"Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era"

Free-range food

I hear "welcome to China!" every time I and one of my new foreign friends sees, hears, or smells something so strange that it literally stops us in our tracks. In Changsha, goats and more were strung up at an outdoor market. "Welcome to China!" he said, swaying in the heavily intoxicated 4 a.m. breeze as I gaped at the skinned and eviscerated animals. "Meat is meat here; food is food," he slurred as he pulled me along.

Jishou, Xiangxi
Traveling is always interesting and exciting, but there's also something to be said for traveling completely around the world to the other side of the International Date Line. As an American, the squat toilets (and their lack of sinks/soap/toilet tissue in many places), the showers that must happen directly over said toilet, the close encounters with less than pleasant wildlife, and the general smells have made my first 3+ months in China so much more than simply interesting.

Women use the river under a bridge in Zhangjiajie
There's no such thing as a "construction zone" here and a "hard hat is not required for entry." Construction (or destruction, can't tell) is currently happening behind the back gate here at Jishou. All day from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., men in sandals or flimsy rainboots operate heavy machinery to dig trenches, fill them, and then dig other trenches. People, myself included, walk over and around these deep gashes in the ground to get to the restaurants on the other side. There are no barriers, no gates, no signs - sometimes people even walk under John Deere style jackhammers and hold up their hands in obvious irritation, intimating to the operator to stop so that they can pass.

This construction zone is a lawsuit waiting to happen in America - wires on the ground, holes filled with loose sand, stray dogs sniffing around every shop door, restaurant owners cleaning meat and vegetables in plastic buckets on the front steps, and more. However, it lets me feel like I can do more and say more. I've never felt more free despite the fact that I'm American. Here, I always feel safe and most people embrace me as a foreigner, taking guest friendship to beautiful new heights.

However, rural* China might just be an organized, slightly Type A person's worst nightmare.

Here, communication is not key. "Don't worry" and "soon" are acceptable to most people I've encountered, and I work at a university.
You need to take my passport that serves as my only source of valid identification and also holds my visa and send it two hours away on the back of a rickshaw driven by a 17-year-old kid? Okay.
When will I get paid? You don't know? Alrighty then.
When does this term end and when are final exams? You'll let me know? Okie dokie.

But that can also be freeing. Just Elsa-style "let it go." 

The toilets often smell like raw sewage. Perhaps it's the lack of closed circuit plumbing. My bedroom, which happens to be bathroom adjacent, smells like I have a poop fetish and can't get enough of that sweet, shit air. My WebMD brain is telling me that the constant smell of other people's excrement is going to give me cancer.

So here is my (current) list of things you must have/bring with you/buy as soon as you land if you are a westerner living in China:
  1. Toilet tissue and hand sanitizer as most public bathrooms won't have these.
  2. A way to still use Google products and American social media platforms (if keeping up with those sorts of things is your thing).
    Rivers of life
  3. Western medicine and such (Advil, Imodium/PeptoBismol, your favorite brand of face wash/deodorant, etc.).
  4. Ear plugs if you're a light sleeper (the honking is constant and deafening at times and most men scream-talk even if they're just asking how their wife's day was.
  5. Adapters for your laptop/phone - most US chargers can be used in China without an adapter (I'm not using adapters and everything has been fine so far; my chargers all say on them that they can be used between 100-240V, which is perfect), but it's better to be safe than sorry. 
  6. Cash money. The ATM fee to use my Wells Fargo/US debit card at the ICBC machine was $15.30, and that was to withdraw less than $100. Bring cash with you and exchange it for RMB at the airport ($10 exchange fee to change $140 at the Changsha (CSX) airport). I get paid in RMB though, so it's not a problem anymore.
  7. Bug spray if you're coming anytime other than winter.
  8. Mandarin to English dictionary or some way to begin learning Chinese. The language barrier is difficult to overcome in less populated places, and while Mandarin is the "official" language, there are a ton of dialects that make understanding and being understood hard. An app on your phone will be great in lieu of a physical dictionary, but make sure your phone is unlocked and able to connect to mobile data with a Chinese SIM card inserted. 
Private theater rooms, festivals, and lovely views
Living in the eastern world has been the most interesting thing I've ever done. There are, of course, things I would like to change, but this is all part of the experience. 

Rivers are transportation, water sources, and washers
I talk to my friends back in the States and they tell me about villainous Trump, the feminist movement's struggles, sexual misconduct and harassment in Hollywood and the trickle down, dating problems, taxes and high rent, and the like. I listen interestedly, but detached.

Here, I'm lucky. I don't pay rent or utilities for my large 1-bedroom overlooking Tianmen Mountain and my forested campus. My only expense here is food and most of my lunches cost 6RMB ($1) and most of my dinners are less than 20RMB (less than $4). I can get two hour, full body massages for less than $30, and I can watch any movie I want at the private theater downtown in my own, personal room for about $10. Also, crime is almost nonexistent.

At the same time, I can't drink the water here. I complain about the spots on my drinking glasses at restaurants only to walk outside and see staff washing vegetables and meats in the river with their bare hands while men smoke nearby. I leave my rural, mountainside, beloved Zhangjiajie to explore the rest of China and have to buy smog masks immediately upon arrival. I walk around and see exhausted grandparents raising energetic toddlers.

Oranges are a major crop in Hunan
However, I also go to lunches with my students and other foreign teachers on Saturday afternoons, eat local delicacies and deliciously prepared spicy foods, take taxis back to the university, only to see frail, old men sifting through the garbage and frantically drinking from half finished water bottles. However, I love this city, this province, and this country. I can't believe I get to live here and experience it all.

China is vast, beautiful, and culturally unparalleled. I'm grateful for my travels so far and my travels to come. I used to worry about everything I was missing back home, but now I'm more concerned about the adventures and stories that I could be missing here.

*I'm living and working in the Hunan Province, which is very rural. I'm sure most of these things don't apply if you're living in a major city like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc.


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