You all know very well that I love China and I love the Chinese people, every 1.34 billion of them. Living in China is not always non-stop fun though, and sometimes, like when you get hit by a car or someone hisses unpleasantly at your sheer audacious foreign-ness, it can be hard. As in, trying, difficult and disheartening. There are days you just feel like crawling back under the sheets and pretending you’re somewhere else, but as an eternal optimist I try and see the bright side of every bad situation and not take it too personally. That’s the Good Fiona speaking. Chin up, eat some noodles, and be done with it.
There are other days, though, when I take it very personally. Days when China throws every obstacle it can in my path and I trip on every single one of them. Days when, if one more person calls out ‘Waiguoren!’ (‘Foreigner!’ ‘Not Chinese!) when I’m walking down the street, I’m gonna scream. I mean, could I be anything else other than ‘Not Chinese’? Do I look even a tiny little bit Chinese? I didn’t think so. I grit my teeth and swear heavily under my breath. But you know there are, I’ve discovered, advantages to belonging to the tribe of waiguoren living in China – there are things I can do without any apparent offence to anyone that give me enormous personal satisfaction, when I can feel that, just for a second or two, I gave China as good as I got.
So when, for the tenth time, someone hoiks up a huge plegm golley and spits it on the footpath in front of my feet, and for the twentieth time some crazed taxi driver tries to run me down on a pedestrian crossing, and for the fiftieth time someone robs me blind just because, well, I’m foreign, and therefore fair game for being ripped off, I can remember these seven perverse pleasures I can indulge in occasionally to get my own back. That’s Bad Fiona talking. I’ll let you decide whose advice you’re going to follow today.
In China, you can gossip about someone’s outfit on the subway without lowering your voice. Actually, now that I can understand Chinese, I realise that Chinese people do this to us all the time. If only we knew:
“But the rest of her outfit looks real cheap. And she’s so fat!!”
You can barge right through signs saying ‘No Entry’, ignore the ‘No Photographs’ sign and snap away happily, and put your bicycle right where it says “No Parking’ because you know, you can’t read Chinese. At least, nobody thinks you can read Chinese, and they’re not willing to pull you up on it.
When insurance companies, banks and investment start-ups call trying to sell you something, you can pretend you don’t understand a single thing they say, apologise, and hang up. These guys totally give me the pips because they always call at dinner, or when I am outside and I run back in to answer the phone. Unfortunately China is just as afflicted with cold-calling as the rest of the world, although for once, the call centre isn’t in Bangalore. Don’t try and politely answer their questions, just keep repeating ‘ting bu dong! ting bu dong! ting bu dong!’ (I’m listening! But not understanding!) until they get it. Revenge of the waiguoren!!
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is exempt from a reduced price by bargaining in China. In China you can bargain on everything. Don’t be shy!
“Can you make it a bit cheaper?”
“I know the market price is 2 yuan a jin. But these look like poor quality cucumbers. They may even have that E Coli! I’ll give you 1 yuan 80 a jin.”
Bargain hard. Bargain shamelessly, but always bargain. As my Chinese friend Clare says “They think you’re stupid if you don’t bargain.” OK.