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Seven Perverse Pleasures I Get Out of Living in China

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.

1. Secretly Insult Someone
There is a lot of satisfaction in swearing when things aren’t going your way, and as an Australian I consider it part of my genetic make-up to swear often, and with vigor (although I’m sure cultured and articulate people never do). And in a country where few people understand your native tongue, especially when spoken with a broad accent, you can get the buzz of swearing at someone without the repurcussions. 
So next time someone really, really pisses you off, you can smile sweetly, modulate your voice to a kinder-than-angels tone, whilst telling them “You shitty little pleather-loafered f**k of a loser I bet you sold your youngest child for loose change to play poker this morning and then plan to buy her back with the money you’re cheating from me right now!!”. Remember to keep smiling as you speak and to pretend you’re saying “You are the smiliest, handsomest, loveliest, friendliest pleather-loafered street salesman I’ve ever had the good luck to run into” to get the right intonation.
2. Gossip Shamelessly

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:

“Check out that laowai’s bag”
“Do you think it’s real or fake??”
“Definitely fake, I mean, look at it. Who would pay full price??”
“I think it’s real”
“You don’t now what you’re talking about”
“But the rest of her outfit looks real cheap. And she’s so fat!!”
3. Ignore “No Entry” Signs

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.

4. Get Rid of Those Blasted Infernal Phone Salesmen

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!!

5. Get Discounts on Everything

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!

Gym memberships?
“Can you make it a bit cheaper?”

Doctor’s visits? 

“You want to charge how much?? I think a consultation is only worth 150 yuan. I mean, what if the doctor gets it wrong and I have to come back??”

“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.

 6. Be as Eccentric as Hell

In China all your quirks and eccentricities can be attributed to ‘strange laowai stuff’ and therefore forgiven. Want to wear an evening dress to lunch? Like to dress up like a pirate and brandish a sword at strangers? All acceptable foreign behaviours. Just don’t be caught out with other laowais staring at you, or the game’s up.
7. Sleep Anywhere, Undisturbed

Sleeping after lunch is a RIGHT rather than a privilege in China. Even for foreigners. You can sleep anywhere and no-one cares, and I mean literally anywhere. On your motorbike while it’s parked on the footpath, on top of a pile of vegetables at the wet market, in the corner of H&M after a busy morning of shopping – just fold your arms and lay your head down for a nap. If someone, like the sales assistant for example, tries to wake you, look up at her quizzically for a second, mumble something incoherent, and go right back to sleep. 
Got any special ways of dealing with the Shang-lows when they hit? Tell us all your secrets……
  • shaz

    Oh dear, I just read the car incident, so glad you weren't hurt. Hang in there, and even if you're having trouble smiling, this post made me chuckle. Funny how a lot of Chinese swear words have the word egg in them. I know quite a few choice ones but cannot write them in a public space! Actually, you're better off not knowing them actually, just keep swearing in 'strine, more satisfying 🙂

  • becky

    Great list, I agree with you on pretty much every single one.

    Actually, #2 hits very close to home. The only time I regret learning Chinese is when I understand the local people talking about me. It makes me feel so self conscious. Like the other day at a shop I picked up a shirt looked at it for a minute and out it back. The clerk near me (and watching me intensely) muttered "You're too fat for that."

    I wanted to say "No, it's the perfect size thankyouverymuch I just don't like the style!" but my language skills aren't that advanced. 😉

  • Fiona

    Would be funny if it wasn't just so rude! my teacher suggested a sweet smile and (in an ironic tone) Nĭ yīwèi wŏ bù huì shuō hànyŭ ma? (You think – incorrectly – that I can't speak Chinese?)
    Jaws will drop, guaranteed. I've tried it quite a few times, works a charm.

  • Sally

    I loved this! One of my favorite parts about living in Asia is that you get to get away with behavior that you could never pull off in your home country. In Japan, they called the weird foreigners "henna gaijin" and I'm sure I was a total henna gaijin… and loved it!

  • Fiona

    Conjures up images of red-headed crazy-dressed foreigners – would love to know more – like was it a derogatory term, or quite friendly? And what was the literal translation?

  • Connie Lou

    This is funny! Love your sense of humor in the midst of it all! In Hawaii, we have had a large Chinese population since the plantation era in the 1700's, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino as well…so there was a lot of derogatory cross talk going on. Today we kind of bantor about each ethnicity (although most of us are mixed and have all or some of the ethnicities) we all tease each other…there is a Hawaiian song about this phenomena and it ends with the line "It's amazing we all live in the same place"…oh and the name of the song:
    Mr. San Cho Lee…keep up your sense of humor and your good heart.Aloha, Connie

  • MaryAnne

    You really should give workshops on how to be cheerfully subversive. I can bring the cookies for break time!

    (Also, I must say this post is brilliant. Spot on. Well done. Etc.)

  • Fiona

    Connie that's a fascinating insight into today's Hawaii – I can see Australia heading the same way within just a few more generations. China's so-called ethnic diversity comes from people who we would all consider basically 'Chinese' – that is, they look, to us, Chinese (except perhaps the Uyghurs of far western China), but identify themselves as an ethnically separate group (like the miao, and the yao, both of whom I've written about). China is still a long way from the kind of multi-nation ethnic diversity we grew up with.

    And thanks maryanne – I love to be cheerfully subversive! Bring on the cookies!

  • Raine

    Sleep anywhere? Man that'd be loads of fun!

  • Three of Three

    Too too funny. I relate from the Japan days but I was not quite as cheerfully subversive. And henna gaijin translates as 'strange foreigner'. That's about as rude as the Japanese can get. Oh that and sitting on the train quietly telling their friend "look! her nose is as long as the shinkansen!" (long long bullet train).

  • Fiona

    I'm sure they really meant that as a compliment….about your nose….

  • Anonymous

    Thank you very much!! It's very great ~