I’m Big in China
Leah Walker September 13, 2012

Yantai is an hour’s flight from the city of Beijing, but it might as well be a hundred. The city is one of about seven million people stretched along the Yellow Sea. Most of those seven million speak about as much English as I do Chinese.

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I’m afraid that teaching me Chinese would be like making panda babies–an extremely delicate procedure requiring repeated attempts and resulting in constant disappointment. I stole that from travel writer, Chuck Thompson. I found it the perfect analogy for my attempt at Chinese communication. It didn’t take me but a day to figure out that a smile and nod are internationally understood, so I did that A LOT while I was in China.

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Shortly after arriving in Yantai, an expat living in my hotel took me into the central business district to visit a market. Pronounced “San Jang” in Chinese, it is called Three Stations Market in English. I can’t say that I was all that impressed with the quality of the goods, but I was very impressed with the quantity of goods. You know all the crap-stuff in the US dollar stores that read “Made in China”? Well, it’s all there times a bajillion.

As I wondered the seemingly endless maze of the market, I felt that I was on Harwin Street in Houston. The only thing absent was the soccer moms trying to score fake Louis Vuitton purses. Instead, they were replaced with fast-walking Chinese. I could tell that they were normally oblivious to anyone walking in their paths, but at 5’6″, I was a giant. I couldn’t be ignored. And judging by all the stares received, I wasn’t.

I took note of the abundance of children’s clothing shops; stall after stall contained brightly colored kids’ clothes that told me spring was around the corner. Upon further inspection, I realized that most of the stores weren’t for children at all; those were adult clothes. They all were the size of my accidentally-dried cashmere sweater. Small. Tiny. Doll-sized.  I felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

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If you’ve been to Latin American market, you can imagine what a Chinese one is like. Replace the tejano music with Chinese blaring from speakers outside of stalls. Substitute crucifixes and Virgin Marys with Buddhas and prayer beads. The food vendors still looked unsanitary but smelled delicious. It was the same hustle and bustle of a Latin American market. Dirty. Real. It was the haves and the have-nots, much like everywhere else. It was a language barrier that was broken by a smile and a shake of the head. It was the shop girls that wanted to show-off and practice their English in an effort to make a sale. It was everything that traveling is about…experiencing the culture outside of the shiny, safe hotel.

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As much as I enjoyed experiencing the “real” China, I was not willing to risk the inevitable days chained to my toilet after eating the various meats-on-a-stick for sale. As delicious as they looked and smelled, I just couldn’t bring myself to purchase, much less eat any. After looking at the ice cream and popsicle options {including a corn-flavored one}, I ran into a woman selling roasted sweet potatoes.

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She had a seasoned metal drum filled with coals and roasted them herself right on the street. I figured that they would be my safest option. Much like a banana, I could peal the skin and eat the inside. I paid about 10 cents for one, which she weighed using a stick, string, and what looked like a big washer. She laughed when I picked one of the smaller ones. Perhaps she knew that I would LOVE it and want more. I never thought of a sweet potato being street food, but it fit the bill for me. And, my stomach survived to eat another meal.

After seeing a father encourage his toddler son to defecate on the sidewalk along the busy market street, I knew it was time to get back to the more normal confines of the Crowne Plaza. My hotel was over-the-top in so many ways including the Mercedes parked in the lobby and gaudy fountain with crystal fish hanging from the ceiling. At the time, it was billed as the largest lobby in Asia.

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Armed with my iPod and book, I headed to the enormous lobby. I surveyed the scene and chose a seat near a koi pond. Into the comfy couch, I collapsed. It was certainly needed after fighting the madness of Three Stations Market. Settled in and engrossed in my book, I noticed a group of men and one woman taking photos around the pond. I smiled and nodded and then went back to my book. Before I could make it through a paragraph, the woman was upon me. I quickly spotted some folding doors near the bar and considered making a run for it.

Personal space is non-existent in China, just so you know.

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She was holding her camera towards me, so I assumed she wanted me to take their picture. I took the buds out of my ears and closed my book. That’s when the woman plopped down right beside me on the couch. The others gathered around me, nearly sitting on my lap. What? They all were very excited to be taking a photo with me.

Smile. Nod.

“One, two, three.”

The flash went off and everyone stood up and smiled and nodded at me. I even heard a “thank you”. I thought, “I wonder who they think I am?” Maybe they didn’t think I was anyone. Maybe it’s like when someone first encounters an armadillo. Perhaps I was the armadillo of Yantai.

Or maybe I was just big in China…literally and figuratively.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

14 Comments

  1. The title of the post intrigued me… Now it all makes sense. 🙂 I have to say the roasted potatoes look delicious and it’s great that you got to explore outside the comfort of your swanky hotel. I feel like whenever I do something like that, I have a much better understanding of the place I’m visiting. And often the out-of-the-way places are the ones I remember the most.

    1. Yeah, Pola, that hotel was like an island in the middle of nowhere. It was a ghost town all around. China is famous for building all these high rises, convention centers, hotels, etc with the expectation that they will eventually fill. I was in such a location. The market was about a 25 minute drive into town. To be fair, Yantai is a beach community for those living in Beijing. I was there in the early spring. It might look different in the summer.

  2. It’s so frustrating when none of the exotic foreign clothes fit. Maybe that will be my next venture – pretty foreign clothes for the western figure. Sounds chaotic. I’m going to Otovalo in Saturday so I’m sure I’ll get a taste of it too!

    1. I’ll go in halves with you on that venture. When I see something cute abroad I always look at the label to see where it’s made before even trying it on. Usually my arms won’t fit in the holes and my boobs are popping the buttons. LOL!

  3. Wow, very funny post. I sometimes even feel like a giant in Barcelona. Especially around the older generation, at 5’5, I am massive. Also, interestingly enough, in Barcelona, sweet potatoes are also street food. In the fall chestnut and sweet potato roasting stands appear where you can buy a newspaper cone of roasted chestnuts, or a roasted sweet potato to eat as you stroll the city. Sometimes you even see small kids munching on them in the metro as a sort of after-school snack.

    1. I didn’t realize the Spaniards were small people for the most part. I suppose I’ll find out soon. I knew chestnuts were common in the winter, and by the way…GROSS, but no clue about the sweet potatoes. I’m a huge fan, so I’ll be trying those come November. Here’s to being the biggest people in Spain!

  4. I can imagine this happening. I am “slightly” shorter than you (no comments, please) and even I felt a little bit tall in China. But when we went, it coincided with Expo 2010 in Shanghai and I was with some proper tall people (like you or even taller) – the crowds followed them everywhere.

    I will never forget the actual children’s clothes with holes in the bottom so no need for diapers. Too much for me!

    1. Oh, Mrs. O, a person is a person no matter how small. 🙂 In crowds I tend to drift off of larger people like a cyclist. Ha! Make them do all the pushing and shoving for me. And yes, the split pants…that’s another post entirely.

  5. That is so exciting! I am going to China in a few weeks, and I have the exact same feeling about me and mandarin not getting along very much, though learning it is not the, but a goal 🙂 I will also be predominantly living in a “small” city of 8mln people, it’s quite comforting to hear someone’s experience 🙂

  6. Yum! Food is one of my favorite things about travel, and almost everywhere I have been the food has been so much cheaper than here in China. Traveling through Asia was just delightful with all of the cheap street food everywhere 🙂

    1. Oh, food and I go together like a hand in a glove. Street food is the best. Thus far I haven’t been bitten by the illness bug. Fingers crossed!

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