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9 Side Effects I've Had as a Traveler Living in China

China Student Work
by Whitney Shindelar May 12, 2016

1. I now grunt to express the affirmative, to agree, or to acknowledge someone talking to me.

The Chinese have a habit of grunting rather than using full syllables to communicate. You call someone’s name, “ehh” comes back in response. You’re telling a story, “uh, uh, uh” keeps you talking, progressing forward to the interesting part. You ask a question, “mm” can be understood in the affirmative. This works somehow, and now I’m doing it.

2. I’ve developed a deep, deep love for the smell of freshly cut grass.

Before moving to China, this aroma normally meant that I was a hot, sweaty mess covered in grass and mosquito bites as I pushed the lawn mower forward and backward and around in circles while trimming the 60 or so pine trees lining the edge of our family’s yard. Now, when driving by a small park in the middle of Shanghai, just at the right moment, I stop, close my eyes, and breathe in deeply. A rare commodity in China is anything that can be described as “fresh.”

3. I have become extremely vigilant when driving my scooter.

Driving in China can be downright dangerous. After three accidents and one trip to the hospital for stitches, I have become an extremely alert driver. Pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, cars, dogs, motorcycles, garbage collectors, piles of bamboo — these are all just a selection of things that might be in your way on any given day. Those driving a car don’t stay in their lane nor are they capable of a three-point turn. Pedestrians do not have the right of way and turning right on red does not require slowing down, let alone glancing over your left shoulder.

4. I’m no longer hyper-aware of the people around me.

People are everywhere in China. All the time. I’ve developed a blatant disregard for the people around me and have even taken flak for it while visiting home. If someone is walking slowly, we go around them. If someone drops something and bends over to pick it up, we go around them. If someone forgets something and suddenly about-faces, bumping into you, we continue moving forward without reaction. Just another side effect of living with 1.36 billion people.

5. I am no longer fazed by a squat toilet.

This did not come naturally to me. There was a time when I aimed wide and peed directly into my high-heeled ankle boots at a KTV karaoke bar. Another time, more pee made it on the floor than it did in the hole in the ground that I was apparently aiming for. More often than not, an extra tissue is needed for the splatter all over your shoes. I’ll never understand the squat toilet, but I did eventually master the art of not peeing on myself.

6. I now have a firm belief that chopsticks and Western cutlery should be used at appropriate times, with the appropriate meal.

This is not up for discussion. Chopsticks with dumplings and noodles. A fork and knife (please) with an 8-ounce sirloin. If you don’t know how to use both options, take a moment to learn. The Chinese are eating pancakes with chopsticks, the Western folk are eating hand-pulled noodles like it is a plate of spaghetti. Good thing we all know how to use a spoon.

7. I drink a lot of water, but it’s never cold.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a long list of benefits that promote drinking hot water. Finding ice water in China is almost impossible and it’s a good day when I can get a glass of not hot, and not cold, but simply room-temperature water. Hot water aids digestion, promotes blood circulation, and the list goes on and on. I haven’t wholeheartedly jumped on the TCM bandwagon, but being forced to drink hot water in every restaurant has left me preferring room-temperature water over iced water. Yes, I’ve become that annoying patron in American restaurants ordering water with no ice.

8. I consume a lot less meat.

Meat is not generally served in a boneless, skinless fashion in China. When eating any chicken dish here, you just imagine the chef in the back alley, smoking a cigarette, talking to the old woman next door as he whacks the animal to tiny pieces with his all-purpose heavy cleaver. I spent the first few months in China either choking or spitting out half-chewed bone fragments. When I was spitting out more than I was swallowing, I stopped ordering meat dishes.

9. I consume a lot less sugar.

Desserts and sweet snacks in China contain a fraction of the refined sugar to which a typical American has become accustomed. “Cake” in China just tastes like bread to me. My lovely mother goes to the trouble to send me a small cake from my favorite bakery each year for my birthday. After six years in China and such a decreased intake of refined sugar, I wasn’t even able to enjoy that cake this year.

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