5 Misconceptions About China
China is a mysterious place to most people who have never lived there. Even if you have visited China before, there are some things you just can’t understand unless you have lived and worked in the Middle Kingdom. If you read the “news” or watch the “news” on TV, you might think China is a big, bad, scary place. If you watch a lot of movies, you might think China is a place where crime is high and everybody knows kung fu. If you read travel blogs and watch travel shows about China… well now you’re getting warmer. Even for those of us who have experienced China life for many years, every day brings new surprises, new delights and new eye-rolling moments. My friends and family back in America cannot conceive of what China is really like. Here’s a little ditty to help them (and you) get a better perspective, and put to rest these 5 misconceptions about China:
#1 The Food is Bad
Dead wrong! The food in China is excellent. People in the west have come up with the silly idea that because China is a developing country, it can’t get fresh vegetables and fruit, or good quality meat. This is utterly ridiculous. Have you seen the size of China on a map? What do you think surrounds all those mega-cities? Forests, mountains and farmland! I was told by my Chinese friends before I moved overseas that the Chinese food was very different than what we get in the states at a Chinese restaurant. They were right. It’s way better.
Although you can go to a supermarket and buy veggies out of season from other countries, a lot, if not most of the food you get is made with local ingredients that came from close by. There are lots of seasonal dishes that depend on wild greens (amazing!). In general, I have to say, even the veggies you buy at the supermarket just have a better flavor than what I was used to back home. For example, I was never a big carrot fan. I like them well enough to use them in dishes I made, but I basically only ate them because I knew they were good for me. The carrots in China actually are tasty! They taste like, well, maybe the way carrots are supposed to taste. Now I crave carrots. Don’t even get me started on the cabbage. Then there’s the fruit. You have never tasted fruit like the fresh fruit in China bought from your little neighborhood fruit stand. It is one thing to like strawberries, and then you taste a fresh one in China. It is like eating candy, it’s so good! You almost feel guilty. My wife and I bought a blender and made fresh fruit smoothies most mornings with whatever was fresh and in season. The tastiest way to start the day that I can think of.
So with all these fresh ingredients, how do you think the food in the restaurants tastes? Yeah, genius, it’s fantastic. It’s also ridiculously cheap.
Before I started teaching in China, I arrived a week early to roam around Shanghai and acclimate myself to the time zone before I went to Ningbo, where I would spend the next two years. My first day out exploring, I walked down a side street looking for something yummy and tasty to put in my belly. I spied a small shop where the man was outside making noodles to order for the customers inside! “Wow,” I thought, “this is really fresh, what an exotic find!” It was a Muslim restaurant cooking up food from the XinJiang region of northwest China where the Uygurs are from.
I took a lot of covert photos of the guy making the noodles, which were excellent. They had a big picture-menu that covered the entire wall. The food was really good, very inexpensive, and the people were friendly and welcoming. I vowed I would go back to this exotic place again before I left, but never did. Then I got to Ningbo. And there was one of those restaurants on every corner. And I probably ate those handmade noodles 4 times a week if not more (free delivery!) for lunch at school for two years. Nothing exotic about them in the end, but who cares! They were great each and every time. When you start with good quality and good craftsmanship, you are 75% of the way there to making a great meal. Love and skill finish it off.
So, if you ever hear someone say that the food in China is awful, smack them.
#2 It’s One Big Rice Paddy
People who think that China is some giant farm, or a barely developed country must live in a cave, or don’t know what a computer is. China is so diverse. Every province is very different. Yes, there are a lot of rice fields, and some of them are gorgeous feats of engineering that will leave you awestruck. China has amazing landscapes of virtually every kind. The cities are very modern, especially the bigger ones, with beautiful skylines and buildings that light up at night like nothing I’ve ever seen. A gargantuan waste of electricity, but very beautiful nonetheless.
I was showing a friend some photos while back in California for a quick visit one. “Interesting,” he said, “I thought everyone would be wearing those coolie hats.” No, you dolt! This isn’t the 1800’s! China is a modern place with all the latest fashions and brands you could think of and more. Although you might see people like street cleaners or farmers wearing those conical hats to keep off the sun, your average man or woman would never wear them. Chinese people are, in general, very fashion conscious like anywhere else.
Now, what is a bit paradoxical, I will admit, is when winter hits and people start wearing their pajamas around outside. That’s right, they have special cold weather pajamas they wear outside when running local errands or taking a walk. It’s hilarious, but I’m sure I wear things that people think are strange as well. It’s just one of those cultural things where you shrug and go, “It’s just different.” And if it wasn’t different, then why go there? Isn’t that why we travel? To see different things?
Only a complete moron would think that China is some giant, dusty third world village. It’s an amazing, complex place full of style. Sometimes it’s a quirky style, but hey, cut them some slack. It’s fun.
#3 The People Are Unfriendly
Look, one thing I have learned after living abroad for six years in three different countries is that no matter where you go, people are the same. You are going to find nice people and awful people no matter where you go. In America, where I’m from, there are a lot of crazy people doing bizarre and awful things. There are also lots of kindhearted people doing amazing things. Same goes for China.
In China you can’t say that people are unfriendly. You just can’t, because it isn’t true. It’s an over-generalization that does not fit Chinese people.
Now, that being said, an old granny will elbow you in the ear if it means she will get on the bus ahead of you and have a chance at a seat. It isn’t because she isn’t friendly, it’s just survival of the fittest. Granny wants a seat on that bus and the chances that someone will give up their seat for her is a shaky 50/50. Again, not that the people are unkind, but this is a very individualistic society and there is a strong mentality of “I’ve got to get mine.” So while violent crime is extremely low, petty theft is a national past time. And getting on the bus is a competition as well.
People aren’t saying hello and smiling to every single person who walks by them on the street like they do in some parts of the US. Honestly I think when people do that in the US it is disingenuous. In China, it might be harder to make a close friend, but once you do, you have a family-like status.
The way the Chinese treat their guests is a great example. A Chinese friend invites you to dinner. There is a 50% chance that you will be arguing fiercely after the dinner is over. Why? Because no matter how hard you try, your friend is going to be buying your dinner. No matter how much you argue and protest, you are not getting that bill. In China, the person who asks you to go out for dinner pays for dinner. They will be sneaky about it too. You may have planned to pay, and even get up in the middle of the meal to find the waiter and pay before your friend does only to realize that when he went to the restroom a minute ago he paid the bill. He outwitted you again! There is no defense to this, you can argue with the waiter all you want, call in the owner, nothing you can do can prevent you from getting treated to dinner, again and again. It’s just a Chinese custom. You can beg, you can plead, you can get angry (losing face, I should add), you can do what you want. If they invited you to dinner, you will not see that check. Period!
If you think the Chinese are unfriendly, you must not have interacted with very many of them. Like anywhere you go, they are very nice once they get used to you.
#4 China is Communist
This one is true and false. Without getting into an discussion of politics and economics, let me just say that from the point of view of the average, everyday foreigner working in China or even someone just travelling there, you would never know it is a communist country.
I was talking to someone once who wanted to teach English abroad and was looking at opportunities in Thailand. I asked them if they had considered China. “No way!” she said, “It’s communist.” I chuckled to myself. “Well, how is that going to affect you in a negative way?” I asked. “Well, everybody knows that communism is just bad. People get hurt, and other stuff.”
Let me tell you this: Not once did I ever feel like, “Oh, wow, that is so communist” or “Geez, this communism is killing me today” or “Golly, I wish this wasn’t so communist.” It seems to the naked eye like any other city in any other country.
As a foreigner you wouldn’t have any political rights anyway. I couldn’t vote when I lived in France, and I didn’t care; I was just there to eat amazing food and say “Hon hon honnn!” a lot, drink red wine at lunch and then bicycle home with a baguette under my left arm. Yes, I wore a beret! What did the politics matter to me? China is no different. You go about your day in a normal way, buying the things you would buy anywhere else, doing the normal things you would normally do. Nobody is there in the streets oppressing you (a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
The only thing that might be cause for complaint is the blocking of certain internet sites. But this is moot, because you can easily get around The Great Firewall when you use a VPN! VPNs are advertised on local search engines even! So people who complain about this are just lazy and like to complain, obviously. The internet is slow, I will give you that, but it is because 500 million people are trying to use it at once, and there is nothing you can do about that. It has nothing to do with China being communist.
#5 Chinese People Hate Foreigners
This is laughable, the Chinese are fascinated by foreigners! Half of the ads selling Chinese products include foreigners. You can’t walk down the street without encountering half a dozen people saying “Hello!” to you, practicing the one English word they know. They aren’t put off by foreigners, they want to be foreigners. They envy you.
They sometimes ask you, a perfect stranger, for a selfie together. Why? So they can say, “Look, I met a foreigner today. How cool am I?” and be the coolest of all their friends for an hour. Like if you saw Brad Pitt on the street. You’ve seen him in the movies and on TV, but in the flesh? You might get up the courage to ask him for a photo. Would you ever show your friends this photo? Damn right, you’d be texting it to everyone you know. To the Chinese, us foreigners are all Brad Pitt. The symbol of everything they want to achieve.
The best is the reaction from the little kids you meet. Now, to the little tykes we aren’t Brad Pitt, we’re the scariest thing ever. Often in my new classes of young students, they would be crying the first few sessions because they had never seen a foreigner up close before and it was a scary experience. I always thought it might be because I am so incredibly handsome. It never failed though, after a few classes when they were used to me I’d walk in and they would all jump up and rush me to give me a big group hug. And maybe accidentally punch me in the balls. Little kids can be dangerous!
The best thing is when kids (or sometimes even unwary adults) spot you on the street and tell whomever is next to them, “Ni kan! Laowai!” (Look! A foreigner!). Everyone then looks to where they are pointing and indulges in a good stare. Not a menacing stare, but more of an open-mouthed stare. It is awkward at first, but I decided rather than rolling your eyes or getting upset, why not just smile and wave at them? It takes very little extra energy to be a good ambassador and everybody wins: they see a cool foreigner who was nice and smiled at them, and you get the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your part in enhancing east/west relations on a grassroots level. There is a fun thing you can do to mess with them when they say “Ni kan, Laowai!” You can say, “Ni Kan! Zhongguo ren!” and point to them. This means, “Look! Chinese people!” If you say it in an excited, surprised way like they do, usually you get a laugh out of them. They may chuckle and say something back to you that probably means, “Ha! Rich foreigner so clever, eh?”
It’s all in good fun.
#6 Chinese People Can’t Drive
OK, I’m sorry, but this is absolutely true. I only promised 5 misconceptions about China, right? Well, the sixth one is absolutely true. Chinese people can indeed operate an automobile, but they are terrible about following the rules of the road, which admittedly are very different than those we westerners are used to. You could not pay me to drive a car that I cared anything about in China. Even riding in a taxi there is like being in a demolition derby where people are just nudging and scraping and cutting you off instead of actively trying to ram your car and destroy it.
So there you have it, I hope you’ve learned something here about what life in China is really like. Do you agree or disagree with these “five” misconceptions about China? Let us know in the comments section below! If you’d like to learn more about teaching and living in China, visit our China Guide (here) for more information. Also, apply for our many excellent ESL jobs in China here!