China is many things, but it’s definitely never boring. Walking down a street in any given city can reveal something interesting, startling or down right weird. It’s both a part of the appeal and challenge of living in China. Today, I’m going to tell you about five things that blew my mind after moving to China.
During the summer of my first week in China, I was working out at a gym. Sweating profusely, I went to the water cooler and poured myself a cup from the spout labeled “cold.” Much to my surprise, it was lukewarm, verging on hot.
Thinking the machine was broken, I went to the other cooler only to find that its “cold water” was the same as the first. Because who doesn’t enjoy drinking hot water while working out in a balmy gym in the summer?
I later found out to my horror that this is common practice throughout China. The Chinese believe that warm or hot water is much safer to drink than cold water, which was probably true until relatively recently. Chinese medicine also warns against the dangers of disrupting the body’s internal temperature by drinking and eating cold things when you’re hot.
As a result, it can be quite difficult to find a cold beverage in China, since most bottled and canned drinks are stored at room temperature on shelves. Sometimes they even trick you, having refrigerators or coolers containing drinks that aren’t actually plugged in — although whether that’s due to Chinese folk belief or the will to save money, I still don’t know.
PRO TIP: If you want a cold beer in China, you have to specifically ask for it to come “bīng / 冰”, otherwise you’ll be served a warm one as standard.
Like many newcomers to China, when I first arrived I was keen to study the language. I cracked open my book of beginner’s Mandarin, learned some phrases and hit the streets to try them out. And then I realised that no-one was actually speaking the Mandarin from my book, and while people could somewhat understand me, I had no idea what they were saying back.
That’s when I discovered that Mandarin isn’t really a language anyone natively speaks. China is a huge and very old country and, consequently, most areas have dialects that diverge wildly from their neighbors, even within the same province.
In the 1950s, the Chinese government created Mandarin based on northeastern dialects of Chinese in order to create a "common language” that people could use to easily communicate. On official documents, Chinese media broadcasts and in the governmental agencies like schools, Mandarin is the language of choice. But in everyday life, people just speak their local dialect, which can be massively confusing to a non-native speaker.
So while everyone more or less understands Mandarin, many people from outside the northeastern areas it’s based on are often unwilling or unable to use it to engage with you. Thus, your choices boil down to living in the northeast to learn the best standard Mandarin or learning a local dialect that's probably useless outside of that province.
I was in the midst of teaching a class when I asked one of my adult students to come to the board. She frowned, and then explained that she had her period and thus did not want to move. Terrified that any question would warrant further discussion on the topic, I moved on. This was my introduction to a surprising cultural phenomena in China: a willingness to talk frankly about bodily functions.
Many is the time a Chinese friend has excused himself from the dinner table stating that he has diarrhoea. At first, I thought it was just an awkward mistranslation, but I later found out that all of my Chinese friends and associates would point-blank describe problems with their bowels or menstrual cycles. While I admire the blunt honesty, it was one of the more surprising smalltalk topics I was thrust into in my first year in China.
While making non-diarrhoea-related smalltalk on a date or meeting someone new, I would often rifle through the standard questions, one of which would be about hobbies. I was shocked by how often the Chinese people I met didn’t have a real answer. Listening to music. Hanging out with friends. Watching TV. Why the hell was everyone so bland?
The answer, I found out, was mainly the soul-crushing process of becoming an adult in China. Starting from very young, most Chinese kids’ lives are centered around academic performance to ensure they can get into a good high school that can prepare them for the Gaokao, the notoriously brutal Chinese college entry test. That often means over a dozen hours of school and studying every day, which obliterates the capacity for exploring outside interests and hobbies.
Even when they finally gain some freedom in their schedule as adults, most Chinese people choose, or have, to focus on work, which usually consumes at least 10 hours of their day, not counting commuting time. Combined with the cultural pressure to get married and pop out kids while still young, you have some serious drains on your free time.
That’s not to say that no-one in China has hobbies, but it does mean that if someone does, they sure as hell love it. It requires a great deal of energy to pursue anything outside of the normal Chinese life plan.
This is probably the most obvious entry on this list of surprises, but it should be stated: China is a gorgeous country. It has over 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites, ranging from the historic, like the Great Wall, to the natural, like Jiu Zhai Gou National Park.
Every time you venture outside of a city, the eye-popping beauty of even just the view from the car or train can be mesmerizing. Throw in dozens of mountains for hiking, thousands of kilometers of country road for biking, and countless beaches and tiny islands for exploring, and you have a country that still serves up surprises, even after years of living here.
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Keywords: moving to China
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Yeah. Good article. Took some years, but I developed a "taste" for hot water or tea at work or in a resto. Teeth-rattling, ice-cold water is in my past. Bottled water always in side mesh pocket of my rucksack. Even bottled beer at room temp doesn't fuss me anymore, although on an especially hot summer day, a coldie (chilled, not frozen) does go down nicely.
Dec 21, 2018 12:35 Report Abuse