My first column and cartoon depiction

My byline debuted in China Daily‘s Friday newspaper and it feels good to see that name in print again. I wrote a piece connecting my experiences so far in Beijing to life growing up in Iowa for an expat column called “Hotpot”. I also

found out earlier this week they wanted to draw a cartoon of me — so click on the link and you can see for yourself. Does it look like me?

Here’s my China Daily piece. You can read my full essay and see a color version of my cartoon at China Daily’s website. 

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I arrived in Beijing a mere three weeks ago; a native Iowan of the United States far from the landlocked Midwestern state I’ve called home. It wasn’t too long after I stepped off the plane that I plunged face-first into this strange land filled with steamed buns, bare baby bums and flocks of umbrella-toting tourists. I was eager to embrace all the differences life back home never gave me and willingly flung myself – armed with chopsticks and a Chinese dictionary phone app – into chaotic Beijing. Yet soon after I arrived I noticed subtle similarities between this teeming global metropolis and my fairly modest state. It’s laughable at first to try and compare Iowa City, where I live, with a population of 70,000 people, and Beijing, which has roughly 20 million people. But while the parallels may be small, they do exist.

Iowans know a lot about rural life as an agricultural state and depend on it, like China, for jobs. We also know a lot about stereotypes associated with rural life. It’s Iowa where we grow corn. Also, for the record, I did not grow up on a farm growing corn or milking cows, just like not all Chinese residents grow up clad in straw hats and spending their days ankle-deep in paddy fields.

Iowa is also known for raising quality pigs, which we love to eat and so does China. A 2013Forbes report says that pork makes up nearly three-fourths of the total meat consumed inChina and the United States Department of Agriculture projects that the consumption will onlyrise. Iowa is the largest pork producer in the US.

Besides, Iowa’s Governer Terry Branstad and China’s President Xi Jinping are friends. Thebond formed when the Hawkeye state gave  Xi – then a local Party leader during an exchange trip – a good ole’ Midwestern welcome back in the 1980s. Xi last visited the state in 2012 and many Iowans are proud of this unique tie that’s a spectacle of sorts on the national stage.

Both Iowa and China have a lot of experience with an aging population. Iowa has one of the largest concentrations of elderly people — 65 and older — in the United States. In 2012, the state had an elderly population of more than 47,000 people, according to the US Census Bureau. The state ranks fifth in the percentage of its elderly population and predictions are the population will grow.

China has a reported 200 million people over the age of 60,according to various news reports. In Beijing, I often see theelderly out and about, walking, talking to their neighbors, orplaying with grandchildren. It reminds me of the issues that bothregions face with a significant aging population. These issues include healthcare, sufficient elderly services and a younger generation stepping up to take care of those who once raised them.

On a lighter note, I quickly recognized our mutual love fornoodles. As a college student, instant noodles are pretty much a regular and affordable staplein my diet. In Beijing noodles are a part of everyday cuisine and an essential part of northern Chinese dishes. I’m happy to report that noodles continue to be a prominent part of my mealsand are just as affordable.

I’ve also experienced uncomfortable heat in both Iowa and Beijing. Iowa can be unbearablyhot in the summer, with humidity that leads to regular sweating. I’ve sweated a few timesduring my Beijing life, however I must confess it’s usually at dinnertime while I’m slurpingdown my spicy beef noodles.

Who knew I’d travel more than 10,000 kilometers to be swept away in a city both unique and sprinkled with themes I’ve long known since childhood. Despite stark differences in customs and language there are some universal issues we share. And if a Beijinger sat down next to an Iowan on the subway, it would turn out to be an interesting conversation.


Here's a photo taken from the actual newspaper. Drawn by Zhang Jieye / For China Daily
Here’s a photo I took of the cartoon in the actual newspaper. Drawn by Zhang Jieye / For China Daily

Social (media) life in China

“What’s your WeChat ID?”

This, followed by someone whipping out their phone and revealing a QR code shaped like a smiling toast, has replaced the “add me on Facebook” ritual in America.  Although Facebook can tout a global audience, China’s strict web censorship makes accessing Facebook “difficult” (you have to establish a VPN) and is therefore not the best way to reach someone. It’s been just over a month since I arrived in China and I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve added on Facebook.

My WeChat "wall"
My WeChat “wall”/Screenshot

My  WeChat friend list, however, has expanded quite rapidly within the past four weeks. I’ve also started to encourage several friends from the U.S. to add WeChat. (Add me! My username is asullivan1)

WeChat is part texting platform and part Facebook but is primarily used on your phone*. You can add WeChat users and have private texting conversations, complete with a stellar variety of  emojis*, amongst people and a group of people. I, personally, love the emoji selection on WeChat and quickly grew accustom to using emojis to convey my thoughts. (They’re far superior than the ones you can use with iPhone texting).

(* Posts on emojis and buying phone plans in China to be forthcoming)

In addition to texting, users can also use a walkie talkie app, video call and voice message back and forth that’s very, very popular among Chinese users. WeChat also has a profile with photos and a wall where users can upload photos, post links and their thoughts. People can ‘like’ and comment on the posts their friends upload.

WeChat had over 396 million users in February 2014, according to Danwei, a Chinese media analyst company.

WeChat is by far an integral part of my daily life in China. I quickly developed contacts through WeChat and of my contacts, I only have phone numbers for a few of them. When I email a source for a story, they promptly respond with their phone number and their WeChat id and we continue communicating through WeChat.  Texting someone on WeChat is a first response and texting is only done if they have problems accessing wifi. Calling is definitely not a primary way of communication.

WeChat is only slightly like Facebook but is much more internal. On Facebook, if I like Friend A’s photo, A’s friends (non-mutual included) can see that I liked that photo. Not true for WeChat, where I can only see the comments and ‘likes’ made by our mutual friends.

QQ logo/Screenshot
QQ logo/Screenshot

Tip for future China travelers: If you’re staying here for more than two days and will be socializing with people — add WeChat. It’s the one thing everyone has and the first way people choose to communicate with each other. Plus it’s an easy way to continue to communicate after you’ve moved on to other countries or returned home.

Europe has a similar app, WhatsApp, and although this version has caught on more in the US than WeChat, it’s interesting to see that there isn’t an equivalent in the U.S. For me, texting and email has remained the two ways I communicate with people back in the states.

Apart from WeChat, I also use QQ, basically an instant messenger (like yahoo, AOL, or MSN) to connect with friends and co-workers. Users can send files over QQ, which I use at work for editing articles.