Living in country that I had associated with just noodles and rice and discovering its distinctive charms
Before I go into the details of my experience as a Pakistani in China, let me tell you that even as I was boarding my first flight to the country I was still having second thoughts. I mean, who even chooses to go to China?
Though I had been awarded a scholarship from the Shanghai University to study medicine and that was something to be happy about, I was not at all keen on living in a country for six years that I had thus far only associated with noodles and rice. I was stepping out of my comfort zone in 2009 -- back then, I still had faith in new year resolutions, so I decided to take the leap.
The idea of travelling to a new place is thrilling and exciting but this time around it was a confusing one - it was a bittersweet feeling as I left all that was familiar and stepped into a land of unique culture and old customs. Hating China has always been a popular hobby of the West and I, too, like most of the people I know, had been relying on the West’s perceptions to shape my own.
It was under this cloud of mixed thoughts that I made my way out of the Shanghai Airport. I couldn’t help but notice the huge billboards plastered with Chinese language, and that’s when I realised the added weight of learning Chinese too.
I spent many sleepless nights beating my brains out trying to learn an alien language that was going to be taught only for a year in the MBBS programme and one that I had to pass to attain a degree. It was a mind bending exercise but now that I think about it, it helped me interact with many interesting people in China, who in contrast to popular opinion and what you read on the internet, were opening up to me more and helping me out as they saw me struggle to learn one of the most difficult languages of the world.
Mandarin Chinese as a language gives great importance to phonetics and proper pronunciation. The intonation can change the emphasis and meaning of a word. I recall a particularly embarrassing and funny experience that I had with a friend during the time we were learning Mandarin. We went to a restaurant and attempted to order Shuji (dumpling) but pronounced it as Shuijiao (go to sleep). Trying to suppress laughter, the waiter asked us if we would like to order any food. It took some time to explain that we were asking for dumplings.
The menus were most interesting. I was fascinated by the relationship that the Chinese had with food. The diversity of ingredients and flavours was captivating. What a pity that all around the world Chinese food is simplified to Chowmein or Fried Rice, when the food in China varies from bland to super spicy, depending on the place. In addition to this, all kinds of ingredients can find their way into Chinese food - put your ethnocentrism away for a while and just consider that anything ranging from pork to lamb testicles can be cooked, served and enjoyed.
An interesting fact that I noticed is that in China, eating alone at a restaurant is frowned upon and can earn you the status of a social pariah. Perhaps, this has to do with the fact that the country has a collectivist culture. Even if you’re ordering food at a restaurant with your friends, you will not be given separate dishes - instead, you will be given one large serving in one huge dish and be expected to eat from it. That takes some time to adjust to.
When it comes to travelling, which I did quite a bit of, many people would raise their hands for Beijing and Shanghai, or at the most Guangzhou or Sichuan but China has the most amazing places that can be classified as hidden secrets. The locals say that this is because they are concerned about their privacy and they are not really huge fans of foreign faces either, so they don’t tend to advertise these as much.
Most of the places I went to were suggestions by some native Chinese friends. These include Sanya, Xian Mountain, Bamboo forest in Chengdu, the Snow Show in Harbin and tropical areas of Hainan. It would not be an overstatement to argue that none of these places can be compared to each other since each place holds its own charm and beauty. But I do have a favourite, the Xian Mountain.
I have travelled to a lot of places but the captivating beauty of Xian Mountain absolutely overwhelmed me. Its five peaks have a distinctive charm and the dangerous walking trails have made it all the more thrilling. It has one of the most dangerous hiking trails in the world.
Talking of Xian, one should not forget that the famous terracotta warriors also referred to this as the eighth wonder of the world.
Sanya is one the most beautiful cities in China and is known for the honeymoon resorts. It takes second place in the list of my personal favourite travel destinations in China. The clear water bay in Sanya is an absolute delight. It is famous for the singing sand since the sand is so smooth and everything looks so serene. It is also referred to as the paradise of China. Visiting the place is a surreal experience, like you actually did land in heaven somehow.
There is so much to explore in China -- contrary to what most internet testimonials would have you believe. During my stay of a little over half a decade, despite the intense wanderlust, I wasn’t able to explore all of it for the mere fact that it is a huge country. Yet, for people who are looking for a fresh, different and enjoyable experience, I recommend exploring China and its hidden travel destinations in particular. It might seem daunting at first but it’s definitely worth the hassle.
This trip down the memory lane sure has left me longing to go back once again.