By Daisy Binks

28 January 2016 - 16:18

'My local friends always give me the inside scoop on the best places to eat and how to make the most of the city.'
'My local friends always give me the inside scoop on how to make the most of the city.' Photo ©

timquijano licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Following a year abroad in Australia, Daisy Binks decided she wasn’t done with living abroad and is now working as an English language assistant in Shijiazhuang, China. Read her tips for making the most of the experience.

Eat street food

When in China, you must get acquainted with the street food. It is so popular here because it is really good value - you can buy an entire meal for only 10p.

I live less than a minute's walk away from a street market dedicated to food. It is always packed with students from the local school on their break time. I enjoy wandering up and down and looking at all the weird and wonderful stalls. In Shijiazhuang, a local delicacy here is a donkey meat sandwich, served in a type of flatbread called ‘shao bing’.

One thing that struck me is the surprising popularity for food on a stick – you can almost buy anything on a stick, from bread rolls to whole crabs. If you want to blend in (or at least try), eating food from a stick is a good place to start.

Go to a Chinese mall... alone

If you want an 'authentic' shopping experience in China, then you need to visit a mall, as this is where many of the locals pick up their essentials. Chinese malls are enormous, sprawling indoor markets where almost nobody speaks English and all the signs are in Mandarin, making it very easy (for a foreigner like me) to get lost.

The reason I’d recommend you try visiting a mall alone is so you can interact with Chinese people in a challenging environment and really stretch yourself and your communication skills. A while ago, I needed to buy an adaptor for my laptop, and made the (in hindsight, brave) decision to go and find one alone. It was crowded and overwhelming - imagine five massive floors spilling over with shops and stalls - and I got lost a few times. While in the electronics section a local shopkeeper took pity on me and tried to help after I tentatively approached him. Once he realised my lack of Chinese, he started writing messages down on a newspaper and used his phone to translate everything into English for me. We Googled images of computers and, after some back and forth and some badly drawn pictures, he managed to piece together what I needed and helped me find an adaptor within the electronic jungle.

I told my students what I had done and they were shocked I’d managed in a mall alone without a friend who could translate for me. Afterwards, I felt a real sense of accomplishment, and more confident in my ability to survive in China and take on new challenges.

Dine at home with a Chinese family

If you are going to say yes to any kind of invitation, this is definitely one that should be at the top of your list. As a native speaker of English, you may sometimes be called upon to do a bit of proofreading. This is why I wasn't entirely surprised when a colleague asked me to proofread her friend’s master’s thesis on feminism. As a thank you, I was invited to eat with her family, their friends, and their friends’ families, so around 13 of us in total. Although they were not all related by blood, they were very close and operated like one big family - this is quite common in China. I've felt a real sense of neighbourhood and community here.

What we couldn't share in words (my Chinese was fairly limited), we shared in smiles and nods, and somehow we were able to get to know one another quite well. They taught me about some local customs, such as knocking glasses together as a sign of respect. I've met with them a few times since then and it’s really helped me feel more settled here.

Many Chinese people are interested in practising their English, so this can be quite a good way of making friends. I think the best way to meet and interact with local people is through networks like colleagues at schools or just by chatting to people in the shops or restaurants. In my experience, most people are usually happy to talk and enjoy having a ‘foreign friend’.

'If you want to blend in eating food from a stick is a good place to start.'
'If you want to blend in eating food from a stick is a good place to start.' Photo ©

Daisy Binks.

Make friends with the locals

I've found China to be really welcoming to foreigners, which has been helpful when trying to meet people, both in my city and while travelling. The people in Shijiazhuang have been keen to get to know me, sometimes on the most unexpected occasions. One day, I was on a bus that bumped into a car, so all of the passengers had to get off and find their own way home. As a result, I ended up taking a scenic, and rather chilly, walk with a Chinese woman who was also on the bus. She spoke enough English to show me where I needed to go and we struck up a friendship. My friends and I are also regulars at a local restaurant and I can’t keep track of the number of people who have come to sit and chat with us during our meal. I still keep in touch with some of them.

Oddly enough, connecting with other foreigners can also be a good way to make Chinese friends. An Italian teacher worked at my school for three months before I arrived and she introduced me to a lot of people through her own networks. My local friends always give me the inside scoop on the best places to eat at and how to make the most of the city.

Perfect your numbers and haggle in Mandarin

When I first arrived in China from the UK, I was slightly unsure about haggling, largely because it was an unfamiliar concept, but also because my Mandarin was very limited.

In many countries around the world, haggling is accepted and even expected, and China is no exception. Generally, when you are considering buying something, you should start by suggesting a low price – if the seller doesn't immediately turn away, then you know they are interested.

As well as landing yourself a good bargain, haggling is also a practical way to build your conversational skills and practise your Chinese. Numbers were amongst the first things I learned in Mandarin and I enjoy being able to go out and put what I have learned into practice. My biggest success was when I haggled down the price for a phone case from 150RMB to 25 (from £15 to £2.50).

Find out more about becoming an English language assistant.

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