After living in Yantai and Beijing, I’ve recently returned to China to live and work in a new city, Yangzhou.
It’s Really, Really Hot
I mean, I knew it would be hot. I packed for summer. But, you guys, it’s so hot. I bought one of those cotton nightgowns that the grandmas in my old Beijing hutong used to wear around the neighborhood, and only the ever-present threat of cellphone photography prevents me from doing the same.
Yangzhou cabbies often multitask by picking up a second fare with the first passenger already in the car. So if you’re trying to hail a cab, it’s not uncommon to have a taxi with the light off and the meter running pull over and ask where you’re headed. If your destination is near the current passenger’s, then hop in!
You Say Tomato…
In Yantai and Beijing, I called tomatoes xi hong shi. In Yangzhou, they are more commonly called fan qie, which is annoying to me because xi (west) and hong (red) are familiar characters. Also the locals do not find my screwups anywhere near as amusing as tomato, tomahto.
Menus Go On The Wall
This is awful because I have to stand in the middle of the room trying to decipher what kind of restaurant I’m in and what I want to eat, and since I do more character-matching than actual reading, this can take a while. It’s also much more awkward to point at a big wall menu than a paper menu when I decide to try a nice bowl of something eggplant soemthing noodles.
…But The Food Is Way Better
Some of this is me. My Chinese is better, which lets me request more of the things I like. My expectations are lower — er, I mean, more reasonable. I know that noodle shops tend to be better than fancy restaurants. I know there will eventually be surprise shrimp bits or random bones in something I thought was vegetarian. I have a few self-catering hacks based on the available ingredients, and I’m no longer criticizing myself for ruining my Authentic China Experience if I decide on apples and peanut butter for dinner.
But the actual taste of the food is better here. Fewer deep sea bottom-feeders end up in my bowl, a serious problem in Yantai. I’ve been discovering dishes with simpler ingredient lists in general, which means less of a chance for surprise ingredients, and more distinct flavors. Less of that generic ginger-and-peanut-oil taste. And rice here is served warm, not sitting-out-for-a-while temperature. All good things.
Less Aggressive Paparazzi
Nine years have passed since I arrived in Yantai, watching cars swing U-turns across traffic to get another look at the real live white lady and having entire restaurants fell silent at my presence. In 2006 Yantai, I was buying groceries when another shopper reached into my shopping basket to shuffle through my purchases and remark to her friend on what foreigners eat.
In 2015 Yangzhou, I get plenty of glances and covert cellphone snaps, but the outright screams of laowei are infrequent. I think I could avoid them altogether by sticking to the stylish malls and foreign restaurants, but where’s the fun in that? There is one cashier at a local shop who gets so flustered at ringing up a foreigner that she can’t make eye contact, and mumbles towards the floor, making really basic vocab like “10 RMB” almost impossible to understand. But that’s not the norm.
It’s been a pretty major shift in public behaviors. Is it from nine years of foreign visitors? The more-civilized campaign for the Olympics? The difference in cities? I don’t know.
My Chinese Is So Much Better
I mean, my Chinese still sucks. It’s not good or anything, it’s just better than it was.