Monday, May 12, 2014

Things You May Not Know About China

Heading to a foreign country the biggest question on everyone's mind is, "How are we culturally different?" In fact, the draw to experience and understand the unknown is a pretty common human trait, and connecting with people where there is a language barrier is the best way to remember that everyone is human and smiles are universal. There are, however, some things that aren't universal, and here are a few cultural differences I noticed between the US and China.

Bathrooms - Chinese toilet vs European toilet

If you grew up in the US, you probably have never used a squat toilet. It's a porcelain hole in the floor. This may be a foreign concept in the US, but the squat position is helpful for massaging the colon when in the loo. Children get the short end of the stick though because I have yet to see a child size squat toilet and when you're a little person in jean pants, it's almost impossible to negotiate the wide stance.  

Typical squat toilet

In hotels, the showers are also right next to the toilet, with a drain, and no barrier; I think this is a way of maximizing space.  So, how, you ask do you go to the bathroom without finding yourself in a Chinese hospital with a concussion from slipping on wet tile? That’s what the shoes are for.  All of the hotels/hostels include rubbery or wooden shoes in the room so that you may enter the bath area post shower without it ending in tragedy.

When in public, you may find that there is one stall that has a European tioilet, so you may look for those for the little one. And don't forget to carry TP with you, the bathrooms that have it are few and far between!

Typical Chinese shower/toilet set up.

Don’t drink the water 

As an American, we are always told to be extremely careful of drinking water in any other country.  It’s no wonder too, with our western stomachs that are sensitive to everything : gluten, lactose, soy, etc. We worry mostly about local bacteria which locals are used to, but which are foreign to us and can act as pathogens; this is also true for people who visit the US.  China poses a different problem in that most buildings have lead pipes, and the cities are so big that it would be an astronomical cost to uproot a city of 120 million people in order to change the plumbing.  Boiling your water will not take out lead, so it’s best to drink well known brand named bottled water, or bring a handheld backpacking filter which cleans out heavy metals.

Women dress highly inappropriately for the occasion most of the time

You will notice right away when you get off the plane in Japan, Korea and China that women are dressed to a nine. Whether they’re older and dressed modestly, or younger and looking like they’re about to head to the club, a good percentage of the women are wearing 4 inch heels. I sat in the airport in my comfy travel clothes : jeans, t-shirt with flannel and sneakers, and watched women walking by trying not to hobble...they can’t fool me though, I’m a woman, I know what it’s like to wear those things!  You may think, “well, maybe they need to be dressed up for when they get off the plane” but as you visit many famous attractions and engage in outdoor activities for the beautiful view and history, you will continue to see the asian women, hiking up rocky and grassy hills, poking holes in the ground with their stilettos as they go. The heels do come in handy when it rains though, so I will give them that.

Different body types 

Everyone knows the Chinese stereotype of short and slender (very slender) but just like in the US, where different regions have different lifestyles, so does China.  It is noticeable that in the south, people seem to be much shorter and more slender, while in the north, people are taller with a thicker body type.  When you go out to eat, the portion sizes also vary from north to south, as northerners have large plates of food, while southern dishes are more modest in size.

Different food regions 

With such a big country and lots of different climates, there are many different styles and flavors of food in China.  So far, we have experienced Shanghai, which has a sweet notes to it, and various places in the Guanxi province, which is in the south and has lots of lakes, and are known for their rice fields; rice noodles, fresh fish, and chili paste made from local chilies (which is absolutely divine in every way) and that's what’s for dinner in Guanxi.  

I bought chile paste from this lady.  It was scooped fresh off ther new batch.

Chengdu, in the west, at the bottom of the Himalayas, is famously known in China for their spicy food, but not in the same way you might think of spicy food.  “Ma po” is the phrase used to describe this type of spicy which actually makes your mouth go numb. The plant creates a similar numbing experience to that of novocaine.

Spicy fish soup, sweet potato noodles, and bok choy with peanuts in Chengdu.

In Xi’an soon, which is in the flatlands; think Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska weather and terrain, but with mountains on 3 sides.  They are known for their wheat fields, so noodles are the prominent dish here.  I'll do a full food post later, but for now, this is just a taste.

Street vendor making noodles in Xi-an.

Dining etiquette

No napkins or forks, so if you’re a messy eater or not schooled in chopsticks, bring your own. Don’t stick your chopsticks in rice and leave them there, it symbolizes death.  If someone says to you “gan bei” that means “slam it!” and you must drink your full cup, and place it upside down to show it’s empty. There is more, but these are the basics.

Planes serve food

If you have flown within the last 10 years, you know that the meals have dwindled to nothing. The minimum length of time for a flight to serve food in the US is 6 hours, anything less and no food, so you may notice an increase in layovers. However, every flight we’ve been on in China, even the 1 hour flights, served food and it's actually pretty tasty. If you have have a special diet, you just need to make sure to request your special food 24 hours prior to the flight.

Great Public Transport

Whether you want to take the bus, train, subway or the fastest train in the world : the Maglev, it's possible in China to get anywhere on the mainland. Some railway stations are more hectic than others, and some destinations are popular and infrequent, so just do your research to find out what the appropriate time frame is to get tickets. Things like the Maglev and bullet trains you should be able to pick up an hour before, whereas trains which only run a few times a day will fill up quickly, especially the long distance train soft sleeper seats.

Proper attire for a temple 

Possibly no sandals, depending on which temple you go to and who you're asking. On our first day in Shanghai, I was scolded by an elderly woman who only spoke to me in Chinese while in line for the Jade Buddha Temple.  I somehow understood most of what she was saying with only catching a few words a sentence, but when I shrugged my shoulders in an attempt to tell her mercifully that I was no where near fluent in Chinese, she persisted her endeavor to talk to me like a child and point to my naked feet in dismay.  Her Chinese-Grandma-esque tones made me feel like she had me by the ear. She tried to cut us once we got to the window to purchase our tickets at the Buddha temple, but Christian at 6’2” gently (but firmly) nudged her (at about 4’11”) to the side.

Another no-no, for all temples is to not step on the thresholds. There are two reasons for this : to make the devotees look down in reverence upon entering the temple, and to keep out ghosts that tend to shuffle their feet. Apparently I may be part ghost because there are thresholds in most every building in China, and I trip over every darn one of them!

I hope these cultural tidbits are helpful. I know there are many cultural differences in this world, so if there are any that you came across that helped you to understand another culture better, please share!


  1. I wonder what grandma was on about. Surely not sandals. And I've seen tank tops and all manner of skimpy attire in Taoist and Buddhist temples -- especially the tourist ones where you have to buy tickets. Did you speak English to her? She might have thought you were from western China... ???

  2. Christian! So good to see you by the train. I was wanting to know if you were along. I did catch Neva's, "Thanks Dad for Japan." Again, thank you so much for your visit to our home!

  3. Thanks Gene! We love visiting you and Ann, and I'm glad you finally got to meet the whole family! You're one of the strongest men I know and an inspiration for us to "just keep biking, just keep biking"