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.
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…?