Archive for guest posts

Friday’s Foreigner: Steven

Hello, Hohhotians. (A scholarly book I read about Hohhot used that word, so I’m going with it) What’s with the air here today?? pollution or sandstorm? I hope you are inside with your air filters on.

Here’s some reading for you if you’re passing the time

This week I’d like to introduce you to Steven, the voice behind the podcast The Culture Bum. Check out his site and subscribe to listen. He’s also guest posted for us here before, so check out his review of the Wanda area here. 

Check out our previous interviews here, and check back next week to meet someone else!

I moved to China in 2014 to be a teacher and just kind of see the world. I landed in Beijing and hated it immediately. The pollution left me sick all the time and I hated the massive amount of Westerners using Beijing as their own personal bragging right. I met a beautiful woman while there and she was moving back to her home city, Hohhot, and suggested I go with her. I found a lot of job opportunities and figured why not. I am still a teacher but I have bounced my title around.
Tell us something about your pre-Hohhot life we may not already know.
Before moving to Hohhot I was a teacher of several years in the US so I don’t feel like I fall into the “couldn’t find a real job” camp that often plagues ESL teachers. HOWEVER, the year and a half before moving to China I was a taxi driver. Budget cuts had led to a lot of my teaching opportunities drying up and what was supposed to be a 3 month ordeal turned into a full time job. I don’t hate my time driving A taxi, it was actually one of the more fun jobs I’ve ever held, but it is a go nowhere type of situation.
Favorite local food and where you like to get it:
I wish I had better answers but my favorite Chinese dishes fall into 2 categories: Something so simple I can make it at home (rice with mu er and spring onion) or horrible greasy unhealthy messes (chow mian or malatang).
It’s impossible to live in Hohhot and not go out to Hot Pot at least once a month.
I recently spent time in Datong which is famous for its noodles and I did get a little hooked on rice noodles with vinegar for a while.
If you could make one city-wide change to Hohhot, what would it be?
Compared to most foreigners I don’t have that many complaints about Hohhot. I do wish there were clean places to do outdoor swimming.
I’m surprised there aren’t easier ways to get to the airport on public transportation.
Most foreigners will complain about a lack of cultural events compared to bigger cities but I chalk that up to just not a lot of foreigners in the city so when we do a “foreigner” themed event your lucky if 12 people show up.
What has been the most surprising aspect of life here?
Being able to slow down. In America I was very used to 60-80 hours a week and in Beijing you usually have 30-60 minute commutes to work each way. Hohhot provides me a comparable salary to Beijing but so much more free time. I work 30 hours a week, every week, never a minute more and my commute is less than 20 minutes by bus or bike. I am able to relax, walk around and take my time without ever feeling I’m in a rush.
What makes Hohhot more appealing than other cities?
Some foreigners in Hohhot tend to act like they’re in purgatory, but these are the people who complain no matter what. There are a lot of people who see Hohhot as a slower, more manageable pace of life, much larger opportunities to save money, a more Asian cultural experience away from being over run by Western food on every corner and a chance to see the Mongolian culture that is usually out of peoples minds.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve experienced here?
Donkeys pulling carts next to the traffic is a bit odd even after everything else I’ve seen.
donkey cart audi

donkey cart and Audi dealership

What is the kindest thing a local has ever done for you?
When I first got here I did not work for about 2 weeks so I sat at home very bored while my future wife went to work. I eventually demanded to go outside and do something. She would set me up like a kindergartner with notes and maps to get to various places in town like a super market. On my first trip I had to make one turn to the super market and I managed to screw that up but the first person I asked for help, a very elderly woman on her way home with a large bag of groceries, walked about at least 1 Km out of her way to walk me to the super market and make sure I got there. This was a very big change of pace from Beijing.
Where do you go to “escape?”
I have a few Western friends who are very close and we like to go to 7 Pizza Bar or Yummy Box and disappear. In the Summer I took a few hikes to the mountains where it was easy to pretend you were in Michigan. Right now with the NFL starting me and a few friends download the games and beer makes the rest of the world go dark.
When your time here is done and you return home, what do you want to take with you?
I would take back the idea that you don’t have to work yourself to death and live in constant jealousy. I enjoy my lazy life so much in Asia. I am not hung up on material things and I value the experiences and comfort afforded here not to mention my very high proportional salary.
I’m here for the long haul! I see Hohhot as an opportunity and not a curse. Every day there are more people and in the coming years I see Hohhot as a cultural hot bed of foreign students, grassland people moving in to occupy the hundreds of apartment complexes being built and I’ll be here for years to come.

A Tour of Wanda: The Center of Hohhot!


Shopping malls dot the map all over China as a symbol of growing cities and more global influence over the culture. It is always a bit funny to wander China and see giant posters of Lebron James, Justin Bieber and George Clooney everywhere next to KFCs and Stradivarius stores. Shopping malls are usually a nice escape for foreigners go back home for a few hours, enjoy a movie in English and familiar food.

A local television commercial calls the Wanda complex in Hohhot the center of the city! with the loud voice reserved for monster truck rallies back home. My wife always rolls her eyes when she hear this because it is far from the geographical center of the city. Despite this I do find myself at Wanda a lot.

The Wanda area of coWandaurse has the Wanda Shopping Mall but also has several large cookie cutter apartment complexes, in classic China fashion, right behind it. There are a few schools in the vicinity as well as some international businesses so there are clusters of foreigners that live in these complexes.

It is where I work, amazingly my wife as well works next door to the complex, a lot of my friends live in the apartments behind Wanda and in general there just seems to be a lot going on all the time. Im not saying Wanda is busier than the areas near other shopping malls such as Victory or City Mall/Mo Er Cheng but when combined with everything else Wanda does give off the air of being the center of the city.

To start the Wanda mall itself is 3 stories with a very large ground plan. It alone dwarfs most shopping malls outside of the largest cities in the United States. There is a supermarket, multi-screen cinema, all of the major fashion outlets including Zara, Pull & Bear and Levis (the only notable exception is H&M, youll have to go to Victory for that), several electronics and phone outlets and an entire floor of Chinese and other Asian themed restaurants. Pizza Hut, McDonalds and KFC each have a two story representation to round out your belly.

Behind the mall is where the fun begins. Its referred to by most people I know from the area as Waking Street although signs call it King Street. Once you exit the back door you will find a never ending stream of places to eat. Your standard dry pot and hot pot places dot everywhere with different degrees of price and quality along with neverending noodle shops and other Asian ethnic cuisine like Korean and Japanese.


Inner Mongolia is famous for its BBQ cuisine and it shows at night when the streets behind Wanda come alive with charcoal. While Beijing shuts down by 9:30 Hohhot stays up all night. Everyone chomps down on metal skewers and washes it down with cheap beer. Every third establishment it seems will bring out their grill pits and you can feel free to pull up a cheap plastic chair anywhere you want and order round after round of burnt pork, chicken and mutton sticks as well as mushrooms, tofu and noodles until the sun comes up.

There are more than enough Mahjong parlors, KTV clubs and billiard joints lining the street to wander into to keep things interesting.

Because of the cluster of foreigners as well as being the center of the city Wanda has some of the more famous Western style eateries. Now, I love Chinese food and I love saving money even more so I frequent these places less than some, but we all get a little homesick eventually.

I met my first little group of expat acquaintances when I arrived in Hohhot at Piri Piri, an (as far as I can tell) unlicensed rip off a famous South African based chain, Nandos. It specializes in burgers, wraps, chicken and deep fried Western staples as well as a few vegetarian meals. The service is very good, English friendly, prices just about right (35 RMB for a burger, little more for the french fries, Western prices) and the atmosphere is a cut above the noodle shops I tend to frequent.


Next door to Piri Piri is Marc Starry Diner. I am a big fan of Marc Starry and I think the food is delicious. They have pizzas, brugers, pasta dishes, it tends to feel like a more formal experience with large booths and a million fake plants everywhere. It is of course pricier but they actually know how to make spaghetti (hint, dont use brown wheat noodles). Marc Starrey is a place to take a date on a Friday night after work with its calm interior.

The Cheese Factory is not far and I would say this offers the most authentic Western (Im biased towards the United States in this regard) dining experience. The menu is quite large and has steaks, pizzas (you should be seeing a trend by now), cheesecake and other deserts and a large selection of imported beer and wine. The decorations and theme are very authentic to TGI Fridays type places and you can feel yourself disappearing back home if only for an hour or two.

Across from this little strip is a sign that says American Rodeo. It immediately brings to mind memories sloppy buffets on the outskirts of town with one type of meat deep fried in the juices of other meats and enough potatoes for a small nation. When I finally found myself there I was verrrrrrrry dissapointed.

In China, when eating Western food, you will either get Western food or Chinesey Western food. Pizza made with mayonaise, wheat pasta with garlic sauce presented as spaghetti and shoestring thin french fries served in a large bowl for everyone to dip their hands in are examples of the latter.

The American Rodeo is over priced, has very slow service and food is just above edible. I would not advise anyone to try it out.

Farther up the street is one of the most famous places in Hohhot for foreigners, Yummy Box. They have a screen that plays a massive playlist of Western hits round the clock as well as showing Daily Show reruns in a little TV in the corner. The menu is totally Chicago oriented with deep dish pizzas being the star along with deep fried everything you can imagine. A large selection of imported beer, a lot of it for very good prices or Buy One Get One specials, round out the menu.

Yummy Box Hohhot

Many will argue that Yummy Box is the best foreign food place in town. I think Marc Starry has better actual food but Yummy Box transports you the Midwest with ease and Im amazed they havent tried to cater to western sports crowds.

The last place I have to point out is a new micro brew called Small Kidney. It is located a little out of the way, if you exit Wanda from the back and take a right past the all night fruit and vegetable market and hug the fence with the construction you will find a nifty little bar. It is two stories and feels incredibly Western on the inside. It is new to the area but they are lining their shelves with all the imported beer you miss from home.

This article barely scratches the surface and doesnt even mention the loud as hell night club, Milk, located in the front of Wanda. There are merchants selling clothes, shoes, toys, purses, etc. next to greasy food vendors on the sidewalk. About a dozen wine stores will satisfy your tastes with bottles from all over the world. Even pharmacies are across from your favorite hot pot restaurant to fill a prescription for the sore tooth the spicy food gave you.

Places like this are located everywhere and only stand to show how large and diverse even a small city like Hohhot is.

Steven Ayy writes for The Culture Bum Blog and Podcast series. He has lived in China for a year and loves to write about places to go and see in Asia, tips to save money, ESL methods and advice and anything else that comes to his mind.

buying a car in Hohhot

Are you tired of waiting for taxis? Are you ready to take on the Hohhot roads? Are you certain you could get somewhere faster with your own wheels? Well, a lovely reader has submitted some thoughts for those of you considering car ownership in Hohhot.

You may remember last year we wrote about my husband’s experience getting his driving license. As you can imagine, no process is easy in China and getting a driver’s license and buying a car are no exception. However, hopefully Preston’s advice will make it easier for you, knowing what to expect before you show up at the car dealership.


1. Do cars really cost more in Hohhot?

Yes they do. Sometimes as much as 10,000 RMB more than Beijing for low-end cars.

2. Why buy in Hohhot?
“So why don’t I just go to Beijing, buy my car there, and then drive it back to Hohhot?” It’s a great idea, and one we had too. But, in a nice bit of local protectionism, the Hohhot government does not usually issue license plates to cars bought outside of Hohhot (at least this is what we were told). We did some checking to see if Linda had a distant relative in the gov’t. with the guanxi to help us pull this off, but in the end had no luck and so paid the extra 10000 to buy our car here.
Now, it’s possible that if John Smith the Foreigner went alone to Beijing, bought a car, drove it back, and then showed up at the Hohhot Department of Motor Vehicles asking for a license plate, someone would take pity on the poor foreigner and give the license plate. But this would be a pretty big risk to take!
3. New vs. used
Linda was pretty set on a new car, but we did stop and asked about second hand cars. It seemed that 60-70,000 was about the starting price for most half-decent used cars. Tough thing is that the used dealers don’t give much in the way of guarantees, so this would be a bit risky unless you knew a lot about cars. If you just want a cheap car, you can actually get the cheapest Chinese models for about this amount (though there are good reasons why they are so cheap).
4.Where to buy
There are a ton of car dealerships on Haixi Road (Haixi Lu). This is on the way out to Jinchuan district. It’s not the only place in town with cars, but it is one of the best, with 15+ dealerships spread out along a mile or two strip of road. Dealerships include Chinese car companies, Nissan, Kia, Hyundai, Ford, etc. One thing to note is that ‘foreign’ cars here are split into two groups, imports and joint venture models (pinyin: “hezi”). The imports are always a lot more expensive than the joint ventures, so if you walk into a dealership to ask for prices and are blown away by how high they are, it’s worth asking if they’re selling imports or joint ventures. Often the same company (like Ford) will have two dealerships within a short walk of one another, one selling imports and the other joint ventures.
5. Finding information on car models
Can’t find info on a car? Check Wikipedia! I knew nothing about buying cars before this, and for some reason thought car  models were the same around the world. They’re not, and to confuse things even more, sometimes a company uses different names for the same car. So, for example, the car we bought is called the Hyundai Verna here in China, but the Hyundai Accent in the States. Or sometimes models are not available widely in the States, but available in China, like the Ford Ecosport. Wikipedia has a lot of (hopefully correct) information on all of this.
6. Financing the car
The key question is whether you’re looking to buy using a loan or can pay full cash. As I said, Linda being Chinese helped a lot, as I was told flat out I couldn’t get a loan as a foreigner. I didn’t really push things and try to ask if this was really true, as without a working visa and job I’m almost positive they were right. HOWEVER, I do know that foreigners in China with residence permits and jobs can sometimes use these to help with loans (I have a friend in Xiamen who did this when buying a house), so if someone with a RP and job was trying to buy a car and was given a flat ‘no’ regarding a loan, I would advise them to try to ask a manager or the loan supervisor at the dealership if they could call the bank to doublecheck things. There just aren’t a lot of foreigners buying cars in Hohhot, so I would never assume the salesperson knows what they’re talking about when it comes to this sort of thing.
We didn’t have enough money to pay in full, but I’m pretty sure it’d be easy for a foreigner to buy a car if they had all the money up front.
The financing rules are much stricter here. Each car dealership has a different bank/program they used for loans. Some dealers needed Linda to produce a certificate from a registered company saying that she was employed (impossible since she’s a freelancer), while others wanted to see her name on a certificate of home ownership. As I remember things, every dealership had a 30% down, pay the rest in 3 years option (with interest), and a couple had 20% down/3 years. At the time we didn’t see anything longer than 3 years, but when I went back a couple of days ago to service our car, Hyundai had a 5 year loan payback program.
Generally speaking, the financing requirements go higher the more years/money you want.We were basically closed out of all the bank loans because:
  1. Neither of us was working at a registered company;
  2. We didn’t want Linda’s parents to know we were taking out a loan (because if they had known they would have paid for us, which we didn’t want), and so couldn’t use their home ownership deed to cosponsor the loan;
  3. Linda’s name isn’t on a home deed .
If you can’t get a long term bank loan, the car companies themselves still usually have a 1 year 0% interest payback option with about 50-60% down.  I think it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to get the dealership to give this deal to a foreigner, but it’s certainly worth asking about.
The requirements of each dealership for this plan were once again different. We were very close to buying the Ford Ecosport, a nice looking miniSUV, and were basically ready to close the deal, when the salesman said that as part of their company requirements for the 1 year/0% payback option the company had to see a driver’s license from Linda, or a proof that she had passed at least 3 of the 4 tests needed for the driver’s license. Apparently this is done to ensure that the person paying the upfront money is really the person buying the car.As Linda had only just enrolled in driver’s ed, we were out of luck with Ford.
Hyundai, however, didn’t need the driver’s license, and instead just needed a proof from Linda’s driving school that she was enrolled there. A word to the wise, if you’re somehow randomly in the same position that we were in (aka Chinese/foreign couple buying a car together with the Chinese person just starting to prep for the driver’s exam), be sure to tell the driver’s school before enrolling that you’ll need them to give a proof of enrollment. Our school was pretty unwilling to do this, and we almost weren’t able to get the car because of it–luckily the school finally agreed.
7. Can you negotiate?
Of course you can bargain! Just like buying a car in the states, your salesman has the authority to bargain on price, extras, warranty, etc. By the end we had talked 6,000 RMB off the asking price, gotten an extra fourth year warranty, and a ‘free’ DVD/GPS system, ‘free’ seat covers, and ‘free’ air freshener.
8. Other expenses
Remember the taxes/registration fees. Let’s say you’ve just bought your new Hyundai Verna for 72,000 RMB, and made a 60% down payment of 44,000 RMB, with the rest of the car fees to be paid with a 0% dealership loan in 12 monthly installments of 2000+ RMB per month. Does this mean you got out of the whole thing for only 72,000? Nope. Between license registration, taxes, insurance (mandatory 1 year purchase), you’re looking at at least an extra 15,000 total, so almost 90,000 total.Taxes for more expensive cars would probably add even more, as I believe they are based on the purchase price.
9. Use of credit cards
You can use credit cards towards the ‘cash’ portion of the purchase. If you have a Chinese credit card and are looking to buy without a loan this could potentially be very helpful, as you could potentially buy the car with, let’s say 60,000 in real cash and 30,000 on your cards.
10. Other items to remember
Remember to ask about maintenance, warranties, etc. As stated mentioned above, we got the dealer to change our warranty from 3 years/100,000 km to 4 years 120,000 km. We also have a free maintenance/oil change within the first 6 months/5000 km. Some dealerships are at 3 months/5000 km, so be sure to check.
That was a lot, so three take home points:
1. It’s probably going to be a lot easier for a foreigner to buy if they can pay in full.
2. Failing that, you’d almost certainly need proof of employment and your residence permit, and even then you might run into problems when looking for a loan. It might be easier to apply for Chinese credit cards (though I have no idea how you’d do this, it seems like this should be simpler to do), and then use these to help ‘finance’ the car.
3. Go to a lot of different dealerships, and don’t accept your first (or second or third) ‘no’ as being the truth for all dealerships. Loan requirements/amounts vary greatly from dealership to dealership. A ‘no’ at Ford might just turn into a ‘yes’ at Hyundai, as it did for us.
If you’re willing to take the plunge, having the freedom to drive your own car really is a great feeling, with the only trick being to watch out for pedestrians, motorcyclists, 3 foot deep potholes, dogs, children, surveillance cameras, buses, and everything else that makes driving in China so much fun!
not interested in buying a car? Check out our post about renting one!

The Struggles of Explaining the Definition and Location of Inner Mongolia: a study of dialogues

Sometimes information can be hard to grasp. When we decide to uproot and move halfway around the world, our well-meaning friends can often struggle to understand exactly to which part of the world we will be moving. As the time approaches for us to leave, we often find ourselves engaged in conversations in which our confused and frustrated friends make similar mistakes in comprehension. Even when we return to our home countries, we are met with the same sorts of struggles in explaining where we have been, and getting people to remember that information. However, every now and then, an extra attentive friend “gets it right.”

The following dialogues are fictional, but are based on very real conversations I have had with people before I moved to Inner Mongolia, and in the years since I have returned to the States. They are meant to be taken lightheartedly. Enjoy! [as a side note, these conversations are about a region in China called Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where Hohhot is located. Many times this is shortened to “Inner Mongolia Province,” or just simply “Inner Mongolia.”]

For reference, please enjoy the following map courtesy of Google.

china map

A map of China featuring Inner Mongolia. Image courtesy of Google.

Scenario 1: some people just don’t get it. 

Friend: “So, what are you future plans?”

Me: “Well, this summer, I’ll be moving to Inner Mongolia to teach English.”

Friend: “Cool, isn’t that where Genghis Khan is from? I really like their barbecue.”

Me: “Actually, Inner Mongolia is a province in northern China.”

Friend: “Then why is it called Mongolia if it’s in China? I thought Mongolia is a country. What is a province; I’m so confused?”

Me: “It’s like a state, and yes, Mongolia is a country, Inner Mongolia used to be part of it, but now, it’s part of China.”

Friend: “I wonder why they don’t change the name to Inner China then? Does China have as many states as America?”

Me: “China doesn’t have states—it has provinces.”

Friend: “But you just said Mongolia is a state in China.”

Me: “No, I said Inner Mongolia is a province—it’s like a state. Each province is made up of multiple cities and towns, just like our states are here in the United States.”

Friend:  “Oh ok. Well, do they have good barbecue there in Mongolia, China where you will be teaching?”


Scenario 2: Some people are quicker on the uptake, but still struggle with totally grasping it. 

Friend: “Hey, I heard you will be moving to China this year. Which part will you be in?”

Me: “I’ll be in the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia province.”

Friend: “Oh, cool. Why is it called Inner Mongolia; it is in China, right?”

Me: “Yes, it is a province in northern China, bordering the country of Mongolia.”

Friend: “I see. That’s weird, if it’s outside of the country of Mongolia, you would think they would call it ‘Outer Mongolia.’”

Me: “Yeah, you might think that, but it’s the exact opposite.”

Friend: “Well, how long will you be teaching in Mongolia?”

Me: “Actually, I’ll be in Inner Mongolia. I’ll be there for one year.”

Friend: “Oh yeah, sorry, Inner Mongolia. How far is that from Japan? Maybe one weekend you can go check it out? I love sushi.”


Scenario 3: On rare occasions, someone, thankfully, finally gets it.

Friend: “Hey, so I heard you are moving to China this summer.”

Me: “Yeah! I’ll be in the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia province.”

Friend: “Oh, cool. Is a province like a state?”

Me: “Yes, China has several provinces, and Inner Mongolia is in the very north.”

Friend: “I see. That would put it right beneath Mongolia. At one time, they must have been one area.”

Me: “Exactly!”

Friend: “Well, how long will you be teaching in Inner Mongolia?”

Me: [smiling, because for once, someone remembered to say Inner] “I’ll be there for one year.”

Friend: “That’s great. Hey, since it’s in the north, it must not be far from Beijing—you’ll have to go visit if you have time.”

Me: [smiling, because someone actually knows their geography] “You’re right, it’s about a 13 hour train ride. That sounds like a great idea.”

Friend: “Hey Friend 2, did you know Matthew is moving to Inner Mongolia, China?”

Me: [smiling]

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August, 2003 – HOHHOT IS MY HOME: First Order of Business—Transportation

Taken during my second year living in China, in Xijiang. This was outside of Hohot, on a trip to visit.

Taken in 2006, during my second year living in China, in Xinjiang. This was outside of Hohhot, on a trip to visit friends and students.

I’m here. I’m settled in. I now have two little booklets, each about the size of a passport— one is burgundy and embossed with golden Chinese characters on the front— it gives me the title of “foreign expert.” The other is paper-thin, and a gaudy orange color—it is a health exam report that lists my name, country of origin, and any other bio-metrical details I could conceive—and of course, there is a photo. Someone has saved me the trouble of coming up with a Chinese name, and I see carefully hand-written in ink, unintelligible Chinese characters which are thoughtfully accompanied by the romanized pronunciation: “MaSiYue.” I have to hand it to them—it sounds quite close to “Matthew,” but I later opt for “MaTai,” the Chinese translation of “Matthew,” as in “The Gospel of Matthew” in the New Testament.

In order to be allowed to teach, I had to go to the hospital to get some medical checks done. Everything checked out as “normal.” Each approval mark is identical—mechanically stamped in blue ink, save for one variation: when it comes to a special section titled “SARS symptoms.” To my relief, next to each category of “SARS symptoms,” the doctors had another stamp handy, which read: “none.” I certainly wouldn’t want to have “normal” SARS symptoms.


I am arriving here in Hohhot on the tail end of a health epidemic that has spanned all of China. Later I will learn from my new-found American friends, who are also teachers on other campuses, that they were quarantined for weeks. I also learn some of them were resourceful, and didn’t suffer too much, per their discovery of a way to climb over the locked iron gates of their campuses at opportune moments when the guards were sleeping, or watching soaps.

My first order of business here is transportation. Having previously been to China twice before on short two-week tours as a college student on summer break, I quickly noticed the efficiency of the bicycle—a transportation solution that is quite appealing to a newly arrived foreigner. First, after the initial purchase fee, all transportation thereafter is absolutely free. Second, with the bicycle, it’s just the rider and the road—there are no crowded public buses leading to unknown destinations, or awkward disasters of conversations with taxi drivers, too frequently accompanied by pantomimes and a general feeling that they have taken one “the long way ‘round.” Thus, I have chosen to travel by bike—quite a contrast to the mode of transportation left to children, exercise freaks, and an otherwise small minority of adults in my home state of Louisiana.

A Chinese speaking American friend accompanies me to a nearby bicycle shop—before today, I would not have even imagined there could be such a thing as a shop specializing in only bicycles. To me, this shopping trip is a “no-brainer.” I have never been a picky shopper—I just need something in a masculine color that moves forward when I pedal—functioning breaks would be nice too. However, the shop owner is insistent that I “test it out first.” He gives me a once over, makes some adjustments to the seat, and I hop on—the seat is awkwardly high, even for me, who is most likely the longest-legged customer in the entire city of Hohhot. I am a fresh college grad, and haven’t been on a bike since junior high. I clumsily pedal ten yards or so, stop, pedal back to where I started, and hastily confirm my decision to buy the bike with one of the few Chinese words I know: “hao.” “Allright—I’ll take it. You had me sold on the navy blue color.” So are my thoughts, as I pay the several hundred yuan to the shop owner—an amount I am still unfamiliar with, but do not even attempt to calculate—What do I care? I have a bike.

The owner painstakingly fills out several receipts, each one carefully stamped with a seal in red ink, signifying the approval of the sale, much like the satisfactory state of my health signaled in that little orange book with its blue stamps. Finally, I am the proud owner of my own Chinese transportation. There are no gears to shift—my bike is a simple and straightforward affair—simply designed to go. After I make it back to the east gate of my school, I bid my American friend goodbye, and proudly roll my new purchase back to my apartment building. Theft is unfortunately a common occurrence in China, and though I brazenly leave my bike parked outside for the fist few nights, I later wisen up when when a student tells me about his bike being stolen.

All the foreign teachers wheel their bikes indoors and huddle them together on the first floor of our apartment building, just inside the lobby area, immediately after entering from outside. In here, it is not even necessary to put a lock on the bike—there is a “door lady” who always keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings in the “foreign expert” portion of this building. She spends most of her days and nights in a glass-encased “room,” right there on the first floor. I do not know how she spends so much time in such a confined space. In the “living space,” which can’t be bigger than ten feet by five feet, there is only a desk, a chair, a wash basin, a television, and a bunk bed with a top, and bottom portion. Each night, Padma, our Mongolian mother, locks the doors of her foreign children’s building. Ironically, she wraps a bicycle lock around both inner handles, to prevent the doors from being opened beyond a mere crack. This action is almost in an effort to tell the rest of the world—”the bicycles contained within are sacred chariots and trusty steeds of the ‘foreign experts,’ and are safe in here. They are sleeping, and waiting for their masters to awaken, and take them out on a quest for adventure”—yes—an adventure in Hohhot.

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