China memories – Part 1: Welcome to China

This post is by Joachim.  So that we have our travel stories all in a single spot, we’ll be posting some stories from the old ‘newsletters’ that we used to write from China to our family and close friends. Some of these are a good laugh.

April 24th, 2007 – Welcome to China!

Being now in China means starting up a ‘normal’ life from almost scratch. Nothing is familiar. Here are a few experiences so far.


Even if there are actually quite a lot of foreigners in Qingdao, you are still one of the attractions in the supermarket. Your trolley is very interesting for the Chinese with always the big question in their face: What is a foreigner buying ? I guess I disappointed all of them as half of my stuff in my trolley was Chinese food, a little bit of Western stuff as I still haven’t found anything easy as a replacement for a snack like a sandwich and boring stuff like ironing board, towels and plates. If you’re unlucky, sometimes someone will decide to touch what you have in your cart. Not sure why – maybe to see if they might want to take it also?

A small excursion on Soya sauce

You thought buying Soya sauce is a no-brainer as there is actually only one or two types? Come to China and you’ll see. Soya sauce here seems to be more like buying wine. There is thick soya sauce and thin soya sauce,  dark and light soya sauce, mushroom flavoured soya sauce and possibly soya sauce out of every single province in China. The shelf in the supermarket is not much smaller then the wine selection they have here – it’s massive. So I guess it’ll take me a lot of cooking and some time to find the best one!

Ah, and of course there is even a story about fake soya sauce: Apparently last year they caught a company that produced soya sauce out of human hair: Yaaaaak!!!

What not to do in the supermarket

Well, actually, I don’t think there are too many restrictions here. The highlight until now was clearly a mother holding her child with dropped down pants over the rubbish bin next to the fresh bread in order to get the required service done! Kids pants have slits in the bottom for this ‘convenience’. Nice.

Language problems

How to explain you have a problem with your internet connection and you want wireless.

You could imagine you are going to a computer market and they would speak English as a lot of the hardware will only have English manuals. That was at least my hope, but it turned out to be wrong. And as hand and feet do not really work in this situation either, and no customer nor staff member could be found speaking English we turned after a good laugh towards new technology and tried it with the good old babel-fish translation tool. It did not work completely, but we somehow got around and I left the shop with a new modem and a wireless router. Installation was not as easy as promised as the online manual was in Chinese (and my knowledge of signs is even less then my spoken Chinese), but thank god for Steve Jobs, my Apple could finally connect to the internet!

How to explain your ayi (cleaning woman), what to do

That works fortunately much better as you can just show her what you want her to do. The fun part starts when you actually try to have some conversation: First the dictionary, then demonstration with hands and feet, a good laugh always helps, and if you’re stuck you should always have a phone number of somebody who speaks English and Chinese that you can call anytime. So when I returned home, all my clothes were neatly put together in my wardrobe, the windows and all dirty dishes have been cleaned. What a difference to Switzerland! And this for 20 Euro per month: unbelievable!

How to order your food

There are four type of menu-maps:

  • The living one
  • The picture one
  • The Chinese one
  • The bilingual one

The easiest is definitely the living one. You just go in the restaurant and show them the food you want. This works excellent in Qingdao as most of the served seafood is really alive and you can then select the fish still swimming around in the basin. It is pretty scary though, to see turtles swimming around in the grocery store tanks. I think I will stay away from that section.

The picture menu is the one you always laugh at in Europe. But I will never laugh about it again! Without being able to read, it’s so much easier to order and you actually have a chance to know what you get (Not always though!)

The Chinese one is obviously always the one with the biggest surprises. I keep the general terms of food at hand help to get something sorted that you might want at least (e.g. chicken, or vegetables).

The bilingual ones doesn’t always makes your life easier: Who knows what you’re getting when you order a “Chicken softbone!?”

Food cartChinese Menu


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