China is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, the most moving and unbelievable history and what I honestly believe to be the world’s best food. But undoubtedly, in amongst all this greatness are some of the weirdest and most hilarious oddities you will find on Earth.
It’s these things that aren’t written about in the guidebooks and which you don’t expect before you arrive here. Compiling your own personal ‘Weird things I see in China’ list is all part and parcel of being an expat out here. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Normal is boring! Stay weird China, you excellent, infuriating, wonderful, baffling place!
Apparently, my day-to-day life as a foreigner, however mundane can still be fascinating to the locals. Whilst the constant shouts of ‘laowai’ or ‘waiguoren’ are downright rude and annoying, when observers get a bit more creative with their foreigner-spotting and provide a running commentary of what I am doing for their pals it’s hard not to find it entertaining. No matter how insignificant, it appears a foreigner doing pretty much anything warrants comment. My personal favourites (heard regularly) are:
- When stopped at any junction or red light: ‘Ha, the foreigner is riding a bike’.
- In the supermarket ‘Look the foreigner is buying bananas/tomatoes/potatoes *insert entirely nondescript grocery item here*’
- On the bus: ‘Oh, a foreigner is on the bus’
- Whilst getting off the bus: ‘The foreigner is getting off the bus’
- In a restaurant: ‘The foreigner can use chopsticks’
All riveting stuff as you can see. I am sure these comments are sometimes accompanied by none-too-flattering observations but other than constantly hearing mutterings of how tall I am being bandied about I thankfully don’t understand any of the more personal remarks!
Cold Drinks Give you Diarrhoea
Admittedly, now we are in the throes of a grey and freezing winter here I am entirely on board with the habit of only drinking warm water. However, when I first arrived I was completely baffled by the arrival of tepid water whenever liquid refreshments were requested. And I was downright annoyed by the fact all water coolers are in fact falsely advertising their services, instead only dispensing a choice of either lukewarm or bloody boiling water, even in the height of summer.
Even with my tastes for warm water developing I still find it bizarre to walk into any convenience store to find that the rows of fridges, packed with iced tea, beers and juices are never actually switched on. In fact, 9 times out of ten the bottles found in there are actually warmer than those on the main shop floor. It gets even more odd when at a restaurant you have to specifically request that you want your beers served cold, at which point you are usually met with an incredulous double-checking of the facts before a mildly chilled bottle is produced from the depths of the storeroom.
The reason for this aversion to ice cold beverages is due to the Chinese-belief that cold drinks give you diarrhoea. Now, in a city where oil and chillies are the main components of the absolutely delicious but digestively lethal Sichuan cuisine, I think it’s fair to say that the temperature of the drinks is the least likely of culprits when it comes to explosive stomach issues. However, the healing properties of warm water cannot be debated here and should you ever feel slightly under the weather, whether with aforementioned digestive troubles or the common cold it can be almost guaranteed that the first thing any kind local will offer you is a cup of warm water.
Weather Proofed Bikes
As I have previously written about, e-bikes and bicycles are prolific here in Chengdu and two wheels are still the most popular form of transport even as the weather turns icy and we are treated to regular rain showers. As such, people must ensure their bikes – electric or otherwise – are geared up for any weather eventuality. The range of all-weather accessories you witness, particularly on e-bikes is quite impressive. My personal favourites have to be the huge mittens, essentially resembling extra-padded oven gloves, attached to each e-bike handle to ensure the rider keeps their hands warm. As the weather worsens often a backwards puffa jacket is added to these, forming some form of weird duvet/coat hybrid that keeps your front half warm and dry whilst the rest of you remains exposed to the elements.
Of course, no truly efficient bike would be complete without its very own umbrella. These are used year round – in the summer to shield the user from the sun and in the winter to provide basically no shelter from the rain and drizzle. Given that the bike-lane driving here is hazardous at the best of times it seems that a lot of road users like to add an extra level of daring by choosing to have their umbrella mounted with the pole smack-bang in the centre of their field of vision. Because nothing aids your navigation skills better than obscuring your view of everything in front of you.
Kept in the Dark
On the subject of interesting driving, now that my commutes are mainly carried out prior to sunrise or post-sunset I am realising that the lack of headlights is not just confined to e-bike drivers. Instead car drivers favour the no-headlight approach too. Who needs them when careering down the city’s jam-packed roads with no street lights anyway?
I think my personal favourite of all the hilariously weird things you see in China has to be the workplace dance-offs I frequently witness. Be it estate agents or beauticians starting work in the morning or chefs and bartenders preparing to start their evening shifts, it seems that the number one method for getting your staff ‘in the zone’ is to have them stand out on the street and participate in some kind of group chant before breaking into a perfectly choreographed and very vigorous dance routine. One of my favourite surreal moments happened just the other week as I was strolling back from the supermarket and came across about 15 chefs, kitted out in their paper chefs hats, boogying away on the pavement whilst being yelled at by an enthusiastic young woman at the front. It took all my willpower not to stop and film them.
Perhaps this is what businesses in the UK should look at introducing next time they force their employees to go on the universally dreaded team-building day!
Anyone who knows me knows that I am actually obsessed with dogs. My Instagram feed is 99% dogs, I regularly send my friends videos of dogs and barely a day goes by when I don’t talk about how great life will be when I finally achieve my dream of owning a sausage dog – 2016 is going to be my year, I can feel it!! So imagine my delight when I moved to China and discovered that cute dogs are very much in vogue here. And no self-respecting pooch in Chengdu is complete without a perfectly groomed coat and its very own wardrobe.
Whilst I do question the cruelty of cramming your dog into clothes and dying its fur, it’s impossible to deny that it’s flipping hilarious to see a toy poodle bounding down the street with a better outfit and hairdo than its owner. Whilst no dog has yet been able to beat a toy poodle I witnessed rocking a full bee outfit in the fashion stakes, coming in a close second are the two chihuahuas I often see being walked by a very grumpy, slightly unkempt man who are always in eye-catching matching outfits…usually featuring fairy wings.