As I mentioned in my last post, I am a pretty average white kid from North Carolina who had never left the continental United States. I grew up in a relatively secure and stable environment that I (eventually) grew to love and appreciate.
However, I believe comfort and stability are not necessarily catalysts for progress and growth. Sorta like that “if it ain’t broke” saying. External influences can help motivate action. Because of this belief, I trekked to China in an effort to force myself to adapt to an unfamiliar and challenging situation.
Throughout my time here I have encountered some… interesting cultural differences. Since many of my friends and family back home have inquired about this, I have compiled a list of a hand full of differences I’ve noticed and how I was exposed to them.
DISCLAIMER: The statements below are, for the most part, purely opinion-based. Please, don’t get your feelings hurt and do take everything I say with a grain of salt. I could be fabricating everything you read… but I’m not. These are simply the experiences and perceptions of one guy who has lived in Shanghai for a relatively short period of time.
Pollution and Litter
I don’t think many people are unaware of China’s ridiculous pollution problem. We all see the weekly articles describing the terrible conditions in Beijing, but I was going to be in Shanghai. Shanghai is supposed to be the expat-friendly city in China (it generally is), and I was expecting the pollution to be an insignificant factor during my journey. I was proven very wrong.
When I arrived in China, it was late summer and the weather was what you would expect. Sunny and hot. Exactly the same as in Charlotte, NC during that time of year. The pollution was hardly noticeable; every now and then thin layers of smog randomly obstructed your visibility when peering out at buildings off in the distance, or bird watching. Hardly life-changing.
However, as the weather cooled off and winter crept toward us, the visibility worsened and began to occur more and more often. Then, as the cold weather settled in, I began to notice my body was being affected. I began to cough more frequently, and gradually felt more and more phlegmy (a word I didn’t know how to spell until just now).
I began to constantly cough and clear my throat. I developed the habit of coughing profusely and spitting, a behavior I had always reserved for the baseball field. I’ll talk more about spitting later…
In addition to the my coughing, I discovered that it was substantially more difficult to breathe when I went on runs. While I may not have been in the best shape at that point in time, it was quite apparent that the air was affecting my stamina and breathing. The runs worsened the already bad coughing and phlegm for up to a few hours after a run. I now run exclusively on treadmills at the gym.
I developed this theory that so many people in China smoke because they’re trying to torch clear a path to their lungs.
Trying to make light of a bad situation, my co-workers and I sometimes play a game where we all guess how bad the pollution is and then check the air quality index. The winner gets… informed about the pollution, as do the other competitors.
My wonderful mother is going to be sooooo concerned after reading this.
As far as littering is concerned, people do it all over, and all the time. People will be standing next to a trashcan and still not think twice about tossing their empty wrappers into the wind. The usual litter-items I see daily are empty cigarette packs, receipts, and crushed fast-food cups. Not only are there are people who are hired to go around and sweep the streets (with brooms made of branches and leaves), but luckily there are the vehicles with sweepers and scrubs that drive though almost daily, gathering trash and cleaning up all of the spit…
The Expulsion of Bodily Fluids
In America, spitting in public is by no means unheard of. As a guy who grew up playing baseball in the south, the use of chewing tobacco was quite common. However, spitting was reserved for certain environments and there were certain rules I had always been told (like to never spit in the presence of a lady. Is that sexist?).
In Shanghai, everyone spits. All the time. As I described in the above section about pollution, sometimes the act of expelling saliva is forced on an individual by the environment.
Be that as it may, I feel like this excuse sort of opened Pandora’s spit-bottle, because all year-long people are hocking loogies left and right. Old men, young men, women, children. I think I even saw a stray mutt spitting the other day.
In addition to spitting, using the bathroom wherever ya want is not unheard of. Now, I don’t mean to say it’s kosher to just pee on the sidewalk in front of people walking… unless you are an infant, then it’s cool (seriously). I DO mean to say that, unlike a friend of mine at UNC, it seems incredibly difficult to be accused of public indecency for using the bathroom in public. I still haven’t decided how I feel about this. I will grant that it certainly simplifies the late-night expedition from bars back to your home.
While I don’t really think everyone should be able to powder their noses in public (is that still a thing?), the culture here seems more understanding of the bodies natural processes. From spitting to sweating to urinating, the Chinese people don’t seem to ostracize people for allowing their bodies to reach equilibrium.
Visits to the Lavatory
Upon arriving in Shanghai, I was really thrust into my job. It seemed as though I was expected to really hit the ground running. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, I agreed to head directly to one of our main offices after landing. While riding in a cab from the airport, I realized I had to use the bathroom. I had been on a 14-hour flight after all.
After getting to the general area of town where our offices were, I expressed my need to my friend/guide. He pointed me in the direction of the McDonald’s (of course, there is always a McDonald’s). I passed the fast-food restaurant and entered into the room and had my first experience with a Chinese public bathroom.
I entered the stall. I locked the door. I turned around. I didn’t see a toilet.
While the standard toilets we have in the U.S. are the norm in Shanghai, they do have a fair number of what I would describe as holes. Unlike the large porcelain thrones we know and love in America, they have porcelain floor-inserts that have foot grips on either side of the hole. In actuality, this method of defecating is more natural for the human body, as my friends who are proponents of the “Squatty-Potty” constantly remind me.
The hole in the ground was not the only surprise though. Many bathrooms in China lack toilet paper and paper towels. I’ve consistently encountered this. Free access to napkins is also less common than in the States.
As you may know, there are a lot of people in China. Likely because of the population size and density, people are more comfortable being close. Personal space doesn’t seem to be much of a priority here. A ride on the Metro will often consist of being entirely surrounded by people making what I consider to be too much contact with one another. I often Snap a picture of myself on the Metro and send it out with the words “Packed Like Sardines!” typed out with it.
In addition to the lack of personal space, people stare a lot. From what I’ve gathered, if you are non-Asian you get a crazy amount of looks in your direction. I was on the Metro the other day, and a toddler was staring at me in awe. It was then that I realized I might have been the first white human being this kid has ever seen.
First off, I am fully for the equal treatment of men, women, and everyone in between. But, when it comes to marriage, I have one deal-breaker that you may think reinforces 1960’s gender roles. My future wife… has to do the laundry.
I HATE doing laundry. I don’t know whether it’s because I distinctly remember feeling claustrophobic as a child after hiding in a dryer for a high stakes hide-and-seek game or what, but I can’t stand it.
Much to my chagrin, China has made the laundry experience slightly more irritating. Unlike in the States where we have these washing machines that are practically super-computers, China is a little more old school when it comes to whole process. Sadly, the dryer part of the washer-dryer combo is not a standard item to own. Yes, there are some dryers, but the majority of people seem to hang-dry their clothes outside. I live on the 26th floor of an average apartment building and when I look out the window I always see countless sheets and cloths waving in the wind, as if each individual person had created their own flag.
Not only does this often make your clothes smell…unique, but it also takes a substantially longer time to have your clothes ready. So, if you really wanna wear that favorite shirt of yours to impress that special someone at your friend’s wine delivery service launch party, be sure to plan a few days in advance.
Standard Work Day
The 9 to 5 that people in the States dread is more like the 10-6 in Shanghai. From what I’ve seen, people are out and about before work; they don’t typically wake up, shower, and commute to work like we tend to do. They wake up, grab a bite with a friend, stop by a Starbucks (there are many) and THEN head to work.
Methods of Transportation
So many scooters! Cars are a luxury item in China, and are subject to higher luxury taxes. Because of this, the non-cab vehicles tend to be owned by the wealthy and are often what we would consider to be fancy.
Since this is the case, many people either exclusively use the Metro (their subway), or elect to get the more affordable scooter.
Pedestrians should always have an eye out for these scooters constantly whizzing by completely ignoring the traffic lights and signs, which seem to be more like suggestions here.
Does the above term imply that authentic items are “Mittenarms? Anyways…
Let me just say, I love this about China. Yes, movies come out in China way later than they do in other countries, but as soon as they are released there are HD bootleg versions in circulation FOR CHEAP. The same goes for bootleg shoes, jerseys, bags, and so on.
Copyright and plagiarism don’t exist here.
There are these places expats call “Fake Markets,” where you can go to an area clustered with different shops and stalls where the owner is ready to negotiate a sale for rip-off items.
It certainly doesn’t have fluoride like our water in America does. People exclusively consume bottled water that they’ve purchased at stores. Consumption of tap water is a no-go.
Lying is not as frowned upon here as back home. It seems like they view it as a negotiating technique. If they can trick you, than they fairly earned their prize. You fell for it. You should have been smarter.
At first I thought very little of this and the people who utilize this approach in their interactions. Though I still don’t condone deception and trickery, I’ve moved passed my initial condescension and have simply learned that people aren’t always looking out for my best interests. I think this lesson is an important one. I now understand that being a little skeptical can sometimes really benefit a person, or at least protect them.
As some of my high school friends know from their experiences at spring break, in America drinking in public will often result in you getting a ticket for having an “open container.”
In China, drinking in public is totally allowed. While it seems like expats use this perk much more frequently than the local Chinese, no one seems to care. I felt extremely uneasy and scared the first time I drank in public. However, after walking by policemen and soldiers with an open Tsingtao in my hand, I’ve grown accustomed to it.
This is one particular policy I think America should mimic.
There are many more cultural differences that exist between America and urban-China, but these are the big ones that I came to mind this week! Remember, these differences are not highlighting what one culture does right and one does wrong. Just like in sports, cooking, and writing, there are multiple ways of doing one thing correctly.
Sidenote: No matter where you are, pollution is no bueno.