My first impact with the Chinese capital was impressive. The lights, crowd and noise of the city surrounded, swallowed me alive in the tumult of the many faces of this Asian red lion. Foreigners might find themselves amazed – but also disoriented – by this ensemble of history, heritage and cultural shock of the city.
It is partially for this reason that I decided to jot down a list of eight lessons I learned as a non-Chinese by living in Beijing for the past few months. I would love to help Laowais (老外) – people “from outside”, as Mandarin speakers would say – to navigate through a new lifestyle and different customs. I say partially because a part of me – maybe egoistically – simply wants to embed all of these little pieces of my experience. Just so one day, while remembering my story, I will be able to assemble them to compose the one that for me is the puzzling reality of Beijing – and partially of China too. So brace yourself: here they come!
1. How low can you go?
The first and foremost rule in Beijing. Never trust a shopkeeper who is shouting from across the road in his perfect English: “Best price, best price here!”. Particularly if you have the classic European face of someone who has no clue about what he just got himself into. Chinese have years of experience in handling face to face negotiations, especially with foreigners. 99% of the time – in private shops – the price you will receive for a good is not the one any Chinese would be paying for it. The rule is just one. Bargain the hell of your way out of it if you really are interested in purchasing something. Start low and don’t be scared to disappointingly walk away from the shop. A shouting Chinese will most probably be running after you promising his “very special price, just for you”.
Most examples I experienced – aside private shopkeepers – were the Pearl Market (红桥珍珠市场 – hóng qiáo zhēn zhū shì chǎng) and the Silk Market (秀水市场 – Xiùshuǐ shì chǎng) – particularly famous in Beijing for selling counterfeited brands. If you don’t believe me, just look up some YouTube videos about witnesses of price wars in these two locations, and you’ll change your mind!
2. Don’t mind me, I’m just spitting by.
Beijing street life can be pretty peculiar. Particularly those days in which – while normally walking on the road – you randomly hear a distorted sound of a Chinese middle-aged man releasing himself of his phlegm. Yes, it does happen. And no, it is not considered impolite. The habit is mostly diffused amongst elderlies, but younger generations seem not to be ashamed of spitting on the ground themselves.
I tried speculating to understand whether this habit was caused by the excess of pollution of Beijing but never received a concrete clarification. Just vague statements from people who simply told me “It just does happen. Better out than in”. If you’re planning on living in a neighborhood in the Hutongs, better get used to it!
3. Squat exercise? No problem!
The weirdest advice I received by a Chinese friend of mine before leaving for Asia was: always bring tissues with you. Everywhere you go. I honestly never took him too seriously until I started to get to know the city better and realized how damn right he was.
Public toilets are very common in Beijing. Particularly in the densely populated areas where many homes lack private bathrooms. However, no toilet paper will be provided. And I am not only talking about the communal pissoirs, but also the ones in restaurants, cafes or small businesses. I remember turning my eyes to the ceiling, wondering if I was so lucky to have been blessed with such a gift when some rolls were hanging at the entrance of a restroom.
These areas mostly consist of squatting seats. You know, those uncomfortable holes on the ground forcing you to have to bend down in that uneasy position you wish you just had to hold at the gym? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Bear this in mind: going to the toilet in China – particularly for women – feels like going to war. You never know what you will have to face. The only thing you can do is brace your courage, equip yourself and face the battle!
4. Cash? No thanks.
China has incredibly developed in the last decades. I know many foreigners visiting this far away land still believe Asia to be a poor continent, retrograde in technology and telecommunication advancement. I can, however, ensure you they can’t be further from the truth. Beijing – just as most parts of the Chinese territories – almost completely abolished cash. New payment techniques such as WeChat or AliPay have substituted wallets and bills and prevent clients from walking around with large sums of money – potentially subjected to thefts.
I believe this is one of the things I will truly miss once coming back to Europe: the possibility of going around with nothing but my phone and a QR code giving me access to purchasing almost anything. Yet, having the world at your fingertips can sometimes be really dangerous. Particularly when you discover Apps like Taobao (somewhat close to the Amazon of China), where everything is extremely cheap compared to European prices and clicking to get goods delivered to your doorsteps becomes the most natural action in the world. Don’t get tricked, though! You’ll discover the effects of this rush on your bank account balance at the end of the month!
5. Hot Top!
Beijing portrays a vast amount of culinary traditions from China – but not only. Ranging from the South Korean influence of restaurants in the area of Wudaokou (五道口) to the Peking style roasted duck – traditionally served in the central Hutongs area – the city is rich in flavours for every taste.
Something peculiar often combining these different customs is the hotpot style cuisine. In this East Asian style of cooking, raw ingredients are served at the table to customers who are required to dip them in boiling broth – as part of a “do it yourself” meal. These types of diners are very common in Beijing – and generally in Mainland China. The investor Zhang Yong decided to take advantage of this demand to create a restaurant chain which became very popular throughout the country.
Haidilao is a peculiar experience. And yes, I’m talking about an experience because I don’t think the place can be reduced to simple ingredients and location. The customer-centric approach provides extreme care for the clients visiting the restaurants who, while waiting on the line, receive a wide variety of services – ranging from manicure to little food treats.
Employees in the restaurant will treat clients like guests: coats will be carefully placed and glasses constantly filled, in the attempt to create the cozy feeling of a welcoming home. Many were my sensations while experiencing the sizzling pot with its variety of the flavours, the texture of the food and the kindness and hospitality of the staff. The combination of these emotions and the satisfaction the culinary experience made me desire to share this ‘to do’ on the list of suggestions for China travelers.
6. Feelin like a superstar
Screaming Chinese asking for pictures in the capital city are the rule. Their extreme passion for foreigners is only outmatched by the overcrowding of red lanterns in the hutongs’ alleys. Prepare to be stopped and receive unending compliments while answering tons of questions related to your origins and your studies (because – not to be forgotten – we are still in Asia!).
I yet have not fully understood the origin of this love. Psychologists say cultures are strongly influenced by exoticism. People develop a curiosity for differences and irregularities and transfer this interest onto ethnicities and traditions representing new realities and mindsets. Are Beijingers following this process? I am not completely sure. But one thing I know from experience is eastern-European somatic traits are priviledged in the reception of Chinese attention.
All I can advise – while feeling like an actor on the red carpet – is to embrace the fame. A kind smile and a welcoming attitude toward the curious Asians will take you a long way! Most of them will be enraptured by your cooperation and might even reveal themselves to be great help in uncovering the mysteries of the city!
Only remember – while posing with them – to mention the eggplant. Yes, exactly eggplant. The Chinese translation is, in fact, the exclamation Beijingers shout while taking a picture. So, say Qie Zi (茄子)!
7. In the mood for food?
Many tourists already know about the extremely lower cost of living expenses of China when compared to the western world. An abundant lunch in a restaurant can be purchased for as much as an average price of 8€. Fewer, however, know that the real treats in the culinary experience of Beijing are the street food delicacy in those hidden corners so far away from big chains and touristic spots.
Losing yourself in the labyrinthic corners of the hutongs might sound scary at first: signs almost impossible to read and people very hard to communicate with. How to enjoy at best this state of confusion? Embrace the numerous food stalls and courts, where food is prepared in extremely small spaces in front of your eyes. Be amazed by the variety of the ingredients and the ability of these cook and munch away your skepticism!
First and foremost try the savory crepes (Jiān bǐng, 煎饼), emblem of the Chinese street food culture. Closely resembling an omelet, these delicacies are filled with the local crispy fried crackers (báocuì, 薄脆) which – together with the delicious hoisin and chili sauce – give them a cut above the classic dish. Grab a bite of the steaming hot fried dumplings (Jiǎozi, 饺子), surprisingly rich and full in flavour in both meat and vegetarian variation. Taste the different types of Tánghúlu (糖葫芦): small fruits coated in caramelized sugar – you will probably be hospitalized for diabetes, but it’s worth a crunch!
These and many others – amongst which BBQ skewers, fried scorpions, sharks, and bugs (yes. I did just say that) – are the cuisines expecting you in a Beijing full of flavors with different shades for every palate. Amongst the locations where to try them are Wangfujing Street, Guijie (ghost street) and Fucheng Street. Challenge yourself in overcoming your fears regarding Chinese hygiene and give these experiences a try: I promise you will not be disappointed!
8. Never alone (Like. Really. Never.)
Security is one of the biggest concerns of Chinese society. The government closely monitors every citizen through cameras and police forces and reached the level of concern pushing the launch of the Social Credit System (社会信用体系) in 2014. People are rewarded or punished according to their civil behaviour through a methodical system of points residents never lose sight of.
In full honesty – while staying in Beijing – foreigners are not particularly affected by these procedures. While living in the city, they might, however, feel pretty surveilled. Metal detectors – just like the ones of airports – are placed at the entrance of every metro station and patrolmen will station at every corner of the road watching peasants’ behaviour (and no, not only close to famous buildings or sites).
The first impact might seem overwhelming but at last, you will learn to coexist with this type of security. Be sure that walking down narrow or sketchy roads has never felt so safe as it does when cameras are placed on every corner and potential attackers know they’re being watched!
So dear Laowai (老外), in short: be prepared for an extraordinary experience in a city with many corners ready to be explored. You might just discover a bit more of yourself in the smiling faces, the appealing flavours and the flashing lights of that mysterious but fascinating Chinese capital.