Culture shock is inevitable when visiting China for the first time! But boy is it a lot easier if you prepare yourself to see some unusual stuff. It’s been two months since I wrote my first list of 10 things that shocked me, so the list below has been ruminating in my brain for a while now.
10 (More) Things To Know Before Visiting China
1. You Will Be Stared At
The number of people who stare at me every time I leave my apartment continues to alarm me. I’m not talking about the sneaky type of staring you do while people-watching or when you’re checking out a hot guy. If you stare back at the people who are staring at you in China, they probably won’t look away. It’s the only point of culture shock out of all 20 I’ve listed on the blog so far that I’m still not okay with.
The reason they’re staring is because I’m not Chinese. Sometimes it’s just a quick glance, and sometimes it’s an old man who stops everything he’s doing to closely examine my face. Occasionally people will double-take, turn their head really dramatically, or abruptly halt everything they’re doing to re-focus their attention. More often than not, the interaction stops at staring, but occasionally I hear people say “waiguo ren” or “laowai” (which both mean “foreigner”). A few times an outspoken child caught sight of me, then pointed and yelled “WAIGUO REN!” Can you imagine if a white kid pointed at a Chinese person and yelled “FOREIGNER!” in America? I can almost guarantee you they would be reprimanded by their parents, quickly learning that what they did is unacceptable. In China, the parents look to where the kid is pointing and say something like “you’re right, that’s a foreigner”.
The fact that this is a widely accepted thing to do in China greatly annoys me. Although I do understand why it happens. I’m used to a cultural melting pot in America, and Chinese people do not grown up with the same mixture of skin colors and face shapes. I don’t believe any harm is meant by staring pointing me out, but the act itself is rather alienating. It’s a constant reminder that I’m out of my element, away from home, and I don’t belong here. The best way that I can think to handle it is with a hefty dose of humor.
2. Customer Service Expectations
I was a salesperson at Nordstrom for several years, so I have a solid idea in my head of what excellent customer service looks like. This kind of service certainly exists in China, but you’re going to be paying a pretty penny for it. The general expectation when dining out at a restaurant in China is that you will be served as efficiently as possible, your dishware will be clean, and your food will taste good. Anything beyond that is extra.
It’s common that your servers, the ladies helping you at the grocery store, and the hotel receptionist will seem very cold towards you in the same way that you would expect from a gas station cashier. They’re likely making an hourly wage with so tips or commission, so if they’re not in an over-the-top cheerful mood, why would they bother to put on that act for you? It’s simply not expected that workers will put on a fake smile and constantly ask if you need anything. The mindset is more practical than that. If you need something, ask for it!
That being said, you will definitely encounter some awesome customer service, this is really just about managing your expectations.
3. Work In Front, Customer In Back
This took me a while to realize, but it’s common for any type of storefront to be doing their work out front on the sidewalk or street, and have their showroom or seating area located in the building behind them. I’ll explain two of the shops near us to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
- There’s a shop near us that sells metal fixtures, especially window frames, from a little shop. Inside they have a showroom-type set-up lined with highly polished metal window frames. Outside on the sidewalk, there’s always at least one man doing a welding job of some kind, sparks flying and everything.
- One of my favorite place to get snacks is this shop across the street that sells roasted nuts, seeds, and other bulk snacks. Inside their compact shop they’ve got huge grain-style bags and clear plastic bins filled with an assortment of bulk snacks for you to choose from. Out front there’s always a few family members sitting on stools, cooing to their grandbaby, and working. They’ve got a huge metal thing with a spinning lever on it that they roast nuts in, and a big old wok that they do some of the other snacks in.
4. Baby Butts
Yeah, you read that right. You’re going to see a LOT of baby butts in China. This is probably because kids here start potty training early, and they’re not expected to hold it. Baby pants here have a big open slit where the crotch seam that runs from front to back would normally be, and I’m guessing they’re not expected to wear underwear, because I’ve seen so many bare butts. Also, since they’re not expected to hold it, it’s not uncommon to see a parent holding their kid while the little one pees on the sidewalk.
5. Smoking Indoors
Unless you’re coming from Las Vegas, you’ll probably be a little surprised at the places people light up in China. I just heard from an American expat that it’s technically illegal to smoke indoors in China. I’ve been in so many restaurants and public places that have prominent no smoking signs, and someone will just light up a cigarette anyways. There’s a ton of smokers in China, possibly because cigarettes are so damn cheap. I’ve found that it’s acceptable to smoke in restaurants, hospitals, elevators, government buildings, and just about everywhere else.
6. Eating and Cooking In Family Businesses
Cooking and eating a meal while keeping the shop open is totally normal here. I see a lot of business owners who have a rice cooker, stovetop, and wok just out front of their stores to cook up all their meals. There’s a small hardware store owner near us who cooks little meals for himself on an electric stove in front of his shop every afternoon and evening. Every night, the people who run that bulk snacks shop I was talking about cook up a family-style meal in the wok that stays out front. Once, when we walked into our local stationary shop, the owner was eating from a big pot of stew with a friend, and she asked us if we had eaten yet. That little gesture seriously moved me. If we were hungry, he would have fed us, no questions asked, all in her place of business.
7. Clothing Sizes
I’m not a small girl by any means, but I wear an average clothing size in America. I go for a large at places like Forever 21. In China I would probably pick the XXL if that even existed. When I walk into an intriguing looking shop, the sizes all look somewhere between a Forever 21 XS and medium. I was in a clothing store the other day that only had sizes “S” and “M”, and their biggest size in sleepwear was an “F”. May as well write “fat” on there. These size restrictions do not apply at all to Chinese women, just their clothing, so hopefully this mystery will be solved before my time here is up.
8. Road Safety Expectations
On our first cab ride in China, I instinctively reached for the seat belt only to discover it was completely buried underneath the cloth covering that stretched over the entire back seat. On the next cab ride, same thing. When we arrived in Nanjing, it didn’t take me long to notice the way the kids were riding on the back of their parent’s motorbikes – no helmets, and no seat belts. In fact, it seems really uncommon to wear a helmet while riding a motorized scooter here. All this has added up to my now-lowered expectation for general road safety in China. Luckily, it seems like drivers here tend to be more reactive and far more likely to stop for you even if you don’t have the right-of-way.
I’m shaking my head trying to figure out how to talk about the megaphone epidemic here without swearing like a sailor. If you’ve seen my Gulou Vlog, you probably remember that guy who rides his bike around the neighborhood blaring a repeating recorded message from his megaphone. Turns out there’s an estimated 3 people who do this around our neighborhood alone. This is also a sales tactic for clothing stores trying to attract customers. They’ll either have a woman standing out front yelling into it, or they’ll have a megaphone propped up on a shelf near the doorway with a repeating recorded message. The only thing I have to say about this is… why?!
10. Cold Drinks
I love ice water year-round, and I especially love cracking open a cold beer in the summertime. However, according to traditional Chinese medicine, cold drinks are bad for your health. Because of this, restaurants will serve room temperature beer, and the convenience stores don’t always carry cold drinks. When I buy a bottle of water from a vending machine and it comes out cold, I rejoice.
There’s no water purification system built into the plumbing, so you have to boil tap water in China before drinking it. You’ve got about a 98% chance of receiving a steaming hot glass when you ask for water at a restaurant. Think it would be different in the blazing hot summertime? Nope. I asked my husband how they could drink hot water in the summer, and he replied “how do you drink cold water in the winter?” Fair enough.
In case you missed the first list of things that shocked me when I arrived in China, click here!
Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon 🙂
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