I miss living in China.
Four years ago, after living in China for only a few months, I never would have imagined I would miss living there. The first six months were hard, almost regretting the move, wishing I was either in Shanghai where I could have worked, or rather, in a different country. The transition was difficult. Everything was different, the language was a** hard, people weren’t nice, I hated being pushed, being constantly honked at, hearing loud bodily functions like spitting and hacking, seeing people pee on the streets, the insanely high pollution levels, I could go on and on. But at the end of our two years, I somehow grew into my ‘love/hate’ relationship with living there and leave on the side more of love than hate. Because I left when I was still liking China (that may have changed if we stayed a few more months), I feel myself constantly looking fondly back at my time there. I still never use the word ‘pleasant’ to describe China.
Things I miss about Living in Hangzhou, China
The beautiful parks
There are countless beautiful parks spread around West Lake. Parks that allow you to easily get lost in time and place, full of inspiring scenes and plants and beauty that is almost magical. I know my description here can’t do them justice. One of the closest parks to our apartment in Hangzhou was the botanical gardens. It was huge! I could spend hours running/exploring/photographing. With each visit, I found new attractions, new paths, new scenery. Whenever I wasn’t feeling great, tired of looking out the gray window, I would come here and something about it would let me escape whatever it was bothering me, and immediately be uplifting. It changed dramatically during the time of year. Fall had the chrysanthemum festival, late fall was full of turning colors, spring included blooms of all kinds. Another one of my favorite and most visited parks was Lotus in the Breeze. During the early morning, it was full of retirees doing their morning exercises. Some were just walking, some were in large groups stretching, and others were practicing Tai Chi. It was inspiring seeing their active lifestyles, and I remember some of these retirees being some of the most friendly locals. I had some very basic (because my Chinese wasn’t very good) but very pleasant and charming conversations. During the day the park became full of light and also full of people. Even when it was full of people, it was easy to find paths that weren’t crowded. In the early evening, it became magical, with the light streaming through bamboo trees. Mike and I enjoyed many beers during this time at our favorite place to drink beer in Hangzhou, Mr. Beer, smack dab in the midst of the park. In the evening it became another one of my favorite running locations. The paths were lit but empty, and I could easily get lost in the stillness of the night within (mostly) nature. It became more about being and experiencing where I was than it was about running (I ended up walking a lot :)). There are way more parks than I mention here.
Being able to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere even though you’re in the middle of a city of 8 million people
OK, nowhere might be an exaggeration, but it’s easy to find ‘relatively’ empty spaces. Many of the tourist areas of Hangzhou are extremely crowded, and you feel like you’re somewhere with millions of other people, however, it’s not hard to venture off the path and only find handfuls of other people. Some of these areas are the most beautiful. Also, as soon as you get into the mountains, the crowds drop off. And the mountains are IN the city of Hangzhou. We as humans tend to follow others, so when we see a crowd walking somewhere, we think that place is worth going. This isn’t always true in China. Sometimes places are just extremely confusing, and the better place worth visiting is just around the other corner. Except for food: follow the crowds to food, they know where to find the good stuff! Ignore Yelp and follow the locals.
The food, and the ceremony of food
What?!? Did I really just say that??? OK, I didn’t always like the local food. I enjoyed food more when we traveled and were able to experience the different cuisines in each region. However, there were some good local chains that were consistently good and cheap. Chains such as Grandmas and Green tea. It’s impossible to find any authentic Chinese food in Germany, so I find myself missing the food more than I thought I would. One of our favorite restaurants in Hangzhou was also one of my favorite restaurants in recent memory (not just good for Chinese food). It wasn’t healthy, but I loved every meal I had there. Besides the actual food, I miss the style of eating. Food is one of the centers of Chinese culture. Eating together can be a very lively event. Dishes are shared, food is discussed. I miss that. I also have to mention the availability of so many varieties of fruit! I loved trying new fruits, and being able to regularly eat dragon fruit, papayas, etc, for cheap. I developed new favorites to include loquats, loganberries, and fresh lychee. I can’t find any of those in Germany.
The tea fields
Hangzhou has some of the most famous and expensive tea fields in China. Not only are they beautiful, they provide a great place to get lost and wonder. In April when the leaves are being harvested, it’s fun to watch and interact with the field workers picking the tea. It’s a great place to learn about tea, specifically green tea. There are not many places in the world that offer this in such a beautiful setting, inside a major city.
Never being bored
This can be claimed anywhere in China. China is just so different from Western cultures, everything becomes a learning experience. Once you get past the frustrations of it, you’ll realize that you’ve probably never been bored since you’ve entered China. From walking the streets seeing all the scooters carrying loads five times the size of the scooter to include live animals, to waiting for a delayed flight watching families yell at each other, life is never boring. Bring your camera. There are no pleasantries, but there is entertainment.
This was not something that I thought I would miss until realizing in Germany where we look and act very similar, that being different can be so freeing. You look different, so no one expects you to speak the language or behave the same. When you do speak the local language, people become so excited and hand out compliments left and right! Even my very broken basic Chinese got many undeserved compliments. You also don’t have to ‘fit in’. There is no pressure to be the same, act the same way, so you can easily be who you want to be and act how you want.
I can’t say enough good things about this Chinese app. It’s a social app almost like Facebook or Instagram, but not at all like either. Whenever we barely had cell service, Wechat still worked. When planning a group event, it was so easy to create a group and then delete it once the event was over. It’s structured in a way you can’t miss a group message. I know since we’ve left, it’s easy to pay for almost everything using the app. Whatsapp, used in Germany (and worldwide), doesn’t even compare.
The active culture
China is extremely active. Gardens with paths and exercise areas for the elderly. When you wander in the early morning you will always find retirees out doing their exercise. Our social activities there centered around being active, with the running club, cross-fit, and the hash house harriers. There was no shortage of locals in these groups. In the evenings, large groups of women would gather and “dance” to music. I find in Germany our social activities center around sitting and eating for hours. That gets boring.
The city’s many secrets
From cafes in parks, caves on mountain paths, and amazing views, Hangzhou offered so many places to escape. I know this is random, but something I miss is Mr. Beer, a new bar that opened shortly after we arrived in Hangzhou, and a 20-minute walk from our apartment. It only had a few beers on tap, but those few beers included the best of Belgian export beers. They had a 1/2 price happy hour, and in a country of expensive export beers, a glass of Leffe only cost $5. Mike and I took almost all our visitors here not just for the beer, but the beautiful surroundings I wrote about in #1. Mike also hosted his promotion party here, and spent a lot of money, so the staff was always nice to us. I don’t know if anyone else liked it as much as we did.
Courtesy to strangers is unusual, but courtesy to friends is beyond comparison. We miss our friends there, and they were always so nice to us in a sincere and intimate way. Strangers can be downright jerks, but friends are quickly made. Ours were so helpful, asked after us, cared about us, and invited us into their lives.
Photographic opportunities everywhere
If mike wrote this list, he would have written about the history of the city (it was the largest city in the world in when Marco Polo made his visit). Instead, I’d like to Bragg about all the photographic opportunities. It really is a beautiful city with so much to photograph!
The former residence of Hu Xueyan ( 胡雪岩)