How To Survive The Culture Shift
After a 13-hour layover at Sheremetyevo Airport - which gave me enough time to get drunk, sober up, experience a hangover and start to get drunk again - I was on my way to Asia for the first time in my life.
The plan was to meet an old friend, Dean, in Xiangyang (where he was presently teaching American Cultural Studies). Together we would then travel by train through Hubei and Zheijang provinces back to Shanghai.
It was a further three hours before my connecting flight to Xiangyang, so I pulled up a seat in an airport restaurant overlooking the allocated gate and decided to eat something authentic.
Learn the cultural customs before arriving
I ordered feng zhao (chicken feet) and some mushy beige stuff (which wasn't translated). The feeling of being worldly was quickly replaced with regret. Any meat I was able to strip from the talons had the consistency of the gristle between the joints in KFC chicken. I wasn't going to be able to finish it, but I forced a few more mouthfuls down and moved the remains into one corner of the plate to give the appearance more had been consumed.
I had some Chinese Yuan on me, withdrawn from a Post Office in England, so I took it up to the desk and handed over the sum of the bill including a 20% tip. The tip was returned to me. I waved off what I interpreted as politeness and tried to give it back but she pushed my hand away as though I were offering her an active grenade. I later discovered from Dean that tipping in China is impolite. It gives the impression you're undervaluing the employee's work. Had I done more research beforehand, these early blunders could have been avoided.
Find a mentor
There were around 20 people on the flight to Xiangyang, barely filling a third of the plane. There were graphics on the back of the seat which were indecipherable. They were accompanied by some Chinese symbols I also didn't understand. I hoped none of it was related to my safety.
The plane landed in a field beneath a murky grey sky. We walked across 100ft of tarmac to get to the small terminal building. Dean stood behind a railing with five others also waiting for passengers. I had been looking out for his trademark beard, but his chin was now as bare as flan. We embraced each other heartily and he broke the news to me: beards don't enjoy the same reputation they do in the West. Working as a university professor, he was expected not to look homeless and unclean. I had a fresh self-consciousness about my beard - to say it was unkempt would be an understatement.
Outside the airport, Dean walked onto the road and into oncoming traffic, waving his hand like he was patting the head of a dog. A car stopped in front of him and we got in. There were no seatbelts and the windscreen was cracked in three places. Dean's passenger seat slid back into me as the driver pulled away. Dean spoke what I presumed was fluent Mandarin to the driver, who spoke back unperturbed.
The chaos is more organised than it looks
There were no lanes on the roads. Cars were overtaking each other as impatiently as pedestrians on a London pavement. A chorus of car horns came from every direction. Our driver seemed to be using his horn the same way one might use "excuse me" in a crowd.
There was a fog that engulfed everything beyond the nearest buildings. Dean said it was pollution. I was reminded of Karl Pilkington's comments in An Idiot Abroad when he reasoned there was little point filming the show in high definition whilst they were in China.
Arriving at the hotel, the driver stopped the car in the middle of the road. Dean paid him the equivalent of one British pound and we exited the car, dodging traffic to get to the pavement.
The hotel was damp and dark. In our room, my stomach decided to start cramping courtesy of the feng zhao, which decided to intermittently exit my system. I spent my first night in China between the bathroom and the bed. Dean went out to fetch me pharmaceuticals and easily-digestible food but told me not to get too used to "Western" toilets.
The next day we went to historically-significant temples, bridges and ruins, then to bars in cramped alleys where ex-patriots from America and England told us stories about how they ended up living in Xiangyang. One elderly English guy had simply taken his savings to China where they instantly converted into millions. He decided to spend the rest of his life there living like a king.
We ate sizzling meat on long metal skewers in a streetside foodery. A lone Chinese traveller - a kid of around 19 years old from Beijing - sat with us and practised his English.
In the morning we caught a rickshaw to the train station. The driver looked around 80 years old and I felt a horrible guilt being pulled along by his apparently superhuman thigh muscles. I wanted to tip him, but Dean wouldn't let me.
Conditions vary from train to train
The Xiangyang train station was packed with people. Nothing was translated into English. Dean had thankfully booked our tickets ahead of time, so I followed his lead. We were eventually paraded onto a platform and into a train carriage remniscient of the kind now extinct in England - the ones with pulldown windows. It took four hours to get to Jingmen. I was opposite an old lady eating chicken feet out of a plastic bag and spitting rejected pieces onto the floor. I tried to keep my feet as far from her target area as possible.
We spent two days in Jingmen, then took a train to Wuhan. The carriage was so crowded that our bodies had to be wedged into the train by officials on the platform. I hadn't seen unshrouded sunlight since flying out of Shanghai.
Wuhan to Hangzhou was an overnight sleeper train. We had a room to ourselves for the first couple of hours, then a family of four joined us. That made two bunkbeds between six. I had also started to get used to squat toilets at this point, but using a squat toilet on a speeding, swaying train was a different story. Suffice it to say that timing and aim were gravely important.
Our last train was a one-hour bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai, and it was the best train ride of my life. We travelled at 217mph, with considerable legroom and access to Western toilets behind electric doors with locks.
Being a foreigner is a novelty in some regions
For the two days we were in Jingmen, Dean was the only white person I saw. There was never really a time I didn't feel eyes following us. Mothers pointed me out to their children and made them wave and say "hello". It made sense; we stood out visibly. But as someone who hadn't at this point travelled outside Europe and North America, it was eye-opening.
In Hangzhou, at the top of one of the many pagodas in the surrounding hills, Dean and I rested to take photos and enjoy the views of mist-skirted lakes and forests. I was wearing a baggy purple hoodie. A Chinese man approached me wielding a camera and motioned for me to take a photo. When I went to take the camera from him, he pulled it back and put his arm around me. Then he handed the camera to his wife and moved me to the balcony. It became clear he wanted a picture with me. Dean told me this was pretty common. They'd have a photo with a "foreigner" in their photo album now.
People near us on buses or in restaurants, or with whom we shared taxis, generally wouldn't expect us to know any Mandarin. This was fun for Dean. He would enjoy listening as our physical appearances were candidly discussed, then chiming into their conversation fluently with a trivial, unrelated question. Their embarrassed faces were priceless.
Learn a base of Chinese words relevant to your trip
In Wuhan, on a brief stop between Jingmen and Hangzhou, I succumbed to the want for Western food and bought McDonald's. A janitor began to clean the table around me. I moved my things out the way and said "xie xie" (thank you). This was basically the extent of my knowledge of Mandarin. She smiled and said something back to me. I nodded and smiled politely. Dean laughed and translated. She had said "Your Chinese is very good." The foreigners she had previously experienced must have left a lot to be desired.
As I said, the food is different...
In addition to chicken feet, we would end up dining on ant-wine, stinky tofu (that's the literal translation - and an accurate one), chicken saliva (possibly a mistranslation) and duck neck.
It wasn't all outlandish though. Most eateries operated a DIY approach to eating out. There would be a stove in the middle of the table and you selected your meat, vegetables and spices, and cooked your own food in a hot pot.
...But the social scene, not so much
I was naively expecting China to feel repressed. It was a shock to me then how rambunctious the bar scene felt - I guess alcohol is a universal language. Dean and I drank five mini-kegs of Carlsberg in a bar in Hangzhou. A band played Maroon 5 covers on a stage with a backdrop featuring caricatures of famous political leaders playing in a band together.
People got drunk, they danced, they played "Liar's Dice" (a popular Chinese game similar to America's "Bullshit") and got belligerent when they'd drunk too much. It felt familiar, to say the least.
Don't expect to want to leave
Our last stop was Shanghai - one of the most populous cities in the world. The urban landscape was illuminated by the afternoon sun on our arrival, giving the iconic towers across the Yangtze River a sci-fi-movie quality. By night, we were immersed in city lights, hordes of humans, and merchants yelling English words at us. Generally this was "girls?"
Dean and I had our last meal at a restaurant with three walls of windows. With the stretch of city and people before us, it felt like we were in the centre of the world. Dean taught me how to order beer in Mandarin, and I did. The waitress understood me perfectly. I felt a pang of invincibility.
For all the apprehension I had felt before arriving in China, I felt a great sadness knowing I had to get up early the next morning to fly back to London. The charm of witnessing a new world for yourself, and the challenge of seeing if you can overcome your own reservations and fears, is intoxicating. It's easy to see why those ex-patriots in Xiangyang - and for that matter, Dean - ended up staying there. I left with a taste for testing more of my own limits.
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Christopher Tunstall is a self-professed writer, musician and traveller. He graduated from the University of Winchester with a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing then worked as a web copywriter for two years before beginning his world travels. He now writes for writing advice website Penleak and has short fiction, music, etc. available on his website. Tweet him @cdtunstall