.
The list is of course, long and endless, but usually full to the brim with hilarious mistranslations and equally amusing illustrations for added effect.
8. If you're outside, feel free to spit wherever you like, even out of a car window, whilst on the move.
Now as a quintessentially British childhood moulded my sense of propriety and manners, spitting was never an appropriate past time, but in Asia, if it's in your mouth, you need to expel it as loudly and thoroughly as you can.
You are all probably aware of the guttural wrenching sound people make when they have a particularly stubborn phlegm build-up in the back of their throat or nose. Well this sound is only part of the cacophony of sounds one hears on a daily basis in China.
If it's not a taxi honking it's horn to see if you require a lift; small, barely audible speakers shouting at you to buy the freshly picked produce or children departing school en mass, then the pise de résistance, will be the spitting.
If Disney were to recreate Fantasia using the sounds of Asia rather than actual instruments, the sound of spitting would account for the percussions, strings and probably brass sections as well.
But have no fear readers, because cleaners are on hand 24/7 with their bamboo handled, mesh and feather street brushes to clear the congealed mess away…
9. If you can still breathe, then there is enough space in this taxi, subway car, bus or ticket office for more people:
If you've ever wondered why Asian people tend to lack basic manners in regards to space awareness and entry/exit protocols, look no further for your answers.
It all starts here, in Asia.
If you want to get on that subway train in the UK or the US and there doesn't seem to be a lot of room, you will probably have the basic instincts of self-preservation to wait 3 minutes for the next train.
If you want to get on that subway train in Asia, you get on the damn subway train, regardless of that child's face you've now squashed against a window or that small family of foreigners you've all but forced into a vacuum, slowly suffocating them to death.
Not only will you hardly ever see a queue or something to that effect, you won't see a patient Asian person either.
If you've got somewhere to be, you get there no matter the cost, damage or possible offence it may cause.
If you need a ticket but the mass conglomerate ahead of you doesn't have your best interests at heart, you force your way to the front, interrupt the employee who is already dealing with another customer and thrust your money into their hands, talking over the previous patron.
It reminds me of that scene in Titanic when everyone is trying to evacuate the sinking vessel and the lower level passengers are all pushed up against that padlocked gate, clambering on top of one another for just a glimpse at their possible freedom and escape.
Even without the threat of imminent death by frosty cold drowning, the assertion to survive and be the first to do so lives on in the heart of pretty much every Asian person alive.
10. Pyjamas are not just an inside outfit, but don't wear indoor shoes outside, obviously:
During the harsh winter months, I've learned that PJ's are not just a comfy, cosy, indoor outfit for you to nestle into on the sofa with your mug of hot chocolate, oh no.
Pyjamas are actually giant layers of padded warmth that you wear over your normal outside-clothes and when you combine these two fashion masterpieces together, you get a warm outside look with all the comfort and cosiness of your inside outfit.
The best part about wearing your pyjamas outside is that everyone else is doing it too so no one thinks you look utterly ridiculous and some of the designs and patterns could even be deemed fashionable.
The rooky mistake however, is mistaking indoor shoes for outdoor shoes.
It's completely acceptable for you to wear pyjamas outside, but if you wear flip flops in summer or the matching cosy booties that go so perfectly with your PJ's in the winter then you are opening yourself up to ridicule and the blatant question 'Why are you wearing slippers outside?'
Overly fluffy or felt-style boots are slippers.
Flip-Flops are slippers.
Shower-shoes are slippers.
Slippers are slippers.
And at no time is it appropriate to wear any of these items of footwear outside.
Even if you are wearing a Michelin-man inspired pyjama set.