As a foreigner in China, I initially experienced a lot of culture shock.
Several things that I saw here frustrated and angered me. Nobody ever thought to brief me on what to expect or to explain why these things were happening.
Eventually, however, I was able to adjust and accept China for what it is.
Here are seven weird things about China that gave me culture shock.
1. Why is it difficult to get a straight answer to a question in China?
In China, it can sometimes be difficult to get a direct answer to a question. You may be kept waiting or you may get an “I don’t know”.
This makes it difficult for people to make plans, especially when those plans depend on some information that they need from others.
I recently posed this question on the Foreigners in China Facebook group. Here are some of the answers that I received:
- Chinese organizations can be disorganized and things often change at the last minute. The people you ask can’t give you any answers when they don’t know the answers themselves.
- In China, it’s not about what you know but who you know. Connections, networking and ‘guanxi’ are important aspects of Chinese culture. One needs to pull strings to get things done and Chinese people are ashamed to admit that.
- Chinese staff think that foreigners will complain if they are told something and then the arrangements change. That’s why they may prefer not to say anything.
- In Chinese organizations, some people feel a need to appear important. They might satisfy that need by withholding information that other people need.
- ‘Face’ is an important aspect of Chinese culture. When someone is unsure of something, they might prefer not to say anything in order to avoid the risk of being wrong.
2. Why don’t vehicles in China stop at pedestrian crossings?
When I first arrived in China, this was what made me angriest. Even after five years in the country, I still find it hard not to blow my top when a car doesn’t stop when I want to cross the road. So why don’t drivers stop at pedestrian crossings?
Pedestrain crossings in China are a free-for-all.
According to a discussion on Quora, it can be explained as follows:
- Almost all drivers in China are first-generation drivers. Driving is relatively new in China. Twenty years ago, few people in China had cars. It may take a while for Chinese people to change their driving habits.
- It will delay their journey if drivers stop for pedestrians. If you let one person cross the road, another person will come, and another.
- It is legal in China to turn right on a red light. The logic behind this is to keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible by minimizing the number of occasions when a driver needs to stop. It was quite interesting to find out that a right turn on a red light is also legal in a number of other countries, such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Paraguay.
- Everyone’s doing it and no Chinese person would expect vehicles to stop for them.
- Chinese drivers think that they have bought the right to be superior to pedestrians and nobody has told them otherwise.
3. Why don’t people queue up in China?
Go to any train station in China and you’ll see people cutting in front of you in the queue.
This can be particularly frustrating when you can’t even tell them off because they don’t speak English and you can’t speak Chinese.
People often don't queue up in train stations in China and this can give you culture shock (Photo: C.Hug on Flickr).
So, why is queue-cutting so prevalent in China? In an article for Huffington Post, Frank Wu offered this explanation:
“When totalitarianism was at its worst, anyone who tried to be fair and courteous at the market, which had hardly anything for sale, would have been pushed aside to eventually starve. You had to throw your elbows or you would leave empty-handed. The vestiges of communism continue to affect people who have endured it. They recall hunger, and they are driven by it.”
4. Why do so many Chinese people smoke?
If you’re a smoker, China is paradise. A great many Chinese people are smokers, especially men.
If you don’t smoke however, life in China can be somewhat unpleasant when you’re forced to breathe secondhand cigarette smoke on a regular basis.
Lots of men in China smoke cigarettes (Photo: La Priz on Flickr).
So why are there so many smokers in China? Dr Richard Saint Cyr, from MyHealth Beijing, offers the following explanation:
- Chinese people have little awareness of the dangers of tobacco, despite efforts to educate the public. While nearly 80% of Chinese people know that smoking leads to lung cancer, few know about the other risks like heart attack and stroke.
- Many Chinese celebrities and political leaders smoke in public so some Chinese people associate wealth and sophistication with puffing a cigarette.
- In China, there is a culture of men trying to act cool when they’re teenagers, and they get hooked and can’t stop.
- Businessmen in China drink and smoke, especially during meetings, where it may be considered rude to refuse either a toast or a cigarette.
5. Why is there a ‘No-fail’ policy at some Chinese universities?
Academia in the West is rigorous. University students are expected to work very hard, to be able to think creatively and laterally, solve problems and even criticize the literature.
In China however, university education is just a formality. In my experience, every student who is accepted is guaranteed to graduate, provided they pay their fees and aren’t guilty of misconduct.
This no-fail policy can be hard for foreign English teachers to accept. After all, why set the exam in the first place if everyone has to pass?
The no-fail policy exists at some Chinese universities because there are almost 2 million students competing for just half a million university places every year. Competition is intense.
Students give their all to passing the ‘gaokao’, China’s university entrance exams. According to some of my students, their high school teachers told them that if they studied hard and passed this exam, they will have an easy life at university. Therefore, by the time students get to university, they are in no mood to study at all.
6. Why do you need ID to buy a train ticket in China?
In the UK, where I’m from, it’s easy to buy a train ticket. All you need to do is to show up at a train station and state your destination.
Requiring ID to move around in China seems to be an overly bureaucratic requirement. You may find yourself thinking that in a country with as many people as China, surely they should be trying to make things simpler, not harder.
You need ID to buy a train ticket in China (Photo: Mr Thinktank on Flickr).
So why is ID required when buying a train ticket in China? According to a discussion on Quora, it’s to prevent scalping.
Before 2011 it was common for people to purchase all of the remaining tickets on the last train out of Shanghai, for example.
They would then stand next to the ticket window and offer you the ticket you needed at exorbitant prices.
However, it has also been said that this is done to control who can travel and where they can go.
7. Why are Chinese women so materialistic?
Some Chinese women insist on dowries and property as a prerequisite to marriage, some demand extravagant gifts while others don’t pay for anything on a date.
This can be a real concern for Western men because they have been brought up in a culture where relationships are based on love.
Materialistic Chinese women might give you culture shock.
So, why are Chinese women materialistic?
It could be due to China’s long history of arranged marriages. These partnerships were based on convenience and ‘face’ rather than love.
In this sense, women have always seen marriage as a means to an end; a way to ensure financial stability. These values are passed on from mother to daughter for generations.
While arranged marriages in China are rare these days, women are still expected to marry men who are financially better off than themselves.
Chinese men know and accept this, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
These periods were very prosperous, when China was far richer than its neighbors and even some faraway kingdoms.
This wealth had to be supported by entrepreneurial people prioritizing commercial interests.
This materialistic attitude has carried on to today.
Are you heading to China soon?
In case you haven't heard, many popular foreign websites and apps are blocked in China due to the country's strict censorship laws.
Not being able to use Google, share photos on Facebook and Instagram, or message friends on WhatsApp, may very likey result in culture shock as you'll have no access to the outside world.
Stay connected in China or you may experience culture shock.
Download a virtual private network (VPN) app before you arrive.
Here's a review of the best China VPN apps to help you stay connected.
Do your research before you go to China
When I landed my first teaching job in China, I had been unemployed for four years.
I was so excited that I neglected to do any research before leaving. That was a big mistake!
So, before you leave for China, make sure that you do your research.
If you understand why some weird things happen in China, that makes it easier for you to accept them and adjust to life in this fascinating country.
What weird things have given you culture shock in China? Please comment below.