How to avoid culture shocks in China

August 10, 2010

You can’t, so don’t bother.

Having said that, there are some observations which can make your visit more pleasant and enjoyable, such as an awareness of the psychology of the country.

I have heard many culture shock stories from visitors, and often the conversation goes like this: I was so surprised how different China was compared to Japan. Yes, people like to compare their experience in China with that of Japan. I think it is very important that people are aware of the dichotomy of the two Cultures. The two countries do

One of My Home Town's Public Square

share lots of similarities when it comes to race, belief, traditions and customs, but there are also significant differences – especially in regards to Western influence. While Japan swiftly embraced the Western Culture from 17th century (after an initial resistance), China has always historically shun away from the West – at least until the 80’s when China went through economic reform. Even with reform, Westernization and globalization have just started to infiltrate the material aspects of Chinese lives, while Chinese culture evolved little with time. This phenomena sometime tricks visitors into thinking people would behave in certain ways because of their Westernized appearance or living conditions, and they are often startled into culture shock when this is not the case.

Lets use the the behaviour of spitting in public places as an example. In China, the government forbids spitting for hygiene reasons, but the five thousand years of Chinese culture never said anything about it. So despite the government (which in comparison only existed just over 60 years) urging its population to abandon this behaviour it continues to this day. Many Westerners would be disgusted to tread through a road of spitting mines. But instead of letting this ruin your holiday and hold you hostage of fear, try to forget about the standard of Western culture for a second and think: right, you are in a foreign country, therefore it is pointless to try to measure this culture with your own, and just forget about your own expectations of how people should behave but rather they are nothing more than ‘different’ from your culture. In fact let me tell you something to cheer you up: Chinese are spitting much less because they are aware you are a foreigner, out of curtsey just to accommodate you. Learn from the locals, see how they have craftly avoided any damage from spit and you will come out a winner. (Note on spitting: Chinese are told not to spit from early in their education, but there are 1.3 billion of us, and some do not have the privilege of education or they just simply don’t care. I do not support the behaviour but simply find it funny and want to focus on the difference of cultures.)

People often find Japan is a much easier country to understand and easier place to relax and often they assumed the same from China. You are more likely to find a Western chain restaurant in any Japanese city than in China. Please do remember the size of the two countries are vastly different. China has 56 ethnic groups which have every different culture from one and the other. It is a country that covers 12 time zones and has more neighbouring countries than any country in the world, and yet the formidable mountains, rivers and deserts surrounding it made China an isolated country for centuries. To understand China, is to have the determination of climbing the Mount Everist . Simply going to a supermarket or restaurant in China town, will not equip you with sufficient knowledge to survive real culture shock in China.

The other very common culture shock is staring. Yes, it is rude over in the West, while in China, it is an honour if you get stared at. Imagine seeing the royalty on the London street? Won’t you stare and be amused? Yes, you are as fascinating as royalty to the Chinese people. Even though their looks can be bland and appear emotionless at first glance. So before you give the on lookers the angry what-the-hell-are-you-staring-at treatment, let me tell you something that will light up the situation. Before I go any further, it is important to point out that staring – which is considered rude in the West – does NOT have the same meaning in China. Everyone is allowed to stare and be stared at in China – it simply means something is interesting therefore worth a look, and it only display the inquisitive nature of human beings.

My first awareness of how Chinese love to stare was in front of the train station in my home town. In any city’s station you will find the most curious people because this is the first stop of the 865 million or so farmers pouring into the cities searching for work each year. To them, anything interesting could be an opportunity. My mother left my husband and I to attend the luggage while she went to get tickets. Within 5 minutes, there was a full circle of people around us, doing nothing, just staring. And there was my husband and I who tried very hard to ignore them. Nobody did anything, nobody made a sound or a gesture. Just a group of people staring. By the time my mother came back, all she could see was a wall of people. She pushed through the crowd expecting some kind of drama, but instead, all she found was the two of us amused and puzzled . It can be frightening if you are not the comedic type, but we should have done what my mother did, she just brought up a sunny smile and waved at all of them and said, it’s only my daughter and her husband, what is there to stare at?’ Within seconds, all the onlookers dissolved into thin air like they were never there before!

My husband had developed a great humorous strategy against the staring culture, instead of getting angry, he gave them a big grin and stared right back at them. which usually caught them so off the guard that they either stumble or get very shy and embarrassed. Once, he was on a bike, cruising through the pleasant early summer evening. In the other direction came a guy who decided this foreigner was entertaining to stare at. My husband’s grin and straightforward stare was so magical he was transfixed and eventually walked right into the tree in front of him.

A lot of people I talked to seemed to get very upset when they encountered culture shock in China. They would say how could the locals do this and that, how unacceptable they could be. But what is acceptable? Have you ever thought that what is acceptable for you might not be for the locals. Everyone has his own social standard. Try to remember why you are there in the first place – didn’t you want to experience a different culture? When there, try to be an observer rather than a judge. The sooner you get this in your head, the sooner you will have a much better, relaxing and enjoyable holiday to come. Why not find in a humorous way to accept those differences, which will surely let you come home with some stories to tell.

Students wait with luggages in Tiananmen Suqare

In recent years, China has caught up very fast on the movements of Westernization and globalization. The causes for culture shock are becoming fewer and fewer, and I hear more about how much people love their visit in China (mainly the big cities) these days. I feel grateful for people’s acceptance of Chinese culture on one hand, and find myself disappointed at the speed of change on the other hand. Wouldn’t it be so boring if you don’t get anything new at all? That is the mystic charm of China. So if you still want to find some thrill, go deeper into the north west of China which is less exposed but offers a ray of cultural diversity. However, there are very important and valuable lessons China can learn from other countries. Such as the attention to hygiene, human rights, tackling corruption and bribery. And I hope China will learn them fast.


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