What Surprised me About China

September 24, 2015
This isn't my first time in China and it's not my first time living in Asia, so I didn't expect to be shocked by much. However, I still find myself surprised and sometimes even bewildered. I love discovering cultural idiosyncrasies at the most unexpected times. I've highlighted a few of them below. 


* Mooncake- I probably shouldn't start out with this one because it's going to make me look like an idiot, but I thought all mooncake was the same. (In fairness, I discovered that it wasn't very quickly after moving here!) Back in 2004, I went to China for the first time and tried mooncake during the Mid-Autumn Festival. I thought it was delicious--it had red bean paste inside. This time around, I went to the grocery store, bought some moon cake, and took a large bite thinking it was going to be the same delectable treat that I had years ago. Wrong. Inside the mooncake I picked was an egg yolk right in the center. It wasn't hard boiled, either. I was told that this was most likely a salted duck egg. This type of moon cake is just not for me, but there are so many other kinds that I do like and didn't even know existed until recently. For example, I tried chocolate mooncake just the other day! Even the types of crusts can vary.

While on the subject of mooncake, my students had to color and decorate "baby mooncake." It was basically a mooncake personified with a face and body. I don't know why I think that is so hilarious, but I laugh to myself every time I hear my co-teacher ask my students about how their "baby mooncake" looks.


* "The parents don't like it when you change your hairstyle, so you should try to keep it the same." I've heard this from a few people now. If this is true, good thing my hair was tied up the first time I met my students' parents so that they couldn't see I just got a ton of it chopped off. I am probably going to keep my hair the same color for awhile, so this shouldn't be an issue. I'm not really sure why this matters that much, but might ask my co-teacher. She has worked with a lot of Westerners and is not easily offended. She will often ask me about American culture, so I hope she can shed some light on this one for me.

* Fire drills in China- The middle school already had their fire drill and I heard that there was actual smoke everywhere. At a staff meeting, we went over the procedure for the fire drill and we have to dampen all of these towels/give each student one to hold over their mouths as they exit the building. We have a fire drill coming up this week and I'm dreading it. My students are so young--I don't want any of them to be scared or cry, although I might! I hope it is not too intense for them. I'm going to prep them ahead of time so that they aren't panicking.

* Getting a taxi- I've never been turned down for a cab so many times in my entire life. It appears to me that taxi drivers are wary of foreigners because a group of us will often get passed by for a Chinese person down the street. I've been told to get out of taxis before. I don't know if it was because the driver did not want to take me and was discriminating or if he just didn't want to take me because he did not like my destination. When I have to go somewhere, I try to allot extra time since I never know exactly how long getting a taxi will take.

* The concept of guanxi- I didn't know at all about guanxi until our orientation, but it helped explain a lot about working closely with a Chinese staff. In a nutshell, if someone asks you to do a favor for them, you should try really hard to say yes. This will not go unnoticed and your "guanxi bank" will fill up so that when you need something, you will most likely get what you ask for in return.

* Cupping Therapy- I saw a few people with these strange reddish-purplish marks on them and was wondering about it. No, there are not boatloads of people with weird birthmarks all over their bodies. The marks are actually from cupping therapy, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote blood flow. In cupping therapy, suction cups are placed on the body in an attempt to draw out toxins and impurities. Hollywood celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow have tried it. There is also the "wet" version of this that involves being sliced with a cupping scalpel and bleeding into the cups...I think I'll pass on that one. 

* Our water and power usage was posted in our building. I did read in our contracts that if we don't use all of our monthly water allowance that we can get some money back. We are also expected to pay if we go over, so I knew it was being monitored. What I did not expect was for how much water and power we used to be posted in our building. It was kind of embarrassing because I accidentally left a light on one day when I was at work and so my power usage was on the higher end of the spectrum. Even though our names aren't posted, our room numbers are so Scott was sure to look at mine and tease me. It has made me more conscious of conserving energy, so I guess that's a good thing.

* I really dislike my Chinese lessons. (I feel guilty for admitting this.) This is surprising for me because I have always loved studying a new language, but learning Mandarin is stressing me out. I expected that it would be hard, but the pronunciation is killing me. A few days ago our instructor gave me and Scott a quiz that we both failed. I just wanted to take it for fun and not in a serious way because I don't plan on becoming fluent. That would take years of study and more time than I have in the day. All I wanted to do was learn some phrases that might help me out in my day-to-day life. Right now I am going twice a week, which is not a good amount for me. I'd really like to go once a week so that I have more time to study the vocabulary for the next session. I paid for ten sessions in advance, so I'm going to see how I feel at the end of the last session. I also think I'd really prefer to work with the teacher alone because all I focus on now is getting called on and I can't even fully concentrate.

* I was told,"The subway system in Shanghai is terrible, you'll never get a seat, and it's filthy." I've ridden the subway about 5 times now, got a seat more than half of the time, and don't find what was said to me to be the case at all. I heard that mothers will just let their kids pee on the train, but thankfully that is something I've yet to witness. Maybe I've just been lucky so far, but I don't mind taking the subway in Shanghai.

* It takes forever to get mail! This is my sixth year living abroad, so I'm familiar with the waiting game, but I don't think I've ever had to wait THIS long. My dad air mailed me a package over a month ago and it hasn't arrived. A letter got sent out to me about three weeks ago and it's still not here. I'm getting really worried that both items will never come. Scott and I both mailed our parents a postcard, and my parents got the one I sent about a week ago, but Scott's parents and his grandma are still waiting to receive theirs. 

* The popcorn is all sweet. Okay, this would have surprised me except that my Chinese co-teacher from last year told me about this. While I do love some kettle corn, I did work at a movie theater for almost ten years, so I'm going to miss the salty, buttery popcorn I'm used to.

* The parents of my students are meeting in a public place to talk about my co-teacher and me. When my co-teacher first told me this, my heart sank and I got extremely worried! Were they mad at us? Did we do something wrong? My co-teacher told me to relax because "this type of thing is very common in China." Today I also got three VERY nice e-mails from the students' parents, so that's reassuring!  

What has been surprising to you on one of your trips?


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