China isn’t really what I expected. It’s better, in many ways, and also worse. In other words, it’s unique. It’s its own strange place which really doesn’t match well with the western view. For example, where’s the communism? Aside from the portraits of Mao, I can’t see anything “Red.” All I see is McDonalds, KFC, Hilton hotels… Everyone is trying desperately to sell something, to make some money.

It’s dirtier than a porno theatre, too. The streets are quite literally coated in shit. Some places are too dirty for cockroaches, and others are too swamped by roaches for dirt to settle. Trash piles threaten not only an array of diseases, but the possibility of collapsing and crushing a passer-by. The skies are an orangey-yellow colour, thick with the exhaust fumes from millions of overcrowded buses and motorcycles driven by small children and even smaller old men and women.

But I love this place. It’s so fantastically chaotic I find myself charmed daily, even by the most awful smells and sights. The complete and utter lack of organisation is so alien to me that I can’t help but feel like a child. Nothing makes sense. Nobody has any idea what’s going on. Someone has turned out the lights. I’m in Narnia, or more likely, Jurassic Park.

What grabbed me most about this place upon arrival was not the filth or the chaos. I was taken by how nothing met, broke or even came near any of my expectations. Chinese food tastes nothing like “Chinese food.” The people don’t act like Chinese people are supposed to act. They don’t like the things they’re supposed to like, sound like they’re supposed to sound, or look like they’re supposed to look. From even my most rudimentary of understandings, I can tell that if I travelled twenty miles from my present location it would be like visiting a foreign country.

Trying to describe China seems a little futile. It’s home to an infinity of possibilities and stories, and only a wild internet meme-inspired string of generalizations could offer hope of understanding.

So here’s a serious anthropological study of contemporary China, entitled Stuff Chinese People Like:


He's big in China








Whereas the rest of Asia is smitten with baseball, Chinese people are experiencing an intense period of adoration for the NBA. Every newspaper and magazine carries the latest headlines, games are regularly broadcast on state TV, basketball courts are found on every corner, and half the people here seem to have English names like LeBron and Kobe. The favourite team is, of course, the Houston Rockets, and there’s not much time between Yao Ming’s TV appearances.


Still friendlier than Korea...







There aren’t many of us here. Outside Shanghai and Beijing you can go weeks without seeing a foreign face. When we leave our apartments we are followed, photographed and asked for autographs. We are assisted in every aspect of our life by 1.3 billion eager followers, desperate to learn English, to teach Chinese, to get a close-up of the freaks with the big noses, and, quite possibly, to find themselves a new family member. In Hefei, at least, it seems every woman is hunting for a foreign husband…

Korean Stuff

Nobody Dislikes the Wonder Girls






Everywhere I go, from Erika Rae’s house, to buses in Taiwan, and the beaches of Malaysia, there is K-pop. It is going global and we are all doomed. A gift from fifty million Koreans to some 1.3 billion Chinese. Every cell phone in this country seems loaded with the Wonder Girls’ dubious back catalogue and there’s nobody – I repeat, nobody – who can’t do the dance.

Korean dramas are popular here, too. Every TV left on seems tuned into some badly-made, poorly-acted, ill-representation of life in Korea.

Pooping Outside

This is way more common than you could ever imagine...

The streets of Hefei smell like shit. Not just a bad smell, but rather actual human faeces. People crap on the roads and they crap in the bushes. When they crap at home they put the used toilet paper in a bin, then chuck it on the street, where it festers in the heat outside some restaurant, and people quite happily stand over these piles and eat their food. Children’s clothes are split around the crotch so the mother need only spread the baby’s legs for him to let rip on the pavement.

Note to potential visitors: Never wear sandals in China.


Capitalism Comes to China







KFC makes more money in China than it does in the United States. Think about that for minute… The Colonel’s fried chicken has stumbled into the world’s most populous country and made the tremendous realization that these people all like fried chicken. Americans may be able to out-eat a Chinese person, but they can’t out-eat all of them.

(Interestingly, KFC is the least greasy food around… It seems that in Hefei one cannot acquire an item of food that hasn’t been double deep fried.)

Lady Gaga

Oh my Lady Gaga!







She might not fit in with a western view of life under a Communist regime, but that’s where the west has it all wrong. China is in love with American culture, and Lady Gaga is currently riding that wave of enthusiasm.

Her songs are probably the only ones to occasionally push the Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation off Chinese cell phones, and although her videos don’t make it on TV, her face is as well known as Rain. But no K-pop star has this claim to fame: Lady Gaga has already entered the Chinese lexicon. “Oh my Lady Gaga!” is the latest, greatest exclamation of fake surprise since “Sweet Jesus… and Mary Chain!”

Dial-up Internet

They also love censorship...








Remember the 1990s? Remember waiting a whole minute to get online, then having to remember to sign off? Remember the bills you received at the end of the months that made you regret wasting all that time on whatever it was that was popular before Facebook?

China remembers, because it’s the 1990s here. Dial-up rules supreme. Facebook does not yet exist. Twitter is pure sci-fi.

Warm Beer

Mmmm... Warm





The only quirk of Chinese culture I’ve found truly repulsive is this: One cannot order a cold beer. According to Chinese superstition (and there are almost as many of these as there are people) it is very unhealthy to consume a cold beverage. This is doubly true for pregnant woman, and for women on their periods. Consequently, beer and other drinks are served luke warm, and asking for ice or prior refrigerator will earn you a look of utter bafflement.


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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

75 responses to “Lady Gaga and Other Stuff Chinese People Like”

  1. D.R. Haney says:

    Back when I first returned to the US from Serbia, I tried to talk an American friend into setting up a business with me in Belgrade. He said he couldn’t because he was probably going to move to China, making it sound as if his employer had pressing plans to send him there.

    His employer did not. That’s the weird thing: my friend was talking about moving to China before anyone, as far as I know, had put the notion before him. This was in 2002, and a few years later, he did in fact move to China, which he loved. And I mean he loved it, though I could never get him to clarify exactly what it was he loved about it so much.

    I don’t know that this post has clarified my friend’s love of China, but it has given me a much better idea of life there than my friend ever did.

    Oh, and I recently came across a piece in a mainstream American publication–I forget the one–about the rising popularity of Wonder Girls here in the States. Good God. And I heard it first from David Wills, though it was my impression that you were skeptical about K-Pop going international.

    • Yeah, I could’ve attempted to write a long, rambling essay about my love for China, but honestly it is hard to explain. My girlfriend visited and I think her impression was that it’s no different from Korea. Indeed, there are many similarities: it stinks, the cities are ugly, people can be unfriendly, it’s chaotic, gross, etc etc etc. But honestly I’m happier than I’ve been in years, and I think it comes down to a few subtle differences that are hard to put across. For one, while people in China stare like in Korea, they don’t do it out of hatred. People here seem curious about foreigners, rather than contemptuous. They are friendly and helpful.

      Of course, I’ve heard much to the contrary. Maybe I’m in the one foreigner-friendly city in China. But there you go.

      And you’re right – I was skeptical about K-pop going international. To an extent. What I really said – I think – was that it would never take America by storm in the same way that it took Korea. China, Japan and Taiwan are very different. They may hate each other, but they do have a certain shared taste in music and film.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        My friend told me that strangers in China would sometimes come up and hug him. That’s one of the few things he did tell me. So you’re probably right in feeling there’s a difference between China and Korea, though I say that never have been to either country, of course.

        Meanwhile, as America’s place in the world continues to slide — a slide that I think could well prove permanent — it makes sense that Asia, which is on the rise, will provide more of the world’s entertainment, including, I suppose, Wonder Girls.

        • Hmm… Not yet been on the receiving end of a hug, but I get a lot of “welcome!”s and waves. My friend here is a 6’6 black guy and he gets women propositioning him every five minutes. They love foreigners. In Korea they’d run away from him.

          You’re probably right about the slide. But having said that, creativity isn’t encouraged here in the least. Korean music is just a cheap imitation of western music. Their TV is the same. Their movies are great… but derivative. In China they don’t seem too keen on anything other than reproductions, either, although I may be wrong. Japan is definitely ahead of the game in that respect – they had their whole liberal movement “back in the day” and seem to be producing weird, innovative stuff. I often ask my students about their favourite movies and music and everything originates in Japan.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Yeah, I prefer the stuff that comes out of Japan, or what I’ve seen of it. But I’ll leave it to you to handle the “cheap imitation of Western music” stuff, since I don’t much feel like tangling with one of your trolls. I might have some of my own to deal with.

          Also, what you say about your friend lends itself to jokes of the Full Metal Jacket kind, which I’ll again squelch, though I suppose I haven’t completely squelched it, since I mentioned the movie.

        • Oh yeah, the trolls… I’m not playing with them this time. No freedom of speech on this comment thread. I tried to stay away from anything potentially troll-bating (sic) in this post.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          So you think. Meanwhile, wasn’t it a comment on the board that led to the last (inexhaustible) troll? And then there was a certain Kerouac biographer whose name arose in comments…

        • I think it was actually a sentence from the essay that pissed him off. I didn’t bother explaining myself because he was so infuriating, but it was actually a sentence I have used dozens of times over the past few years.

          Oh yeah, and the Kerouac biographer… I’ve actually seen his name on many comment boards. If you mention him, he’ll comment on your story. I guess the guy has a bit too much time on his hands and spends his days Googling himself.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          I don’t think he necessarily has to have time on his hands to spend his days Googling himself. A large enough ego will make the time.

          Also, I seem to recall scanning your last post to find the offensive line and finally locating it somewhere on the message board. But I could of course be wrong. Anyway, this is clearly someone who had it in for you already — you’ve probably already “met” him — and was looking for a reason — any reason — to pounce.

          I’m seeing a lot more troll activity at TNB of late. I guess the site has grown up, if maturity — that is, popularity — in the Internet age can be measured by hate, as I think may be the case.

        • You’re probably right. That guy was definitely upset with me beyond any sort of reason. I suppose he may just have been looking for attention, but more likely he had found me elsewhere. I no longer hide links between my blogs and websites. After Korea I got tired of all that nonsense.

          I think that popularity certainly brings hatred. The problem is that popularity is easy to lose, and spammers/trolls etc have been honing their skills since the early days. They can bring a site to its knees pretty quickly. Maturity would suggest that the site pushes beyond these threats and becomes secure in itself. Hopefully that will happen, but I reckon the next year will see us deal with a lot more of these losers.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    Great piece, David. Makes convoluted sense that one cannot get Chinese food in China (the same goes for pizza in Italy)…and I am pleased that both basketball and Lady Gaga are alive and well in the Far East.

    I imagine you’ll find the female: male ratio to your liking as well.

    • Since being here I’ve not noticed any real difference in the number of males and females. What is striking, though, is that when you ask anyone about their siblings… they have none. No one has any brothers or sisters, and if they do then they keep them well hidden.

      The food here is good but incredibly greasy. It tastes and looks nothing like so-called Chinese food in America, Europe or even Korea. It differs greatly from region to region, or so I’m told. I suppose maybe Hong Kong or Beijing have more western-friendly menus. The stuff from Sichuan is phenomenally spicy. I thought I could handle spicy food, but not here…

  3. The split pants crack me up! Don’t wear sandals in China — duly noted. My cousin spent some time in China and has been, ever since, trying to duplicate the food here in the states (because Chinese Food indeed is not Chinese Food, she agrees). She sent me a picture once of a chicken foot floating in her Chinese soup. Perhaps this is where she began her stateside attempts at duplication. Not sure.

    • Interesting fact: KFC isn’t the only imported chicken in China. The old Chinese favourite, chicken feet (which is also super-popular in Korea), is usually imported from the United States. Apparently the American (and also European) distaste for chicken feet means that we would otherwise discard this part of the body. It’s thus cheaper to import them.

      The split pants are awful… My buddy pointed out to me the other day an interesting fact: Every single person in China has, at some stage, shat in public. Yeah… Not crapping in their pants, but literally defecating on the street.

      Recently, I visited a zoo with my students. There was also a party of maybe 50-60 young kids with their school. I watched as they walked to a none-too-secluded part of the picnic area and bent over. Then two of the teachers shouted “Go!” and all the kids just shat at once. It was the biggest, most wonderfully co-ordinated public defecation ever.

      Chicken soup here is really good. It’s pure grease with bits of random meat floating in it. Sounds gross, but it works.

  4. Irene Zion says:


    We spent a month in China several years ago.
    It was an out-of-body experience, learning to be in such close proximity to so very, very many people.
    We never came across a single Chinese person who was not friendly in all the time we were there.
    The only negative thing I can say is that the air is not only yellow, but actually contains particulate matter.
    We thought Victor had pneumonia from his terrible cough, but when we came home, the cough was gone in one week. I had never before had first-hand experience with pollution this severe. This was years ago, so perhaps it is not as bad now as it was then.

    • According to a textbook I read recently, 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, and 200,000 people here die every year from the pollution. Not sure where they get these figures, but it’s easy to believe.

      It’s not the car fumes that get me, though. I live on the edge of town, in an area of relatively pure air. It’s when I leave my university campus and have to walk through the streets of shit… the smell is overwhelming. You can actually taste it… And yet people stand over these piles and slushes of faeces and they eat their food there. It doesn’t bother them. They use human shit as fertiliser, too, on their vegetables. They clean their kitchens with the same cloth they use in the bathrooms. Hygiene here is very, very different.

  5. I like your descriptions of the chaos and loving a place where nobody has any idea what’s going on. Makes me want to go. Sadly, KFC is big in the land of brasseries too and Lady Gaga is on everyone’s cell phone. Though, “Oh my Lady Gaga!” hasn’t entered the French lexicon yet, which I’m kind of tempted to slip into conversation because I’d like to hear how that sounds on a foreign tongue. Then again, best to leave that alone.

    Also, I think Yao Ming ate those women immediately after that picture was taken.

    • I’ve always liked chaos. I don’t know why.

      I didn’t mention it but my first ever visit to KFC was in China. My first ever Wal*Mart visits, too. I’ve been to Wal*Marts in Beijing and Hefei, but never in America. They’re great over here. Just like American Wal*Marts but with more fish heads, duck heads, chicken heads, pig heads, frogs, crabs and other crap that you’d need an instruction manual to figure out how to eat.

      You should definitely introduce “Oh my Lady Gaga!” to France. You never know how these things will take off. I once met a French girl in a bar and taught her Scots swear words. I’ve never been more turned-on than hearing her say “Fannybaws.”

  6. Irene Zion says:


    What does “Fannybaws” mean?

  7. I’ve been in numerous places where I’ve wondered why everyone wasn’t instantly dead of cholera, but your descriptions sound far beyond those experiences, David. The human body is an amazing vessel, eh? I’ve also seen those bizarre ass-less chaps the children wear, but a coordinated public dump? That’s surreal. As usual, great stuff that makes me wish I was in a train station somewhere.

    • Apparently there are a lot of diseases here that you can get from simply eating food. The meat is left out for the flies and the vegetables grown in gardens fertilized with shit. I’m also surprised the cholera isn’t more of a problem.

      A coordinated public dump… Sounds too ridiculous to be true. I wanted to take a photo but I thought that might be a bit weird. Given that – in spite of the 50 shitting kids – everyone in the zoo was staring at me, I thought it best not to point a camera in that direction.

  8. Reno J. Romero says:

    mr wills:

    this was so damn great. i love chinese culture and know that if past lives are real than i was one of those old fucks with a long beard walking up a smoky mountain. wait! too cliche and SO american? probably. i suck big ones.

    chinese and b-ball? i dunno about this one. their claim to fame sucks. i remember when that fucker came into the league everyone and their granny was talking his ass up. nope. it was a bust. and now how many minutes does he put in per game? like 4? he needs to go back home and manage a KFC. pass him a note will, ya?

    i believe you wrote about the shitting a bit back. but i think it was game of some sort. a foul game that had me rolling…shit. for some sick reason i find this amusing. probably because i
    i’m not there.

    okay, sir, thanks for the great one-liners. and remember when all else fails: duck.

    • Chinese culture is something about which I’m ignorant, but learning. I knew nothing before coming here, and maybe China isn’t the best place to learn… One of my students was teaching me about Chinese poetry yesterday, a lesson I really appreciated. Apparently they’re in love with the moon. I’d glad to have learned this fact.

      I know precisely nothing about basketball. There are eight courts within a five second walk from my front door, and yet I haven’t played once. I don’t know the rules and I only know the name LeBron James because when I went to Cleveland, people kept shouting “You like like the kinda nigger that loves LeBron! Fuck you!” Harsh. I had to go home and Google him to find out what they were talking about.

      If I see Yao Ming – and he’s hard to miss – I’ll tell him you said “hi”.

      I’ve written about shit needles and toilets for TNB. The toilet one included my first trip to China about two years ago. That was Beijing – westernised, civilised China. I’m now out in the wild, where no one has ever seen a sit-down toilet, and where the concept of not pooping in public hasn’t yet taken hold.

      Also, I love duck.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Yep, according to legend, Li Po loved the moon so much he tried to embrace it in the Yang-tze and drowned.

        • I haven’t gotten around to Li Po just yet. I was reading Su Shi’s “Thinking of You”, which I found particularly beautiful:

          When will the moon be clear and bright?
          With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the blue sky
          I don’t know what season it would be
          In the heavens on this night
          I’d like to ride the wind to fly home
          Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions are
          Much too high and cold for me
          Dancing with my moon-lit shadow
          It does not seem like the human world

          The moon rounds the red mansion
          Stoops to silk-pad doors
          Shines upon the sleepless
          Bearing no grudge
          Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?
          People may have sorrow or joy, be near or far apart
          The moon may be dim or bright, wax or wane
          This has been going on since the beginning of time
          May we all be blessed with longevity
          Though far apart, we are still able to
          share the beauty
          of the moon together.

          On the Mid Autumn Moon Festival of the year 1076,
          I drank happily till dawn
          and wrote this in my cups
          while thinking of my brother Ziyou.

        • Oh wait, a quick look at Wikipedia tells me I’m wrong: I actually read some of Ezra Pound’s translations back in my university days. In fact, I believe I passed one of my courses with an essay on “The River Merchant’s Wife” – which I see now was a translation of a Li Po poem.

  9. Flint says:

    That was an interesting read. 🙂 I found it interesting in Qingdao to see a lot of Korean.

    • Thanks for reading, Flint.

      I had lunch with a guy about five minutes ago and he was talking about Korean food in Qingdao. Strange. It really made me miss K-food. It’s been months since I had kimchi, and generally I don’t miss it.

      When I was in Beijing I accidentally found myself in Koreatown, where the locals obligingly referred to me as foreigner and stared like Koreans do. So I might have to give Qingdao a miss, even if I get the kimchi shakes…

  10. Matt says:

    I want to know what’s up with that “Out Of Bounds To Foreigners” sign. What are these special permits? How does one obtain them? Is this something they brief you on in Customs when you first enter the country?

    Enjoyed this greatly, as usual. I just hope this isn’t the start of a trend that sees you forcibly evicted from China somewhere down the line.

    …actually, now that I look at that in print, a book chronicling the adventures of a guy who manages to get himself thrown out of every country in Asia would probably make a great read.

    • I have no idea. I’ve seen a lot of signs (in Beijing) that say “Foreigners welcome!” as though we’re not welcome elsewhere… and in Korea, of course, there are numerous bars and clubs that are strict no-foreigner zones (one must wonder what Koreans would think of being banned as a race from bars and clubs in other countries…).

      But mostly they’re very friendly to foreigners here. I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic. I just thought the picture was amusing.

      I hope I don’t get deported again. I really love China. They’re not big on free speech (understatement of the century?) but hopefully they won’t bother about little posts like this. It would make a good book, though. Deported from Korea, escorted from Japan, executed in China… Well, I guess someone else would have to write the post-execution passages.

      • Matt says:

        Personally, I’m looking forward to the chapter about you getting chased through the streets of Tokyo by sword-wielding cosplay otaku kids.

        • The only time I’ve been in Tokyo was after my plane crashed there. It’s not someplace I’m in any particular rush to return to, but I’m sure that if I do I’ll be chased down the street by crazy sword-wielding kids.

  11. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Please please please keep these coming. Always good to get an authentic take on a distant place, especially if it comes peppered with profound economic wisdom put more wittily than Fareed Zakaria or Paul Krugman could manage:

    “Americans may be able to out-eat a Chinese person, but they can’t out-eat all of them.”

    • The original version of this post was just a collection of one-liners. In the end I went for the more random, obscure things. There’s no point in mentioning that people here can’t drive (that’s not a racial thing, just cultural, I suspect) or that it’s always overcrowded. The key to travel writing (in my opinion) is to write about the random shit no one else wants to touch.

      And yes, I’d make a great economist.

  12. Joe Daly says:


    You have just addressed something that has vexed me for three years. I was walking through an outdoor shopping mall a few years back, and this Asian woman walks her little kid over to some bushes in the middle of the main walkway, pushes him into the branches face first, and drops his trousers. Next thing you know, homeboy is leaking all over the beautifully maintained greenery of the Westfield Shopping Mall in UTC.

    The other shoppers and I stood by in pure horror, while the woman seemed only marginally embarrassed by the display. I never figured it out until now. It’s a cultural thing. And all these years, I’ve been thinking the lady was just a lazy douchebag.

    You are a hellacious force of a travel writer. Keep this stuff coming. Super interesting, great insight, and of course, there’s Lady Gaga…

    • Thanks, Joe. Travel writing is fun…. dangerous, sometimes, but fun. The internet to my house was cut off shortly after this post appeared and I wonder if I’m being silenced… or paranoid.

      That lady might have just been a lazy douchebag. You never know. But if she was Chinese (or Korean) then it might well be a cultural thing. In Korea there are a lot of people who get embarrassed when they see stuff like that, but in China it’s absolutely 100% acceptable. I’m surprised they take that abroad with them… Disturbing.

  13. Becky Palapala says:

    NOoooooooooo….not warm beer.


    Even in Europe they do that.

    Is America the only sane place on earth? And what kind of a world has it become that I find myself asking that?


    • Gloria says:

      What if America is the only sane place on earth?

      Also, Guiness is designed and crafted to be served at room temperature, on nitro. Any establishment that serves it ice cold on draft is doing it wrong and is making the souls of a million dead Irishmen writhe in hell.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        If an Irishman, even a dead one, can’t appreciate contrariness, what hope is there for any of us?

        As a person of (partly) Irish descent, I reserve my right to flip my forefathers the bird and drink my Guinness any way I please.

        Sláinte chugat to you, crusty old Irish bones.

        *raises chilled glass*

        • Gloria says:

          Not that I was implying that all Irish souls are in hell…

          I’m sure your Irish forefathers appreciate your independence and gutsiness.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I have heard that in heaven, there is no beer…

        • Being a European, born and raised, I am offended by America’s assumption that we all drink warm beer like some sort of cavemen. We drink our beer cold, thank you very much. Even Guinness is served cold. I admit, it’s one of the few beers that actually tastes alright when it reaches room temperature, but it’s best cold.

        • Becky says:

          I didn’t say ALL Europeans drink warm beer.

          But for totally unrelated reasons, you ARE all cavemen.

          Do you even have KFC? Psssshhh…

        • Gloria says:

          No way man – ALL Europeans drink warm beer.

          This is what I know – I worked at a place here in Portland and the owner was an insane person about how Guiness should be served – made me take a class on it and everything. Not being a Guiness drinker, I can’t say one way or the other whether it tastes better warm or cold.

          When I was in England, I enjoyed several tall, frosty pints of Woodpecker Cider one night (after which, I enjoyed an hour of room spinning and then a long next day of headache – it’s not normal alcohol content over there!) So I can attest that at least one pub in England (in Hitchin, Hertfordshire) serves, at the very least, the hard cider ice cold.

          Nonetheless – there is a huge debate amongst beer snobs about the proper way to serve a Guiness.

        • Guinness pouring is definitely an art. It’s tough to pour a perfect pint, but I think that it should always be served cold. In the UK we have two kinds of Guinness on tap in most pubs: Guinness Original and Guinness Extra Cold. The extra cold variety stays cold longer but both seem to be served at about the same temperature. Maybe the original is served a little warmer, but certainly nowhere near room temperature.

        • @Becky – Sadly, we do have KFC in the UK. I never visited one until I was in China, though.

  14. Dana says:

    I love your pieces David. You’re a much better travel writer than say Elizabeth Gilbert.


  15. angela says:

    awesome, david! i experienced most of the same things you did when i was in China 12 years ago. now here is my totally self-indulgent, overly long comment.

    basketball. at first i didn’t understand why people kept asking me if i had ever been to an NBA game and how much tickets cost. then i saw the huge group of students playing basketball on a ratty court every single afternoon.

    this was back in the late ’90s so Michael Jordan was still a huge favorite. i had several students who had picked “Michael” as their English name, and once in the Forbidden City, i saw a pack of school kids trail some African men, chanting, “Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” the whole time.

    foreigners. with my Chinese face, i only confused people, but when my friends visited, they got the star treatment. one friend who has very curly hair was asked to be photographed a billion times.

    korean stuff. i think there was less of an obsession with Korean stuff when i was there, but it seems Chinese people from all over the world love Korean dramas and music. my parents are a prime example.

    pooping outside. yeah, just: gross. that wad of shit on the sidewalk? not dog poop – baby poop. and the filth and chaos? TOTES. i was sick every single month i was there. as for the chaos, you gotta just learn to roll with it or else go crazy.

    KFC. i didn’t see much KFC while i was there, but there was a Chinese chain rip-off. the food was nothing like KFC but their logo looked almost the same. i also thought the McDonald’s food was less greasy than in the US. and back then, McD’s was the only place we could get coffee.

    lady gaga. Titanic was the obsession when i was there. everyone knew how to sing that damned Celine Dion song.

    warm beer. and warm water and warm soda. my cousin never refrigerated her soda so that of course it was always flat. we visited her relatives once, and her old auntie went as far as to WARM the soda further by placing bottles directly on her radiator. blech!

    • I’ve been waiting for your comment on this piece more than anyone’s, Angela. I really hoped you’d like it.

      There were so many things here I wanted to include but didn’t, and one of them was the apparent love for Canadian stuff – Celine Dion being one of them. Honestly, though, it’s something I’ve been told about whereas the other things are stuff I’d seen with my own eyes.

      Maybe you’ll know more about this: What’s the deal with Chinese birthday cards? I walked into a bar once and found a legal document on the table. I started going around, asking people if anyone had lost this really important-looking document, and someone eventually told me – it’s a birthday card. I think it’s some sort of joke, like you scare a friend with a fake arrest warrant or something…

      • angela says:

        i enjoyed your piece very much! i kept laughing in familiarity with a lot that you mentioned, even more than i wrote in my comment.

        i’d be surprised if the general population in China knew the difference between the US and Canada. i experienced a general lumping together of anything Western. religions for instance. the people i knew would pantomime the sign of the cross to mean Christianity, Catholicism, AND Judaism. unfortunately, my Mandarin wasn’t advanced enough to explain the difference.

        haha, the cards! i just remember the bad and random English on them. i think i still have a whole stack of Christmas cards from my students.

        oh and the friendliness. i was in Beijing so i didn’t experience it as much. my cousin, who grew up in the south, said that Beijingers were particularly unfriendly. i did notice a difference, at least in customer service, between Beijing and places like Dalian and Tianjin. then again, at least Beijingers weren’t snotty like the people I encountered in Hong Kong – not that ALL Hong Kongers are snotty, but whereas in Beijing, if you ask someone for help, they will at least try to help you even if they can’t get past a Chinese accent that’s not “putong hua.” on a Hong Kong street, we must have said, “Excuse me!” about 10 times before someone finally helped us, and almost everyone speaks English there so that wasn’t an excuse.

        i can’t wait to read more about your Chinese adventures!

        • In Korea no one knew the difference between Scotland and England, America and Canada. But here – and I’m only able to judge this on students and teachers and random taxi drivers and people who speak Englishee on the street – everyone seems surprisingly worldly. Which is odd because I’ve seen Chinese TV and according to that, there’s no such thing as a world outside China. In fact, I’ve met three Chinese people who actually lived in Scotland, and maybe a few dozen who know the words to Celine Dion’s entire backcatalogue.

          I went to Beijing back in 2008/09 and found the people extremely unfriendly. I read online that Hefei people were the most unfriendly… but I could count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who weren’t nice to me. Everyone waves and shouts “welcome!” and tries to teach me Chinese. It’s odd. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere this friendly. It makes the germs, cockroaches and shit seem tolerable. More than tolerable, in fact.

          I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to write here. The Chinese government doesn’t go in for the whole free speech thing, so I’d better watch myself. I don’t mind posting something like this, but if I have any really weird adventures, or any observations that are less than positive, then I might have to save it until I leave!

  16. Simon Smithson says:

    But why would you shit on the street? Even cats bury their own waste! Even cats!

    It’s just not something I can wrap my head around. My future as a cultural ambassador is doomed.

  17. Erika Rae says:

    Oh man – This city you’re in is SO different than my experience of Hong Kong. And that pic of the little kid with the split pants! Ha! Freaking love it. Great list. Fantastic list. Now stay the hell away from towering trash piles. Oof.

    • I’ve only ever been in Hong Kong airport, but I’ve heard that over the the people actually are very rude to the “mainlanders.” They don’t like people from places like Hefei coming in and throwing their trash everywhere… Apparently. I’ve never seen that first hand.

      I’ll try and keep away from those trash piles but really they’re so big that you’re always in danger. If you’re on a bus and you pass one, there’s a good chance it’ll fall and crush the vehicle.

  18. Erika Rae says:

    Oh – I want to add something pertaining to your observation of Twitter and FB. I noticed at some point last year that LinkedIn did not have a group for the University of Hong Kong. So, being the idiot that I am, I started one. Now guess who gets nailed daily by a barrage of requests to join? (Smacking forehead repeatedly.)

    • Oooh, that’s what you get for trying to be nice. I’ve always refused to join LinkdIn. I’m already spending 23 hrs a day (or thereabouts) on social networks and whatnot.

      Actually, when I was in Korea I briefly owned a bookstore. I started a FB page and then when I sold the store stupid Facebook wouldn’t let me delete the page! So now I get e-mails (not as many as you, clearly) asking to join this damn page.

  19. M.J. Fievre says:

    Thank you, David. I feel I’ve been there! Thanks for the vivid descriptions and the interesting details.
    Oh, my Lady Gaga!? LOL.

  20. Carmen says:

    I have to say that I really LOVED this article! I’m an adventurous person and love to travel and I love it when people like you are real when they come to the places they have been.

    In other words, you don’t put out any stereo types but you do not sugar coat it either. And I have to be honest, when it comes to Asian travel, some folks do try to sugar coat it.

    With that being said though, the only part that really baffled me was the shitting in the streets part! I’ll make sure to stay away from Heifei. Really, I’m big on personal hygiene and the such and something like that I just WOULD NOT be able to deal with.

    Don’t wear sandals? Can it get any worse? 😛

    But all in great article and I will be following you 🙂

    P.S.-Back to shitting in the streets 😛
    That really is crazy though, I mean like, wasn’t it at one point in history that the Chinese were known for hygiene? Just like the Japanese were known for it at one point and time?

    I guess it shouldn’t surprise me though :/
    At one point in America and in England histories taking a bath was seen as something that made you sick and people didn’t do it because of it 😛

    • Thanks, Carmen. I liked your comment. You’re absolutely right – people do tend to sugar coat the truth when it comes to travel writing. I think that a lot of people see it as a form of promotion – as though you can only say good things to sell a place. I prefer to be honest. Sometimes that means acting like a jerk or stating the obvious, but that’s just my style.

      Good point on the history thing – being filthy used to be a part of the culture in the West. I guess hygiene varies over time and throughout the various parts of the world.

      I’m not really up on my Japanese history. I don’t recall being told about them shitting in the streets, though, but you might be right. The streets certainly seemed clean to me when I visited!

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