Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

spartan wanderer

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

It’s that time again! I’m writing from London, where I’m taking my always well-deserved semi-annual break from China. I love the place, but I think even if I decided to stay, I would always need this break halfway through the year. And London’s just been swell for it. Here are 8 things I’ve been enjoying that i won’t be able to do without great difficulty once I get back to the Tier 3 industrial wasteland of Daqing.

1) I can be completely ordinary. 

With over 300 languages spoken and 37% of the population born outside of the UK, London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. You can utter any tongue, be any skin color, wear any religious or native dress and not get a second look on the street. Everyone’s different, no one’s special and you can go about your personal business unmolested.

As I’ve mentioned at great length before, this ain’t the case in good ole Daqing. Not me personally, but if you shout “foreigner”, point or stare at someone, or laugh with your friends behind someone’s back just because they are different in this city, you might be limping home with less teeth than you started the day with. It’s nice to just be another cog in the machine of humanity for once.

2) I can eat and drink whatever I want. 

Even in China’s biggest cities, one has to go in search of such and such Bar Street to find a proper Western-style bar and good international grub. Even when you find the street, you have to sift through all of the half-assed copies based on the guy or gal with the original idea and passion to start such a place. In London, this mythical street is…just about every street in sight.

Yes, China is a different country with its own (delicious) cuisine, blah blah blah, but I’ve never been anywhere so unreceptive to international cuisine. Of course, we’ve got good Korean and few Japanese places, but then so does my little, inconsequential city in North Carolina.

But the dining out prospects are just the beginning. I can open my fridge here and choose from 3 different types of (non-processed) cheeses and then chose from 3 different types of bread to put it on. It’s nice not being limited to the couple of pitiful international food aisles in New Mart.

3) There's amazing café culture. 

I love a good café. I’m writing in one right now. What qualifies as a good café? Good coffee, sure…but also atmosphere, hustle and bustle, little sandwichy bits to balance out your caffeine high… You can almost literally throw a scone and hit a great café in London.

Upon entering pretty much any peddler of the black crack in London, your senses are assaulted from all sides (in a good way). That robust, earthy smell of freshly roasted beans, the sight of a mouthgasmic menagerie of sandwiches and pastries (all freshly made) and the sights and sounds of engaging conversations all around you - people smiling, gesturing, laughing.

This is a far cry from staring at the stale muffin on your plate at Starbucks as everyone around you uploads their latest selfies - some with you in the background - to WeChat in uncomfortable silence.

4) I'm surrounded by real history. 

Why do the Diaoyu islands belong to China? 5,000 years of history. Why can’t Tibet and Xinjiang be independent (or at least actually autonomous)? 5,000 years of history. Why (insert any baffled questioning of any aspect of Chinese culture here)? Five. Thousand. Years - Stop! Just stop. Why did the Chinese government spend so much time destroying said history? Crickets.

It’s a real shame that even in Beijing, it’s difficult to find historical landmarks that haven’t been completely sanitized by the government. Mao’s famine was a horrible crime, but while his crime against history via the Cultural Revolution may not be equally reprehensible, it is reprehensible all the same. Much like London’s cafés, there’s history radiating from every corner here. Even if I allow the 5,000 years (it’s more likely around 3600 years) to London’s 2,000 - China is the country that feels sanitized, amnestic and permanently damaged.

5) I'm not being scammed. 

Well, relatively speaking, anyway. There’s an unsettling feeling about watching a local hand over a 10 RMB note to a taxi driver and then being asked to pay 3 times the amount for the same journey. While this doesn’t happen very often in my city, China has left me no shortage of experiences to feel like a walking ATM. Not only are these situations annoying, but I find it insulting that people think I’m that dumb just because I look different.

6) I'm enjoying peace and quiet. 

I enjoy open windows, fresh air and natural light. Like all good things in China, these come with a price: incessant noise. I’m not talking about the nice sounds we consider part and parcel of the “idyllic cultural experience” like marketeers selling their wares or the local knife sharpener cycling around and shouting his prices. I’m talking about THE FUCKING BEEPING. Stop laying on your fucking horn! It is not improving the situation!

7) Not being killed by the surrounding environment. 

The pollution, the insane traffic, the possibly fake products I’m buying in the shop - all of this is a footnote here. To anyone ready to protest on the traffic point, trust me, London driving, while congested, is less manic than Daqing’s by at least 20 fold. Actually, any place where cars actually stop at pedestrian crossings is safer just on that technicality.

London’s not famous for blue skies per se, but come on. At the time of writing, the Air Quality Index (AQI) for London was 20 to Daqing’s 134. Keeping in mind that Daqing is supposed to have better air quality than most Chinese cities. Fuck, why do I live there?

I will say that I feel safer on the streets of Daqing at night, mostly because they’re completely deserted. Both petty and violent crime seem to be no problem at all in Daqing, but we’ll never know the actual statistics as they’re reliably manipulated by the government.

Getting it Out of My System

Sigh...Seth is bitching and moaning once again and covering it up with the thin veneer of cultural comparison. Indeed! Because I intend to refrain from complaining about China for the next 6 months. It's all part of the holiday, getting it all out from afar. Well, I do plan on a post of baffling Chinese superstitions, so I might complain a bit there as some of them can actually affect my life, especially when it comes to medicine, but for now anyway...I feel cleansed.

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