China is a large and complex country. With a population of over 1.3 billion and a 5000-year history, it is not surprising that there are significant differences between China and the Western world.
As an Australian coming to China for the first time, I was completely at odds with my environment. I wasn’t a fish out of water – I was a fish in the frying pan! I quickly found out that the only way to survive in China is to go with the flow. If you don’t swim, you’ll sink. And if you don’t swim fast, you’ll be caught and cooked.
Below are some of my learnings from spending 3 months in China.
1. China is a loud place.
Chinese generally do not lower their voice when speaking in public (in fact, quite often they raise it). You may find yourself on the street next to a man shouting at someone on his mobile phone or be stuck in the middle of a group of people having a loud conversation on a bus. There are more people per square meter here than anywhere else in the world. Chinese have learned to speak loudly to be heard. Get used it. Bring noise canceling headphones to help drown out the background.
2. Space is at a premium.
You will often find yourself squashed or pushed around in public spaces. Lines for food, tickets or customer service are seldom orderly. Taking public transport is like going to a rock concert. Be prepared to have “your” space invaded, but learn to hold your ground firmly. Otherwise, you will be walked over.
3. Outside is dirty; the home is clean.
Chinese have learned to keep a clear separation between anything outdoor and indoor. Clothes and shoes are to be worn outdoors, whilst pajamas and slippers are for inside. Everything worn outdoors should be washed thoroughly. Hands should always be cleaned upon entering an indoor space. This makes perfect sense. I think this is a mindset that more Westerners should adopt.
4. Chinese treat their guests like royalty.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Chinese person’s home for dinner, you will be presented with a banquet of eight or nine dishes. Your glass will never be empty. You will be very well looked after the entire evening. Chinese hospitality is second to none. Enjoy it, thank your hosts for having you, and try to repay the favor if possible.
5. Spicy Chinese food is on a completely different scale to that of its Western counterpart.
In Australia, chili is generally an after thought. You might add some chili sauce to your steak or shake some chili powder on hot chips. In many Chinese cuisines, however, chili is the main ingredient. Know what is on the table before you eat and know your limits. Your stomach is not used to taking the level of heat that many Chinese can. Eat smart or you may end up in hospital.
6. You will say “ganbei” a lot.
When drinking in China, you “cheers” your companions before every sip (or before downing the whole bottle). Look your drinking companion in the eye and say “ganbei”. It is a fun and social way to drink. You will quickly learn to love it.
7. Toilet paper is valuable commodity.
Be sure to always have a packet of tissues on hand as it is not always available in public toilets. There is nothing worse than being stuck in the loo halfway through your business and discovering there is no paper available! Whilst we are on the topic of toilets, you will need to be prepared to use the Asian style squat toilets. They are not as bad as they initially seem and are actually more hygienic than Western toilets. You can find some useful tips on how to use a squat toilet here.
8. Road rules do not exist.
Cars do not give way to pedestrians. Buses and trucks do not give way to cars. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the bully. Tread carefully when walking in public and try to cross the road with other people. Watch out for bikes and electric scooters – they are silent and can come out of nowhere!
9. Do not travel during Chinese New Year.
In the Western world, we have holidays at Christmas, Easter, the middle of the year and often one other time during the year. In China, there is only one main holiday – Chinese New Year. It is the one time that everyone gets to have a holiday. The cities shut down and nearly everyone goes home to visit their families. As a result, the transport systems are in complete chaos. It is best to avoid any travel during this time (unless you enjoy feeling like a sardine in a tin can). If you must travel during this time, book early and plan for delays. Whatever you do, do not visit any tourist sites during this time. Trust me, you will regret it.
10. Enjoy the ride.
China is a place like no other and is well worth experiencing. By taking a trip to the middle kingdom, you will be amazed at how people live side by side with so many others. You will leave with a newfound appreciation for the space and environment of your home country, and praise its cleanliness and orderliness. You will be more tolerant and open to change. You will not complain about traffic like you once did. You will be grateful for things like clean air and open spaces. Coming to China has made me a better person. I think it will do the same for you too.