A Delusionary Life in China


Most foreigners fall in love with China and all its “charms”. Indeed, I must put my handup to having had a brief affair with the country from when we arrived early last October to, um, let me think now…..about late January.

Having been a humorous columnist for many years in the Antipodes I set about penning a number of rollicking little chapters about the quirks of everyday life in an outer “suburb” about 45 minutes out of Nanjing which had the folks back home in fits. Now it is I who have the fits, and not in a jolly way.

I’d write about the novelty of the supermarket fish department. Now I give it a withering look as I whoosh past wishing the heck they could learn to fillet their piscean offerings. I have to buy meat, yet I now resent doing so. They mince pork. Why won’t they mince beef for me? Why, when I bag a piece of meat and hand it to the adjacent weigh-station person standing idle do they despatch me to a weigh station 5 yards away with a long queue?

I used to think it quite charming that Chinese would peer into my supermarket trolley to see what was there. I now think: “For pete’s sake, there is nothing remotely foreign in this supermarket. Nor a secret section where only I may purchase esoteric goods. I select from the same produce as you. What’s the big interest?”

For a nation of people who made their names in – mostly the US – for their excellent laundry skills, why the aversion to washing nappies? It would appear that it’s disposables or nothing. Nothing is the predominant choice so toddlers piddle at will through handy gaps in their rompers. On the floor in China Bank last week. And there is nothing more disconcerting than being sat opposite a tiny person on the bus with their willy hanging out that could perk up and emit a stream at any moment.

China Post? Don’t get me started. Well, okay , if I must. My first encounter with this bunch of state employees saw me with a handful of postcards and the word “Australia” written in Chinese to smooth matters along. This was a sit-down affair as the employee rummaged through countless drawers and boxes to find stamps. During this treasure hunt he unearthed a couple of pieces of mail which he looked at with some surprise. I read his face. It told me, “Oh, I think I should have stamped and posted these. Never mind.” He finally found stamps and indicated I should stick them on. I had to lick and affix 6 stamps to each postcard, thus oblitering almost every word of my messages. I handed them back, he set them aside and from what I gather, 4 recipients out of six got lucky. I wasn’t one of them. Almost sick with stamp glue I lurched from the building and frantically sought water.

Latterly, we have visited China Post with more weightier matters in mind. To whit: small parcels to be sent to Australia. This is a fiasco. You cart a small box of souvenirs to China Post and return home with 70% of them which have been roundly rejected. All breakables are refused despite bubble wrap. Pots of Chinese hand cream were refused. A small wooden box, and a ball pump. The intractable Post Lady accepted the small, signed rugby ball presented to my husband by his students but wouldn’t have a bar of the small pump that accompanied it. She inspected it upside, downside, and sideways and we even attached it to the ball to demonstrate its purpose. All to no avail.

And then, after a full hour of this nonsense and endless form-filling you step out onto the pavement and half a dozen scooter-riders toot-toot you because there is nowhere here designed expressly for pedestrians to walk without fear of being barreled over by someone on two-wheels. The Chinese appear to have been born with an inbuilt sense of safe space, and an invisible, personal force field. They don’t issue that with your visa.

Then, there’s the “zebra” crossings. I’m not sure how these came about but have theorized that a Chinese official went overseas, observed them, and returned with a great job-creation scheme designed also to use up an excess of white paint. Or perhaps he simply recommended them as a way of “cheering up” dull roads. Whatever the reason for them it’s certainly nothing to do with cars stopping to allow people to cross safely.

And then …..there’s the people. But if you think I am about to wax lyrical about them all you have misjudged me. In every country in the world there are different characters and personalities. I have visited and worked in, about 12 vastly different countries in this world of ours. My view, after 9 months here is that the Chinese character and personality is the hardest to read. I believe they say one thing but think an entirely different thing. I am not particularly comfortable with them in any situation be it work, around a lazy susan, on the street or in a shop or business.

But, one rolls with the punches as they say. There are some highs to be had here – if you are good at temporarily deluding yourself.

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