What’s Great about “Small-Town” China

I started this as a more general post, and then decided to make it more focused on Fuyang. As in most countries, people in big cities are simply different than in smaller towns–and for me, at this point in my life, the small-town life is the way to go.

Just a small reminder that a) here, “small” means 750,000 people; and b) the terms “renminbi” (or RMB), “yuan” and “kuai” all refer to Chinese currency.

A bridge in the local children’s park.

1. The nation saves as a rule–and most in my town are frugal, too.

China’s famous savings rate means that there’s a marked difference between how I see my Western colleagues save versus my Chinese ones. While the school offers free breakfast and lunch, a surprising number of expats elect to bring their lunches, or complain about the food and then spend money on their own. While absolutely “to each his own,” some of those same people complain a lot about money, go on frequent vacations, and talk about how little money they have left before each paycheck.

I should know; I was one of them! Except for the food. I’ve never turned down a free lunch!

I think we’re noting a theme.

The people in my small town don’t care about what brand name you wear or the latest trends of the season, and many households are intergenerational, which leads to its own benefits. While my next-door neighbors do like their Chinese beer (at a whopping 4 or 5 yuan per large bottle), the grandmother cares for the grandkids during the day. They have dinner together, and then the parents leave with the children (giving their neighbor a peaceful night’s rest)–but their childcare costs are nil, and their grocery costs are low, too, since they eat together every night.

I’ve also noticed that while Americans fling money around like it’s paper, perhaps due to the 6.9 yuan-to-1 USD exchange rate, our Chinese colleagues don’t do that. They take public transportation, wear the same (often lovely) clothes repeatedly (as do such frugal luminaries as the Frugalwoods–who also, by the way, hang dry like we do here), and work far longer hours than we Western teachers do (expat privilege is a thing). An extra sense of care and attention to price in general undergirds their behavior. Even in the afternoons, when the kitchen staff put snacks in the teacher’s lounge, some expats will complain about the strangeness of the treats–but the Chinese staff enjoy it.

I don’t mean to imply that the Americans here are grotesque or impolite. Some voices are louder than others, and I’ve noticed that the quietest are often the most content. There are many foreign teachers here who have been here for years and seem happy to enjoy the benefits of our jobs, as I do.

China’s “nouveau rich” have made big headlines for useless expenditures that would put most Americans to shame, and my students are well-off–but in my corner of their world, there’s less of an overt demonstration of wealth and more a delight in saving one’s pennies–or, I should say, their renminbi. A lot of the local activity occurs in parks, where events happen for free–something I witnessed walking along the river before a cold snap this past week.

In addition, as far as the false sense of ease in surrendering yuan: we are paid in the local currency here, so we’d be well-advised to save it, rather than spend it like water. As mentioned before, among my peers (regardless of age), there’s a marked disparity between those who spend top dollar on drinks and five-star hotels, and those who are quietly saving, cooking their own meals at home and planning their vacations carefully–if they take them at all.

(There’s also enough of a range of ages and life experience that I can see some slightly older people who have saved well enjoying the fruits of their labor, even if they’re not technically FI.)

Finally, I should note that I could definitely see historical reasons why one culture might be more concerned with saving than another, based on what it experienced in the twentieth century… but I am no historian, so I’m limiting my remarks to my own experience.

Areas by the river where men congregate to play games; I still hate to take photos of people without their consent, even though it’s common here.

TL; DR: it’s possible to be both frugal and “spendy” here in Fuyang (or by choosing to “escape” its confines frequently), but by paying attention to local habits and emulating those instead of acting like I am here on vacation, I can save a lot, too.

2. There’s a lack of self-consciousness, and it’s hard to offend.

What people complain most about when visiting China is also one of its assets when you live here. As a teacher, and a generally respectful person, I often avoid taking photos of people in public without their consent; it’s also considered offensive to do this in Kuwait, where I lived last year, so I am doubly used to avoiding it. But here, it’s normal. While in Thailand–a country I love; don’t get me wrong!–you must avoid pointing at things with your foot, for example. I’ve heard similar things about Japan and South Korea–NONE of which will keep me from visiting them, mind you!–but since China doesn’t have as many of those kinds of customs, things are a little bit easier here day-to-day.

I should admit that some of this arises from the nature of my life here. I’ll do a future post on this idea, but we eat from typical cafeteria-style buffets, and as mentioned before, I eat mostly with foreigners in a separate room–for better or worse.

Within Chinese homes and out to dinner, there are lovely customs such as waiting to eat after the elder at the table begins, sharing food rather than individuals ordering their own dishes, and the host offering to pay/paying discreetly for guests. Yet the only thing I encounter often is the need to avoid leaving my chopsticks in the upright position, which is an unfortunate signifier of death. You can read about more Chinese food-related customs here.

On their sides, not sticking up.

As someone raised in a world where a lot of care and attention was paid to putting our best “foot forward,” and who also lived in a Middle Eastern country for a year wherein going out with your shoulders exposed was controversial, I find it refreshing. Men may occasionally spit on the sidewalk, and children may stare at my unfamiliar “laowai” face, but at least people don’t give me the side eye if I go downstairs in sweat pants to retrieve a package.

Of course, there is a whole lot going on under the surface that shall remain there. I am a foreigner in another culture, and it would be naive of me to assume that the lack of an overt physical reaction to something I do means that a person doesn’t care. Saving face is a thing. Yet people have been inordinately kind–moreso than in Beijing. Even when the problem is my own, such as when I recently locked myself out of my apartment, the staff downstairs and the locksmith himself were incredibly kind to someone who barely speaks their language.

In addition, if something in my new home fascinates me, I can take a picture of it without violating a cultural norm. I still don’t take many pictures of people, because it does seem like an invasion of privacy, but I don’t worry about offending them by pointing a camera in their general direction. I know that many times, they’ve taken photos of me as an object of interest, and it’s just normal here to take pictures of things in general.

Such as the local fishing boats.

I’m not arguing against personal privacy or courtesy, but as someone from a very image-conscious culture, it’s nice to be somewhere that I can “let down my hair” and just live. Whether it’s ultimately the small town, Chinese culture, or just growing older, it’s a good place to be–especially when you’re going through a values shift. I once prioritized salon appointments and personal appearance, but now, it matters more to me to pay down debt. I don’t intend to look like a mess, but I will definitely forego professional hair dye jobs and expertly manicured nails. There are just other things that matter more to me now.

Like this snow-blown view, and curling up in a blanket created and mailed to me by my sisters in the U.S.

Messy, happy me.

3. Local customs you don’t get in big cities.

While fireworks were banned in China’s major cities several years ago, the smaller ones can still enjoy them freely. I’ve become accustomed to random outbursts of “awesome,” as I think of it, while watching TV at night. My 22nd-floor apartment offers a pretty great view of the proceedings, too:

My students, who are mostly from this city or Hangzhou, say that it’s customary to set off fireworks for a couple’s nuptials, or even as a kind of secular blessing on a family’s new home. It’s lovely.

Another perk involves… you guessed it! Food! There are several foods more unique to the region, as far as my Chinese colleagues have explained it to me. For today, I’ll just mention the one I have a picture of:

油面筋, AKA “yóu miàn jīn” (pronounced kind of like “yo, mee-ehn jean”), is a wrapper of soybean paste filled with delicious meat and veggies. That’s all I know about its ingredients, but it’s savory and awesome.

Another dish that I will picture may very well exist elsewhere, but I didn’t experience it in Beijing. At the very least, our more temperate climate here and closer proximity to Shanghai and the ocean make seafood fresher. I’ll leave it at that:

One of my favorite free meals yet.

Usually, noodles are more prevalent up north, and rice in the southern half of the country. Regardless, I LOVE these, and I’m glad they’re offered periodically at work. It’s a garlicky noodle wrapped around some tasty sort of clam, and from the first slurp (they are hard to eat neatly), I was in love.

That’s about all! Hopefully, I haven’t made you too hungry–and at least it’s still the weekend for most of the world! If so, take a minute today to enjoy some local cuisine or natural nearby scenery. Because, while I enjoy my current situation, I’ve found something to love everywhere I’ve lived…and I bet you can, too.

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