Seth Barham Design
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Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

7 Things I'm Doing in China That I Can't Do in America


Yep, I’m back in the Middle Kingdom…and it ain’t too bad. There are a few annoying things going on at my school like, another teacher literally running away and leaving us to cover his classes (you’re an asshole, Dan) and, the usual, the owner being incapable of making a smart business decision and driving it further into the ground. But the latter is par for the course, so I’m over it. As with a lot of things that usually annoy me here.

This is probably going to be my last few months in Daqing, maybe even in China. I’m trying to accentuate the positive! That month in London was almost necessary, but now I want to be fair and talk about the things I will truly miss about China. So, let’s flip the script! Here are 7 things I can do in China that I can’t do in America.

1. Have a massive meal for 2 out on the cheap.

I don’t think about Mexican food anymore, mostly as a defense mechanism. As much as I miss burritos , a New York pizza and craft beer, those things will never compete with China’s price point. I defy you to find a place where you can get a huge portion of fresh, authentic kung pao chicken, garlic broccoli, tomato egg soup, two rice, egg-fried bread and two cold beers for under 10 bucks. I can eat like a king every day in China and still meet my budget goals at the end of the month.

2. Learn a new language (by immersion).

Yeah, had to add a little caveat there. I could definitely learn a new language in America, but you have to factor in a few things there: the cost of a class and/or software, a practical reason for learning it in the first place and, naturally, laziness. In a city of 3 million - with maybe 80 of those being expats - I don’t really have a choice. Pretty much no one in Daqing speaks English, so if you want to do even the most mundane errands, you best start practicing your tones. I could be much further than I am with my Mandarin skills after 2.5 years, but I can do pretty much everything I need to do barring more complicated scenarios like going to the doctor or transferring money back home. I just don’t think I would have the motivation or time to learn this much Chinese in America. Here, I have to do it and I can learn it by doing.

3. Get around conveniently and affordably without a car.

One of my biggest sticking points against America is the lack of convenient transportation. Sure, bigger cities might have a good public bus system or even a metro, but Greensboro has neither. You’re basically forced to own a car, which even after you pay it off, continues to be expensive due to gas, insurance and maintenance. China, a so-called developing country, has already solved this problem although their cities are on a whole other level in that they are completely massive. Even my small city of 3 million (yes, that’s small) has a reliable bus system and a 10-minute taxi will set you back an entire buck. For travel outside of Daqing there is the cheap regional bus and several rail options. We’ve just been linked up to China’s network of high-speed rail (the bullet train) so you don’t have to traverse China in a smelly hard-sleeper carriage if that’s not your thing.

4. Drink where I want, when I want.

I enjoy a nice craft beer, take pleasure in a smoky scotch and, from time to time, will lower myself and get bombed on baijiu. I can do all of this in America (maybe not baijiu) but there are still outdated stigmas and useless laws attached to imbibing that do not exist in China. Many conservative states still have blue laws which prohibit the buying of alcohol around Sunday under the rationale that you should be in church instead of drinking. We still have dry counties in some places for Christ's sake. China has zero fucks to give. You can buy whenever the hell you want, and I haven’t even been carded once. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a few kids buy baijiu for their granddads before…so that’s not great, but hey! Freedom! Also, don’t be afraid to take your beer for a walk. No pesky open container laws here! Take your beer to the shop downstairs, for a walk in the park, a ride in a taxi, anywhere really.

5. Save money easily and still live the good life.

As the income gap between the poor and rich grows in America, more people than ever are struggling to make ends meet. Rent, utilities, healthcare, food - it all adds up. I could very well be in that same position. I don’t make a lot here, comparatively, but with my rent, utilities and healthcare paid for, I stand to put away most of my paycheck if I so choose. If I try, I can live off about $230 every month relatively comfortably. Even if I up that to $315 monthly, that allows for several nights out, occasional comfort items like Doritos, and I’m still putting a lot away.

6. Experience several cultures in one place. 

China is just as much a melting pot as America is. Although the official party line is Han supremacy, there are 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, including Tibetans, Mongolians, Koreans, Manchu, Turkic, Miao, Hui and several others. The CPC has tried its best to sanitize, whitewash and sometimes destroy these cultures in order to create a more manufactured, harmonized history of China. However, there’s still a lot to see. Our adventure in Qinghai province gave us an amazing, beautiful introduction to Tibetan culture, perhaps even a better taste than Lhasa itself would have given. For a completely different world, Xinjiang province is basically Afghanistan meets China. You can experience the desert, amazing food and a completely different way of life without leaving China. Try to ignore the tanks and police toting machine guns.

7. Get to know one of the most misunderstood countries in the world.

Whenever China is mentioned in American media, it’s rarely for positive reasons. It could be the pollution, a food scare or a ridiculous, outdated military parade that ends up filling the media’s weekly block of “look at this weird shit happening in China”. If you ask a random person on the street what they think about China, it’s likely to be a reflection of what the media has been putting in their heads over the years. Words like “commie” and “police state” get thrown around. No one ever stops to think about the people that live here, how they’re going about their days and trying the best they can to look after their families like a normal person anywhere else in the world. Also, China is communist in name only. It’s probably the most capitalistic place I’ve ever visited. People are in love with money and are quick to spend it on a new, shiny status symbol.

A Challenge and a Privilege

Those are the best two words I can come up with to describe my time in China. It has definitely not been easy as you can tell from several of my previous posts. Every day life can be an adventure, but at a certain point it devolves into an exercise in frustration because some people are not up for an adventure every minute of every day when they’re trying to get shit done. Sometimes I just want life to be easy.

But if you can survive the white noise of background chaos that is the baseline in China, then life can be great here. I will miss it and these years will be some that I look back on the most later in life.

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