Living abroad is something I strongly recommend that everybody do at least once in their liife. It brings a whole new worldview into a person's reality, stirring up one's initial beliefs born of media portrayal and hearsay. While I always gaze fondly upon my memories of life in both Taiwan and mainland China, each unique environment didn't come without its own set of struggles. Besides, let's face it. Whether you're traveling from east to west, or west to east, you're bound to run into some major cultural clashes.
Let's start with some things I enjoyed about China. I lived in a city by the name of Shijiazhuang (石家庄）in Hebei Province from 2018 to 2019. Living in China was like living on another planet. There were things that Chinese people implemented into their daily lives, such as the food delivery service Meituan, that I wish were as omnipresent in the U.S. I'm also a big fan of Chinese customer service. Whenever you buy something in a store, especially when it comes to electronics, the shop assistant will always test the appliances settings to make sure it isn't broken and that no pieces are missing. Now THAT'S how you make customers happy!
There were also things that I just couldn't get used to. One of the things that I had a hard time with in China was the food. Don't get me wrong; I love Chinese-style cuisine, particularly baozi. I found numerous dishes in my journeys across the country that I miss eating today. However, the way in which many Chinese chefs prepare meat was a total buzz kill for me. As someone who wants every bit of fat to be cleared from all pieces of beef or pork, the mere thought of eating a blob of gooey fat makes me nauseous. There were plenty of times when I couldn't finish a meal because I couldn't stand spitting out the fat from my meal every couple minutes.
Aside from this, in Shijiazhuang, many local dishes were either way too greasy or way too sweet. For example, any time I walked into a grocery store to buy bread, it always tasted like someone dumped a pound of sugar into it. In the U.S., Catholic families typically eat sweet bread for Easter. Some people prefer to eat it as part of the main course, some prefer it as a dessert. Either way, the bread in China tasted exactly like this sweet Easter bread.
If you buy popcorn in China, whether it's from a food market or a movie theater, chances are it's going to taste sweet, not salty. This difference really caught me by surprise when I first bought popcorn at a grocery store near my apartment. I think that if I had to choose between sweet bread and sweet popcorn for the rest of my life, at least the sweet popcorn could be a delightful snack.
Another part of Chinese life that left me speechless was the seemingly nonexistent traffic laws. Now, I know China has its own set of laws for both licensed vehicle drivers and those who ride electric bikes just as every country does, but I couldn't figure out what they were. In my view, driving in China is like driving in the wild west.
After unpacking at my new apartment in Shijiazhuang and sleeping off the jet lag for a couple days, a representative of the Foreign Affairs department at the school, Chelsea, invited me to come see the building I'd be working in. At the end of my tour around the school, I was led out onto the street and introduced to an electric bike for the first time. It belonged to Chelsea. She asked me if I wanted to give it a spin on my way back to the apartment, which was about 20 minutes up the street on foot.
I looked up and down the huge boulevard in front of us, amazed to see endless snakes of cars, trucks, and bikes whirring across the pavement without yielding. It made my head spin. I politely declined, saying that I still felt rather sleepy from the 18 hour flight I'd taken just 2 days earlier. This wasn't a lie, but I couldn't tell her that I thought it was unsafe. My employer said, "No problem," and hopped on her e-bike, preparing to drive away. Noticing that she was about to take off into oncoming traffic, I said, "Wait, Chelsea, you're going the wrong way. The cars are coming toward you." She laughed, saying, "Oh, it doesn't matter," and hastily sped away.
Next, let's turn our attention to Taiwan. I lived there from 2019 to 2020. One of the things I loved about Taiwan were the mountains. A lot of native Taiwanese people have complained to me in the past about how awful the rainy season is in their country. Admittedly, they're right, it's pretty bad. The weeks of incessant summer rains in Taiwan are merciless, but, in my humble opinion, they make the landscape look especially picturesque. There's just something about how the mountains appear behind the misty water droplets that make me feel like I'm in a comfy dream.
... Speaking of those heavy rains, they're a welcome change in weather compared to the torturous heat of the small island. If you ever decide to travel to Taiwan for any reason, please be sure to do so between November and April. The rest of the year, and particularly June through August, is ruled by the most miserable, humid temperatures you'll ever experience. I spent my first Christmas in Taiwan not wearing an oversized winter coat or gloves, but wearing a tank top and short shorts, sweating like a pig. If you aren't used to high temperatures, I wouldn't recommend standing outside during the summer months for longer than 20 minutes. You might pass out! Water will become your new best friend.
And finally, another struggle I faced while living in Taiwan is the way that the locals speak Chinese. I've spent a good 8 years of my life studying the intracacies of Mandarin Chinese. On the mainland, I felt proud of myself that I could understand the locals fairly easily. Not so in Taiwan. I found their accent difficult to understand for some reason. To be honest, I really liked the adorable accent, and I was charmed by the local terms that I hadn't run into in China. But somehow, the way that the people of Taiwan speak Chinese doesn't register into my brain as smoothly.
As hard as I tried to speak with the locals of every age, they might as well have been speaking ancient Hebrew, because I almost always had no idea what anyone was saying to me. I still remember how I used to apologize profusely to the people I attempted to communicate with, due to my embarrassing performances. I believe that this is partly because in Taiwan, people speak Taiyu (台语）which doesn't sound at all like Mandarin. Still, it's pretty interesting all the same.
And so, this is a short record of my struggles as a foreigner living in China and Taiwan. When you make another country your home for an extended period of time, there are bound to be aspects of your new life that you'll miss once you've returned home. But don't be afraid to reminisce about the 'Oh my god!' moments, either!