In the last year, I’ve spent more time in China than probably the past 2 decades combined. Some of this time was spent as a tourist and some as a Beijinger returning to my childhood home. Either way, I feel like I’ve gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation for my birth country.
I feel like China (and Chinese people in general) gets a bad rep in the travelsphere. A lot of people are either scared to go or have no interest in visiting at all. Traveling to China can be quite a culture shock. It can seem like such an advanced society and yet so socially backwards. I can even admit that a lot of aspects of China intimidate me.
Even after all my trips there, I’m still learning about this country and how I fit into it now as a kid grown up in America. Some of these lessons will apply to other travelers hoping to visit China as well, while some are more personal.
(And though they have nothing to do with the content, I’m also including a lot of random pictures from the time spent in China in the past year.)
Squat toilets are not as scary as I thought (but I still try to avoid them)
I’m the first to admit that I’m absolutely terrified of using squat toilets. When in China, literally my biggest fear is being out somewhere all day and having no choice but to use a public bathroom. I’ve been traumatized by childhood trips to China and having to use squats, where let’s just say, the flush mechanism didn’t seem to work and about 20 people have been in there before you.
I’ve successfully traveled for months around Southeast Asia without having to use one single squattie… so good that I almost put this fear out of my mind. It wasn’t until I came back to Beijing when I faced my first squat toilet in Asia. The truth is that they are still commonly in use here, even at newer establishments (at really Western places, you wouldn’t have to worry about this), and Chinese people still prefer them over western toilets.
But you know what? Since my previous trips, I think China has come a lonnnng way in bathroom cleanliness. Most I’ve had to use have been pretty clean, and it’s really not tooooo terrible. The unclean ones, though, is a different story and makes holding a full bladder seem like the better option.
And just so we’re clear, I still much prefer western. Once, we were out somewhere and the options were either (relatively clean) squats or a western toilet but with no door. Yep, I still went for the latter.
I’m not sure why every time I get on this subject, it becomes a huge rambling soliloquy, but okay moving on.
There is nothing else in the world like Chinese hospitality
I may be a bit biased, but I truly believe now that Chinese people are some of the most generous people in the world.
They are genuinely happy to show a visitor around, even if it’s really going out of the way for them, and will insist on paying for absolutely everything. This could be expected with family, but what about when it’s not family?
When D’s dad connected us with one of his friends (Charley) in Shanghai, we decided to meet up for a cup of coffee. We also met Tom, Charley’s best friend and a local Shanghainese.
When Tom heard that we were in town for a month, he immediately offered all sorts of help and even offered to take us around to some sites out of town. Even though he was a complete stranger just five minutes ago!
Of course we couldn’t ask him to do that, so he invited us to a weekend dim sum brunch, which we gladly accepted. Only we didn’t know that we were to meet his entire family! It was the best brunch with really good company and good conversation. And right before we left Shanghai, Tom invited us out again for a “send-off” dinner of hotpot. It really touches me when almost complete strangers put in this kind of effort to make a couple of travelers feel welcomed.
Want service in restaurants? Then learn to be rude
Maybe I never noticed this before (or forgot), but I get a huge kick out of this one! I first noticed when my aunt and uncle took us out to eat, and whenever we needed something (more water, another plate, the bill, etc.), my uncle will yell “fu wu yuan!” really loud and someone will scurry over. This is literally yelling “waiter!”.
This is the one Chinese custom that I just can NOT get used to! I’m so used to trying to catch the waiter’s eye and giving a polite little wave to indicate that I need something. Ha! Good luck trying this in China! You’ll be sitting there for an eternity.
The waitstaff in China are not trained to occasionally come around to see if you need anything else, but are trained to respond to aggressive calls for service. But the America-raised in me just can not do this! So I always end up just sitting there forever, staring down a waiter until he happens to glance my direction.
Don’t worry, yelling for service like this is not considered rude in China. So practice your loud voice. :)
I could probably live without social media
The government censorship means that all social media is blocked (China has their own versions of everything). So for 6 weeks, I stayed pretty disconnected from the rest of the world (except for blog reading!), and only occasionally accessed Facebook through a VPN to announce new posts (because… still gotta somewhat lamely self promote…).
And it was great!
I didn’t die when I couldn’t Instagram that perfect food spread or check Twitter for news. I haven’t been too active on social media for the past few months anyway, and honestly think it’s all kind of a big pain, so I really didn’t miss it. (Netflix and YouTube, however, I did miss.) But I guess I still like the option of having it, mainly to keep up with friends back home and to have something to scroll through when I’m bored.
Family is everything
Family is important here. In American culture, I find that it’s very much a “take care of yourself” kind of mentality. Kids are usually independent at 18 or after college, new parents take on the full responsibility of raising a baby, and the elderly are often consigned to nursing homes or retirement communities.
But in China, it’s common to rely on family members for help. Grandparents often sacrifice a relaxing retirement by helping care for the grand-kids while the parents are at work. It’s not uncommon for kids to be raised by grandparents (I was too!). And in turn, the children care for their parents when they get old. It’s also not uncommon for the elderly to live with their children.
Confession: I’ve always thought that I didn’t want kids. But being here in China, I see how nice it is to have your children be there for you in your old age. My aunt and uncle frequently come around to my grandma’s and are always just a phone call away if she ever needs anything. Even with my grandpa gone now, she’ll never be truly alone. I think it’s really nice. When I’m old, I don’t think I’d want to be alone with no loved ones. :P
Mahjong is really fun and addictive
You guys, if you weren’t convinced that I’m turning into an old person in my last post, I have a new hobby to talk of. Yes, it’s mahjong, and yes, it’s really really fun.
I’ve always thought of mahjong to be an old people game. It’s quite common to see groups of retired folks at the park playing this game of tiles. But apparently, this is a great family game as well. Most families will gather together and play over the holidays. Recently, my aunt and uncle bought a fancy electronic mahjong table so we went over a few times to play. There were definitely days where I spent the entire day sitting at the table. I was hooked! Though probably because I kept on winning. ;)
Even after all the places I’ve fallen in love with, I’m still a Chinese girl at heart
I’ve visited a fair share of cities around the world now and have fallen in love with many. But there will always be a special part of my heart reserved just for China. I still love Chinese food the best (I finally learned to make my favorite dishes!). I love the neighborhood parks and the sense of community. Hell, I even love mahjong now!
This past trip to China has been about getting back to my roots. It’s made me not only feel more connected to my culture, but also fall back in love with my birth city.
The thing with China is… the thing is that the people may seem loud and pushy, there may be spit on the sidewalks, and the public amenities may be seriously lacking… But you’ve gotta understand that this is a country that has only recently stabilised after a long history of political and social chaos, during which human rights are violated and food is scarce and so people had to become ultra-competitive to survive.
As a result, the country as a whole may seem uncivilised and the people rude, but I also see a country where family is prioritised above all, where the elderly is respected, where the sense of community is strong, and where there is genuine kindness in its people. And I hope you, as a visitor, can look past what you see on the surface and discover a beautiful country.
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