The route from China to India was a long one, departing my home on Saturday lunchtime and arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning. However, an extended layover in Kuala Lumpur gave me time to get reacquainted with one of my favourite cities. I took a stroll in Chinatown and then explored the botanic gardens. About six or seven years ago I saw a water monitor eating a large cat there, but this time the scene was somewhat different, with a large number of families holidaying.
When I arrived in Chennai, I made my way to Zostel, my hostel in the middle of the city. In the morning, I took a walk towards the beach. Having walked some twenty-five kilometers in Malaysia the previous day, I soon became tired and eventually relented at the prompting of one of many rickshaw drivers. “I’ll take you around the city and show you everything for just one hundred rupees,” he promised.
Needless to say, he showed me almost nothing and when I got back to my hostel later in the day, I was thoroughly pissed off. Chennai is not really much of a tourist city. It is ugly and crowded and dirty. But I hadn’t expected much, and would have been fine exploring on foot. I had walked by myself through some slums and met friendly and interesting people. Instead, I was fleeced by a dishonest rickshaw driver.
Fortunately, in the evening I made some good friends among the other tourists staying at my hostel, and we stayed up late sitting on the roof of the hostel, listening to music and being devoured by mosquitoes. They all said they were heading in roughly the same direction as me, but different times, and perhaps we will meet again down the road.
In the morning I was ripped off by another rickshaw driver en route to finding a bus south. (In fact, from now on, just assume that any reference to rickshaws involved getting ripped-off.) I arrived at a random roadside and fortunately a bus soon came by and I was on board, flying south along the East Coast Road (ECR). Amazingly, the bus was totally empty except for me – not what I had expected of travel in India. When I got off, the driver asked for 200 rupees, which was more than double what I had been told. Oh well… This was (and continues to be) a recurring theme.
My destination was Mamallapuram (which is just one of the spellings for this hard-to-pronounce place), a tourist hot-spot fifty kilometers south of Chennai. It is famous for an old temple and some Hindu carvings. I was taken by my rickshaw driver to a run-down guesthouse near the beach, and then set out to look around. The beach was not exactly pleasant but the Shore Temple, which is Mamallapuram’s most famous attraction, was really quite nice. It dates back to about 700 AD and was once a part of a chain of similar pagoda-shaped structures that may have acted as navigation aids. Now the Shore Temple is all that remains. It is surrounded by statues of cows (which are famously revered by Hindus) and entrance for foreign tourists is 500 rupees, which is rather steep given that there’s not a great deal to actually see or do there.
In the late afternoon, after a bit of rest back at my guesthouse, I went on another walk, this time to the park that lies west of the main town. Here, the main attraction is known as Krishna’s Butterball – a giant rock that appears to be precariously balanced on a slope, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. The area around it was so crowded with people that it was actually not very interesting, but the park itself was filled with old Hindu carvings. The sandstone had been carved into cave-temples and other structures, including a large relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. It is one of the biggest bas-reliefs anywhere in the world, and stands right next to a busy intersection.
While in the park, I was approached by a shy young man who asked in broken English for a selfie with me. I agreed and suddenly a queue formed of some seventy or eighty Indians all asking for selfies. It was bizarre. In China, people always point at me and take photos, and very occasionally someone will ask for a selfie. However, there are very few foreigners in China, and here there were many white people. Granted, I was the only white person in the park… but still, it was a surprise. Most of the people were in family groups and appeared quite poor. Some of them, particularly those with children, wanted me to take their photo with my camera, even though they didn’t have e-mail addresses or social media accounts for me to send the picture on. Later, a boy asked if I was working with a Scottish newspaper, and it occurred to me that perhaps word had gone around the park that I was some sort of journalist and these people wanted their picture in a foreign newspaper.
The late afternoon and early evening I spent in the park more than made up for all the scams and rip-offs I’d experienced everywhere else. It reaffirmed what I had previously hoped to be true – that the people in the tourist industry were unscrupulous vultures, but the average Indian was friendly and decent.
The next morning I set off for Auroville, outside Pondicherry, a few hours to the south. I’ll post more in a few days.
Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival as it’s also known) is pretty famous all around the world. If people know one thing about it, though, it’s that the Chinese celebrate New Year in late January… or sometimes even February. That’s because they follow the lunar calendar, whereas most of the world goes by the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese acknowledge the Gregorian calendar through much of their daily life, but when it comes to celebrating New Year, they are understandably traditional and stick the the old ways. As such, New Year’s Eve is a bit of a dull affair in the Middle Kingdom.
Last weekend I travelled with my girlfriend to her father’s house near Hefei. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of New Year celebrations but when everyone went home at seven o’clock and her dad headed to bed about an hour later, I got the impression that it wasn’t exactly going to be like Hogmanay back in Scotland. Oh well. Who needs late nights and hangovers anyway? I’ve seen enough New Years not to care that much any more.
After a rather boring New Year’s Eve, we took off in the morning for the countryside. Vera had told me many times about where she grew up but I’d never actually seen it before and so I was looking forward to it. We grabbed a black taxi out to a little town and then walked from there to a small village about a mile away. Every few minutes she pointed at something and remarked on how much it had all changed.
Walking through the countryside in China can be quite pleasant, especially compared with the pure chaos of the cities. Unfortunately, on this day (and for the past few weeks, in fact) the air pollution was so bad that we really couldn’t see very far. However, what we did see was quite nice – an old man sitting on a bull, a fertility shrine in a rice field, and more than a few large ponds. Beyond that, we could see cluster of trees but through the smog it had a rather ominous look.
We arrived at her little village and then went looking for her grandfather’s tomb in the nearby forest. She had brought flowers to lay on it, although she never actually knew him. He had fought in the Korean War against the Americans, and apparently was a great man. Supposedly, he had met Mao Zedong and was given some sort of award for his achievements–a sword, I think–but this was stolen from him during the Cultural Revolution. We looked around a few tombs but couldn’t find his name, and then finally found a pile of dirt, almost unnoticeable in the forest. That was his tomb. While all the others had been upgraded to marble, his had simply been forgotten. It probably hadn’t been tended to since Vera’s family left the village more than a decade before.
Next, we ventured back into the village and went around a few houses, speaking with the old people. Vera referred to them all as grandmothers and grandfathers, although none of them were in the strictest sense her actual family. This is quite common in China, where despite the One Child Policy having made siblings somewhat unusual, people claim to have dozens of brothers and sisters, and a ridiculous number of cousins, aunts, and uncles.
We stopped in at the house where she was born and grew up. It was a small brick building with a bedroom where everyone slept and a living room which doubled as a kitchen and everything else. It had fallen into disrepair. After leaving the house, her family had not even bothered trying to sell it, so everything of valuable was taken and the house used mostly for storage by neighbours. It was hard to imagine actually being able to live in such a place for an extended period of time, especially given the harsh climate here. No heating, no air conditioning, no running water or toilet, and just a single lightbulb… It is a world away from what I knew as a child. Yet I suppose this is, for most of the world’s population, actually very normal.
We continued to visit her “grandparents” and met some very interesting characters. One was a tiny woman with leathery skin who lived next door to her. She was barely four feet tall, yet apparently had a ferocious temper and repeatedly fought with other villagers:
Another old woman recognized Vera, despite not having seen her in more than ten years. She loudly shouted, “Well f*** my mother’s c*** I haven’t seen you in f***ing years! How the f*** have you been?” (Old Chinese villagers tend to enjoy swearing.)
We met two old people who Vera seemed to know very well. They were sitting outside their house, cutting radishes with giant knives. They had a small field of cotton plants which they’d picked to make a blanket. As soon as they saw Vera, they immediately gave us the blanket. We were, of course, very touched by this generous gesture. They had planted, tended, and harvested a whole field of cotton for a year and then just given away the resulting blanket.
Clutching the giant homemade duvet, we moved on to another town. This involved a long walk and a very crowded bus ride. In this new town, we met one of Vera’s actual grandmother’s – her father’s mother. She was, like all the others, very friendly and interesting. She had a simple house, but much larger than the others and with indoor plumbing. None of her teeth appeared to be real and I wondered how old she was. She looked about a hundred, but she told me she sometimes would walk ten miles in a day to see her friend.
Despite the old woman’s insistence that we stay for dinner, we had to head off on a long journey back to Huainan. Travelling even short distances in China is exhausting and frustrating, so it took us a long time to get back, but eventually we arrived home. We’d left in 2017 and returned in 2018.
Just two days later, we got our first snow of winter. It seldom snows here, and usually only a light dusting of snow that lasts maybe a day before melting into black slush. Needless to say, we were surprised when it kept on coming down, piling higher and higher until it reached about 15 inches. It was so much snow that almost every tree in our neighbourhood buckled and snapped under its weight. We could hear them all groaning and breaking during that first night, and the next day the devastation was just extraordinary.
Of course, snow is incredibly beautiful when it first arrives. Vera was excited and we went out to look around the morning after the heaviest snow and it really was magical… for about five minutes. After you can no longer feel your fingers and your boots fill up with water it really starts to lose its charm.
I bought a new camera just after Christmas and, although I can still barely use it, I took it tested it out in the snow.
Hopefully I can get this camera figured out before I travel to India this weekend (and then back to Sri Lanka after that). Follow this blog to be notified when I post in future. I’m sure the India trip will offer up many photos and stories.
It’s almost the end of 2017 and this year just seems to have flown by in a blur. People are making New Year resolutions and I’m looking back to those that I made one year ago. I said I wanted to see some more new countries, and I certainly managed that! I also wanted to get some serious work done on a book I’m writing, and two weeks ago I finished the first draft. But one other resolution I had was to get better at photography. It’s a hard one to measure objectively, and honestly I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should studying or practicing, but I think I have taken some decent photos this year.
Here are a few of my favourites:
First up is a photo I took almost a year ago, shortly after arriving in beautiful Sri Lanka. At Yala National Park, I was incredibly fortunate to see this leopard. It stepped out right in front of my car and stayed in full view for almost a minute.
I really like the challenge of shooting birds. I especially liked this one, of these really colourful little bee-eaters. Again, this was at Yala in Sri Lanka.
This year I have taken many photos underwater but honestly most of them haven’t turned out that well. In 2016 I had much better luck as I swam with mantas and through untouched reefs in Indonesia. This year I saw dozens of sharks and turtles but usually the photos turned out quite poor quality. I really liked this photo, though, of a school of fish in Sri Lanka.
My girlfriend and I went to visit Mt Fuji at the beginning of the year and we were lucky enough to have one day when it wasn’t completely cloaked in cloud. Just after the sun disappeared behind the mountain, I took a photo of her standing in front of it. The sun cast amazing colours on the few clouds that passed by.
I was playing around with black and white photos last winter and shot a few that I liked, including this one outside my school. The sky didn’t turn out well but I really like the harsh contrasts and the loneliness of the tree.
Look at this smile! Back in February, my girlfriend and I moved into a new house and found it had some occupants: a group of lizards lived there. They help us by keeping the mosquitoes under control and generally look quite cute if you can get up close enough.
Back in Scotland for a few weeks, I went out walking around Fife with my family. On one such walk, with my younger brother, we spotted this fox. In all my years, I had never before seen a fox in the daylight, but this one was out chasing rabbits. Thankfully my camera was able to zoom in far enough to get a picture. It did come close but was cautious and hidden in longer grass.
I really enjoy taking photos of wildlife (obviously) and near my parents’ house in Scotland I went out walking and saw this little fawn. I managed to get close enough to shoot a couple of photos before it barked and bounded off into the trees.
This statue of Rubens in Antwerp made for a great photo set against the dark sky and the jagged tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.
This is perhaps my favourite photo of the year. Budapest was an unbelievable city to photograph because everywhere you turn there are beautiful buildings. However, I spent many hours up on this hill trying to catch the perfect light for getting the whole city in one shot. Although I had a few cameras with me, amazingly it was my old iPhone 5 that I used to snap this stunning panorama.
It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.
I took dozens of photos around the little town of Shangri-La, high in the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted to capture the big sky and the incredible animals that you just don’t see back in the east of the country.
This photo was taken in Shangri-La a few months ago. I liked the sense of movement in the picture. It’s almost like looking at a video.
Although perhaps not a technically very good photo, I really liked this one from Yubeng, near Meilixueshan, on the Tibetan border of China’s Yunnan province. I took it around midnight with a GoPro.
It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.
It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.
After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!
After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.
In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.
What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.
Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.
It’s getting cold here in China and pretty soon I have a long winter holiday. I’m taking off for Chennai in early January, then hopping over to Sri Lanka in mid-February so…. the question is, what should I do in Southern India for a month?
It’s very nearly December and here in eastern China the weather is finally turning cold. In the middle of the day, it’s still warm but at night it is getting perilously close to zero. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees now as the autumn winds kick up. Sadly, people don’t view the fallen leaves as beautiful, and sweep them away almost as fast as they can fall. But for the few weeks while the hang on the trees, and for the hours that they lay on the ground, it is actually quite beautiful. Autumn is probably my favourite season in Huainan, although it is exceptionally brief, sandwiched between the excruciatingly hot summer and the biting cold of winter.
I live in a quiet (by Chinese standards) little 小区 (that means “community”) here in Huainan. It’s actually a rather pleasant little enclave in an otherwise quite ugly city. I think at this time of year, it is about as nice a place to live as one would find in China.
Despite being among the world’s most visited cities, London also seems to be one of the more misunderstood tourist destinations on Earth. People have ideas about London, gathered through everything from history books to postcards, and while those ideas are grounded in reality, they often present the wrong picture. The best way to clarify that picture is to go to London and spend some time there – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But to give you a head start, I wanted to write a few words about five things in particular you should now about London by now.
1. Londoners Are Perfectly Friendly
The idea that “everyone’s so unfriendly” was included in a list of misconceptions about London, and I have to say I agree it’s the wrong idea. You can go to just about any big city, particularly in a foreign country, and think that the population is by and large unfriendly. It happens when there are millions of people in a single place, and it’s also something you can feel more vulnerable about as a visitor or tourist; you’re more self-conscious about how the locals are looking at you or treating you.
Of course there are unfriendly Londoners. The first time I was ever in the city there happened to be a Champions League football match going on between two English clubs, and I had things thrown at me on the street because I was wearing a shirt supporting one of these clubs. But you know what? I kind of love the passion. Londoners are proud and passionate, and they can certainly eye visitors with suspicion, but they’re perfectly friendly by big city standards.
2. About Half The Sights Are In One Place
Okay, this one is a little bit presumptuous of me, because I’m professing to know what “the sights” are that the average tourist would want to see. Still, think about the iconic landmarks of London – the backdrops in movies, the images on postcards, the backgrounds in selfies your friends posted on Facebook…. I bet the list looks something like this: Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and Trafalgar Square. Close, right?
Well, many who haven’t actually been to London don’t realize that you can cross about half of the popular sights off your list in an hour or two. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Palace of Westminster are all located in what amounts to a single large city block. Not to mention, the beautiful Parliament Square Garden is there as well, and 10 Downing Street – the residence of the Prime Minster – is about two blocks up the road. Really, it’s all quite convenient and gives you more time to truly get to know the rest of the city.
3. The Food Is Sensational
The idea that British food is bad has kept many a traveler somewhat unenthusiastic about London and the rest of the country. It certainly used to be the case, at least in the wider reaches of the country. But in London it’s far from the truth. This city has become something of gold standard for international cuisine, with fine restaurants boasting influence from France, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, and many other nations known for interesting and delicious cuisine.
It’s also home to some establishments that belong to world-famous chefs. For instance, Raymond Blanc has a brasserie in town and Judy Joo has a Korean fusion restaurant. London is also the de facto hometown of Gordon Ramsay, who’s probably a better chef than you realize. He’s now known for television and for attraction-like restaurants. Indeed just recently he was written up for putting a restaurant in the heart of the Las Vegas strip (and focusing on burgers, fries and milkshakes). But Ramsay has a trophy case full of Michelin stars and eating at one of his London venues is an unforgettable experience.
4. You Don’t Have To Shop At Oxford Street
I’m not a huge shopper, so this isn’t one that I’m writing about with a whole lot of personal experience, I’ll be honest. But I was doing some research for this piece to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything out and found a few different people talking about the different shopping options aside from the famous Oxford Street. One piece even wrote that shopping on Oxford Street is hell, thanks (as you’d likely guess) to massive crowds. Basically, all the other tourists have also heard of Oxford Street, so they’re on their way just as you are.
As it happens, London is home to a lot of other streets and neighborhoods known for awesome shopping opportunities. Regent Street might be the most famous aside from Oxford Street, but the Westfield Shopping Centre comes up quite a bit, as do Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road.
5. You Do Have To Go To The British Museum
Okay, I just steered you away from one iconic tourist destination in London. And if you’re reading an article like this, you’re probably ready for me to tell you that the museum is an unnecessary, touristy detour that’s no different from other museums you’ve been to a dozen times. Well, I just can’t do it. The British Museum is legitimately special, as one of the largest collections of art and artifacts in the world. Only a few other museums – perhaps the Louvre, the Met, and the Hermitage – are on par with this one.
You really ought to make the time to visit if you have a few days in London. Naturally, as with any major museum, there are exhibitions that pass through and give people a particular reason to go. But exhibitions aside, this museum will stun you with the breadth and quality of its artistic displays. You can legitimately spend an hour in the museum and leave with a new (and better) perspective on human history and creativity.
I’ve been living in China on-and-off for more than seven years. It’s a place I both love and hate in equal measure, but ultimately one that baffles and fascinates me. People ask me why I stay here and my answer is usually the same: “Because life is never boring.” There’s always something truly weird happening nearby, and if you ever ask why, you’ll get the same answer a Chinese person will always give to such a stupid utterance: “没有为什么” – there’s no reason why.
I thought long and hard about what to call this post. I toyed for a long time with “Things I Don’t Understand About China” but instead went for the more internet-friendly “X Weird Things” title format. Sorry. Besides, some of it I really do understand… it’s just still sort of weird.
You might read some of this and say to yourself, “Hey, I visited Shanghai and it wasn’t like that.” Well, no. Shanghai isn’t real China. Take a bus or train out to the provinces and you’ll get an eyeful of weirdness that will blow your fucking head off.
They poop in public
Visitors to China are usually assaulted quite quickly with a sight that is rather distasteful to Western eyes – that of someone crapping in the street. The further from Shanghai you go, the more you see it. Sometimes they go slightly off the street, but it’s always just there. It’s usually people holding babies out with their legs splayed to the world, but oftentimes it’s adults. The result is that any public walkway is absolutely covered in shit. If you are foolish enough to go hiking, for the love of all that’s holy, please DON’T follow any little paths that lead off the main trail. If you’re lucky you’ll see giant piles of poop and tissue paper. If you’re not, you’ll step right in it.
The public bathrooms are nightmarish places to go, which probably explains why so many people would rather take a dump in public. However, when you do go to the bathroom, many don’t have stalls or any sort of divider. The ones that do tend not to have doors, and the ones that have both doors and dividers… well, people just don’t like closing the doors. They prefer to have strangers watch them go. It is somehow comforting for them.
No one washes their hands
I mentioned above that Chinese bathrooms are awful places. You simply avoid them at all costs while you live here, but sometimes that’s impossible and you just have to go. What you are presented with are holes in the ground and no toilet paper. They don’t believe in bleach or any other cleaning chemicals, so they never actually get cleaned and so they stink to high hell. There’s no soap, either. Why? Mostly because anything that isn’t nailed to the ground will be stolen. Who am I kidding? They’d steal the goddamn nail.
People here are somehow happy just splashing a little cold water on their hands after visiting the bathroom – and that’s only the fancy people. Most wouldn’t go that far. This disturbingly applies to people who work in the food service industry. A few years ago I sat at my favourite restaurant looking out on the burning piles of trash when the chef took her kid out to shit in the street – right in front of the restaurant! – and when he was done she wiped his ass with a tissue and immediately went back to cooking. Needless to say, I was damn near sick.
…even after handling raw meat!
The Chinese just don’t seem to believe in germs. Not only are they happy not washing their hands after literally touching human excrement but they will go to the market and pick up raw meat with their hands and just keep on shopping! It is something that completely sickens me because not only are they spreading germs from the meat to themselves, but also the other way round. I’ve stood and watched old woman pick up all sorts of meat, cough and splutter all over it, and then toss it back on the heap for someone else to eat later. Gee, I wonder why I get sick every few weeks…
Babies on bikes
If you’re reading this and wondering, “How the hell did they get to 1.5 billion people with no awareness of basic health!?” then this will just astonish you: People always drive around with babies on their motorbikes and ebikes. This is, of course, not just limited to China and it’s something that I do understand. For most people, owning a car is out of the question and taxis – though incredibly cheap here – are too expensive to take every day for short journeys. Yet everyone just sticks their baby on the front of their bike and takes off into the most reckless traffic on earth. (Okay, maybe that award goes to Vietnam.)
Remember this scene from Bruno:
Yeah, that’s comedy because it’s something so amazingly hard to believe. Yet in China it’s perfectly normal. Which is especially disturbing considering…
They drive on the wrong side of the street
And by that I don’t mean that they drove on the right instead of the left, which they do. Nope, I’m talking about honest-to-god driving into traffic at high speed! People here drive the way they walk, and that’s with a level of flabbergasting arrogance. If you see a turn, you don’t wait for the oncoming traffic to pass, you just go and hope for the best! It’s truly amazing to witness… and yet terrifying. Countless times I’ve seen people lying dead in the street, or others just slightly hurt, and everyone clusters stupidly around, taking photos but not helping… and it’s always caused by someone driving into traffic on purpose. Yet no one ever thinks of this as wrong. A few years ago I was in a small accident myself. A woman driving down the wrong side of the street while playing on her phone crashed straight into me. She shouted, “You foreigners don’t know how to drive!” and everyone crowded around, tsskking at me and muttering about silly foreigners. No one even thought twice about a person going the wrong way down a street. It’s the most normal thing in the world here.
Walking in the street
As if it weren’t bad enough that people careen the wrong way down almost every street in the Middle Kingdom, people casually and very slowly walk in the middle of the road, too. The rest is pure chaos and more than a few fatal accidents. Yes, the pavements are poor condition almost everywhere. But does that really make it worth your while to walk in the middle of the street? To be fair, the roads are relatively new and people have been walking these pathways for decades without getting hit by cars, but now that everyone and their mother thinks they need a car, sauntering down the middle of a street is no longer really a safe thing to do. Because of this, drivers feel the need to beep their horn almost continuously. Which brings me to my next point.
They love loud repetitive noises
Everyone knows that the Chinese love fireworks. It’s been a part of their culture since way back in history. But for some reason this has lead them to a love of (or at least a tolerance for) all loud repetitive noises. In the paragraph above I mentioned car horns. You simply cannot overstate how common these are. In most cities, there are signs that say “No Car Horns!” but as with all signs, the Chinese will choose to ignore it. Buses are among the worst offenders, followed by construction site workers on motorbikes. They will drive at top speed through residential areas not even looking at the road. In China, the rule is this: if you beep your horn and later hit someone, it’s not your fault. So rather than slow or swerve or check a mirror, they beep loudly and repeatedly and just go.
It’s not just the car horns or fireworks. It’s everything. Every shop attempts to woo customers by blaring monotonous lists of items. At my local market, a man in a blue truck full of small mangoes has been sitting in his cab playing Angry Birds while a recorded message drones: “big mangoes… big mangoes… big mangoes…” It has gone on for more than a year. People don’t care. They actually seem to like this sort of thing, and flock to whoever has the loudest and most monotonous recording. Another common tactic is to play that 小苹果 song over and over. I’ll never understand how people can hear the same part of the same song several thousand times and still think, “Hey, that’s original – I’ll go give that guy my money.”
Staring at foreigners’ feet
I could write a whole book about the weird ways Chinese deal with foreigners. (Hey, that’s actually a good idea…) However, by far and away the most odd and yet predictable of these is that whenever a Chinese person meets a laowai, they will look at our feet. It is astonishing, really. I have no idea why they do it and I didn’t even notice until a few years ago when a friend pointed it out to me. I had noticed that most men look me up and down carefully before asking me an absurd question, but I didn’t realize how long they lingered on the feet. My feet aren’t particularly big, so that’s not it. I don’t wear unusual footwear, either. They just always look at a foreigner’s feet.
Smoking in hospitals… or anywhere else
Across all of Asia, men smoke. Smoking is the coolest fucking thing a person can do, apparently. The smoke from a young age until they mysteriously die around fifty of old age, with their teeth rotten stumps and their fingers completely yellowed. Sure, there are signs up everywhere that tell you not to smoke. But Chinese people know better than to follow namby-pamby signs. Smoking in an elevator is perfectly acceptable, for example, even if there’s a “No Smoking” (or sometimes “No Somking”) sign right there. But in Chinese culture, doing the wrong thing is fine… but calling someone out for doing the wrong thing is bad.
What really amazes me is that if you go to any hospital, you’ll see old men staggering about the halls with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. They’ll even do this around newborn children. Doctors will smoke a cigarette while telling you that you’re sick because of the wind or moon or because you had ice in a drink one time. It is staggering how little people understand cause and effect in this odd corner of the world.
They wear pajamas… outdoors
I was reluctant to put this in here because every other “weird China” list includes it – especially ones written by Chinese. However, it is mid-November now and every time I go outside I see people shuffling around in giant fluffy pajamas. I get that it’s cold and you want to wrap up. That makes sense. But does it really make that much sense to wear your pajamas outside? Don’t they get dirty? Don’t they get all wet and gross? I asked one of my friends and he proudly told me that he has indoor and outdoor pajamas. Why the hell wouldn’t you just wear clothes then?!
Two days I was just leaving the gym with my girlfriend when we heard a small noise. We looked over to a cluster of bins and saw a small cat sitting among them. White with black markings, the little kitten looked at us and meowed again.
I walked slowly over, trying to seem non-threatening. I know cats well, and know almost all the street cats in China would run a mile when approached by a human, so I was very surprised when she stayed put. She seemed scared, but held her ground.
When I put out my hand and petted her on the head, she purred and came closer to me. She rubbed up against my leg and rolled on the ground as I tickled her. I noticed that she was very skinny. In fact, when I put my hand around her, I saw she was the skinniest cat I’d ever seen. She was dangerously thin; just a spine wrapped in fur.
I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated running off to get some food from a nearby shop, but she looked like a single meal wouldn’t help her. She needed much more than that. After a short discussion, Vera and I decided to take her home. We said we wouldn’t keep her, but we’d help her get back to full health.
The little cat had no qualms with me picking her up and wrapping her in my sweatshirt, although she was quite scared as I held her to my chest and drove back home through traffic. She was remarkably well-behaved, though, and we were soon back at the house. I plonked her down in the living room and gave her some chunks of cooked beef, and then shot out to find a petshop where I could pick up supplies – several varieties of kitten food, kitty litter, shampoo, etc.
She had dived straight into the beef chunks but it didn’t occur to me until much later – after I’d gotten home from work – that she may not actually have eaten much, if anything. She didn’t touch her kibble or her tuna, and she seemed to sit next to the water bowl for a long time without drinking. In the evening I began to grow worried. Maybe something was wrong with her mouth or stomach?
She was very affectionate and well-behaved, meowing a little but never getting into trouble. When I left the house she would wait by the door until I came back, then flop at my feet and purr when I got in again. At night she sat quietly in her little bed, not howling like some felines do. She was the perfect cat.
The next morning I went to work but decided that at lunchtime we would go find the nearest vet and get Pearl – as she was now called – checked out. However, when I got home at lunchtime she ran over to me to say hello, but moments later started vomiting. Then she collapsed and just lay in her bed unable to move. I scooped her up and carried her in my arms to the vet, who said she was the skinniest cat he’d ever seen, too. He checked her out, giving her a few shots and some medicine we had to feed her later. He said she’d probably eaten something bad on the street and gotten so sick she was never able to eat again from the damage she’d done herself. He recommended us to use a syringe to get water down her throat. If she survived the night, he said he could put her on an IV drip the next day.
We took her home and did as the vet suggested but within ten minutes she’d thrown it all up again. We tried again and again, with the same results. She deteriorated quickly, unable to keep anything down. By ten o’clock at night it was clear she wouldn’t see the morning. The cat who was so cheerful just twelve hours earlier was now barely able to breathe. Whenever she tried to stand or even move herself about on her bed, she fell back down. She couldn’t even lift the weight of her own head.
Before going upstairs to bed, I sat down next to Pearl to say goodbye. I knew she wouldn’t be there to greet me in the morning this time. I put my hand on her tiny body as her ribs rose and fell ever so slightly. She had long since stopped purring when her petted her. I felt horrible for having not been able to save her. I killed me to watch her suffer and die. I wondered what would have happened if there had been a decent vet anywhere in the city, instead of the tiny backstreet one I’d had to visit that lunchtime. Could a real, qualified vet have saved her life?
Just as I was about to get up, she dragged herself off the little red bed and across the floor to my feet, somehow raised her head, and rested it on my lap. She lay there, unmoving, for ten minutes. Reluctantly, I picked her up and returned her to her bed, then went upstairs to my own, knowing she would be dead in the morning.
When I woke up and went downstairs, I found her lying with her eyes and mouth open. She was cold and stiff, and her face was filled with fear and suffering. She had not just slipped peacefully away in the night. She had died alone from starvation and dehydration – a horrible fate that nothing in this world deserves, not least a baby cat. I tried telling myself that nothing could have saved her, and that I had given her a day of happiness she otherwise would never have experienced. For that first day, she had seemed so delighted to receive attention and to be warm. She purred constantly and was in her element sitting on either of our laps. Yet her short life had been filled with a suffering I thankfully have never known, and I had tried and failed to save her from the awful fate that awaited her.
It should seem inevitable that this was her fate. The life of a cat in a place like China is almost invariably one of prolonged suffering. The cruelty of nature is doubled in such an unfriendly environment. But something tricked me into putting aside my cynicism and having hope for Pearl. A week earlier, I had begun reading a book called The Travelling Cat Chronicles. In it, the protagonist, who is a cat, is badly hurt and seeks out a human to help him. Neither man nor cat expects their relationship to go beyond a trip to the vet and a few weeks of recuperation, but they became the closest of friends.
When Pearl appeared in my life, I immediately felt she had sought out help. As silly as that seems, it is just so abnormal for a cat her in China to allow a person to approach her and pet her. They learn very early that people equal death or worse. But Pearl came to us and came into our life, and immediately she made herself the perfect pet. Both Vera and I, within an hour of Pearl staying in our house, felt that she would be with us for years – even though neither of us had wanted a pet. It just seemed so perfect, like it was all meant to be.
It is odd how much an animal can affect a human’s life. Or perhaps it is not odd at all… Many animals have affected my life, but normally it takes much more than a day to do so. Pearl was a tiny but powerful force that turned my life upside down very quickly and then left, leaving it a whole lot emptier. Her death has caused me more sadness than I could have imagined, and yet I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m still glad she had at least some happiness and comfort in her life before she passed away. The majority of cats, or any other animal, for that matter, endure their pain without respite.