The five culture shocks listed here are not meant to a slur on my fellow countryman, although regrettably, China does need to improve in some of the areas listed below.
Please keep two things in mind when reading this article: China is fast modernizing and many things will eventually get better; do not let these shocks prevent you from enjoying China.
First-time visitors to China are too often shocked and disgusted by the widespread spitting. It is very common for you to hear loud throat-clearing or coughs, followed by spitting on the ground. Sometimes, a pedestrian will spit as you pass by, leaving you the impression that you are targeted.
Sad but true, spitting is a habitual practice among many Chinese. Culturally speaking, Chinese think that phlegm is dirty and full of germs, so it must be spit out. The polluted air in China is also to blame for the spitting, as it often leads to an uncomfortable feeling in the throat.
Don’t take spitting personally as if it were directed toward you. Fortunately, many Chinese now realize this and are gradually getting rid of this habit.
2. Public Restrooms
You have to be prepared for many shocks when you go to some public restrooms in China: lack of privacy, no toilet paper, no water soap, unflushed toilets, and the horrific smell. Despite all this, some public restrooms collect a small fee (less than a dime) for entering.
Unlike the toilet you normally know, a typical toilet in Chinese public restrooms is a “squat toilet“. You literally squat on an oval shaped porcelain pot built into the ground. Squatting can be physically demanding for people who are not used to this kind of toilet. Expect strained muscles on both legs after using this kind of toilet.
The safe bet is to use the restrooms at McDonald’s or KFC when you have to go. The good news is: the sanitary conditions of public restrooms are improving in China, especially in major tourist places.
Unless you are a very experienced driver and prepared to be on constant and heightened alert, you don’t want to drive a car on the busy roads in China. In big cities, the traffic is very heavy, and numerous minor breaches of traffic regulations occur every moment. These breaches are either uncaught or simply taken for granted, and there are many rude drivers on the road.
The concept of Right-of-Way seems to be non-existent in China. The most followed rule, instead, is Right-of-Way belongs to whoever can get it. Pedestrians, who are the weakest in the jungle of vehicles, have the lowest Right-of-Way even at the crossing of the street. Unless there are traffic lights, cars often do not slow down, not to mention stop, to let pedestrians pass the crossing. As a result, jaywalking is also a common sight in China.
4. Air Pollution
The pollution soars with the economy of China. China’s economy is fueled to a great proportion by coal, and diesel oil is also widely used. In northern Chinese cities, coal is burnt for heating purposes in winter, and the fumes are emitted almost unchecked into the air. In those cities, it is quite common to see the surface of the cars coated with coal dust during winter.
Black carbon from exhaust pipes is another source of pollution. In major Chinese cities, people are so used to the hazy sky and smoggy air that a blue sky becomes a rarity. Beijing is endeavoring to turn its sky blue before Summer Olympics despite great difficulties.
After a couple of weeks in China, you will acclimate yourself to the air and the hazy sky. This is perhaps the easiest culture shock to get over.
5. Noisy eaters
Chinese do make a lot of noises when eating. But before we rush to the conclusion that making noises when eating is bad manners, let’s read what Dr. Lin Yutang has to say:
The Chinese have no prudery about food, or about eating it with gusto. When a Chinese drinks a mouthful of good soup he gives a hearty smack.
While admitting that the first four culture shocks mentioned above are areas where China needs to improve, I regard this one purely customary. Chinese prepare food differently and eat using chopsticks. Most Chinese do not take any notice to the noises of eating at table. When eating delicious noodles, you actually have the license to slurp.