I remember my first hour in China. Through immigration at Beijing Capital Airport, reunited with luggage, on the bus to the city I’d be teaching in and looking forward to sleeping off some jet lag – everything seemed pretty normal.
The bus stopped at some lights, and a schoolgirl pulled up on our right. She was probably seven years old, wearing a school uniform, with a rucksack on her back.
Perfectly normal, it was the sort of thing you might see on the roads in Britain. Except for the fact that she had a pig in her rucksack! Its head was stuck out, looking over her shoulder.
"You're a long way from home now," I thought.
Almost all first-time teachers in China have a honeymoon period, where they alternate between the ‘Isn’t China great?’ conversation and the ‘Isn’t China weird?’ conversation. After that, some decide it isn’t for them.
The spitting, the smog, the staring and the toilets claim a lot of victims in those first few weeks.
No one is going to force you to stay, but I would argue that sticking it out and getting to learn and understand the quirks, foibles and habits of Chinese life and people is worth the effort.
So, to give you a head start, let me answer some of the most commonly asked questions.
Why do Chinese people spit?
The first thing many people notice after arriving in China is that people spit in public. It’s mainly older people, but the young have no shame about expectorating onto the pavement either.
The second thing many people notice is that some Chinese cities are quite polluted, especially cities that lack electrified public transport.
And the third thing many people notice is that Chinese men, especially, smoke a lot.
Clearly, these three facts are linked and the latter two explain the Chinese inclination to spit. But why don’t they have any shame about doing it?
Some people believe that it’s linked to Chinese traditional medicine, an attempt to get rid of an excess of one fluid in order to balance the whole system.
But, if you ask them, they often have a far simpler explanation: “Better out than in”. If you have an excess of phlegm, or a bad taste in your mouth, get rid of it, and why be ashamed of that?
Conversely, they can’t understand our habit of blowing our nose into tissues or hankies, then returning them to our pockets like some treasured possession. To them, that is both unhygienic and pointless.
Any Chinese person with experience of dealing with foreigners knows we find it disgusting, and no one is asking you to like it.
I particularly dislike seeing puddles of spit on the floor of trains, buses or toilet cubicles – anywhere where I might have to stare at it for long periods of time – and I always do a quick check of the floors of restaurants before agreeing to eat anything there.
You’re entitled to get angry if someone spits too near you, or in your home, or onto your clothing or possessions.
And many major cities are on your side, encouraging residents to avoid spitting, or at least direct their saliva into the bins or drains, especially in communal spaces like subway stations.
There are a number of reasons why Chinese people spit, according to Alex Moore (pictured: the Beijing subway, where people are encouraged to direct their spit into bins).
In preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, local residents were encouraged to clean up their act to help ‘civilize’ the city. Signage urging good behavior was placed around the city, fines imposed on persistent offenders, and special ‘spit bags’ were handed out by volunteers.
Why do Chinese people check banknotes?
Settle any bill using a 50 or 100 yuan note, and the shop or restaurant staff will usually scratch the edge of the bill, tilt it under light or rub it against a piece of white paper or cloth to check it’s real. Bank staff and currency changers will have a machine next to them to check authenticity.
Counterfeit money is a big problem in China. Naturally, nobody knows exactly how many fake notes are circulating, and not just high-value ones.
A market trader once gave me a fake 10 yuan note (£1.12; $1.48) in change for a 20. Back home and under proper light, it looked fake even to me, and try as I might I couldn’t get rid of it.
There are various methods for checking a note, such as running your finger over the image of Mao Zedong and feeling the embossed surface of his shoulder. However, advice changes as new editions of notes are produced and counterfeiters change their methods to catch up.
Above all, remember that fake notes are most likely to be offloaded on naive tourists. This is where it comes in handy to learn some Chinese, in order to prove you’re not a sucker.
Lastly, remember that the Chinese are as scared of receiving (and, 99% of the time, giving out) counterfeit money as you are.
They don’t mean anything by checking the 100 you just gave them, and they’re not implicitly accusing you of trying to hand them forged money. It’s just force of habit.
Why do Chinese people have dozens of bank accounts?
Each time a Chinese person changes their job, they will probably acquire a new bank account as well. This is because the company pays its employees’ salaries from one account with one particular bank.
Banks charge fees for money transfers between banks, so employers prefer their staff to have an account with the same bank. In theory, a new arrival could stick to their guns and insist on keeping their old account, but they would probably be asked to pay the fee themselves.
Luckily, it only takes a couple of minutes and costs 10 or 20 yuan (the cost of the card) to set up a new account, so everyone goes along with it.
Consequently, I have five Chinese bank accounts after only a couple of years teaching in China – imagine how many you could amass over an entire career!
The typical Chinese person has dozens of bank accounts.
If you’re worried about fraud, identity theft, or just losing your card, this can have a hidden advantage: you can spread your money out between different accounts, mitigating the damage if one is compromised. More likely, you’ll just have a wallet full of useless plastic!
Why do Chinese people have trouble understanding the English past tense?
When teaching English overseas, if you want to indicate the past, you point behind your back, and to indicate the future, point forward. That won’t work in China.
The Chinese word for ‘the day after tomorrow’ is ‘hòutiān’ (后天) – literally, ‘the day behind’. Similarly, ‘the day before yesterday’ is ‘qiántiān’ (前天), ‘the day in front’. Also, English ‘next’ corresponds to the Chinese ‘down’ while ‘previous’ corresponds to ‘up’.
So, whereas the English language sees progress as forwards and upwards, Chinese seems to do the opposite. This seems absurd to us, but there is a reason for it.
This is how one colleague explained it to me: “You can’t see the future. You can’t see what’s behind you. You can see the past (in memories). And you can see what’s in front of you.”
Why do Chinese people dislike the number four?
In standard Mandarin, ‘four’ is ‘sì’ (四), and the verb ‘to die’ is ‘sĭ’ (死).
They are different characters and different words, and the difference between the two is obvious to native Chinese speakers as they come up in conversation. But they are nonetheless close enough to make the number four toxic in many areas of life.
Number four in Chinese sounds similar to the word 'die'.
Never give a set of four of anything as a gift. Don’t let the phone company give you a phone number with too many fours in it. And never get into a taxi that has fours in its number plate.
Tetraphobic Chinese people will tell you that all of these are asking for trouble. The number four is viewed in a similar way to the number 13 in Christian cultures, and indeed, some places that have high numbers of visitors from China and the West have to cater for both superstitions.
On a break from teaching in China, I once stayed at a hotel in Macau that didn’t have a fourth, thirteenth or fourteenth floor. So, if your room was on the fifteenth floor and the lift was out of order, you could take comfort in the fact that you only had eleven flights of stairs to walk up or down to get to the lobby.
Why do Chinese people use squat toilets?
Lonely Planet writes that travellers “relate Chinese toilet tales to each other like war veterans comparing old wounds”.
Certainly, some public toilets, particularly at bus stations, are appalling (but still have the nerve to charge for entry). But we’re not talking about the cleanliness, state of repair or level of privacy here. We’re talking about squat toilets in general.
Even in an otherwise clean, inviting bathroom, the sight of a squat toilet – essentially a hole sunk into the ground with no seat, which you’re supposed to straddle and aim for – can be intimidating.
While there are frank and witty guides to using them, you’ll probably have the luxury of a Western toilet in your teacher accommodation. So it’s just when you venture out that you’ll have to perfect the art of using a squat toilet (insider tip: always have tissues handy!).
If you’re one of the few ESL teachers (like me) who has a Chinese squat toilet in your apartment you can buy a fold-away stool that stands over the toilet, allowing you to sit down. Mine cost less than £5.
Squat toilet (with fold-away stool over the top) in Alex's apartment in China.
Why are squat toilets preferred in China? Hygiene is a large part of the answer.
On a Western toilet, your buttocks come into direct contact with the same surface someone else's buttocks have just touched, and then your hands (assuming you’re a man and you therefore move the seat up and down in the course of a normal day). Unless you disinfect the seat very regularly, germs will be transmitted.
Also, squat toilets are quicker and easier to clean, and have fewer moving parts to wear out and replace. They are also cheaper to buy and install, and there is a theory that squat toilets promote – how should I put this – a more thorough evacuation than a Western toilet. I’ll leave it to an article on Quora to fill you in on the details, but be warned: there are intestinal diagrams!
What is undeniably true is that they discourage lingering like Western toilets do. They deny you the chance to get too comfortable while doing your ablutions, so you can get about your day quicker.
And what’s not to like about that?
What has your experience been like in China? Why do you think Chinese people spit? Share you thoughts below.