Why Oh Why Is China So Frustrating Sometimes?

China is a frustrating place.

There I said it. Everyone is thinking it. If you’re a fellow expat out here then you know you are too.

I would like to first make it clear that I love living out here, I love the opportunity that has been given to me, I love the people and I am having a really great time.

BUT as much as I enjoy living here, I have found China to be an incredibly frustrating place to live. You may be reading this and thinking you know what I mean, the general stuff y’know like how the water is dirty or the air is polluted – general perceptions of China from the outside world.

The real frustration, though, comes from all of the little things. These little things can’t be seen or even understood by someone who hasn’t lived in China. It builds up slowly until one day you know you have to just get out of here. Today is that day for me.

When I arrived here I listened to so many presentations about how everybody will inevitably cycle through a high with feelings of excitement and awe because of their new surroundings followed by a big dip where culture shock and home sickness hits you like a ton of bricks. Apparently everyone hits this wall. This “Great Wall” (geddit?!) I was promised that this emotional rollercoaster of feelings would eventually even itself out to reach a plateau of indifference and acceptance – I guess I just need to ride out the storm and get to this point.

I can most definitely confirm from experience that when one first moves to China, everything is new and exciting. It can even initially be fun and interesting to experience all the small little things that make it so different out here. Given the right amount of time, though, these things become less fun/interesting. It’s ok to laugh it off for a little while and see the bright side, the funny story behind everything, but after actually living with it every day…. this positive outlook can sometimes wear off. Of course put into context it’s all just a matter of cultural difference, social development, a larger population, etc. As a visitor in any new country, you’ve got to accept the local society and its customs. That doesn’t mean to say it makes day-to-day life easier.

So what are these little things?

1. The inability to just relax. The sheer number of people in China means there are people EVERYWHERE. I have never been anywhere where it was just me and no one else – where I can take a deep breath and get away from it all.

2. The crowds associated with this massive population are gargantuan and overwhelming and that is no exaggeration. Today I went to take the metro home and I was faced by a literal stampede of people who were all pushing and shoving, all trying to fit onto one metro carriage which DEFINITELY was already too full. Person after person stamping on my feet, elbowing me in the ribs… Sometimes it is easy to handle, sometimes you just want to have an easy commute. Is that too much to ask?!

3. People spitting on the street, spitting out of car windows, having a cheeky poo anywhere they fancy… oh it may sound funny but trust me, I have seen grown men squat over drains in the road, I have seen a mother hold up her child over a rubbish bin in the middle of a shopping centre and you guessed it “plop.” – put it away please!

4. Everyone shouts. All the time

5 People don’t wait in line for anything and push their way through to the front. I was waiting in line to pay for some food shopping a few weeks back and some woman just went and plonked her stuff down on the counter right in front of me. I actually said “errr excuse me?!” and then realised this would have zero effect since she didn’t understand me and I suspect she didn’t really care either…

6. This brings me to…language barriers. I’m trying to learn mandarin, I really am. I have the basics sorted and I’m a languages student so I pick things up fairly quickly but knowing the basics really doesn’t get you that far here and my lack of Chinese speaking skills really can make the simplest of tasks become twice as hard and take three times the time. Sometimes it’d be nice to order a meal or take a taxi without playing charades for 10 minutes and repeating phrases only to get the tones completely wrong

I have a little game going on: trying every day to say the name of the street where I live so  that the taxi driver understands without me having to repeat it.

It is challenging, even after hundreds of taxi rides.
This is the typical scenario (dialogue without tones, too much work!) :

me: nihao! (hi!)
taxi driver says: nihao! qu nali? (hi! where to?)
me: tong tai lu! (tong tai road)
taxi driver confused:  tong tai lu… nali? (tong tai road?? where?)
me: tong tai lu. tong tai lu. tong tai lu. tong tai lu!.  (tong tai road, tong tai road, tong tai road… – all spoken with minimal tone variations, each time slower…)
taxi driver: ah! tong tai lu!
me: dui! xiexie! (yes! thanks! with a very happy face)

And off we go, i feel more or less proud each taxi ride according to the number of times I have had to repeat myself. Lately this has been a lot of times, not so good!

7. Getting stared at all the time and approached with hi’s, hello’s and impromptu conversations. That’s cool for a while but it gets annoying too. Yes I’m a lǎowài (foreigner) but I’m getting a bit sick of being asked “where are you from!!?” on every street corner. This is probably me being a bit pedantic now as i’m tired and on a roll with the ranting but the staring’s gotta stop y’all.

Now don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot of moaning I’ve just done there I know but I DO stand by the fact that I love it here. I work at an incredible school full of amazing people and fantastic kids and I really enjoy my job. I have the opportunity to travel to places I could never have dreamed of if I was stuck back in the UK, I have plenty to keep me occupied in terms of a social life and despite any problems I’ve outlined above this whole experience is opening my eyes and broadening my horizons. Coming to China has changed, is changing and will change me. It may sound cheesy but I can feel it, I can see my character developing and my mind beginning to work in different ways. I’m learning about myself and at the same time I’m learning about a completely different culture to my own, which when you think about it is phenomenal. it’s just that these small issues combine after a certain amount of time alongside the awareness that you are SO far away from home and so far away from your comfort zone and they build up this incredible frustration in just about everyone I know who has cone to live out here, albeit to different extents.

I finally cracked today when going to get a haircut. I was naïve enough to think it’d be simple, it’s only a haircut right? WRONG! It was always an ambitious plan from the start. Everything is more difficult here and like I said earlier on in this post it’s okay to laugh things off for a while, see the funny side in not having a clue what is going on…but there comes a point where that’s just not possible. I posted on Facebook earlier mentioning I was off to the salon and that I would “see what I ended up with!” ha-de-ha-ha. Little did I know that I would soon be feeling extremely anxious and unable to make myself understood. Three Chinese hairdressers hovering above me speaking Chinese very quickly and at different volumes/with different tones hoping somehow they might make me understand them. I kept repeating “ting bu dong!” (roughly translated as “eh you what mate? I can hear you but I have absolutely no idea what you’re on about!) There was a lot of miming of scissors… pointing at my hair, shrugging of the shoulders and eventually I came out looking semi-decent (I now have a side fringe, woopee!) I then got completely lost on my way home and encountered those ridiculous crowds in the metro and yeah… oh and to top that all off i’m ill at the moment with some sort of cough/sore throat thing.

Anyway enough ranting – think it’s all out of my system now! Apparently the only remedy to China frustration is to get out of China for a while and go on holiday. Thank goodness Guangzhou, is so close to Hong Kong, Macau and SE Asia. I feel a much needed weekend trip coming up and I cannot WAIT to go home to the land of Fish and Chips, good manners and orderly queues at Christmas so I can stock up on dairy milk chocolate and recharge the tolerance batteries. Come on Pip, tomorrow is a brand new day and it WILL be better…

Up and coming posts: coping strategies for combatting home-sickness and what to pack when /if you move here.



5 thoughts on “Why Oh Why Is China So Frustrating Sometimes?

  1. Hello Pippa

    So good to hear from you. Sounds like you have come out of the `honeymoon period` of your year in China! I think the frustrations of weather, everyone wanting to see you within the first week of returning and Mum and Dad having rented your room out will hit you on your return to the UK. (OK, so I made up that last point!). Keep your spirits up.
    love from Auntie Ruthie x

  2. Hi Pip

    ……….actually Aunty Ruth kinda didn’t make up that last point, your room has been invaded by baby nieces! But, anyway, sounds like you’re doing fab to me, remember “when it’s raining look for rainbows, when it’s dark look out for stars”, so lets just think about the positives a sec-

    1. You are learning Mandarin, a very difficult language most people think is a fruit – you’ve only been there less than 4 months and can make yourself understood – well done!
    2. You visited the hair dressers and managed to leave with hair, hair that was successfully cut, mission accomplished. I cant even manage that in the UK
    3. When you return to a potty training Esmée, you will be so used to the sight of poo, that singing the “poo poo in the potty” song will not phase you one little bit and you will be able to admire her offerings with as much gusto as I do! Why don’t you try singing the song next time you see someone squatting over a drain ?! “A poo poo in the drain yeah, a poo in the drain yeah, la la la la, la la la la”!
    4. People everywhere? Go somewhere quiet(ish) and close your eyes – hey presto – no people!

    Xmas in the UK soon! Whoop whoop! Looking forward to seeing you and your new do

    Love Nats, Rob, Esmée and Bean

    x x x x

  3. As a former-Guangzhou-expat myself, may I offer some advice when it comes to taxi drivers: tell them what major roads your street is near/intersects with so that they will have an easier time figuring it out, or even better, give them directions the entire way – it will save you lots of time/frustration and provide you with the opportunity to practice your Mandarin 🙂

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