I LOVE CHINA. Ok, having said that, it can be very stressful!
One thing that has always bothered me is seeing fellow expats deal with their stresses by becoming modern hermits. It reminds me of coworkers in America that are burnout from work, except this is your personal life, the part you should be enjoying!
I was determined not to become a hermit, but if I was stressed where should i go? Obviously to get a massage, but people look at you funny when you go multiple times a day. Overtime I learned that when I was stressed, feeling disconnected, or bored I would get out and do one of these 5 things. After helping people plan trips to China over the years I realized if you hit each one, you get a great sample of the culture. The best part, there is room for spontaneity and it works in almost every city!
1. PEOPLE WATCHING
Do not underestimate the fun of standing still and observing. I mean you came to see China right, it's easy to not see the forest (China) for the trees (the 10,000 people that will be invading your personal space at any given time). Why is this #1? Many people travel and have such intense agendas that they see, but do not experience. Walking through a park and taking pictures, is not the same as stopping and watching a tai-chi lesson. Going to a big market and not taking time to watch a local intensely negotiate is missing out on a big opportunity to understand the people and culture of China.
I don't know a single person who has had avoided the small stresses of life in China, but if you slow down and really pay attention to your surroundings you will have lots more fun along the way.
2. STREET FOOD
You know you want some! If you're traveling or living in China, one of life's smallest and biggest adventures is the street food.
Heads up, traditional street food vendors are quickly disappearing as China works to reduce food safety issues. This means you will now need to take control of your adventures and plan a trip to a night market, or a street food street (yes they exist). This is really the only way you will get to guarantee you will get to see a wide variety of foods in a short amount of time. Bonus: Even if you aren't penny-pinching, it's going to feel good to be full of tasty and strange foods for less than a couple dollars!
3. VISIT A TEMPLE
These temples are so much more than beautiful architecture. To tap into the real essence of the temples, spring for an audio guide or a small tour at least once. The stories you hear will help you begin to see the Temples in a whole new light! My first time in Hangzhou I visited a temple. I knew it was stunning, old, and famous but as you can imagine that is just the surface.
My second trip to this famous temple I learned about Huili, a monk from India (Birthplace of Bhuddism) visiting the area. He found a peak that resembled one in India and he asked when it had arrived here in China. Lingyin temple was then built at the foot of this mountain and it is now often referred to as one of the holiest places in China because of this peak that 'flew from afar'. I also learned about hidden caves, and temples, and Bhuddist carvings in the mountain.
My simple trip to a temple turned into a hiking trip and a chance to walk the paths of legends.
(If you want to learn more about this temple click here.
The markets of China are a great place to start interacting and testing out your language skills, or your cultural acumen. There are so many markets to choose from like the fabric, technology, tea, or antique market. All are worth a visit but if you are mildly vision impaired like myself DO NOT miss the eyeglasses market.
Talk about a stress reliever. After spending $500 USD and waiting for a 10 business days for my glasses in the US, my 15min $20 prescription frames are now my favorite. Don't have your prescription? No problem eye exams are free! Does your family want glasses too? Take their prescription and a picture and buy them a pair as well. Seriously, this is a way better gift than that "My ____ went to China, and all I got is this shirt" you were going to buy.
I've been asked, why would I visit markets when I'm stressed? The markets are so vibrant and colorful that if you are not shopping its a fun place for a walk. The best part, is I slowly started recognizing who to go to for better quality, and who has the best selection which really helps get in and out faster when I really need something.
5. PARKS/PUBLIC SPACES
Public spaces are used to the fullest. The Chinese use public spaces like no other country I have visited. Public parks are everywhere with people doing tai chi, playing badminton, dancing, singing opera karaoke, working out at the gyms, and more. This you might expect. How about a dance party in the front of your favorite mall? Oh, and that time about 10 spa employees and I stretched it out to some pop music in a parking lot! Sadly my workout partners didn't offer me any discounts but there were lots of smiles and tons of giggling!!!
The botanical gardens and other special gardens in China are very, well Chinese. They are a great window into the Chinese culture. The hunt for gardens will take you to palaces, historical homes, parks and more. Because Chinese gardens are architecture, philosophy, and microcosms of nature all harmoniously joined together. I have been so inspired that a few times I've pulled out my Chinese study notebook to start writing a poems. They were awful. But still these are some pretty inspiring places.
If you are lucky you will get to see paintings of historical figures set in the garden. If you are really lucky, you will find a quiet area to sit still and quiet for a few minutes. While you are there, keep your eyes open for the Chinese tourists and locals in traditional dress posing on bridges, and benches. #glamourshots.
If you are living in China and trying to avoid becoming a recluse, or just visiting. Consider these 5 activities to keep the stress low, and the fun factor high!