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What Your History Teacher Didn't Tell You About China...

Updated on December 4, 2013

China is not for the faint of heart

China is a culture set in thousands of years of history. Everything from the language to daily practices are different from America. This is an insider's look at what living in China is really like. Let's start with the basics...

  • There are more people in China than anywhere else in the world. This means densely overpopulated cities.
  • China's government is communist, and they often don't look to the pasts of other countries. They must make mistakes on their own to learn from. I often think of China as what America must have been like during its own Industrial Age: pollution, child labor, and smoking.
  • Last but not least, the income gap between Chinese people is astonishing. There are people with more than enough money to buy expensive cars and multiple apartments; however, there are also people who make their income by pulling massive shipping loads on rickshaws. You can easily see someone's income by just looking at their face. The poor have dreary, distraught, and sunken faces while the rich have full, joyous, and well-groomed faces.
  • China has a serious problem with air pollution. As of December 2013, Shanghai was reporting air pollution that was ten times more dangerous than the WHO standards. Children, if not all people, were asked to stay home.

What China's pollution looks like from a distance

Squat Potties

Have you ever used a squat potty before?

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Toilet Culture in China

  • Squat potties. You can easily find a public restroom on any street corner, but these are probably public squat potties. This is, of course, the same across many parts of Asia, but it seems like the preference in China. Rarely, you might find a "handicapped" or "Western" toilet available, but it's often being used for storage by the janitors. Just be prepared for less than sanitary conditions and a strong smell. If you plan on visiting China, add some lunges and squats to your workout routine!
  • Toilet paper. Or lack there of. In most, if not ALL, Chinese restrooms, you will NOT find any toilet paper. This is why every store you go to will be selling small packets of tissues. Most people carry around these tissues and use it in the restroom. BYOTP!
  • Public urination and defecation. I wish this was an article from fifty years ago, but it's still true today in many large cities of China. You may not see this so much in Beijing and Shanghai due to the vast internationalization of these cities, but this public practice is still going strong in Nanjing. The reason? This is normal practice in the villages of China, so if you bring those people to a city (such as migrant workers), they bring their practices with them. Often times, it's babies or young children. Usually a mother or father will hold a baby with split pants (no need for diapers in the summer when your child can use the whole city as their toilet) over a trashcan...whether it's in a shopping mall or on a street corner. Unfortunately, you will also at times see grown men urinating anywhere they please at any time.
  • Bonus information: If you do go somewhere that has a Western toilet, there will often be a sign that asks the user to not STAND on the toilet and squat!

An example of a sign in China that teaches how to use a Western toilet.
An example of a sign in China that teaches how to use a Western toilet.

Nanjing, China

nanjing, china:
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China

get directions

Scooters are always lined up on the sidewalks, whether they're charging or just parked.
Scooters are always lined up on the sidewalks, whether they're charging or just parked.

Millions of Scooters in China

With the amount of scooters you see in the larger cities of China, you may think how can China still be dealing with a pollution problem. There are more scooter owners and users than car owners.

The only problem I can see with these scooters, as far as I'm concerned, is that they're SO quiet. Additionally, why this is a problem is due to the fact that the designated "scooter road" is often being used by cars for parking or pedestrians. Therefore, if you are walking and not paying attention, you just might have an altercation on your hands. Be sure to stay aware of your surroundings in case a silent scooter approaches from behind.

As you can see from the graph below, China's national consumption of scooters is larger than any other Asian country and will only continue to grow.

Example of an unknown Chinese man asking my husband and daughter for a picture on the Great Wall.
Example of an unknown Chinese man asking my husband and daughter for a picture on the Great Wall.

Being a Foreigner or "Laowai" in China

Here are some quick tips on how to blend into the Chinese culture:

1. You will be stared at. If your hair is blond or you are African American, you will be INTENSELY stared at by spectators. Chinese people do not hide the fact that they're looking at you, and they will talk about you with their friends. Someone may even randomly come up and ask you for a picture (especially at high tourist areas like the Forbidden City or the Great Wall).

The view of fireworks from across the street of our apartment in downtown Nanjing.
The view of fireworks from across the street of our apartment in downtown Nanjing.

2. Fireworks are used all year long for different purposes. There are an abundance of fireworks on Chinese New Year and other holidays (such as Dragon Boat Festival or Mid-Autumn Day), but on average, you'll hear fireworks go off about once a day. People use fireworks to ward of bad spirits when starting a new business, moving into a new apartment, or before starting a new job.

Bamboo scaffolding on a building in downtown Nanjing

3. China is a society with roots in ancient civilization. Therefore, there are many traditional ways of doing things...such as using bamboo for scaffolding.

4. Chinese culture may seem abrasive at first. People tend to talk loudly and without inhibitions. Don't be alarmed or think that there's necessarily an issue. It may simply be a regular conversation just spoken loudly. However, you may have to pick up a few abrasive tendencies yourself when it comes to lining up in China. If there is any space between you and the person in front of you, someone might take this opportunity to barge in line. It's not done subtly but quite openly, and no one says anything. So be prepared to be as close as possible to the people you're standing with in line or you might be continuously pushed back. If you do find yourself in this situation, the best way to get out of it is stick your elbows at from your side and nudge your way back to your position.

5. Lastly, smoking is very common in China. However, it's predominantly men who smoke in public. If a woman is seen smoking in public, her respect and reputation goes down because it's believed only "women of the night" or "bad women" smoke.

There are tobacco and smoking shops on almost every city block, so if you enjoy smoking, you've come to the right place. However, rules are often not followed about not smoking in public places, such as shopping malls, restrooms, or even long-distance buses.

Extended Stay?

Learning about China is definitely valuable as it grows into a larger and larger super power. It's even worth it to travel across the world to see what this nation has to offer. However, think long and carefully before you decide to actually live there, especially if you have children. The quality and safety of products, the water, and the air quality are not improving any time soon. If you're young and single, it's a great place to have a few adventures--especially since the cost of living is so low (that means fifty cent beer!).


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    • iguidenetwork profile image


      4 years ago from Austin, TX

      Food safety had been a big issue in China. Foodstuffs imported from China have been banned because they contain harmful components (powdered milk has melamine which is used in porcelains... Some have formaline, etc)

      I too noticed about the attitude of the Chinese... If you look at their behavior as rude, for them it's only normal.


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