Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.
Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.
Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).
It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of 麻烦 that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.
And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.
Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.
Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8：
Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)
The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.
Our About page says we’re “trying to live into and love — and some days just survive — China.” That last bit is just supposed to be some tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, but it recently became a little too literal.
For reasons that no doubt expose my questionable judgment, I tried to use the nearby local Chinese hospital in our un-redeveloped patch of an older outlying district of a wannabe 2nd-tier Chinese city, rather than the big downtown hospital that sometimes has Western-trained doctors in a clinic specially targeted to foreigners. I mean, how complicated could it be to get treatment for a persistent cough? What could go wrong, you know? As it turns out… a few things.
* * * * *
Why Not Choose a Local Chinese Hospital?
Of course we’ve seen the headlines and heard the stories about Chinese hospital corruption and low standards. But we’ve had two tolerable experiences at this particular hospital before: once when our two-year-old had bad pneumonia she got prescribed oral antibiotics and breathing machine meds (when we resisted hospitalization), and recently when the same kid had diarrhea she got prescribed ‘normal’ diarrhea medicine plus Chinese herbal belly button plugs (just for kicks).
I figured it’d be more convenient (wrong) and less expensive (also wrong) to visit a Chinese doctor I could walk to and pay 6元 to see rather than visit a maybe-Western-trained sort-of English-speaking Chinese doctor who costs 100元 to see plus 70元 in taxi money round-trip. And just the fact that I knew I could navigate a Chinese hospital visit on my own kind of made me want to give it a shot.
* * * * *
How to Get From the Front Doors to a Filled Prescription… in 11 Easy Steps (at least)
The Number “4” People’s Hospital is pretty average; you can find better and you can find worse (it wasn’t actually the Number “4”; I’m obscuring that detail to protect the possibly-guilty and because “4” means “die” in Chinese).
from walking in the door and taking a number (<5min)
to paying, getting a card, and registering to see a doctor (15min)
to seeing a doctor (15min)
to paying for tests (15min)
to getting tests done (45min)
to picking up the test results (30min for blood; 4hrs for CT printout — but the doctor has them almost instantly via the hospital’s computer network)
to seeing the doctor again for a diagnosis and prescription (15min if you spend time arguing like me)
to getting the skin test done to check for allergies to the prescribed meds (20min)
to paying for those meds (15min)
to receiving your meds (5min)
to getting your IV drip prepared and inserted into your circulatory system (IV drips are a national pastime in China) (15min)
…can appear daunting at first. Each one of the points above represents a trip to a different window and/or office and/or machine, and most of them involve standing in crowded noisy lines of other sick people. (The times above are what it took for me the other day.)
Honestly, Number “4” People’s was decently navigable; at any point in the process you can ask a nurse at the booth by the main entrance and she’ll tell you what to do. To get your test results you insert your hospital card into an ATM-like machine (your name displays on a screen when they’re ready to print), but the doctor had my results on her computer before I’d made it back to her office from the testing room.
But you should probably bring a Chinese friend if:
You’re too sick to stand for a while in the crowded heat and yell through glass windows and run around a bit;
You don’t have at bare-minimum solid HSK4-level Chinese (this might not be enough). Aside from the all the medical vocabulary, it’s just noisy and hard to hear clearly.
* * * * *
How Not to Handle Your Average Local Chinese Doctor
I’d walked in at 9:30am and ping-ponged through Steps 1-6 by 11:10. Now I’m back in the doctor’s office (Step 7)… and this is when things start to go bad.
I’m not saying ‘bad’ because there’s no privacy with the door wide open and other people in the room, one of whom will eventually chime in on my consultation — that’s normal and expected. I’m saying ‘bad’ because she looks at my CT scan and says: “You need to be admitted for 7-10 days and take IV antibiotics.”
“Can’t I just take antibiotics pills? I’ve never needed an IV before. Usually we just take pills for this.”
“You’re pneumonia is too serious for pills. You need to be admitted. Look here…” She shows me her screen:
“…That’s your heart. That black part is your lungs. It’s supposed to be all black. See all this? This here that looks like meat? That’s the pneumonia.”
This is not what I want to hear. As if I know how to judge the seriousness of a CT scan. And sure, I know the Chinese doctor stereotypes — over-treat everything (especially with IVs and unnecessary hospitalization and surgery) just to make extra sure, and never mind a financial incentive to over-prescribe — but I mean, come on. Really?
There’s no way I’m being admitted; we leave for North America in just over two weeks, we have a newborn and two young kids at home, and I have work to do. So I’m still aiming for pills while trying not to be too rude: “I can’t be admitted; that’s impossible. Can we really not use pills in this situation?”
“I really don’t want to give you oral antibiotics,” she says while flipping through my CT images, “Not for pneumonia that’s this serious.”
I haven’t given up yet, “Well, what’s the difference between me taking pills or an IV? Is it just that pills will take longer? Because I don’t mind! I can take pills for weeks if I need to!”
“Your pneumonia is really too serious. You’ve got to be on an IV…” She will not budge. After some more back and forth — during which I wish now that I’d just flat-out refused and forced her to give me pills — I agree to come sit in the hospital’s Infusion Hall twice a day for four hours at a time for three days, after which she’ll maybe consider giving me pills depending on my progress. We also go back and forth about whether I can just do the IVs in our neighbourhood’s clinic, but she refuses. I have to come into their hospital twice a day for four hours at a time.
It’s insane; I can’t believe I’m agreeing to it but my only other option is hospitalization, and by this point I’m feeling pretty sick.
I want to walk out and catch a cab straight to the foreigner clinic at Qingdao Municipal or even to super-expensive Family United — anywhere a doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics. But here’s the catch: it’s the beginning of the Dragon Boat Festival national long weekend. Jessica’s already called both those other hospitals and neither has an American-trained doctor available. At Family United I’d have to go to Emergency, so with tests we’re talking 10,000元 (their nurse’s estimate!) and I’d still be seeing a locally trained Chinese doctor!
* * * * *
From the Infusion Hall to the ER… in under 10min
So that’s why I show up again at 3:30 to collect my CT printout and go on a drip for the first time in my life (though we did sell plenty of our plasma in college; I’ve got lots of experience sitting in a chair for hours with a needle in my arm).
It takes more time to get from Step 8 to Step 11 than I’d anticipated (plus I wasted about 15min standing in line at the wrong time). I send Jessica this photo at 4:28. The drip’s been in for about a minute:
I’ve got my laptop so I can do some work, and my Chinese reading’s loaded on my phone. Neither has enough battery to last the full four hours, even used consecutively. I’ve forgotten my book. So far I’ve been polite to everyone and kept my face pleasant, but I’m in a foul mood. I can’t believe I’m going along with this. I’m about to start in on my Chinese reading when…
…huh. does my stomach feel weird? i don’t think so… maybe i’m imagining it? or does it? it’s hard to tell… … wait, no, it does feel a little weird, maybe i’m hungry… … wait, are my fingers tingling? the heck…? my fingers are tingling… … oh man i need to rest my head somewhere…
“Hey, nurse! Please come here.”
“I feel uncomfortable.”
“Oh! Haha. I don’t know. Hold on… Hey! Older Sister! Come here!” I see her wave down a nurse who looks slightly older than this rookie, who’s in the middle of a funny conversation with a coworker. They all get off work in about 20 minutes.
…am i sweating? i’m sweating… why am i sweating…
“What’s the problem?”
“I feel really uncomfortable,” I’m slumped forward in the chair, I wonder if I’m slurring.
“Here eat this.” She shoves a piece of candy in my mouth. I crunch it down as fast as I can. One of them pushes me back up into a sitting position.
…candy? the heck… oh man this is not getting better… i’m sweating buckets… i must be dripping on the floor… i’m dripping… ohhh black stars… white stars… am i gonna barf? …if i barf where should i barf? …not on my clothes… clear a space on the floor here…
Suddenly there are doctors — two, I think. They’re talking to the nurses. One looks straight at me and says, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Lu Tianlang.” …fuzzy black stars on the edges of my vision… and blinding bright whiteness like the washed-out parts of a photo…
His face is right in front of me, “Have you eaten? Did you have lunch?”
He turns to the others, “It’s definitely not low blood sugar.”
…slumped… sweat… tingling… i can’t see clearly… a face, question…
“What is your name?” All I can see is his face and collar; all around and behind him are the bright white shining stars. I try to focus on his face.
“My name is Lu Tianlang.” …pretty sure i slurred that one…
An old man wheels a gurney up, they help me climb on — I’m oddly aware of the fact that I remember to grab my phone first — someone puts the laptop between my shins, they’re wheeling me down the hall. I think I hear them say the word 糖 in reference to whatever IV solution they used to swap out my medicine (guessing it’s this). I can feel the stars and tingling start to recede, and I tell them I’m starting to feel better. The doctors seem happy; they try out some English on me.
In the neighbouring building’s ER they take blood pressure and do an EKG. I watch the doctor read the printout. He smiles, gives me a thumbs up, says I’m fine and leaves. I flag down a nurse who says I can go as soon as my drip bag is done in about 45 minutes. I’d better think of something to tell Jessica…
* * * * *
Outside the main entrance I thankfully get a cab immediately. The driver’s 60 years old. We chat. I mention what’s just happened. He takes a sideways look back in the direction of Number “4” People’s and mutters, “That place is no good. They don’t know what they’re doing in there. I don’t go there. They don’t know what they’re doing…” Then he lectures me about the importance of being healthy.
I’m feeling crappy and slightly scared. I have no medicine and tomorrow I’ll have to try another hospital. But I’ve got all kinds of warm feelings for this taxi shifu. It’s like ‘China’ decided to throw me a bone after all, even on a Bad China Day.
* * * * *
1:30pm the next day is the soonest I can get to see a foreign-trained doctor — a “Dr. Qi” who works at the Municipal Hospital’s International Clinic. I imagine the consultation being mostly in Chinese, like the previous two times I’d seen doctors at that clinic.
But then he walks in and starts speaking *American.*
What?! …JACKPOT!!! MY NIGHTMARE IS OVER AND I’M GETTING PILLS!!! I COULD KISS THIS GUY RIGHT NOW! (Except for, you know, the pneumonia.) I wonder if the shock showed on my face.
I suspect he gets this reaction a lot. Another China long-termer in Qingdao told me later,
“I cried the first time I went in to see Dr. Chee. I couldn’t believe I was doing it in English and I just lost it right there in his office!”
I can understand that!
Turns out his name’s not even Qi (Mainland Chinese spelling for the surname 綦) like I’d assumed from hearing it spoken; it’s Chee (for 朱), as in his family probably originally immigrated from Hong Kong or somewhere (mine originally came from the Ukraine and Switzerland — hey, small world!).
This doctor visit is a full-on miracle of modern medical science. He’s better than a lot of doctors I’ve seen in North America, and I’m not just saying that because he prescribed me oral antibiotics that are literally 5x cheaper than the IV meds I’d bought the day before. If you are a sick English-speaking foreigner in Qingdao,Dr. Chee at the Qingdao Municipal Hospital’s International Clinic is your man!
* * * * *
One Final Awkward
But there’s one last task to do on the way home: get that nearly 600元 worth of IV antibiotics refunded. This requires authorization from the doctor who prescribed them. So I’m going to walk into her office at Number “4” People’s with some other hospital’s blood test gauze taped to my arm and a bag of pills that she wouldn’t give me but some other doctor obviously has, and ask her to refund two huge bags of stuff she insisted I buy even though I’d said I didn’t want to, and even though submitting to her treatment had landed me in the ER. Awkward.
I walk straight up to her office just after 4pm without taking a number (she gets off at 5). I’m polite and smiley; she’s chatty, if a bit flustered and rushed. She’s assumed I’m there to return the drugs and immediately gets after it. I can’t describe the process because she personally does all the running around between floors and departments and windows for me — I just follow her and stand off to the side.
We talk all about what happened 24 hours before, and she keeps saying, “It’s really strange!” over and over. She doesn’t verbally apologize, and we don’t even come close to broaching the subject of, “So what do I do now?” Apparently it’s an unspoken understanding that I’ve found another doctor, or at least that I won’t continue with her. She’s super accommodating, and at 4:30 hands me my partial refund, says a hurried goodbye and rushes into the elevator with someone.
Was it an unspoken apology? Was she afraid I’d make trouble? Collusion between the pharmaceutical and medical industries is rampant in China, and her prescription cost 5x more than what the American doctor at a more prestigious downtown hospital prescribed. Was she afraid of being accused of something? I can’t know, but it’s all possible.
And no joke: they refunded me 444.64元 (of 581): “Die, die, die, unimpededly die.” That’s gotta be the most inauspicious Chinese hospital receipt ever.
* * * * *
That evening I thanked her on Weixin for helping me return the drugs; I just wanted to say goodbye and close things out. She replied with a written apology and a 100元 hongbao:
Not at all, I still feel apologetic. It was Bangda [a particular drug], and you did a skin test, so I thought it over, not excluding being too nervous or low blood sugar. But no, how about you first take oral antibiotics and see. I’m really embarrassed, I hope you’ll understand! Here’s a hongbao to express my apology!
I asked several different Chinese friends how to respond to that: Should I take the hongbao? Not take the hongbao? What should I say? I replied with what one of them told me to say, and tried to return a portion of the hongbao like another suggested (she didn’t take it):
It didn’t cause a health problem, so it’s fine, medical science isn’t perfect, anyone can make mistakes, let’s just consider it my contribution to the accumulating experience of medical science.
How often does that happen in China? A doctor giving a patient a hongbao? It’s usually the other way around. Here’s the anti-bribery sign from the front desk at the international clinic in the downtown hospital: Now that I think of it, I didn’t see any of these signs at Number “4” People’s. Maybe that should have been a clue! (Here’s another one from a previous medical adventure in Huangdao.)
Diagnosing & Prescribing for Pneumonia
Qingdao Number “4” People’s Hospital:
Meds + IV fees: 597元 (and pressure to accept hospitalization!)
Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.
(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)
It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?
As the outsiders
Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:
“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”
As a lǎowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.
As the insiders
But the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:
He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]
This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.
I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.
“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”
Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活节), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)
God Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:
The legacy of colonialism
Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
Two things in particular stand out to me:
Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.
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.
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.
Yesterday we had a school trip to a local museum, the Shi Family Mansion (Shijia Dayuan), which was a preserved old style home like you might see in kung-fu movies. A couple families brought their kids. Oscar and Toby (blond, glasses) have lived in Tianjin for about two years, and I think they’re handling their pseudo-celebrity status rather well:
Poor guy on the left… wonder what he’s thinking.
It can actually be pretty tough for kids when they have to deal with this kind of attention, but these two have come through the woods and are in the process of working this to their advantage. I almost died laughing when a bus load of uniformed school kids, led by a guy in an army uniform, came marching past us and these two suddenly jumped into the middle of it and started dancing around. The museum wasn’t bad, but I think that was the high point for me.
We have a ton of photos that I just haven’t had time to upload yet. We’re busy getting the apartment up to shape (sealing the windows, putting in U-bends so the sewer gas doesn’t flow up the kitchen and bathroom pipes and wake us up… again, etc.) I’ll try to get them up this week so you can see the neighbourhood. April is a really beautiful month in Tianjin.