As I step outside, my throat fills with phlegm. The thick smog pierces my lungs and lingers at eye level. At first I thought all this spitting was culturally customary. Now I realize it’s a national necessity. Nothing outside a one-block radius is crisp. The buildings in the distance are only a faint shadow, their lines blurred by the effluvium. It’s dirty here. Heaping stacks of trash line the streets and children play in piles of dirt down back alleyways. There are people spitting, pissing and puking in almost every direction. A small child defecates on the sidewalk as I walk past.
This is not the China you’ve seen photos of. This is not the China your 12-day whirlwind tour will traverse you through. This is the China that only few others, besides the Chinese, ever experience. This is China, living like a local.
There are no pointed monasteries or pagodas. There are only skyscrapers and run down buildings, the shops are nothing more than a strip of one-car garages with the door open. Some shops sell alcohol and cigarettes, others sell raw meat and fish, which has likely been sitting in the open air for hours. The Chinese must have stomachs of steel.
The restaurant downstairs serves dumplings and fried rice. Luckily for us, they’ve managed to figure out our butchered rendition of the Mandarin dialect. Most of the venues we frequent are dirty and dingy, often found down back alleyways or in what some might call the ghetto. These ghettos are even more “ghetto” than the ghetto you’re probably imagining. Rarely are they furnished or even heated. Small tables are surrounded by even smaller stools. Somehow, this hole-in-the-wall fits 20 people.
Every meal is eaten with chopsticks and breakfast is the same price as a beer: 50 cents; dinner usually costs a dollar. Clean water doesn’t exist outside of bottles and many meals are some form of street food, sold by vendors with carts who await your business on the sidewalk.
Next to the street vendors, the other shops burn their trash. Huge piles of rubbish are scattered down almost every road and most of them are on fire. I’m guessing this part of China doesn’t have an efficient way to dispose of trash, so they just burn it on the streets instead. The smoke is arresting as it enters your diaphragm. The fumes coat the food as it passes by the cart.
People smoke cigarettes anywhere and everywhere, including restaurants, barbershops and schools. A taxi driver offers us a smoke as we climb in the back seat. A 15 minute cab ride costs two and a half dollars. Sometimes the easiest way to get somewhere is in a tuk-tuk or on the back of a scooter.
Traffic laws simply don’t exist here. Cars drive the wrong way down streets and cut off police officers who make the same illegal turns. Traffic lights are merely a suggestion. Even crossing the street is like playing a real life game of Frogger. I walk right in front of police cars and ignore the crossing guards entirely. Nobody even cares.
The most remarkable thing about living like a local in China, is that I love it. This is China’s raison d’être. This is where its charm lies. The center of the city is beautiful, the architecture is stunning and traditional, and it is kept remarkably clean. This is what the tourists see. Outside of the city, however, life is drastically different.
I never thought I could grow to enjoy a place like this. It’s dirty, bizarre and totally, downright crazy. And somehow, I’m entirely in love with it.