Being a foreigner in China, exploring Xi’an and glorious food

Look! A foreigner!

As I was drinking coffee with my newly found young Chinese friends and answering their numerous questions about life in the West, it struck me how privileged I am to have grown up in a country where possibilities are so many if only one chooses to pursue them.

My two new friends are Emily and Emma, English names that I chose for them as they did not have one yet. It seems to be normal that Chinese people are expected to change their names to make it easier for us to remember. I don’t think Estonians, British or any others would be very willing to accommodate their names to fit their visitors’ language.

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Emma and Emily at the village themed restaurant they took me to.

I met them at my yoga class one day. One of them started talking to me and asked for my phone number. About an hour after the yoga class she sent me a message saying: ‘I really like you. Can I be your friend please? I really want to talk to foreigner people.’ Sounds desperate, but quite a normal procedure here. So they took me out for a nice meal and asked me to teach them English. I really did not feel like being a teacher on my days off, so I agreed to go for a coffee and just talk to them so they could practice their English. Both of these girls are 20 years old, grew up in Xi’an and are now going to university in Xi’an. They left Xi’an when they were 6 to go to Beijing and that’s about it. It’s amazing how curious they were and how little knowledge of life outside China they have. They are also quite naïve. Some examples of questions they asked me:

If I go to Europe, do I have to learn another language?

Can I see the Eiffel tower in the UK?

Do all houses in your nation have only two floors?

Is it easy to find a good husband in Europe?

Why can little children in USA speak better English than children in China?

What is the UN? Does it have Chinese people? Who are they?

Both girls were immensely impressed that I had learned how to use the metro in Xi’an in 6 months that I’ve been here. They look at me in awe when I speak Chinese and at one point said: ‘I admire all people who can speak English.’ I constantly felt like I was being worshipped by these two girls. It was extremely uncomfortable, but I kind of tried to understand them at the same time. As David very cleverly put it: ‘China is using a different Internet to the rest of the world. We cannot possibly expect them to get access to the information we have access to, which leaves them devoid of many things going on in the rest of the world.’

This may sound harsh, but it must be really tough being part of a nation of 1.3 billion. It takes a lot of effort and connections to stand out and get anywhere. There are so many extremely talented and intelligent people here, but often what is expected of them and their mindset is as limiting as the lack of different opportunities. Girls and women are still seen as secondary citizens. A girl’s main task in a traditional city like Xi’an is to find a good husband and give birth to a son, then take care of her parents. My friend Emily told me that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was 10 years old, because she is a girl and she was not the best student at school. Welcome to 21st century Xi’an.

While the desire to get out of China is huge and people are curious, they are still very constrained by their mindset and thinking. For instance, most Chinese people hate the Japanese ‘because they killed many Chinese people in the past.’ If you ask when exactly and why then answer is ‘I don’t know, but the Japanese are bad people.’ Do you like Japanese food, I ask. The answer is always yes. Japanese cartoons, films, music, cars, electronics, clothes, beauty products are all very popular in China. The girls’ English teacher had also told them that Japanese people’s English pronunciation is worse than the Chinese. I had to burst that bubble unfortunately.

The opinion about foreigners is also already made up before meeting any foreigners. I taught the word ‘revealing’ in my class last week and asked students to make sentences. One of the students made this: ‘Foreign girls like to wear very revealing clothes.’ Whilst this may be true, it is not even slightly comparable to nudity I see every day in China. The girls here are very over sexualised and wear very little. But when foreign girls do it, it seems to be worse. This made me very mad, but I did manage to keep myself from telling the student off.

Now these girls are fixated with the idea of moving to Estonia. They like Northern European men, because they are tall, have light skin and hair and they don’t have any issues with having girl babies.

They’ve asked me if it’s easy for them to get an Estonian passport, if there are other Chinese people in Estonia, if they can find a job in Estonia on the internet and so on. The only problem they stated was that they have no money or know nobody who works for the government or in other words is a member of the Party.

I will meet them again and hope to open up their world view a little. I hope they will realise that even if they can’t leave China there is more to life than finding a good husband (it sure is important, but not everything), losing weight and looking as white as possible.

Neither David nor I can figure Chinese people out even after more than six months of living here. The culture, the people, the manners and traditions are all so foreign to us.

Exploring Xi’an

We went to visit the mosque in Xi’an today. It is one of the oldest mosques in China, built in AD742. It has very little resemblance to any other mosque I’ve seen. It’s very Chinese in its design and architecture, with curved roofs, calligraphy in both Chinese and Arabic, and courtyard buildings. Located in the bustling Muslim quarter, the mosque is a really nice and peaceful break from all the vendors, tourists and hooting.

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The prayer hall can fit 1000 people and is facing Mecca in the West. We were not allowed in the prayer hall, but it looked very impressive. As it’s Ramadan currently, most people were just studying the Koran and trying to save their energy in this heat. The women were preparing food for their evening feast at 8 o’clock.

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A man having a rest and reading in the prayer hall.

I love going to the Muslim quarter. It is so different from the rest of Xi’an. So much of its original culture and way of life has been preserved despite the changes and growing tourism. Whilst a lot of it is geared towards tourists, you can still see men playing cards and drinking tea from old metal teapots; women gossiping whilst making noodles; little children playing games; old men smoking their pipes and watching the world go by. You can hear the call to prayer if you’re there at the right time, you can see people preparing halva and shelling walnuts in their little shops, restaurant owners sprucing up the furnace in the barrel ovens and so on. Life continues as normal and that is nice to see. There is no crazy obsession with extreme cleanliness, Western brands or trying to look different. What you see is what you get and what you get is great.

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Ladies preparing noodles.

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A little boy running around the street, which is his playground.

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A lady in her shop watching a soap opera to pass time.

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A lady selling some obscure pieces of meat and constantly waving flies off them. She was not happy when I took her photo.

The touristy side of the Muslim quarter has its charms too. You can find some genuine articles and good art. Today I found some masks and shadow puppets for sale, but did not buy any yet. The initial price was 800 RMB, which after a few words in Arabic and a mention of Muslim friends quickly came down to 300 RMB. There are wonderful carvings, metalworks and handicraft made by grandmas and grandpas and factories of China.

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There are also ridiculous Mao memorabilia, horrible fakes and just completely random objects for sale, but these are all part of the charm of the place, I think. One expects things like these from China and Xi’an is laden with them.

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Bin Laden, Hello Kitty, Booby Girl and Xi’an playing cards. They also had Saddam Hussein ones.

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Some Chairman Mao watches. Mao waves as the second hand ticks.

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We found one of these fish spa places, where the fish eat the dead skin on your feet. It felt like pins and needles, but was really nice and made our feet nice and smooth. The owner of the place was very friendly and also showed off one of his relatives’ baby, who was an extremely cute little girl.

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David is practising playing with babies.

We also went ice-skating today. The ice rink is in a shopping mall in town centre. We were completely put to shame by little Chinese kids, who were twirling, jumping and doing all sorts of crazy tricks. The skates they provided were not that great, so we only skated for about 45 minutes, but I was so so so happy to see ice again.

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Zimbabweans are not that great on ice skates….yet!

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Lots of little girls started following us.

Compulsory food section

I feel like I should tell you more about food, simply because I love it. In season currently are: walnuts, peaches, watermelon, tomatoes and these things that I have only ever seen used in flower arrangements in other countries, but you can eat the seeds.

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Shelling walnuts in one of the many shops that sells them.

I have discovered Chinese ham, which tastes and smells exactly like Estonian smoked ham (maasink – megahää). My other new favourite ingredients are spicy Chinese sausage (like chorizo) and rice noodles (not like the ones you get in the UK) and these little mushrooms that get stuck in your teeth but are very delicious. I have also discovered the joys of fermented bean paste, which adds a wonderful flavour to every dish.

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粉条(fěntiáo) – rice noodles; 腊肠 (làcháng) – spicy sausage and 金菇 (jīn gu) – mushrooms.

I ate some fish head soup the other day, which was nice.

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Fish head in my bowl. I didn’t eat the head, but the soup was tasty.

I also went to buy sausage from one of the street vendors near our house, but when I got home it didn’t look like sausage. I thought I had bought tail, but as it turned out later it was duck neck – a local snack. I did not try any, because it had bones and veins and all sorts of weird things poking out of it, but apparently it’s really nice, so I will try it next time.

Ja lõpuks on ka kali Hiinasse jõudnud:
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Maitse on peaaegu õige, ainult natuke mahedam ja nimi on päris õige ka.

This is a very popular drink in Estonia and Latvia made by fermenting rye bread. Kvass is actually its Latvian name (they may have 6 toes, but they can make a mean Kvass). It’s been launched recently in Xi’an and I am very happy about it.

This is one of the many desserts made from rice and dried fruit found in the Muslim quarter. It’s dipped in a syrup that tastes like rose water, but I am not sure if it is that and eaten on a stick. It is mostly rice and sugar, but has lots of dates in it, too.

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We also found a Japanese restaurant, where they serve Estonian potato salad. They don’t call it that in the menu, but they certainly could. I guess when you miss something, you find it in the strangest of places.

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Hot sake, sushi and Estonian potato salad.

I think I like China more now. Not because I’ve found lots of Estonian-esque food, but because I can now communicate with people (to an extent), I know where to get things and how to get to places and I have learned to (sometimes) overlook the dirt, spitting, noise and staring. There are nice things to be appreciated like the Muslim quarter, people dancing and singing in the streets for fun and the new experiences we get every day. I feel like I’ve also had some amazing breakthrough with my Chinese as I find it a lot easier to converse with people and remember new things.

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People ballroom dancing on our way home from town.

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A little band and a group of people singing songs that sounded very patriotic.

It was our 6 month China anniversary last week and next Tuesday will be our 2nd wedding anniversary. It feels like yesterday when we were milking a fake goat and drinking 40 litres of vodka, but it’s been a very adventurous 2 years – just like we wished for!

Plan for the wedding anniversary is dinner at a newly opened Brazilian barbeque restaurant. It they have Guarana, it will be more than heavenly.

I hope you are all enjoying summer in the UK and Estonia and winter in Zimbabwe.

PS: I have not had a back ache since the scraping and cupping. Maybe it does work after all.

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2 thoughts on “Being a foreigner in China, exploring Xi’an and glorious food

  1. The flower arranging edible seeds are lotus nelumbo – what do they taste like? Also what is “Estonian potato salad” and how is it different from “british/colonial potato salad”? Loving the blog keep it up. Susie B x

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  2. Hi Susie! Lotus makes a lot of sense. I didn’t try the seeds, but lotus root is very tasty, something between a potato and carrot I’d say. Estonian potato salad has more ingredients – peas, gherkins, meat and whatever else you feel like, cut into tiny pieces and loaded with sour cream. It’s amazing!

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