Hot & Sour Fish Soup Flavor Potato Chips: Just another Day in Paradise
Other than being physically assaulted my first night in China and experiencing a fireworks display that made Disneyland’s fireworks look like a toddler with a sparkler, things have been relatively relaxed thus far. As for the experience of living here in China, it’s very China-like; I’m in real China, not tourist China. The culture is obviously quite different from what I was used to in Oregon, and there are some things I still don’t understand at all, even after spending a couple weeks here last year with my brother. The traffic is an unimaginably chaotic system where what westerners call road-laws are completely disregarded, but it seems to work and it’s relatively efficient. Regarding this phenomenon, a fellow American summarized it as such: It’s as though when people drive here, it’s always the first time they’ve ever driven a car. To that, I would add, horns are honked so regularly that one would think they’re supposed to summon Skittles to fall from the sky.
Grocery stores have huge varieties – there are dozens of different flavors for every product you can think of, and areas like the meat section are just tables with a bunch of meat all over them. I’m being quite literal – pre-packaged meat isn’t terribly common – you just grab a couple plastic bags, shove a few pig’s feet into one, a few handfuls of minced beef into the other, and you’re good to go. As for the flavor variety, there are honestly close to a dozen flavors of Oreos alone; mixed berry, green tea, orange mango… and if you’re talking chips, grab yourself a bag of Lay’s Hot & Sour Fish Soup Flavor or Numb and Spicy Hot Pot Flavor (both a part of their Intense and Stimulating series). Wash those down with Tropicana’s jujube, aloe, dragon fruit, and lychee juice blend, or maybe you’d prefer to grab a mushroom & shrimp sandwich at McDonald’s?
Aside from a huge variety of flavors, dairy is rather rare, expensive, and nothing like I was used to in the agricultural northwest. However, there are a few foreign food markets where real cow’s butter can be purchased at a handsome price, and I’ve been able to find a couple restaurants that use seemingly real cheese on their sandwiches or pizza. Speaking of restaurants, let it be known that American Chinese food is just that – American. No Chinese national has ever heard of General Tso’s chicken or fortune cookies, so if you plan on visiting China for an extended period of time, get your fill of Chinese food before you get here. Really. Check out this TED Talk for more great info on this topic: http://www.ted.com/talks/jennifer_8_lee_looks_for_general_tso.html
One thing I really do love about venturing into grocery stores here are some of their marketing tactics; in the U.S.A, it’s common to see a small coupon attached to a bottle of something that gives you a dollar off another product. Or if you’re lucky, maybe you get a free 2-liter of Coke if you buy two bags of Tostitos tortilla chips and a jar of dip. But that’s not good enough for China – either that or it’s not clear enough marketing for people to grasp in this overstimulated society. So instead, they will literally tape a mixing bowl to the front of a bottle of orange juice. Or they’ll tape a bottle of orange juice to a bottle of orange juice. That’s a great deal easier than attaching a single “buy one get one free” tag to the shelf. These aren’t exaggerations whatsoever; I almost bought a liter of soda just for the free colander taped to the bottle.
The prices of most goods and services are quite different here than they are in the states. I had to buy a towel after arriving, and the cheapest one I could find was $12 (vs. the $3 I paid for a towel in the states that was made in China). However, I went to lunch with three others at a nice restaurant where we each ordered our own personal pizzas with several toppings and our total bill was about $12.50 for the four of us. You can fill an entire backpack full of bacon for about $15 and a 22 oz. bottle of beer is about 45 cents, but a Gillette razor is $8. I wish I had brought razors!
As for other aspects of living here in Nanjing, it’s incredibly dirty and noisy. I don’t mean a little dirty and a little noisy, I mean it smells like a sewer outside (partly because there is sometimes fecal matter or vomit on the ground [responsible parents will hold their toddlers over garbage cans so their child’s feces are at least mostly contained in a trash can]). Most of the people talk as though they’re standing next to a fighter jet preparing for take-off, regardless of how close they are to the person to whom their talking or whether they’re indoors. And the relentless horn-honking on busy streets reaches decibels comparable to the front row of a metal concert.
This morning around 7:00am, I was awakened by a barrage of fireworks that sounded like a military rifle practice occurring in my bedroom. As I type this, fireworks are being shot off somewhere close by in our neighborhood. You know how some Americans continue turning on their Christmas lights each night through the second week of January? That’s how the entire three weeks around the Chinese New Year are, except instead of quiet holiday lights on their own homes, it’s ear-drum bursting explosives outside my bedroom window.
I do appreciate the fun and excitement of fireworks, however, and I have (mostly) fond memories of lighting fireworks as a kid growing up in small-town America. I was reminded of this as I walked back to my apartment last night when I saw a father and son shooting off Roman Candles over one of the main roads downtown. It was nice seeing people enjoying fireworks in the street without some police officer harassing them or writing them a ticket – a freedom I couldn’t imagine having back in the states. In general, my individual liberty is much greater here and my anxieties around “the law” have been alleviated quite a bit. “In Communist China?” you ask. Yes, remember that things aren’t always as they seem, and that propaganda is a mighty and powerful tool.
All things considered, things are pretty good here. The apartment I’m in is relatively nice, there are tons of food options close by, and it’s really affordable to live here. Additionally, I’m surrounded by people all engaged in philosophy and self-knowledge, which provides just the environment I need to become more open, honest, and curious about myself and others. As for my current plans for the future, I’ll be living in Nanjing for a couple more weeks, then in mid-February I’ll be moving to Beijing where I’ll begin seeking English teaching positions. As for how long I’ll live there, I don’t know, but it can’t be any longer than a year because that’s when my visa runs out. I guess we’ll see what happens.