Cultural, Qingdao Blogs

Niamh’s China Chronicles – Living in Qingdao as a Foreigner

Learning About Qingdao

Ever wondered what it is like to live in China as a foreigner? Niamh spent two months in Qingdao on a Generation UK funded programme last year. Here is her story.

Qingdao (formerly known as Tsingtao) is a beautiful city located on the North Eastern coast of China, close to North and South Korea. As the largest city in the Shandong province, it has a population of about 9 million people. That makes it slightly larger than London.

Qingdao is known to many as the home of Tsingtao Beer, which is served on draft, in a bottle or a bag, and is the most consumed beer in Asia. If drinking from a bag, you can use a straw or cut the corner, pour in to your mouth and hope for the best!

Niamh in Qingdao

The German Imperial government planned and built the first streets and institutions of the city that can still be seen today. They also brought beer with them, forming the world-famous Tsingtao Brewery. The buildings that still stand from this time period are built in an area known as ‚Old Town‘. This is a well-visited area for travellers due to the interesting European style buildings which differ a lot from the skyscrapers which can be found in every Chinese city.

Every night between 8:00pm and 9:00pm, the buildings on the seafront will light up together and images can be displayed moving across many buildings. It is absolutely beautiful!

First Impressions

On my first day in Qingdao, I was trying to find a shop that looked like it sold food. In my many attempts of sticking my head through the blinds of many boutiques, pharmacies and clothing stores, I finally found a convenience store and bought a very questionable breakfast.

It quickly became evident that I was the only non-Chinese person out walking the streets that day. People would stop, do double takes and take pictures of me.

Later while I was walking along the seafront beside May Fourth Square, I asked a couple if they knew where I could get food, and they invited me back to their apartment to dine with them. And that was the moment I was adopted by them.

They quickly referred to me as their daughter, and I referred to them as “Chinese mother and Chinese father”. I had a small photo shoot where we posed like a family, dog included.

Niamh with her Chinese Mother

Family Life in China

The family invited me back to their apartment another time to watch the Qingdao skylights. They also wanted me to meet their friends for a lavish fresh seafood dinner including sea cucumber, sea urchin, clams and oysters.

One of the cultural things I learned very quickly was that the word for ‘cheers’ in China is ‘Gānbēi’. This meant that everyone involved in the Gānbēi must down their drink. There was, however, the complicating factor of respect.

If two people Gānbēi, the height at which you touch glasses represents the level of respect. A boss in China will usually Gānbēi higher than his colleagues as his colleagues respect him more.

The night of the lavish dinner, there was a Gānbēi every five minutes

Niamh with her Chinese Family

Day-to-Day Life in China

Before travelling to China, I presumed many people could speak English, but, not so much. The language barrier has been interesting when trying to communicate outside of routine transactions and dining situations.

Some of the cultural differences in China were also interesting to learn, particularly the laws of the road, or lack of.

Drivers in Qingdao drive with one hand constantly on the horn it seems, waiting patiently to use it. Many people ride mopeds as it is easy to weave through the traffic. You will often see pedestrians running across zebra crossings even when the green man is showing, as cars rarely stop for them.

Taxis in China are extremely cheap and easy to flag down. A 45-minute journey only cost 70RMB (£8). Yet in the UK, this same journey could cost £50 plus.

I have also seen interesting ‘Chinglish’ signs everywhere – where there are often questionable translations of signs from Chinese to English. And one of the biggest cultural shocks here was having people take pictures of me because I am a foreigner. What way do I deal with this? Take pictures back. Everyone gets a good laugh!

Another big difference is the number of street cleaners picking up litter and tidying the place up. The cleaners are usually elderly and the local council pay them to do this. In Chinese media, street cleaners are often known as “angels of the road” (马路天使).

Currently in China, many Chinese retirees have very small pensions and many farmers and rural workers have no pensions at all or lack the means to pay into them. Older people resort to picking up litter for very little money.

Getting a Hair-Cut

Even getting a hair cut doesn’t cost much. I decided to get my hair cut at a local salon and my boss supplied his discount card. The price should have been 38RMB but was 19RMB – just over £2. The people working at the hairdressers all wore military pilot uniforms with stars on their shoulder patches and walkie-talkies with earpieces.

The entire process lasted 80 minutes just for a trim. The actual haircut itself took only 10 minutes. The rest of the process consists of shampooing (while sitting in your chair), a head massage, conditioning (while at the basin), a neck massage, arm and hand massage. But there is a lot more smacking involved than I thought.

To hear more about Niamh’s internship, look out for the next excerpt.