Maybe you’ve watched Disney’s cartoon Mulan a few hundred times and have a strong hankering to find your own Shang or to see The Great Wall. Perhaps you’re intrigued by how hard people say the language is or have come to buy “luxury goods” for cheap. Great! China is an awesome land with good food, loads of history and scenic places. But, for whatever reason you visit –it helps to come bit prepared to ensure minimal culture shock.
After living in China for nearly five years, I’ve made a list of things I wish people would have told me before I came. I’ve narrowed it down to my top 12 quirks, here.
12. Nearly Naked Babies
Who doesn’t love cute babies? If you love little kids, you’re in luck as the recent dissolution of the one child policy into a two+ child policy led to an explosion of pregnant women and babies in China. What’s more, since babies here tend to wear crotch-less pants, you literally see more of them than you ever wanted! Toddlers are sometimes seen wearing a traditional embroidered long red bib without pants, too, in the summer.
When a child has to “go” often a parent or grandparent swoops down before the child gets too far and holds them over a bush, a sewage gutter, or even against the side of a building or lamp post to do their dirty work – worst case scenario is they let them go on the train next to you…
- Chinese clothing sizes are whack
Every retailer has its own sizing measurements. Nothing is standard. Don’t trust them! Some clothing brands start at L for “small,” and I’ve seen some go all the way to 6XL, written as XXXXXXL (If that doesn’t kill your self esteem, I don’t know what will). Also, women, don’t bare cleavage (or shoulders in general). It’s considered impolite outside of big cities, but wearing booty shorts are okay if you have a “small butt!”
- Hotel rooms
Your room key unlocks electricity: If, on the rare occasion your hotel room comes with a fridge, and you put food into your fridge and then take your room key card out of the card power port, don’t expect your fridge to keep your food cold when you’re gone (also make sure that said fridge is first plugged in). That key card powers everything: your lights, AC, and heater (heated floors if you’re up north). Also, don’t be afraid if it takes longer than 10 minutes for hot water in the shower to heat up. I once had a solar-powered shower in Zhejiang Province, and it would take up to an hour to heat water on cloudy days…Additionally, many showers lack a shower curtain. Some showers are even located directly above the toilet with a drain nearby. If that is the case, take care not so spray water over everything. I once had a shower situated directly over a squatty potty, and let’s just say I slipped and did not have a fun time.
Boil tap water before drinking, cooking or brushing your teeth. Most hotels offer at least a small bottle or two of free bottled water per night – unlike in the states where that is usually an extra charge. However, make sure that anything else edible the hotel comes with does not incur an extra charge if you eat it! Some hotels even offer packages of cigarettes, condoms, and underwear for a small fee.
Furthermore, not all hotels take foreigners! Some may even kick you out at their discretion. I once had authorities come to my hotel room to make sure I wasn’t a reporter (front desk was worried about the stamps in my passport), so be prepared for questions about where you’ve traveled from time to time and have copies of any important documents with you.
- Strangers don’t smile at other strangers, but you can pet strange children!
You will get weird looks if you smile at anything other than a baby or young child. Don’t even think about hugs! Fun note – Chinese are taught that Americans don’t like hugs, for some odd reason. Weird, right!? However, most people don’t mind if you pick up or caress a random kid. It takes a village (or densely populated nation) …
- Watch out for freebies, overly nice people might be trying to use you
This can happen anywhere, but niceness often comes with a price. I wasn’t expecting this and was a victim of it here last year. Just because someone cozies up to you and acts like your new best friend, be wary of what exactly they ask you to do – if anything! Also watch out for taxis and car rides that will try to overcharge you because you are foreign.
- If you look foreign you may be invited and paraded around as a pet friend
Hey, it’s cool in China to know a foreigner and tell everyone you know. You, as a foreigner, may get invited to outings and get-togethers on the sole basis of you looking “foreign enough” for their social media posts and pictures. Some people may even seek to pay to “rent” you for the day. These jobs can range from endorsing brands to standing in as a fake significant other. Also, if you look foreign, be prepared for constantly having your picture taken with or without your consent. In larger cities, this may not happen as often, but out in smaller cities with little foreigners, prepare for this quirk to manifest strongly. Additionally, I’m sorry black friends, your hair WILL most likely be touched by random passersby.
- Cars have right of way
If you are a pedestrian, it’s best to cross intersections in groups, particularly with you in the middle being cushioned by everyone else. Moreover, everyone jaywalks, just be careful how you do it. Don’t assume a car will stop for you in any situation (even a crosswalk), and you will be fine! I’ve made this mistake plenty of times while walking or driving on my electric motorbike and have narrowly missed being run over. You get used to it.
Another point on cars (including buses, trucks motorbikes, and scooters), honking is used constantly. Sometimes it means that someone is passing, merging, behind someone, to tell someone to hurry up, and much more. Expect constant honking day or night. Bring earplugs if you are a light sleeper.
- Wechat, Alipay and Taobao are EVERYTHING.
You think Applepay is good? Just you wait. If you plan on staying and/or working in China for more than a month, having Wechat and Alipay are a must. I prefer wechat, but Alipay allows you to Taobao things easily (China’s version of Amazon.com). It amazes me now what I can get that I couldn’t seven years ago! Stuff such as American jerky, tortillas, tampons, even Kinder eggs are a click away! It used to be hard to get imported goods or have things shipped to you in China. Now with Tmall or Taobao (baopals is a good website if your Chinese is bad), you can order almost anything and have it delivered within about three days.
Additionally, Wechat is basically whatsapp or facetime with tons of extra perks. Suppose one wants to call a friend, buy movie tickets and order take out at the exact same time? Maybe during this phonecall you happened to remember that you needed to pay your utility bill. No problem-o! Wechat lets you do all this and MUCH more. Calling a Didi (China’s version of uber) using Wechat can even save you a few dollars instead of taking a taxi.
Edit: I’m told you can connect foreign credit cards to these apps now! Huzzah for convenience!
- Drinking and smoking culture
More so in the North than in the South, will women drink with you and sometimes smoke. Anywhere else though, it might be considered strange and unlady-like for women to do either. If you are invited and your host hears you can drink, as a foreign woman, be prepared to be toasted up the wazoo.
On the other hand, foreign guys are assumed to be able to handle your liquor. You WILL be toasted to your health, your wealth, your relationships, your family members, etc. etc. The more drunk you are, the more your host will feel that you are having a good time. Sometimes people will toast with beer or wine. Most often it’ll be with baijiu (China’s own version of firewater that tastes like a mixture of kerosene and rat poison). Men smoke A LOT because it’s considered manly and they be manly men.
The drinking age is supposed to be 18, but no one stops middle schoolers from buying booze. Once at a picnic, my eighth graders proudly (to my embarrassment) presented me with cans of rum in front of other teachers…It was 9am…
Side note, should you feel adventurous and like losing your eyesight. Super strong Everclear is available for mere cents to the dollar!
- Cleanliness standards
Things are not as spic and span as they are in the west. They’re just not. Eating out, most times entails opening a sealed set of bowls and utensils, but even then my coworkers and friends encourage rinsing them out with hot water before using. Please don’t eat something that has been dropped on a table since that table probably was probably wiped down with a dirty rag before you got there, if at all. Be sure to always boil water that is not already bottled. NEVER drink straight from the tap, and do not brush your teeth with tap water. Diarrhea is so common that it is openly talked about. Luckily there is usually a pharmacy around every block. Fun note – antibiotics, birth-control, etc are super cheap and easily accessible! A one month packet of birth control in China goes for about $5!
Always carry hand-sanitizer and toilet paper as many bathrooms (and sometimes households) lack hand soap and paper towels. Be prepared to be told not to flush toilet paper as many pipes can’t seem to handle it. If in a rural area, expect public restrooms to not have plumbing, stall doors, or even dividers that are taller than your waist, let alone be separated by gender.
- Racism is rampant
You will get the occasional local who’s traveled to west, but most Chinese have never and may never leave the mainland, or the continent of Asia. Therefore, most Chinese only know what they are exposed to in what little media is allowed in.
While there are many ethnic minorities in China, I’ve encountered a strong disconnect with trying to explain culture along with nationality versus race and ethnicity. Many Chinese will openly discriminate based on the color of your skin and are very confused when you don’t confirm their expectations. Many feel that to be a “native” English speaker from, say the U.K., Canada, or the USA, one can only be white, and if you are part anything else, that you must be from that other region of the world, especially if it is your father who is anything other than white (deep rooted Confucian patriarchy is partly to blame). I have often seen that if your parents are from India or China, for instance, but if you were born in the states, Chinese people have a hard time believing that you actually are American. To me, this is frustrating considering the first Americans were brown and never wanted to be white, but ya know…
It’s not meant to totally be mean. One must accept that this is a quirk left over from colonialism that is ever-so-slowly changing. However, it’s true that being a white person in China opens you up to loads of opportunities that one would not receive if one were black or brown-skinned (expect that summer tan you’ve worked so hard on to get criticized). White and white-passing folks can get paid for a wide variety of “white monkey jobs” aka jobs where your only criteria is being a white person with basic English. Many regular job listings (such as teaching English) will ask for a “native” English speaker, but stipulate that only “Native English Speakers” aka Caucasians from the U.K., Canada, or USA may apply, (for some reason not Australia) leading many Eastern Europeans to lie about where they are from to get these jobs.
On a side note, I’m extremely glad, that the movie, “Black Panther,” played in China in 2019. Chinese reviews and opinions were mixed, some to the extent that they thought the movie had too many black people and were confused as to why a black man was the hero. Others had no issue with the movie and thought it was cool (mainly young people). I’m also glad citizens are willing to debate 2019’s New Year’s gala blackface incident. This gives me hope that we can change the mindset of judging based on the color of one’s skin, if not within this generation, within the next one or two.
- The Spitting
Ah, the sounds of hacking and loogies flying first thing in the morning. Men and women alike, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a public park or indoors waiting in line at a Walmart, people are generally going to spit on the ground wherever you go. This can be very jarring and disgusting for first time foreigners to China.
It’s also a main reason Chinese people take off their shoes (or wear disposable plastic shoe covers) before entering someone’s home. The streets can be pretty nasty at times having to dodge peeing babies, flying loogies and who knows what.
There’s not much to be done about it in a country rampant with chain-smokers, pollution, and antibiotic-resistant illnesses, although it is nice some places are trying to discourage locals from spitting in public.
Another note on spitting: because nearly all meat is cooked bone-in (part of the superstition of a tasty meal) and seafood often comes with all the bits attached, you are going to need to do something about those choice pieces you don’t want to swallow. Almost always, people spit bones and other inedible pieces of food onto the table or floor. It’s hard to get away from, as most meals are eaten “family style” with maybe a small bowl and drinking cup to oneself (See my blog post on dining etiquette here). All the dishes are communal and often pile on top of one another. Sometimes there is a “trash” plate offered for you, but often people leave large messes of shells and gnawed bones next to their plates (be sure to leave a bit of food on your plate when eating, too, to show that you’ve had your fill).
Hope this helps any upcoming trips! China is one of my favorite countries, but it helps to know what to expect so that you can focus more on the enjoyable aspects, such as visiting the Terracotta Warriors or watching a dragon dance. Like with traveling anywhere, it’s not always easy. Just remember to be careful, mind the local culture (along with where you step), and have fun!