First Impressions

Before our house hunting trip to China we probably talked with close to 10 different co-workers who had either visited the plant, lived and worked there, or were currently on assignment to get an idea of what to expect during our first trip. Much of the advice we were given was consistent, and everyone had their own awkward stories to tell about things that they experienced living in a foreign country in Asia. Most importantly though, the advice we received helped frame our expectations of what we would experience during the one week we had to visit and find a place to live. What’s the saying “you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression?” Overall our week there exceeded all our expectations in a very positive way and we are looking forward to the move in less than 8 weeks! I will now share with you some of the advice we found to be most helpful and other general observations from our trip.

  1. We know enough Mandarin to order beer and food…but that’s about it.
    Lunch in Suzhou: pork with chili peppers and eggs with some sort of tiny shrimp (we think).
    Lunch in Suzhou: pork with chili peppers and eggs with some sort of tiny shrimp (we think).

    David’s greatest sense of accomplishment during our trip was the day we made our way to the humble administrators garden in Suzhou, found the entrance, bought tickets, and managed to order ourselves beer and a meal before heading back to our hotel. Between our mastery of the English language, some broken Mandarin, a GPS satellite, and a decent amount of luck, we were able to function for several hours on our own in China! This was by no means as simple as it would have been at home. After a silent taxi ride and being dropped off on a busy street more than a quarter mile from the entrance, we happened upon a tour guide who showed us where to buy tickets. These tour guides are not hard to find and we literally dodged a dozen or so on our way down this busy street. They were all trying to sell tickets to see a bunch of other attractions in the area. They promised it was a better price if we added a boat ride down the canals and that we would want a tour guide in the garden or we would surely get lost. Luckily for us I have a decent sense of direction and David’s stubbornness knows no bounds, so after a 5 minute discussion we managed to convince our would-be tour guide we just wanted to know where the ticket counter was and we were on our way. After successfully finding our way back out of the garden we wandered down the same road in search of a place to eat. We must have passed 4 places that all looked the same before we got up enough courage to enter one and figure out what on earth was on the menu. David did most of the ordering, as it is customary for one person to order for the table, and I just helped pick the dishes. Since we had to chose our meal based on pictures alone, the one I chose for myself ended up being a little spicy, so David asked the waitress (all in Mandarin mind you) which dish(es) would not be quite as hot. She pointed out the egg dish, so we ordered that one too. And for less than 120 yuan ($20) we had two meals and a half liter of beer each.

  2. Smoke…on the water.
    Foggy/smoggy morning in Suzhou.
    Foggy/smoggy morning in Suzhou.

    Of course we had heard of the air pollution that pervades most of the eastern side of China, but it was quite another thing to see it in person. We were fortunate that we had a few blue sky days while we were there also, so perhaps we got a better first impression of the pollution than is accurate. We knew a co-worker who had gone house hunting just a month or two before us who developed a respiratory issue during the week he was there with his wife, so hopefully being younger is in our favor here. He did happen to collect a sample of the dust that had settled on the hotel window and brought it back for analysis in our lab. We were all relieved to discover no significant amounts of heavy metals were detected in the sample. It was mostly carbon based dust and construction debris. Our resident material scientist would remind us, however, that one data point is not conclusive. Oh scientists. (Says the practical engineer…)

  3. The shrubberies are divine.
    We were quite surprised to see how well maintained the bushes, shrubs, and trees were right in the middle of some of the bigger cities. There was no garbage lying around in the street like you sometimes find in some of the bigger US cities either. There was an ever-present layer of “dust” or grime that settled on everything from the air though.

    Median Garden
    Median Garden

    Just your standard roundabout, you know.
    Just your standard roundabout, you know.
  4. Shanghai is a REALLY big city.
    Crowded street in Shanghai near Yu Garden.
    Crowded street in Shanghai near Yu Garden.

    It has an impressive skyline and way too many people (~29 million to be more precise). Everyone talks about how crowded it is, but honestly I don’t find it much worse than the more crowded parts of any large US city. I maintain that you can only physically fit so many people in a finite area. This theory was stretched to the its limit when we boarded a subway train during rush hour in Shanghai, but I did not feel any more squished in this scenario than when I was trying to procure multiple football posters at the spring game in Spartan Stadium. Ann and Debb, you still owe me big for that risky endeavor.

  5. It’s not road rage, it’s a sign of respect.
    If you are uncomfortable in a moving vehicle in which you have no control, I do not recommend taking a taxi in China. The rules, or enforcement thereof, appear to be much different than those imposed in the US. They drive on the right side of the road, but that is about where the similarities end. People will cut off other drivers and instead of getting angry we were told that they then respect the person who cut them off as being a better driver. Horns are also used much more frequently to let people know where you are as opposed to voicing your displeasure at them. That would certainly not fly in the US. People change lanes fairly frequently, often without much warning, and the traffic in Shanghai is particularly maddening. This was where we really got a sense of how many people lived there. We had an appointment at the US embassy one morning at 8:30am, and we decided to leave Suzhou two hours early to ensure we were not late. We were on track to be almost an hour early until we reached the “10km to go” point. It took us another hour to go the remaining 10km due to the sheer volume of people traveling at that time and number of stop lights.

    No horn, or "No Trumpeting" as David declared the first time we saw this particular sign...
    Horns use is so common that a No horn (or “No Trumpeting” as David declared the first time we saw it) sign is needed to remind people not to use them in driveways and parking lots.
  6. Foreign influence from many different countries.
    I was pleasantly surprised to discover I could buy almost anything I would need to live “happily ever after” in our small 10-13 million person city of Suzhou. The question would be, was I willing to pay for it. Still, in truly desperate times I would be able to indulge in peanut butter or the occasional freezer waffle for what would be considered an outrageous price in the states. Desperate times, desperate measures people. Now, please enjoy these other cross-cultural photos we happened upon in our travels.

    The Shanghai "underground"?
    The Shanghai “underground”?
    The colonel and...the general?
    The colonel and…the general?

    Speaking of foreign influences…

  7. Taking pictures with foreigners is not uncommon.
    David and his new buddy.
    David and his new buddy.

    David got to partake in this grand old tourist tradition with his new friend we will call “Buddy.” Buddy and his wife approached us using lots of hand gestures with their camera and speaking a few words of Chinese. We had no idea what they were saying, but got the gist of it from the gesturing. David also has a priceless picture in which a small Chinese boy is about to poke me in the leg while I’m distractedly staring off at some ducks in the pond. I realized what must have happened when his dad swatted him on the head with a rolled up pamphlet and I looked down. We were an object of interest in China, but not near so much as the black couple who had a line of parents around them trying to take their children’s picture with these other fascinating foreigners.

  8. Chinese people would order you everything on the menu…if they could.
    Delicious dumplings!
    Delicious dumplings!

    We greatly enjoyed all the Chinese food we got to try, and with Chinese hosts, there was always way too much food. We ate until we were uncomfortable multiple times in an attempt to appease our hosts. It was not until after we returned and had a two day cultural training that this phenomenon was explained to us. There is a stigma in China about not having enough food to eat. This comes from a historical period when there was not enough to eat and many people died of starvation. Now it is common for a host to provide excessive amounts of food to ensure their guests do not go hungry. It is also customary for some food to be left over at the end of the meal to indicate that you are in fact full and do not wish to eat any more. Our favorite meal while traveling was the dumplings we had in Shanghai. The round ones were filled with crab meat and hot soup, so you had to either drink the soup with a straw or bite into the dumpling and slurp the soup out lest you burn your mouth trying to eat the whole thing. Also, that is a pigeon egg in the wanton soup. It tasted like a regular egg, but a lot smaller. Looks like I won’t be losing any weight in china after all… 🙂

  9. Squatty potties.
    Squatty Potty
    Squatty Potty

    If you can’t decide whether it’s time for a workout or to go to the bathroom, my oh my do the Chinese have an invention for you! Not only do you get to precariously perch yourself over a hole in the ground, but your main objective is to aim well enough that you don’t need a bath after the whole experience is over. This style toilet also made the urine sample collection portion of the medical exam that much more challenging. I’ll let you work that one out on your own, but that brings me to my final and perhaps most critical piece of advice we were given…

  10. Don’t forget to bring tissue…ever.
    After a few adventures with the squatty potties I was given two critical pieces of advice: the handicap stall typically has a western style toiled (good to know) and never forget to bring tissues and hand sanitizer with you. The toilet paper for a typical bathroom is located at the entrance, so if you forget to grab some before you enter a stall you are more of less on your own. If they run out, you are really on your own. I had already been told about bringing my own tissue and hand sanitizer so that time I was prepared, but the day I decided to switch purses and forgot to transfer that critical item made me very sad. I have since resolved to put one of each of these items in every bag I own in the hopes of avoiding this situation in the future!

We had several other learnings here and there that we expect will make this experience quite an adventure, but I simply don’t have time to recount them all because I am supposed to be getting our house ready for the move.

4 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. So interesting! It’s really odd to me that the locals would ask to take their pictures with foreigners. It seems so…rude? I guess? Also those squatty potties…good luck with that! I hope your apartment has a “handicap” toilet. Good luck with the move!


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