Excerpt: The Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook & Dictionary sticks out of my back pocket. Pin Yin has been decoded during a few language classes, and some survival vocab arms me with the essentials. Time to put it all to use.
All my aspirations of being a language prodigy disappear the same time I ask a mall worker where the bathroom is and get a confused shake of the head in return. Bathroom, or as they usually say in China cesuo, toilet, is a very useful word to know. And I have to find one, fast.
Finally, when all hope seems gone, I cave and go with a term I’ve recently heard. “W.C.?” I ask in English. He points me in the right direction.
Round two. I’m in a restaurant that has a menu with pictures. Point and say, “Wo yao zhe ge,” and things are looking good. Chinese isn’t so hard. I got this! But I don’t want the hot water that everyone else in China drinks. I want cold water. “Bing shui,” I order.
Blank stare in return. Okay, my tones are wrong. Once more with different inflections. The waitress is looking at me like I’m requesting that the chef sprinkle salt on his leg before he cuts it off and serves it. Again, I give in and resort to gestures. I make fists and hold them up while shaking like I’ve somehow found myself magically outside in the middle of winter without a jacket. “Ah! Bing shui!” she exclaims, nodding as if that’s not what I’ve been saying for two minutes straight.
Most kids have chores around the house. I grew up needing to clean my room, empty all the trash bins, and wash the dishes every other day. My brother took care of his room, vacuumed, and did the dishes on the days I didn’t. As I got older, cutting the front, side, and back yard got added to my routine. Pretty standard stuff, and I’m sure many other kids grew up doing work like this.
But my step-dad is also a carpenter, and we managed and maintained the duplexes we rented out to tenants ourselves. So instead of hiring someone to repaint the apartments, spackle cracks in the drywall, pull up and relay carpeting, retile bathrooms, fix water heaters, stop leaking pipes, pour and set new cement steps, build a back porch, and re-shingle the roof, we did it. My brother often helped, and so did my best friend. The more hands involved, the quicker we’d finish and go ride our bikes and eat ice cream at the Twisty Treat a block away. The running joke was that my step-dad had no ability to estimate time. If he said something would take an hour, that usually meant at least three. A few hours? My afternoon was shot. Understanding this was important and helped focus my attention. I had incentive to pay attention and be efficient so the job could be completed and my weekend wasn’t lost.
Now, years later, with the gift of hindsight, I can see the value in all that time I spent working. Don’t tell my step-dad I said that! It’s shaped me into a confident, competent man who isn’t afraid to work hard and try to fix something on my own before resorting to the Yellow Pages (Or whichever APP has currently replaced the unwieldy tome).
Who would have thought that moving to China would make me feel as helpless as an infant trying to use a Milwaukee 2705-22 M18 cordless drill?
Moving to a new country so vastly different than America kicked me in the gut those first few weeks. Even now, after more than five years, it likes to take cheap shots that remind me I’m still little more than a toddler here.
It’s so frustrating when you don’t know where to buy the right tools for a household upkeep job. Go to the New Mart where everything is up for haggling and the quality isn’t guaranteed? Everyone but you using WeChat Pay or ZhiFu Bao to pay for everything? The shower drain tube old and clogged? What store is that in? The place where you pay utility bills look like a madhouse and you’re not sure where to stand? Not sure how to use DiDi Che (Uber in China)? Trying to send money home at the bank, but the answers to your questions aren’t making sense? Cell phone getting weird messages and you need to check it out at the China Mobile location? Not even Lonely Planet can help with all these issues.
All of these tasks and more pop up when you’re an expat, and if you’re used to troubleshooting life on your own, having to rely on others to do it abroad can be a stressful, humbling experience. Picking up the language helps in some of the cases, but not all. In some situations it’s just about knowing how things are done or where to find what you’re looking for. This just takes time and effort.
Some people don’t mind this. They view it as a release from responsibility, a vacation in some ways. Like going to a hotel where you don’t have to worry about cleaning or making your bed. So many expat communities develop around companies with packages and housing support – even drivers – that take care of these parts of life. I heard about a woman here, a trailing spouse for one of the Intel guys, who relied so much on her driver that she couldn’t even manage walking on her own down the same few streets she was chauffeured through every day without getting lost. Paying for an Ayi – a woman to do house work and cook – is really cheap, and so there are those who don’t even do laundry or sweep their own floors anymore. Some people even refuse to shop anywhere that’s not an import store, spending tons of cash on products that can be found three times cheaper at local joints. Like tigers in big, foreign cages, they pace back and forth, wearing out the same old paths.
Despite the above paragraph, I’ve got no judgement here. To each their own and all that. That life, the one free of those daily hassles that are just unavoidable “back home,” is a peaceful one. Transplanting yourself and maybe even your family to a place with an ocean between what you knew and what is new is not easy, and anything that makes it a softer landing is helpful.
That being said, after more than two or three years somewhere the excuses sort of begin to run out. Decide to stay for an extended period and life has a way of creeping up on you in padded Ninja slippers and chopping you right in a pressure point that drops you back to reality. You’ve got to start reaching back into that arsenal of life experience to find that handyman you know you can be, that self-reliant, resourceful degree-holder that blazes his own trail, or at least can read the signs pointing him down the right trail needed to get things done.
Where am I?
Sometimes I wander down the right trail feeling self-sufficient and other times I’m left looking for the APP that will make life easier.
I’m squeezed in next to a mix of humanity on the Qing Gui, the Light Rail Train, all of us on our way home from a day’s work. From where I’m standing I watch Dalian’s Development Zone flit by. Big Black Mountain, half-finished apartment complexes, small companies with big neon signs, restaurants, a sauna, a McDonald’s, and the relatively new Wanda Plaza that opened last year. It’s all so shiny.
It’s my stop next, so I shimmy around a woman holding a baby. Pressed against one another shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, it feels like we’re cattle in a too-small corral. Some of the scents wafting around in the train car drive the simile home. A passenger has recently been to a fish market, and I’m not convinced it’s fresh, either. A sour, meaty odour smacks me in the nose, and I notice the mother unraveling an orange sausage that looks mildly radioactive and smells like it’s been setting in the sun all day. It’s called xiang chang (perfumed sausage) but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to dab that onto their body.
A burly looking guy with short black and grey hair sits on the bench to the side with his chin tucked to his chest and aggressive alcohol fumes floating off him. The smell is unmistakable—Baijiu. It’s the national alcohol of choice for the Chinese, a rice (and sometimes corn) wine that can strip an engine or get a shuttle into space.”