China-friendly New Year’s Resolutions for Laowais

What could a lǎowài (老外) do in 2009 to better adjust to life in China? The list below contains some of the ideas I’ve collected (they’re not all mine), and I’m curious to hear what other ideas are out there. Bonus points for creativity, usefulness, and doability. Mucho uber bonus points if it’s Tianjin specific!

(If you don’t live in China, this should still be an interesting window into daily life in Tianjin.)

Some of these are easier than others, and each will suit some personalities better than others. Some are a one-time deal, some involve altering our lifestyle. All of them have potential to enhance our experience of Tianjin/China and create new opportunities for friendship.

Get a Clue

1) Read the local news.
Your neighbours probably also read the local news, or at least hear it word-of-mouth. It’s a good way to start finding out what people are thinking and talking about, and what’s going on in the city. You don’t have to be in it for China’s hard-hitting investigative journalism; just scan the headlines and ledes. Staying up on local news pulls us one step closer to the local experience and provides plenty of conversation fodder.

2) Visit the 3rd floor of the Tianjin Museum.
Tianjin is historically significant to China, especially where foreigners are concerned, but do you know why? Your neighbours do. A couple hours on the 3rd floor of the Tianjin Museum (天津博物馆) at the Yínhé Gōngyuán (银河公园 – the big park/plaza on Yǒuyì Lù/友谊路 next to the amusement park) will clue you in. It has plenty of English, and if you spend an afternoon walking and reading through the chronological displays that narrate Tianjin and China’s forced entry into the modern era, you’ll get a fine introduction to modern history from the official and popular Chinese perspective, and the respective places that foreigners and Tianjin each have in it. This particular historical narrative influences how Mainlanders see the world, and becoming familiar with it will help you better understand yourself as a foreigner in Tianjin.

3) Start paying attention to the lunar calendar’s key dates and mini-seasons.
Ever notice how sometimes what people wear isn’t necessarily dictated by how hot or cold it is outside, or how suddenly one night people go out and burn piles of paper in the street? The Chinese lunar calendar still impacts modern life through the traditions observed by many families in Tianjin. Taking note of the lunar calendar will help clue you in to the annual rhythms of life here.

4) Take Chinese lessons.
…even if you’re only planning to be here for a year or two, and even if it’s only part time with a private tutor who’s doubling as your ayi. Even taxi Chinese is better than no Chinese.

Start Living in Your Neighbourhood

5) Your neighbourhood bike repairman, security guards, food vendors, etc. are not named “Ni Hao” and “Xie Xie.” These are people you see everyday! Learn their names and appropriate titles, and make a point to take time to chat on your way in and out.

6) Go out for walks in the park after dinner – make it a habit.
If you haven’t noticed, after dinner is prime time in Tianjin’s parks. Near where we live along the canal south of the TV tower, people are out with their kids, chatting, dancing, rollerblading, flying kites, snogging, and exercising en masse in all but the most oppressive weather. Hiding inside after dinner every night can seem a little strange. The Yínhé Park on Yǒuyì Lù is another prime spot for after dinner family fun.

7) Get your fruit and vegetables from the vegetable market, not the supermarket.
At your local càishìchǎng (菜市场) you’ll see the same vendors every time, and they have time. At the supermarket it’s just a random anonymous cashier who’s in a hurry because of the lineup. (*Avoid bottled and packaged goods in the vegetable market, as these are often fake. Better chances with these things at the supermarket.)

8 ) What kind of public activities are going on in your neighbourhood?
We can see the neighbourhood activity centre from our windows, and we’ve seen everything from fashion shows to Beijing Opera going on in there. Get aware of the activities in your area and drop in on one or two.

Local Skills, Local Thrills

9) Go outside for a walk before midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
It’s a total blast! Last year we were just south of the TV Tower along the canal when midnight hit on Chinese New Year; we won’t forget those sights and sounds anytime soon.

10) Learn to dance… in public.
I can think of at least three different parks near our apartment that have dancing daily or nightly. I’ve seen public dancing groups doing everything from the cha-cha to the macarena to the tango. This is a fun, potentially romantic opportunity too good to miss.

11) Visit the marriage market (that’s right: marriage market) at Tianjin’s Central Park (中心公园;Zhōngxīn Gōngyuán) in the heart of the old French concession area. On weekends in good weather, from morning until xiūxi time (Chinese siesta) in the early afternoon, hundreds of parents converge on the park to search for and screen potential mates on behalf of their children. It is the friendliest crowd I’ve found in the city. Language students will have more speaking opportunities than they can handle, and anyone with an interest in China, Chinese society, and Chinese culture will find it an interesting example of how Tianjin’s citizens are dealing with Chinese society’s rapid changes and pressures.

12) Learn to kick a jiànzi (毽子;also called a qiàor in Tianjin).
…those feathered Chinese hackeysack things that sound like coins when you kick them. They’re fun, and if you start kicking one of these around in a park with friends, people will invariably come close to watch, waiting to be invited into your circle.

13) Learn how to haggle in the market.
Tianjiners don’t do a lot of haggling, but they do haggle some and it can feel a little weird when haggling is completely absent. It’s not about the 5 máo.

14) Learn to play Chinese chess, and challenge one or more of your neighbourhood retirees to a game. You might be surprised to witness how a two-player game can suddenly become a team sport.

15) Do your reading in a public place.
If you’ve got reading to do and the weather’s decent, do it on a park bench. Eventually someone will come over and start talking to you.

Unlike many other big cities, many of Tianjin’s neighbourhoods and public parks are still characterized by small-town friendliness. This New Year is as good a time as any to start experiencing more of Tianjin’s local character.

Any more ideas out there…?

14 thoughts on “China-friendly New Year’s Resolutions for Laowais”

  1. @Liuzhou
    …unless you’re reading your Chinese homework and just waiting for an unsuspecting friendly local to come by so you can try out some new grammar and vocab!

    @Brian
    I wished I’d heard of some of these earlier. Some of them we already do, but others will have to wait until winter’s over.

  2. Great list! Even though much of it is Tianjin-specific, I can still relate to a lot of it from where I’m at too.

    I would add to your list:

    1) On number #5 I would add your taxi driver. I know this wouldn’t really be categorized as “people you see everday”, but I find that most driver’s are more than excited to find they can chat with me in Chinese and love both asking and answering questions. On more than one occasion I’ve had the same taxi driver pick me up, but then again I live in a relatively small town.

    2) I completely agree with #7 (using the vegetable market) and not just for the reasons you mentioned. My wife and I actually have a particular couple of stalls that we always get our vegetables from. This works out in our favor because they not only give us a good price because they know we are repeat business but they also become friendly neighbors who fit into your #5.

    3) On learning to play games (#14), I’ve found that there are a few games that are age-specific, at least where I’m at. If you want to get in with the younger crowd, learn the card games. Middle-agers love the Chinese chess and the older generation plays majong. Of course these are generalizations that don’t apply to every situation, but this is what I see most often.

    Anyway, great topic for conversation. Thanks!

  3. It may be a Tianjin-specific list, but the principles apply everywhere.

    When I was in Tianjin I’d slip my security guard a small bottle of baijiu on Friday evenings and before holidays and festivals. The results, of course were beyond good. But mostly the guard was just a friendly guy doing a job, and I just wanted to show him a little appreciation. He’s one of the people I really miss from Tianjin.

    As for taxi drivers, depends where you are. They certainly can become people you see every day or at least regularly. Out in Taiyuan the motorcycle taxi drivers (not strictly legal, of course…) outside my school gate and the nearest bus terminus at 下元 got to know me very well. And on occasion would race inside the school gate to pick me up… only for me to say, sorry mate, I’m just going to the supermarket across the road. And some regular taxi drivers got to have a fair idea of where I’d likely be heading after seeing me a few times.

    I can’t think of anything to add except to suggest that the whole read the local news thing needs to be very strongly emphasised. Sure, it takes a fair bit of effort to get your Chinese reading up to a level where you can cope with newspapers, but the earlier you start trying, the better. And the result, of course, is knowing your city that much better and not being limited to your local branch of expatria.

  4. hi joel and jessica,
    happy western new year! great list. as a variation on the read the local newspaper theme, i would add, listen to the radio. popular music is a great way of learning chinese and having something to talk about. it also answers the eternally pressing question: what songs should i add to my karaoke repertoire?

  5. @Mary Ann
    I can’t believe I forgot to put karaoke in the list! You’re totally right – it’s a fun way to learn, and a karaoke repertoire is a basic necessity in China. “Happy Niú Year” to you, too!

    @Josh
    Yeah, I should have mentioned more games. In our area, the old guys play Chinese chess, the middle aged guys play cards. In Taipei the old guys played 围棋 all day long. The students here play cards a lot.

    @Chris
    I agree about the news, it’s just too bad that newspapers aren’t very accessible for language students. It takes a while to build up a big enough vocab. I wish Tianjin had local English news. Ha, that’s funny about the security guard. I bet he loved you!

  6. Point 5 is just spot on.

    I’m totally guilty of that, even though my chinese is plenty good enough to talk to the locals.

  7. Hi Joel!

    The one about talking to the people (because they’re not just named nihao and xiexie) is so funny! My friend is super friendly that she has this project aptly titled “Project Nihao!”

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