Otherwise known as Tianjin, the 12-million population municipality the Chinese call "the biggest village in China." His blog takes in life, study and all the cultural quirks that occur when two vastly different cultures meet, in a way that manages to be both insightful and entertaining at once. Here he lets us in on his highs and lows when it comes to what to do in Tianjin. >>>China Travel: First up, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China?
Rob: I'm an Army brat, so I grew up on the move. My father was a foreign area officer who studied Arabic, so we spent almost six years in the Middle East. I'm fundamentally an expat, really, and am probably more comfortable outside America than in.
I came to China first because it was one of the only regions no one in my family had been to yet. I taught in Shandong Province for two-and-a half years, figured I'd had enough, went back to the States for almost two years, then changed my mind. My reason for coming back was simple enough: I knew I wanted to do graduate work, but the idea of studying in only one language (English) was repellent, and since I was deeply impressed by Chinese literature, particularly poetry, I decided to commit to learning more about it. After teaching at Tianjin University for three years, I moved over to Nankai University to get my master's degree in modern and contemporary Chinese literature. One more year of that left and then: back to the States for a Ph.D.
China Travel: Your blog, Tianjin and the often bemusing culture divide. What are three key pieces of advice you'd give to a newcomer on what to expect when they arrive?
Rob: First, and most important: you'll need to have your sense of humor intact. Very few things in Mainland China ever go the way you think they should. It doesn't matter that you've done something the same way 50 times in a row; on the 51st the policy will have changed and no one will have told you. If you can laugh at that, China will be the best experience you've ever had. If you can't, you'll have a stroke.
[pullquote]There isn't a single cultural rule about China or the Chinese that doesn't have about two hundred exceptions on a single city block. [/pullquote]Second: Don't believe the hype. There's a lot written in the States and elsewhere right now about China, and little of it is accurate. There isn't a single cultural rule about China or the Chinese that doesn't have about two hundred exceptions on a single city block. Don't assume, for instance, that because China is more collective than America the people here aren't all wildly different from each other.
Third: you'll be tempted to think the big city where you've probably started your visit (Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, etc.) is representative of China, but it isn't. Take what you see with a grain of salt.
China Travel: Have you had the chance to travel very much in China? Tell us about your best experience so far.
Rob: My best experience so far is actually the one I'm having right now. I'm currently in Taipei with some of my Chinese friends from Nankai University for a one month history course. Getting to experience Taiwan, which none of us have ever seen before, with Chinese friends who've never left the mainland before is fascinating.
China Travel: And your worst?
Rob: I'll have to qualify this. The worst travel experiences invariably make for the best stories, so it's hard to call anything really bad. I suppose the worst would have to be a night I spent in a remote village in southern Yunnan Province called Bulangshan (Bùlǎng Shān, 布朗山). Some of my friends and I had been hiking through the hills there and stayed the night in a run-down place that was surrounded by bars, karaoke parlors, and nothing much else. We stayed in a shack with no windows, and couldn't sleep because rats were fighting in the walls, so we basically just strolled up and down the street, which was only about 300 meters end-to-end, listening to drunks swearing at the top of their lungs, people shrieking off-key songs, and angry dogs barking at each other. We were very, very glad to take the morning bus out of there.
China Travel:You're currently based in Tianjin, what are your top 5 recommendations for a first time visitor to get a real feel for the city?
Rob: Tianjin isn't really the tourist destination Beijing or Shanghai are. The Chinese call it "the biggest village in China," and they're pretty dead-on. Even though it's the fourth-biggest city, it still has a rural feel to it. For me that means the real draw of Tianjin is the people. My recommendations all involve people-watching. You can get a feel for where China's at just by checking out the cross-sections in Tianjin society.
First, I'd suggest grabbing some street food near Heping Lu (Hépíng Lù, 和平路), which is one of the major roads in town, and taking it out to the river that runs through the city. It's a nice area, and you'll see everyone from shirtless construction workers to elegantly dressed ladies strolling by.
Second, go to one of the outdoor Muslim kebab places. If you're by yourself you're likely to be invited to drink beer with one of the many tables full of other diners.
Third, go to the Xikai Cathedral (Xikāi Jiàotáng, 西开教堂) on Binjiang Dao (Bīnjiāng Dào, 滨江道). It's a fascinating juxtaposition. The cathedral is over 150 years old, and sits at the base of the biggest shopping street in Tianjin. Modern capitalism meets 19th-century religion.
Fourth, check out one of the concession areas, particularly the Italian since it's been built up the most.
Finally, I'd recommend touring some of the campuses, Tianjin University and Nankai University particularly, both because they're very nice and because it's a lot of fun watching the social dynamic between the students there.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about China before arriving?
Rob: You don't need to pack nearly as much as you think you do. Just about everything you'd want or need in the States you can find here, provided you're in a fairly large city. Yes, some of it is pretty expensive, but it's still here.
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Rob: Being able to get things done efficiently. In China it's almost impossible to know who to talk to, or what office to go to, when you need something. Even at the biggest universities you'll get sent to three different departments just to get a class schedule.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Rob: The freedom. I'm not chained to a car here, and everything I'd want to buy is within easy biking or walking distance. If I need fruit I walk ten minutes to the nearest market. If I want noodles or dumplings, same thing. In the U.S. it's a long walk, or more often a drive, just to get basic groceries, and that's always in a sterile, impersonal grocery store.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Rob: Unpredictable, unexpected, unrepeatable.