Coming from the West, China offers a unique experience. It’s quite a culture shock, really—even for me (this was my 6th trip to China) and even for Feng, to a certain extent.
You live, you learn… well, these are 11 things I learned during our trip to China.
Google rules the world
The first time I connected to the Wi-Fi network in Beijing, I immediately noticed something was wrong: I couldn’t access Google’s homepage. Yahoo worked and my blog loaded just fine though, so I was connected to the Web. The explanation was simple: I had just hit the great firewall of China. Google (and all Google services) were blocked, as well as Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and probably other websites. Not being able to “Google” as needed was a pain in the butt. I tried other search engines (Yahoo worked, Bing kind of did) but the results weren’t as relevant. Bottom line is, I love Google.
Check your bowl before you take a bite
If you don’t pay attention, silk worms really look like a piece of tofu. Especially when cooked with… tofu. It’s alright, Feng stopped me before I bite into it. Yuck. I really can’t eat insects. I know, it’s psychological.
Bring extra lighters
In Chinese airports, you may go through security carrying a large rice cooker, entire containers of smoked duck feet and huge suitcases filled with mooncakes. But God forbids you bring a lighter—I had to throw mine away every single time, despite the fact there was a smoking corner right past the security checkpoint (a lighter was tied to the ashtray, Chinese are not that sadistic).
Thou shall enjoy culture only if you have a passport
To visit museums and sights, you need to show a piece of ID or your passport if you are a foreigner. On the upside, museums are sometime free, which is pretty cool. But I could never remember to carry my passport with me to visit a museum! (Hint: a copy works fine too).
China doesn’t feel that crowded (unless you’re stuck in the traffic or queuing for something)
Population of Beijing? 11.51 million. And that was in 2000, the latest data available. The population of Shanghai is now estimated at 23.9 million in 2013. Shenyang, a “small city”, has a population of 8.1 million. But despite these amazing figures, China doesn’t feel that crowded—unless you follow the crowd. Most cities are huge and you can still find empty sidewalks, a seat in your favourite eatery or some room in the subway cart for two adults and a stroller. However, if you decide to take a taxi during rush hour, travel by train during a holiday or buy mooncakes at the most popular bakery during the festival—then you’re fucked (and rightly so).
Chinese like their drinks better than US sodas
Coke, Sprite, etc. were sometime difficult to find because they were hidden behind a huge range of Chinese drinks, like ice tea or fruit-flavored soft drinks. There were also many bubble tea franchises and I got addicted to it. “Bubble tea” is a tea base mixed with milk, and chewy tapioca balls are thrown into the cup (you can also add pudding, red beans, etc.). The cup is sealed with a cellophane lid, and you pierce it with an oversized straw large enough to allow the “pearls” (the tapioca balls) to pass through. The result is a sweet drink with gelatinous bits. It’s surprisingly addictive if you can get past the “yuck, what just went through the straw?!” factor.
The best food is often found in simple eateries, the best snacks are often found in the street
This trip, we went back and forth between two extremes—huge banquet-style meals at fancy restaurants with the family and quick meals in simple eateries when Feng and I were alone. Guess what? I found the tastiest foods in street markets or eateries (小吃). In big restaurants, too much emphasis is put on drinks (i.e. booze) and a huge menu, but few dishes are done right.
Our favourite street snacks were 酸奶 (sour yogurt), corn on the cob, 包子 (steamed bread), roasted sweet potato 小笼包 (Shanghai-style dumplings) and hundreds of other cheap delicacies.
You can live happily without seat belts, car seats, traffic signs, etc.
Strangely enough, after riding shotgun on my lap in China, Mark doesn’t like to be strapped into his Canadian car seat anymore. Bummer. As for me, I’m shocked to see drivers actually waiting for the pedestrians to cross safely to the other side. I was so used to run across the street!
Half-white half-Chinese toddler is apparently a good-luck charm
I was fully expecting Mark would be stared at because 1) he is in a social phase where he enjoys the attention and interacting with people 2) anyone who doesn’t look 100% Han Chinese is stared at in China. Now I wasn’t prepared for complete strangers to stop and start “petting” him, stroking his face and hands. It annoyed me to no end. This is a kid, not a pet!
And talking about pets… Chinese have dogs (and eat dogs!)
China has never really been a “pet” country. For years, pets were considered a “bourgeois affliction” by the Communist government, and they were a luxury people couldn’t afford anyway, as food was scarce. Animals of all kinds were raised solely for food. Nowadays, the pet industry is reportedly booming with the rise of China’s middle class. It’s fairly common to see people walking their dog in the street and in Beijing’s poshest districts, you can see fancy pet stores. On the other side, it’s also common to see dog meat on the menu (check out this pretty graphic marketing from a dog meat restaurant in Shenyang’s suburb!). Will Chinese pet owners force the country to reconsider the long-time practice of eating dogs?
No matter how familiar you are with Chinese culture, there are some aspects of it you can’t adopt
I’m a firm believer of “si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi”—when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I don’t mind eating Chinese food, speaking Mandarin 24/7, watching Chinese TV programs, reading Chinese newspapers (well, “deciphering” would be a better word…), practice basic Chinese politeness… But no matter how hard I try, I’m not Chinese. I’m not eating weird meat (strangely, dog meat doesn’t bother me much, but blood pudding does) or insects. I’m not using Chinese medicine. And the whole “keqi” thing drives me crazy. What can I say… it’s cultural!