As a child raised by two Chinese immigrant parents in the US, I knew little about how life was really like for mainland Chinese people. I’ve spent over two months now living in Shanghai for my study abroad semester, and I still remember a lot of things about China that startled me at first, as an American. From adjusting to the new practical realities of life in China (pedestrian etiquette, bargaining, using public restrooms, etc.) to also recognizing the intangible features of Chinese culture that are distinct from American culture, I carefully took note. Below is an assorted compilation of 12 things that have poked me distinctly as “China”, in ways I think set this country apart from my home in the US.
1. Road Crossing
If you are a pedestrian and you value your life, CAREFUL when crossing the road! I’ve seen memes before about drivers in China being reckless and not always following traffic rules. In my experience, it’s true.
If you are walking on the street, here’s a good rule to follow: Don’t watch the signal, watch the road. There may be a red light at an intersection, but if the coast looks clear to a driver, it’s not uncommon for him to blow straight through. So in China, think of traffic/pedestrian signals as friendly suggestions, not strict mandates that are universally followed. This pattern is changing in cities as more cameras and police authorities are surveilling people’s driving behavior, but I still wouldn’t put much faith in people’s obedience to proper GO and STOP signals. So, put your phone back in your pocket and tread with vigilance.
2. People in China use a LOT of plastic.
When you want to bring leftovers home from a restaurant, you’d pour your dish straight into a plastic bag. When you get street food, you’d probably be eating it out of another soft plastic bag. The food’s too hot? Double bag it. Groceries? Packaging? Bottled water? Package delivery? Plastic!
I was never super strict with myself about living a perfectly sustainable lifestyle, yet the amount of non-recyclable plastic and unnecessary waste that I find myself going through is enough to make me weep for the environment. Some part of me wonders where all of this junk ends up.
China is the most population-dense country in the world and is heavily consumerist. In Shanghai, this makes for a perpetually interesting urban life around the clock, but likely also generates boatloads of garbage. The fact that we Chinese people aren’t currently standing knee deep in our own waste and toxic emissions impresses and worries me. I hope measures are being taken to safely remedy the ecological burdens we impose by our lifestyle that is continually urging us to want more stuff.
3. Crowd/ Mob navigation
Jockeying between people in crowded spaces is an indispensable skill in China. Take public transit bus boarding for example: people don’t organize themselves into neat single-file queues; they swarm the entrance and squeeze themselves inside like beads inside a funnel. I suppose no one enjoys being pushed, but with the massive population and swarming crowds of people in China, you must assert yourself using your body if you actually want to get to places. Old Chinese (especially Shanghainese) ladies can be quite ruthless and are unafraid to assert their dominance. Advice to anyone brave enough to use public transport during busy times: Hold your belongings close, and brace yourself for lots of body contact.
4. The Toilets
Culture shock is usually referred to in fluffy abstract terms as ideological differences, social attitude differences and the like. But probably the most material incarnation of culture shock for Western visitors are the bathrooms in most of China. The unwelcoming squat toilets in public restrooms (and their stench) can slap unsuspecting Westerners in the face when they encounter them for the first time. I’ve also learned that the “Asian squat” position isn’t a universally comfortable or stable body position to hold for Westerners, which could make using these toilets even more tricky. In larger cities like Shanghai, Western toilets are appearing more often in public restrooms, but squat toilets still prevail in most places. Note to foreigners visitors in China: bring your own toilet paper and disinfectants! Toilet paper isn’t typically provided in public restrooms, and neither is soap.
Shanghainese people have a reputation amongst Chinese people for being materialistic and rather snobby. It’s not hard to imagine, because Shanghai is currently home to some of China’s wealthiest people. But damn, people here sure do like their luxury brands!
I attend an elite American university at home, so it’s not like I don’t see people cradled in material privilege in the US. But I get the sense that many rich people in the US can be a little sheepish about flaunting their money in extravagant material ways. The way I see it, the giveaways of privileged American millennials are found in their lifestyle choices like, say, eating exclusively organic foods or attending expensive fitness classes.
On the streets of Shanghai, though, you’d see girls strutting around wearing Gucci from head to toe. Fake luxury brands are everywhere in China, you might say. Indeed, they are. But the fact that a lot of Chinese people try so hard even just to make the impression that they’re living the high life is an interesting thing to observe.
China (speaking for Shanghai, here) feels quite safe and low on violent crime. Even at night, I feel quite safe walking around, which definitely is not the case for me in other countries. China takes stability and security extremely seriously. I find it oppressive at times with all the mandatory bag checks at subway stations, the ubiquity of security cameras, and heavy internet surveillance. But hey, at least I don’t feel the need to pinch keys between my knuckles when taking a solo stroll around the city. I’d still watch out for cars, though. The point I made above about perils for pedestrians and busy road crossings still applies.
7. Family Life
I grew up with Americanized values, so I’ve always found the collectivist Confucian attitudes around family life typical in China to be burdensome at times. For example, there’s this deep sense of mutual obligation within Chinese family relationships. Parents give everything to their children (ie. financially supporting them fully through school all the way until they get married, and later helping raise the grandchildren too). Then when the parents get old they move in with their grown kids and expect them to return the favor of caring for them in kind. In China, the concept is known as “养儿防老”. Horizontal connections within the family are also quite robust because many family members lay down their roots near each other.
As a result, in traditional Chinese families, everybody gets entrenched in a tight web of connectedness and mutual support. Have a lucrative career? Expect to share the fruits of it with the rest of your family. Want to marry the love of your life? Better consult the family, since your personal business is everybody’s business. The implications of this help-me-and-I’ll-help-you culture are echoed in many places. It permeates Chinese business negotiations, and explains why gift giving is such a common and necessary social practice. It also explains why you’d sometimes see the strange sight of two people fighting over who gets to pay the dinner tab for the other, instead of simply splitting the bill. Relationships, relationships, relationships.
8. China is a happy place for old people
One large benefit of China’s collectivist and family-oriented culture is that elderly Chinese people get to live an enviously comfortable lifestyle. Retirement age in China is quite young (50–55 for women), and government benefits are pretty decent. But most importantly, elderly Chinese people get to be surrounded by a LOT of company, and are extremely well respected. By their age, they’ve accrued a network of longtime friends, family members who care for them, and have plenty of fun social activities to participate in post-retirement (广场舞, 麻将, etc.). Compared to the kind of wither-away-slowly-in-isolation version of aging I see happening in Western cultures as described in Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, the Chinese way of growing old seems heavenly.
One big caveat: since traditional Chinese culture places such a large emphasis on cultivating these sprawling relational family networks, I understand more why there’s a huge pressure for Chinese people to marry and have kids. It seems that raising a family is imperative for any Chinese person who dreams of one day savoring the cushiony post-retirement life I’ve just described.
9. Patriotism and Optimism
Quite a lot of locals, especially those from the older generation, are extremely loyal to the Chinese dream and are generally quite proud of where their country is going. I can tell you this because I’ve sat through one too many uncomfortable lectures by my grandparents and older relatives about the Chinese Communist party’s grand achievements of the past 40 years. Many Chinese people would be more than willing to gloat about China’s incredible economic progress and its superiority on many fronts to the United States. This is less surprising once you consider what they’ve experienced in their lifetimes. People of the generation that lived through the 1960s have seen brutal violence, food shortages, abject poverty, and chaotic social upheavals. To think that within a few decades, that people are now grumbling about their 4G internet being too slow, I’d believe in miracles too.
In the US, I’ve sensed that American sentiments about the country’s trajectory seem far more ambivalent and skeptical in comparison. I’d hear many people complain bitterly about governmental incompetence, crimes against social justice, a hateful president, and the deceptiveness of the American dream.
What could explain this discrepancy in attitudes? I’ve scratched my head about this for quite a while. China is heavy on censorship, so I understand that dissenting voices may be forcefully silenced in public. Even so, the strength of people’s love of country is palpable in both public and private spheres.
Make no mistake though; there is no doubt that the Chinese government incurs some human rights violations on its people that would be unthinkable by American standards. The Chinese government monitors its citizens’ online activity, owns the rights to their properties, controls the number of children they can have, bars them from migrating to big cities in search of a better future, and denies them the ability to vote. Nevertheless, the Chinese people I’ve met still seem far less cynical and way more optimistic about their country than Americans are about theirs. This seems like something Americans should notice.
10. Advanced Chinese Technologies
What’s a post about China without a proper plug about WeChat? It’s a marvelous swiss-army-knife social app that sits at the center of every Chinese person’s digital life. Through WeChat, you can send people money, video call, open chat rooms, advertise your business, call a taxi, order food at restaurants, share your daily moments, read the news, and more. Because everything you conceivably need in a day is now supplied in some form by smartphone, you scarcely need to carry anything else on you going out on a normal day. A byproduct of this is that young Chinese people are more attached to their phones than ever before. It’s a little startling to see literally everyone’s heads buried inside their smartphones during all hours of the day. This might be less of a China problem, but more of a universal 21st century digital age one. Yikes.
Another Chinese technology worth mentioning is its brilliant implementation of supply chain. Online shopping, package deliveries, and food deliveries operate at LIGHTNING SPEED in China. Also I must give kudos to China’s expansive, efficient, and incredibly affordable public transportation system. All of this will be missed dearly when I return to the US.
11. Chinese people are afraid of the cold
Chinese people enjoy drinking hot water, and are generally fearful of the cold in general. I’d see people wear jackets and vests outside even when it’s a beautiful 70° F (22° C) day. Even during the heat of summer, “cold” beverages would be served iceless and scarcely cooler than room temp. This probably has much to do with the influences of Chinese medicine, which are deeply embedded in the culture here. According to Chinese medicine, drinking cold beverages harm the stomach, and eating ice give women horrible menstrual cramps. People here also have similar suspicions about sleeping with wet hair. How valid are these conventional beliefs? I’m unsure.
12. Economic Inequality and Unevenness of Progress
China is in a period of unprecedented growth. But as I learned from my macroeconomics classes, fast climbs towards economic prosperity almost inevitably leads to gaping inequalities. There’s no other country I know that, within its borders, has some of the most glamorous and unimaginably wealthy people in the world, and also some of the poorest. Most people note the inequalities between regions of China; it’s popularly said that the Western provinces of China are poor and developing, while the Eastern Coastal ones are wealthy and fully modernized.
This BBC quote illustrates the point:
“China’s not a normal country — it’s a huge empire, it’s like the first world, the second world and the third world co-exist together” — Andy Tsieh
Living in Shanghai, China’s richest city, I can say I’ve had the privilege of experiencing much of China’s fancy side. But even from my cushy vantage point, I’d notice inconsistencies in people’s purportedly elevated living conditions, and a strange unevenness of progress in some areas of China’s modernization. I’d round the corner out of some insanely gorgeous luxury shopping mall, and then walk into an egregiously dirty public restroom with no toilet paper or soap. Once, I took a budget train ride into Shanghai on one of China’s still operating “green trains”(绿皮车). These slow, noisy, un-airconditioned, and often overcrowded trains from the 1950’s are still ridden regularly by people who don’t have the means to afford taking China’s fancy high-speed rails. As I was struggling for air inside the cigarette smoke-filled train car, I kept wondering to myself why these trains even exist in 2019. Living in China, a place that’s so well developed in some ways that it feels otherworldly, it’s always jarring when I encounter the not-so-nice parts — the parts that aren’t shown on national television. Inequality is a very real thing in China, and in terms of raising the quality of living for all people in the country on all fronts, China still has a ways to go.
The task of putting together a list describing Chinese and American “culture” is a difficult one, especially since China’s been in a state of incredible flux and change. It’s a challenge to discern the features of China’s distinct culture today from the generic features of any modernizing country. China is also unimaginably diverse in a way that makes it a challenging fit for any explanatory box. Before writing this post, I read through dozens of Google’s top search results for “Differences between Americans and Chinese people”. Frankly, I was disappointed in what I found because a lot those articles felt to me either out-of-date or oversimplified. I hope this post adds something fresh to your understanding of what China looks like to a Chinese-American student studying abroad in Shanghai.