Participating in the Chinese dog-eat-dog society made me seriously consider the (unwritten) rules and faux pas of the west. Enfin, a classic example of a culture shock in China. I know, I know, there is no such thing as “The Chinese”. That would be the same as saying “The Americans” or “The Brazilians”. I spent three months in China and have encountered a roller-coaster of emotions there, mostly to do with the locals’ complete lack of politeness and manners. The European, westernized, “I’m so sorry for brushing my jacket’s fabric against yours in the subway during rush hour” kind of politeness.
After my trip I had so many questions: “why does this shirtless grandpa wear his pants up to his chest?” and “why do these five salesmen, who are sitting literally next to each other, all play a horribly distorted and far too loudly spoken single-sentence advertisement on their megaphones in a endless mind-crunching loop?”. Although I still don’t have all the answers, I kept a few notes on what annoyed me most. In this satirical article you can relive my frustrations.
A quick disclaimer before I continue: the short stories written below are personal experiences described as I saw them, and are not intended to offend anyone or influence the reader’s opinion in a negative way. I’m just writing down what happened and how I felt about it. Don’t we all love to rant sometimes?
When even body language doesn’t work
I guess there is a reason why very little people in China speak English. After all, one in five people in the world is Chinese. If anything, we should start learning Mandarin. It doesn’t make things easier for English-speaking travelers though.
A typical visit to any store starts with the staff freaking the F out. A foreigner has just entered their store and since none of the staff speaks English they mutually agree it’s best to just ignore the person. If that doesn’t work it’s on to plan B which is to yell for someone in the back; a help call aimed at a shop owner or boss who speaks English. One word of English. Usually the word “no”. Don’t even think of using body language, since our concept of body language doesn’t work well in China. Counting using your hands for instance won’t work since the Chinese use different signs, using only one hand to count to 10. Why the West hasn’t copied this method yet remains a mystery to me.
Back to the startled shopkeeper. By this time a posse of 5 employees and customers has surrounded me, trying desperately to figure out what the hell it is that I want. Which is usually a bowl of noodles, in a noodle shop. Not entirely rocket science, is it? Somehow, with a lot of awkward pointing and facial grimaces, I receive my soup and walk away to hear the usual post-foreigner discussion and giggling fading behind me.
Public transport (or: a battle for life and death)
Although trains are an excellent way to travel within China, they are an experience on themselves. Sure, it’s no India from what I’ve heard, but there are enough dynamics to write about. It starts with queuing up to get a ticket. A queue is perhaps the single best example of the cultural differences between China and the Western world. First of all, it’s totally accepted to spit while queuing. I’m not talking about a gentle “I’m so sorry but I have the flu and don’t want to swallow this disgusting stuff so I’ll spit in this napkin”; I’m talking about a full-blown espresso-machine-sounding collection of phlegm followed by a torpedo launch aimed at the floor, inches away from your feet.
When in a queue, remember to keep a close distance (your chest should touch the back(pack) of the person in front of you) otherwise the others might think you’re not in line and casually cut in. Good luck trying to explain it’s rude and that the person should stand behind you since it was obvious that you were in the queue. On that note, it is perfectly ok to just ignore the queue whatsoever and walk up to the window and yell your demand to the clerk; you’ll get helped immediately and without a grudge.
The steel prison-style gates found in every train station are an utmost necessity
Once you’ve reached the ticket window I hope you have prepared yourself for the linguistic struggle with the person behind it. There are numerous of variables: the day of departure (tickets have to be bought well in advance), departure time, train type, seat or bed type and the total amount. One way is to ask the person/accommodation you’re staying at to write you a note with the ticket details in Chinese characters.
If you’re staying with a fellow foreigner with equally bad Chinese skills, like I often encountered while Couchsurfing in China, I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s called Cnvol.com and is a English-written website which gives you plenty of information about train times, ticket prices, options and, the best part, you can let the site generate your desired train ticket request in Chinese characters. Take a picture of this well formed sentence (starting with “Hello, I would like to”), show it to the ticket salesperson and you’re done! Unless the tickets for that day are sold out. If that’s the case: good luck.
Once you walk into the waiting room, ticket in hand, don’t forget to give the audience a naughty look at the end of the catwalk since all eyes will be on you the minute you walk in. Once you find a spot to sit down be sure to relax, since at about half an hour before your train arrives the public announcement system will yell something indistinct and half of the waiting room will stand up and queue. The steel prison-style gates found in every train station are an utmost necessity; once the door opens the battle for the seats begin. No women or children are spared: I’ve seen an older lady with her toddler-sized grandkid getting squashed by the luggage of a businessman who for whatever reason was in a major hurry. The victims took the critical hits like true warriors; no “pardons” or “sorrys” were wasted on either side.
Once you’ve participated in the mass-sprint for the train you shouldn’t be surprised to find that your seat has been taken. Simply showing your ticket to the person sitting in your seat will usually get the person to unwillingly stand for the next 14 hours or so. If you are lucky enough to have bought a sleeper ticket chances are that, if you’ve picked the lower bed, there will be 4 people sitting on your bed. Two of them are the people sleeping above you, and the other two are their relatives who are sleeping next-door. Once you’ve wriggled your way to the only free corner of your bed be ready to be the subject of conversation for the first half hour, in which all people in your cabin will participate except you.
Your trip will offer plenty for your senses: the smell of cigarette smoke (it’s allowed to smoke in between the carriages but the smoke quickly spreads throughout the whole carriage since the doors are always open), the view of your fellow cabin members chewing on chicken fingers and the sound of people using their oral espresso machines in the bathroom. Speaking of the bathroom: be sure to bring your own toilet paper (since none is provided) or it’s going to be a long, long ride.
China’s (lack of) traffic rules
Don’t get me started on the traffic. Chinese drivers are amongst the worst I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Dozens of written and unwritten rules for driving a car somehow don’t apply in this country. The bigger the car, the more priority the driver expects to get on the road. I once had the opportunity to be a passenger in a huge Isuzu jeep, which proved this point flawlessly. Other (smaller) cars were overtaken on the left and right side, yelled at, honked at and headlights were flashed to indicate that they had about 2 seconds to pull into another lane before getting smashed into.
Pedestrians are like ants or peasants, too poor to buy a car so therefore insignificant. The signature dick-move, which I truly hate, is when you’re walking next to a main road and a car from a side road slowly pulls up onto the sidewalk and then halts (knowing that he cannot merge onto the main road) and looks at you as if it’s the most common thing in the world. Zero fucks given. I’ve even seen scooters drive 30 km/h on the sidewalk honking their horn for people to get out of the way. I honestly think it’s safer to walk anywhere but the sidewalk.
Being an instant celebrity in China
As in India (so I heard) people in China can have an obsession with Westerners. Depending on the person, this can be either a huge ego boost or a huge annoyance. I’ve had days where I would get lost in non-touristic cities. For your information: “getting lost” in China basically means being in a non-touristic area for a second, since asking directions is impossible and street name plates and maps are non-existent or harder to decode than the Da Vinci Code.
Assuming that you don’t speak the local language fluently, of course. “HELLO!!”, someone shouts about a second after I passed him. I decide not to turn around this time, since it isn’t the first time this happened today. The first couple of times I cheerfully stopped and turned, only to find a grumpy grandpa’s face staring at me with no intention of further contact. After the 5th or 6th time I started to ignore these shout-outs. A fellow traveler told me that for them it’s a win-win, especially if it’s coming from a youngster in a group of friends. If you don’t respond, the boy or girl will act like you haven’t heard them. If you do respond, well, they’ve just gained some social points by successfully interacting with a foreigner and conveying their extensive knowledge of the English language.
Occasionally you’ll even get compliments. “Leg hair. Different. Blond” made me blush once. “Welcome to China, where are you from?” is a less common and more pleasant opening, but is usually followed by a request to take a picture together (with the whole family of course, posing thrice).
China’s accidental hipsters
I can be short about the general sense of fashion in China: there isn’t any. Of course there are the fashion hubs here and there in the bigger cities, but take a quick look around on a busy square and you won’t find anything that would be worn on a catwalk. Unless of course some elder lady or gent gets is so wrong that they end up to be an accidental hipster.
The animal print hype of the ’60 has finally caught on in China too. 40-something ladies parade proudly with their much too tight or much too loose leggings or training pants. To top off the perfectly stereotype “old Asian lady look” a short black perm is the standard for any woman above 50. And what’s the deal with couples both wearing the same t-shirts?
Beyond culture shock in China: the perks of being an outsider
I’m happy to show the flipside of my culture shock in China; it definitely wasn’t all bad during my three month stay. I’ll discuss the perks of being a foreigner in China and the senior citizens living in China. Mel Brooks got it right: It’s good to be the king, or in this case foreigner. One (slightly cooky) local told me that my body is worth than a Chinese one.
Although I find that a weird thought, I did notice some strange behavior which ratifies this. I once was in a slightly awkward position where a local bus wouldn’t depart because there weren’t enough seats for everyone. Since I got on the bus last, I would assume that the driver would somehow make known that he wanted me off the bus. He didn’t, but instead picked a random passenger who after a soft sigh stood up and disembarked. Perhaps he didn’t want to deal with the language barrier.
I spotted similar behavior in local hostels. After checking in it is vital to put your stuff all over your bed to claim it. No need to be subtle here; take out your towel, clothes and other invaluable items and spread them out evenly on your duvet. Once you head out for your first day of exploring, there is a chance that your bed is still yours when you return. Being too subtle with your claiming actions or forgetting to execute them altogether (by shoving your whole bag under your bed) can result in finding a Chinese tourist sitting or laying on your bed. Then again, it only takes a couple of points and awkward smiles to claim your spot back.
“Someone’s been sleeping in my bed”, said the Papa bear
The magic thumb
When it comes to hitchhiking, China is one of the easiest countries I have been able to get a ride. One day my Couchsurfing host in Qingdao proposed to go hiking in a mountainous area not too far from the city. We’d take a taxi there and hitchhike back. ‘Hitchhiking here is easy, I do it all the time’, he assured me. After a wonderful hike the evening slowly began to set in. We walked down the main road towards the city, which was about a 45 minute car ride away. We stuck our thumbs out, but no luck.
A couple more cars passed us, but after about 10 minutes a car stopped, and another one right behind it. What a luxury! We chose the flashy BMW. What I haven’t told you is that my couchsurfer was an American, but also happened to be near-fluent in Mandarin. That helped tremendously, both in letting the driver know where we were going and in keeping a light conversation going in the car. I’m not sure if it’s always this easy to hitchhike in China, but I’d like to think it is.
I am sitting in the CFY, a Chinese Hot Pot serving chain, when a young couple approaches me: ‘Excuse me, can we join you?’, the girl asks in slightly broken but surprisingly good English. ‘Sure!’, I say. Our cultural exchange begins with the standard ‘Where are you from?’ type questions, and to be honest doesn’t really progress far beyond that. The girl speaks better English than the guy, which means she has to translate bits for him. My screwed-up accent (one of the few things traveling has ruined for me) doesn’t help much either.
When it’s time to pay the bill, the couple insists to pay the whole bill. I’m surprised and offer to pay my share, which just makes them insist even more. I give in. We part ways and I can’t help but thinking: maybe the Chinese aren’t so bad after all…
China’s amazing seniors
Remember businessman Bill? He showed me around at his family’s factories near Shanghai, which I visited to do some research on starting a business. Sitting next to Bill in his white Isuzu monster-truck (that’s what his big pick-up truck felt like anyway) while he was speeding on the highway was fun, but occasionally scary as hell. He didn’t have a single bit of respect for his fellow road users; everybody had to get out of his lane, and quickly too.
A particularly memorable event was when an old lady, probably a grandmother, fearlessly crossed a 5-lane highway. Bill did not like this one bit, and flashed his lights and honked his horn fiercely, which made the poor lady have to sprint to the other side. Not cool man, not cool!
Speaking of old people: maybe I’m wrong, but life for senior citizens in China seems to be either rather enjoyable or pure hell. I haven’t seen a single wheelchair on the streets. It seems that older people either ride their scooters everywhere or walk stubbornly bent-over with a cane. I’ve seen a lot of grandmothers actively raising their grandchildren too, and I was told this is because both parents would be working long hours.
When the seniors get even more senior, they tend to get even more active practicing Tai Chi, sword fighting or Kung Fu in the public parks. The sight of it is quite charming. The men tend to play a game called Go in the streets, which usually draws a crowd surrounding the players. I even saw a construction worker and a police officer play the game during business hours, both wearing their uniforms. Only in China…