Middle Kingdom Madness

Though China is an awesome place to live, it may not necessarily be the first place you think of to spend your hard-earned holiday…


You will hear many an expat say it: “China is great, but why don’t we meet in Thailand
or the Philippines instead?” It seems odd that you can live most off your adult life
somewhere, but when somebody wants to visit, you find yourself in a state of existential
dread, desperately suggesting somewhere else.

Why, in China, do foreigners so often find themselves angling to take their friends and
family somewhere completely different? Shouldn’t they be eager to show off their new
homeland, its contradictions, its charms, its chaos? Apparently not.

After one long day, we were just outside a beautiful ancient village in rural Hunan, and
I could see mum’s disappointment that she would not be able to get any foreign food, or
as she put it, “Not even a nice feta salad?”

All this was very much on my mind when, out of the blue, mother announced she was
travelling to China. She had already booked the ticket as a “surprise birthday present.
” I couldn’t help thinking that a new iPad would have been more than adequate.
Nevertheless, my birthday present this year was my mum spending her holiday with me in

The upcoming trip began to make this expat think how little he knew his adopted country.
Living here for the better part of ten years started to feel of little value. Sure, I
could show someone around Beijing, or even Dongguan, but a holiday, involving actual
travel around the country! What was I to do? China was a place I lived, not holidayed.

There is something about China that is just not conducive to tourism, particularly for
western tourists. It is difficult to put your finger on it. Is it the language, the squat
toilets or the simple lack of a breezy banana-pancake trail?

Maybe it is the disconnect between expectation and reality. When people come to China
they expect mystery, or at least a bit of ancient Ming Dynasty architecture, but there is
precious little of that. Instead, they get shopping malls and hyper development. The
constant building is an annoyance for holidaymakers looking for a bit of peace.

During our trip, a farmer neighboring our quiet countryside guesthouse in Guangxi had
decided he needed a new swimming pool. With building work well underway, we had to leave
due to the deafening sound.

The countries that do tourism best are the ones that absolutely need it to survive. They
do everything in their power to cater to the foreign tourist’s every fickle fantasy.
China, though, doesn’t need to bother. It has other things bringing in the cash:
exports, Belt and Roads and a ballooning technology sector. Besides, there are a billion
potential domestic tourists to target. Why bother with pesky foreigners and their
penchant for egg and chips?

This was something mother found out quickly: China plays by its own rules, and has no
desire to cater to needy western tourists.

After one long day, we were just outside a beautiful ancient village in rural Hunan, and
I could see mum’s disappointment that she would not be able to get any foreign food, or
as she put it, “Not even a nice feta salad?”

“Nope, not even a feta salad, Mum. The spicy frog is good, though.”

Then again, mother was constantly baffled by everything. Sometimes it wasn’t especially
justified. We were ten minutes down the airport road in Beijing when she made her first
acute observation.

“It’s really different to what I thought. It’s just like a regular motorway.” She was
right. It was. A litany of odd questions ensued: “Why are there so many big buildings.”
“There are a lot of countries in Asia, aren’t there?” “Don’t they like eating toast?

Other things were genuinely bizarre, such as the small town that had a predilection for
hanging entire pig’s heads (roasted) above signs that read, “No Japanese or Koreans,
welcome.” It wasn’t so much the Japan-bashing itself that shocked, but it’s very
public nature. Ardent racists usually make some effort to hide their true nature.

It was a strange trip. I usually prefer to travel in the company of men, who are ideally
alcoholics with loose morals. Yet, here I was with a mother and a girlfriend in tow.
Girlfriend, half-playfully, kept listing my numerous faults, angering mum. Mum,
inexplicably, kept telling girlfriend that I was handsome and she was lucky to have me. I
needed male company. I tried to befriend a bloke-ish taxi driver, but he wrote me off as
a weirdo in the midst of a threesome with two women of unsuitable age. I didn’t bother
to explain.

The fact that I look like an old git did not seem to be lost in anyone in China.
Girlfriend found it hilarious when people thought I was her father. Mother thought it
amusing when people thought I was her husband. I couldn’t see the humor.

Next time this expat goes on holiday, it won’t be in his adopted country with his
girlfriend and his mum, but somewhere abroad with a mate. Somewhere to eat egg and chips,
and banana pancakes, until his heart’s content. China shall remain somewhere to live,
not to holiday.