Look both ways and overtake with extreme caution.
I’m sure it was drilled in to most of us when we were younger: stop at the curb and look both ways before crossing the road. But this reaches a whole new level in China. It doesn’t matter what side of the road you’re on, whether it’s a one way street or even (what should be) a pedestrian footpath – electric bikes, bicycles, tuk-tuks, cars and motorbikes will come at you from every angle. There are no rules, it seems. But once you step off that curb you have to commit and the most effective way is to put your head down and follow the locals. As for overtaking? This is an unexpected danger whilst on foot. Spitting is as prevalent as rumours state, and if you’re not careful you’ll witness it first hand as it hits your shoe or splashes your sleeve. Don’t worry too much though; a few pre-spitting seconds of hawking will give you enough time to escape the red zone. FYI, most people seem to aim to their left.
Take a picture, it will last longer.
..is what you would usually say to someone you catch blatantly staring at you. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t even get two words into the sentence before the deed had been done here in China. When you live in a part of Beijing where not many westerners reside, the locals are gob-smacked when they see one wandering around. It isn’t customary to ask first, or perhaps consider for one second that it’s rude – iPhones, SLR cameras, even tablets will suddenly appear in your personal space. If you’re lucky, you might get the odd ‘sneaky’ photographer who thinks he’s really clever as he holds his phone inconspicuously, giving nothing away apart from the reflection in the subway window. In order to survive this unsolicited behaviour, you need to learn to embrace it. A lot of energy could be spent getting angry about such things, but instead try to see the funny side – when have you ever been made to feel more famous for being your every day self?
Rock that body.
Unless you were forced to study it as a child, it’s unlikely that your Mandarin is any better than mine. To make it more fun, it’s the same for Chinese people and the English language. Suddenly a strange new world turns alien when simple things such as ordering food from a menu becomes a real challenge. The waitress thought you could read Chinese symbols, sorry about that. But never fear, she will continue to talk at you in Chinese until you understand what is on offer.
This is where body language comes in handy. Quack like a duck, flap like a chicken – anything to make yourself understood. If attempts fail dramatically (and they will), be daring and point to something on the menu and hope for the best. Turn it into a game – can you guess which one is the pig’s trotters?
Tip: It’s important to fine-tine your body language for a number of scenarios. Let’s practise: where’s the nearest toilet? Can I have a bag for my shopping? Can you add this 50 yuan to my phone credit?
It soon becomes apparent that normal day tasks become quite the contrary when living in China.
Go bold or go home.
In other words, leave your manners at the door. The good old art of queuing is useless here – expect to feel invisible as you’re pushed and shoved out of the way. The only way to survive such absurdity is to join in, and this might come easier than you think. No longer must you apologise for the slightest knock, nor should you waste time letting people through the door or worry about missing out on a seat. It’s every man for themselves in the big city. But don’t consider it rude, it’s just the way things run in China and it’s not to say everyone is the same. On a busy metro line in Nanjing, a man in his 70’s insisted I take his seat, despite my constant refusal. My Chinese friend translated, telling me that he said “we must treat our foreign friends well”; an unusual event that kept me smiling the rest of the afternoon.