China is the type of place where it seems like just about anything could happen. One day you’re walking down the street, a Ferrari passing your right while a man gets an open-blade shave on the sidewalk to your left. People are fishing in the river that runs through the big, polluted city and the pineapple vendors carve the fruit and sell it for 50 cents from little push-carts all day long. It’s a confusing place that throws just about everyone for a loop, but the language learning, teaching, and living options there are enriching, exciting, and an opportunity to really get to know a completely different culture. As with most new places, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly to contend with, especially in China.
China is the second most populated country in the world. The staggering population sizes of many of its major cities outnumber the entire population of smaller European nations and even Australia.
For this reason, don’t expect a lot of personal space in the larger cities. There will be times when, on public transport, you have no choice but to stand sandwiched in-between loads of people. There will be much pushing, shoving, and your patience will be more tested than ever before as people light up cigarettes in enclosed spaces.
Naturally, this brings me to queuing, or waiting one’s turn. This does not happen in China. People tend to cut in line without giving it a second thought. When busses arrive during rush hour, don’t expect to get on first just because you’ve been waiting there the longest. Elbows up, and push on through. It’s the only way.
The same goes for waiting for the bathroom, or to order food. You may have to tap someone on the shoulder and indicate, “Hey, I was here first,” at which point most people will act surprised and let you go right ahead. Don’t forget that sometimes in China, you just have to be aggressive (but in as friendly a way as possible) about getting your turn!
Meals are traditionally communal in China. This means that in a group or even when eating as a duo, it’s common to order a lot of dishes and to share them all. Everyone gets his/her own bowl of rice which acts as a personal “plate”, which you pile your small bites of food onto. Use your chopsticks to pick up pieces of meat and vegetables from the communal dishes and place it into your rice bowl.
These communal-style meals are an excellent way to get to understand the new culture you’re living in and to try all kinds of new foods. You may never want to return to individual dishes again!
Sense of Community
As evidenced by communal meals, the sense of community and generosity is truly impressive in Chinese culture. Around the dinner table, people are always refilling everyone else’s rice dishes and tea cups before their own. After the meal, there’s always a scuffle over who is going to pay the bill, because everyone wants to be generous and take care of the whole bill!
Don’t Forget You’re a Foreigner
It is likely that you will never stop being called a “lao wai” or “wai guo ren” in China. Both terms mean foreigner and, if you don’t look remotely Chinese, you will always get this label. It isn’t meant to be an insult or to make you feel awkward, it’s simply an observation and a way for locals to understand who and what they’re dealing with.
That Goes on the Sidewalk?
Trash, spit, and even human defecation are all common to see on the sidewalks in China. Spitting in China is pretty infamous, and even busses are equipped with buckets for people to spit into. Nary a day will pass without the sound of someone hocking up a loogie interrupting your otherwise peaceful day. Litter is also pretty common to see all around China, quite unfortunately. Lastly, especially in the smaller towns, it’s quite common to see parents bringing their kids outside to use the bathroom, right on the sidewalk. I’m not sure why, this is something I never came to understand. Like many things in China, it’s just the way it is!
There are many major cultural differences between most Western societies and China. Things like Chinese meals and the sense of generosity are enough to warm one’s heart enough to forget about the pushing and shoving and strange sidewalk sightings. All in all, China is a wonderful ride through an entirely different culture and an experience everyone should have at least once in life.