As an American who grew up in Miami, I thought I had seen everything. After all, this is the place where alligators cross the road and people chew off each other’s faces. I’d had the opportunity to travel to other countries too from Mexico to Jamaica. I even went to Moscow right before the ruble fell out. And none of those experiences prepared me for my life in China.
It was early in 2010 when I fled Miami after a nasty breakup coupled with the inability to find decent-paying work. I ran off to Seoul in South Korea after falling in love with it when I visited my brother just a few months prior in December 2009. While there, I met a handsome Chinese man who swept me off my feet, got me pregnant and married me all within the space of 9 months. Not wanting to be apart due to visa issues, we decided to move to his hometown of Qingdao in China.
I know. I never heard of the place either. Until my husband said it was the place where Tsingtao Beer was born. Aha! Well, that was the good news. We packed our things and moved to China. I wish I could say I had the same robust love for it that I did for Seoul (a place I loved so much I named my second daughter after it) but I can’t. It wasn’t a totally unfortunate experience though. And being back in the states now, there are some things I miss about China. Even my meddling in-laws.
One of the first things that was hard for me to handle about China was the sheer volume of people. It’s not like Miami is a sparsely populated city. Ditto for Seoul. But Qingdao, even though it is considered a small city by Chinese standards (with over 9 million people in 2014), felt very crowded to me.
Another thing that sent my culture shock into overload was the language. My husband is a bit of an impatient teacher, and that coupled with the fact that Mandarin doesn’t have an alphabet really drove me batty. I felt Korean had been much easier to learn. While I never became an expert Korean speaker, I was able to read which made living there much easier.
In Qingdao, there was no subway at the time I was living there (they’ve since opened up a few lines, my expat friends who still live there have reported). So my only options for getting around were trying to understand the buses and bus stops or taking a taxi and praying I didn’t get ripped off because I was foreign. What made it all even more difficult when I first arrived was that I was 4 months pregnant with our first daughter and by the time I would make it down to the bus stop at the end of our street, I’d have to use the bathroom again. And please, please, please do not even get me started on the state of bathrooms in China. They were enough to bring me to tears.
I eventually learned how to take the bus to the downtown Starbucks though, probably because it was at the last stop for the 318 bus. From there, I’d trudge along the streets and hide my face because I was tired of people pointing at me because I was a white woman, something that sparked their curiosity in such a homogeneous land.
For me, living in China was always difficult and frustrating. It didn’t help that the expats in Qingdao were the most unfriendly group of people I’d ever met, save for a handful of them. But once I made a few friends and learned my way around the city, it became less tortuous for me. I found myself liking things a bit more here and there.
One of those things was the Qingdao Beer Museum and the surrounding Beer Street. In summer, my husband and I would hop in a taxi and head over there for a seafood lunch and lots of tasty beer. It was one of the only things I liked about summer in Qingdao. Being from Miami, you think the cold temperatures would be one of my biggest complaints, but it was the aversion to using air conditioner even on the hottest days of summer that threatened to push me over the edge while living here.
Still, I could easily forgive it with a stroll by the sea where the mountains jut out and into the water in the most picturesque of ways and the vendors sell bottles of Tsingtao Beer and spicy grilled squid on a stick. Just thinking about it makes me homesick for Qingdao. Because it was my home for 5 years, love it or hate it. And in the end, I found I really didn’t hate it, though I was ready to come home. Despite it all, Qingdao found a way to tuck itself right into my heart.