My first experience with living abroad was in Putian, a ‘small’ city of 3 million people on the coast of China. At the time, I had not expected this to be the first step in a new approach to my life, but nonetheless there I was. With an intention to move to a new country again soon, I took some time to look back on this first outing. And while I cannot speak for other cities in China, as the country is vast and radiantly diverse, I will share a couple memorable items of my time out East.
1. Calm Beneath the Bustle
Looking out my hotel window, sipping a strange (read: sordid) brown liquor, I was bombarded with the sounds of car horns and other vague (yet nonetheless pervasive) city noises. It was 10 o’clock. In the goddamn evening. The thought of What have I gotten myself into? crossed my mind for what must have already been the tenth time.
Every shop seemed to be 24 hours. The lights never went down. The place didn’t even need street lamps. An hour passed and the noise remained. I resigned myself to what I expected to be a year of sleeplessness.
Bustle. This one word could describe each of the Chinese cities I’ve been to. Noise: constant. Movement: continuous. Light: shining. I am not surprised by the rapid rise of China as a world power in recent decades. These people could move.
Because of all this stimulus catching my attention, it took some time to notice the hidden stillness around me in Putian. The security guard with his feet kicked up on his desk. Shop owners with arms slung over chair backs, chatting with regular customers. A mother airing out an apartment with a child clinging to her leg.
The more I looked, the more I saw these instances of the serene, of normal human life going on behind the backdrop of the energy propelling the constant modernization of the city. The main streets may have been a stage of vehicular auditory warfare, but turn off it into any alley and I was faced with the essence of the town.
So I would order a plate and a beer and get it on with the cook. Broken conversation though it was. Immerse myself into the deep breaths that were being taken.
2. Stuffing my Face
Remember that mention of 24-hour shops being everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Four in the morning and craving some bone broth soup with boiled veggies, no problem. Grilled squid on a stick spiced up real nice. Anytime.
The reality of why these shops are open at all hours is not lost on me. Most often, a single family owns the venue and various members of that family work around the clock so they won’t miss out on a couple potential late-night customers. For them, and for many in the town, money was something that did not come easily.
But god could they cook.
In the US our perspective of what constitutes Chinese food is far from what you actually get. I don’t mean this like some foodie might say how you have never tasted real pasta until you’ve been to Italy, or whatever. I mean that our scope is an aperture the size of a pea.
The variety of foods available is almost overwhelming. Countless snacks and dishes, while using the same meats and vegetables, are presented in myriad ways. Sure, a lot of staples such as garlic, spicy stuff, and cooking oils will vein their way through much of the cuisine. Nothing wrong with that. And the array of different noodles alone is impressive.
I won’t lie, I did eat at a McDonald’s more than a handful of times, but only because they made a mean spicy chicken sandwich and a fellow needs fries in his life.
But, nothing gets my saliva rolling around my mouth life the thought of late-night street barbeque, or a bowl of steaming ma la tang.
3. Adventures in Getting From A to B
The Wheels on the Bus Go…
I’ll be honest, I dread the public transportation system in Moscow. I loved it in Putian. Where I am now, the atmosphere of the Moscow metro and pubtrans in general is, well, depressing. Efficient and gets everyone to where they are going on time 99.99% of the time, but the attitudes of your fellow riders can be oppressive.
While I do not know how it is in larger Chinese cities, in Putian, at least, the public transport was a method of getting around that I looked forward to. Even in the sweltering humidity of summer, waiting for a bus that was several minutes behind schedule, it was all good.
The janky thing rolls up to the stop. Doors squeak open. Toss a single yuan note in the till and hold on to something. There was a unique driving style among the inhabitants of this city, and it applied to the bus drivers as well.
No bus lanes. Gear boxes that should have been replaced long ago. And routes to complete. Add ‘em up and you understand that there are handrails for a reason. Everyone is together on the ride, and in something so lively, it is hard to have a placid, beaten attitude. An attitude public transport too often nurtures.
Best part. One time I was standing next to an elderly woman who was a smidge too small to reach the straps hanging from above (read: the things that keep one from flying headfirst into the dashboard/windshield). Being a rather practical woman, she grabbed the nearest available purchase (my arm) and held on tight. Never have I so devotedly kept my balance before or since.
Getting Cozy on Putian Motorcycles
Riding around roads anywhere without a helmet on is not a good idea, but it sure is a quick way to get around. I would ride anything if it got me across town for less than $2. So it was with the unofficial motorcycle taxis of Putian. Guys who picked up an old bike and rode around town giving rides in exchange for a few yuan.
Heavy traffic and got a meeting or whatever to get to? Moto-taxi has you covered, weaves right through those cars and doesn’t bother with following the ‘suggestions’ of traffic lights. Lost in the suburbs and have no clue where a bus stop might be or where you are in general? Moto-taxi will roll by every couple minutes. Gets you home. No GPS needed.
Convenience aside, riding around these motorbike taxis has a special appeal to it. That is, it is more intimate. You are straddling a stranger. Conversation is bound to happen, and generally in a way that is entertaining to both parties. If it’s raining, you get in even closer under his makeshift umbrella bike attachment. Or, in the absence of said umbrella attachment, under his rain poncho made for two (or more), a thing that is essentially a tarp with a hole to poke your head out of. And you both are smiling the whole way.
4. And the Wallet Rejoiced
Were I in the US, my salary would have afforded me a single room flat (or apartment as I remember it should be called) and maybe a glass of beer during happy hour. In Putian I never budgeted, ate out every day, and still had enough left over to chip away at the impressive nightmare of debt that looms over my head.
Though by no means was it exactly a life of indulgence, of shopping sprees or fancy wines, it was comfortable. I didn’t buy a single new article of clothing, only went to a couple films, and ate Western maybe once a month. But, I was in China. If I wanted matinees and pizza with actual cheese, I would have stayed in California. There were places to explore and things to do, all of them affordable.
Bus ride across town: about 15¢. Temple visits: free. Full meal with rice, veggies, meat, and a beer: $3. Even the high-speed bullet trains won’t run you too much.
If you want the comforts of home, things might get pricy. If you want to experience the country and all it has to offer because goddamn it I came here for a reason, China lets you do so without leaving you bankrupt. Something I can’t say the same for England, for example.
5. The People, Of Course
I am not an extrovert. I do not actively seek socializing with people. I enjoy isolation and a good book. Keep that in mind.
But also, for me travel is not about seeing a sweaty tourist attraction, or visiting famous locales/monuments. Though these things can bring me a degree of pleasure, the real experience is in the atmosphere created by those around you. Those for whom the place is home.
Buildings are buildings. Nature is nature. Both can be breath-taking and inspire sublime feelings within myself. But what makes a place are the people in it.
Putian offered an environment unlike anything I had been in before, with individuals who followed paradigms often far removed from my own. But we met and experienced one another, shared our differences and (hopefully) had a broadening impact on each other’s lives and mindset.
I won’t romanticize this and say I made some lifelong friends, because I didn’t and never intended to. But, I did share a year with a town that I will never forget, a year filled with encounters between myself and both the town’s inhabitants and fellow nomads. I do not still communicate with anyone whom I met during that time. But, I do remember the encounters, whether as brief as a shared laugh with a barkeep or routine meetings with acquaintances, and will appreciate the smalls dips we took into the lives of each other.
Maybe that was a bit sentimental after all, but the cold hard fact remains that despite it being an, at times, trying experience, I thoroughly enjoyed living in Putian, for these five reasons above, and for many other less broad facets that didn’t make it on this list.