This is gonna be a fun one.
I realized that since living in China, I haven’t written much about it except for one post.
And I had such a bloody good time that I figured it’s worth sharing some awesome stories about life there as a foreign species called white man.
Since pretty much everything we hear about China in the west deals with horror stories, I think it’s pretty important to set some things straight, and clarify others.
So without further ado, I introduce:
The inside scoop on China.
First, some fun stuff
Ahh travel in China – the land of ancient history, kung fu, tea, mail order brides, nerdy white guys, and Taoism. The place where everyone meditates and trains some sort of kung fu daily, where people discuss philosophy in the streets and businessmen all read Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
… If only that were true.
In fact, just about the only stereotypically story-book things that exist in modern China are the following:
- Tai Chi (mostly old people, mostly 22 year old “masters”, lots of scam artists)
- Tea. Everywhere.
- … And lots of squirrely white guys (don’t know what that means? Picture a squirrel. Yeah, it’s awkward).
- Amazing food
- Some of the most beautiful scenery on earth
- Pollution that is bad, but not nearly as bad as you think
- Women that wear high heels in all 4 seasons
A lot of the rest of the stuff is very romantic, old fashioned, story-tale junk that you don’t see anymore. There’s a lot to love, and a lot you may hate about it.
But one thing is for sure: it’s one hell of an adventure to live or travel there. Lemme give you the run down on some stuff you may or may not hate.
1. Manners don’t exist
This may be a touchy subject, and my western bias is definitely at work here, but: most mainland Chinese (by western standards) have god awful manners.
Really. Manners so bad my mom would have beaten the shit out of me in public.
Spitting inside restaurants, letting children urinate inside the brand new Beijing subway, grown men getting into fights as soon as they start drinking. Yielding doesn’t exist. Old women will shove you out of the way in the grocery store.
There is absolutely no respect for other people if they are not part of your family, extended family, or contacts. If you aren’t family you aren’t shit. And people act like it.
2. Lines don’t exist
Now this one’s hilarious. The first time I went on a big solo adventure in China, I was heading from Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors, to Beijing, the capital of China.
I showed up plenty early to the railroad station alone and figured I’d have time to read a book while waiting at the station.
Boy was I wrong. Turns out that there were 3,000 other Chinese trying to get into the train station. And none of them lined up. They pushed each other like a mob of special ed kids getting on a bus. They shoved so hard I saw two women crying and cursing at the crowd they were injured so badly.
Turns out, this isn’t unusual at all. This is pretty much the norm. I’m proud to say that by the time I left I learned the ropes — and shoulder checked an elderly Chinese lady who tried to cut me in line and steal my Chinese medicine I just paid for. Sucker.
3. Connections get you anything (anything), but beware
Here’s a very interesting facet of the Chinese: the concept of 关系 guan xi (loosely, connections) is what runs the country.
Since corruption, cheating, and stealing are all still extremely commonplace, knowing people is the best way to get things done.
I was once in Shanghai with a young guy who was born into the “millionaires” club, aka second generation rich. He was young – mid to late 20s, spoke Japanese fluently, and had decent English.
“If we go into a club together, you pick any girl. She’s yours. I’ll have a wall of bodyguards surround you so you guys can dance and they’ll close the club for us,” he told us at dinner one night. Awesome. And scary.
The scary part of connections is that it works “eye-for-eye” style – you better be able to pay back every single tiny favor. And the Chinese remember every single one. So it might go like this:
< 10 years have elapsed >
“Remember that time [ 10 years ago ] when I picked up you and your girlfriend in the freezing cold? Well, I’ve got to go to a conference for a week, would you mind watching my kids?” That sucks.
There’s also a widely circulated word of mouth story in Beijing about a police sergeant’s son who was drunk driving and hit a family or a couple of kids on the highway and killed them. He got off scott-free because of his daddy’s rank.
Chinese guan xi gets you anything, and out of anything.
4. Pollution sucks, but is not as bad as you think
Beijing has one of the worst reputations for being a polluted city.
Here’s the truth: it’s bad by western standards, but not nearly as bad as the papers in the west portray it.
Yes some days there is a burning nail polish remover smell.
And yes some days you can see pollution inside the buildings if the hallway is long enough.
And yes the Chinese organize their exercise days around the pollution.
But usually it’s just an L.A. haze or New York City kind of smell.
5. Poisoned, exotic, and chemically molested foods
The Chinese news reports were claiming that watermelons were exploding and I quote “like land mines” because they were so pumped full of growth hormones.
And you know about the milk scare.
Well, if you ask Chinese what things not to eat, they’ll tell you: milk & watermelons. They’re familiar with it.
Another fun one: a new scary thing popped up recently in China: a chemical (carcinogenic, naturally) that can *change* any meat to have the appearance and texture/taste of beef. Creepy.
The health scares exist: just try not to get too worked up about it, know that the foods you eat on a daily basis probably will not get you sick, and regarding restaurants, use local presence as an indicator of whether or not they’re safe.
6. The year-round mini skirt / high heeled girl
First: Just as a confession/disclaimer: I’m not one of those “into Asian girls” guys. I like that Indian, Latina, Asian, sort of look – but I’m not an anime watching asian-fetish kind of guy.
Having said that: China easily has some of the most beautiful women I’ve seen in my life. And In way higher numbers than I’ve ever seen in a club or bar in the United States. Lots of my male friends that lived in Beijing also agree.
And a lot of them dress like they are going to a club on a day to day basis.
Even in winter, women wear heels.
I’ve even seen women climbing some of the sacred (and most dangerous) mountains in China in high heels. It’s madness.
(Women: thanks for suffering just for the sake of looking good)
Vanity is absolutely huge in Asia. Be forewarned. It’s both good and bad, and the phrase in China for the extremely high-maintenance gold-digging kind of girl is a “Shanghai Girl.”
7. If you’re white, you might be an overnight celebrity
Ten or twenty years ago people were talking about how when you go to Asia you gain celebrity status instantly, with people (especially young girls) wanting to take pictures of you.
In my experience, this is totally still the reality today. I’m not sure how or why exactly it’s like that, but I’d imagine it’s due to western media influence and the perception of beauty.
My other Asian friends (going all the way down Southeast Asia) even say where they live (Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines) it’s the same. A tall white American guy is a huge status symbol for a girl.
So my advice is this: Enjoy it. Be careful. And don’t be a prick.
If you’re a white guy, you will probably have lots of girls & people coming up to take pictures with you.
You will probably have girls ask for your phone number.
You may have people come up to you asking if you want to model.
Enjoy the attention, don’t let it get to your head, realize that there may be a lot of gold digging girls, and otherwise just use it as an opportunity to make friends.
8. People will stare at you. A lot.
Another thing that intrigues people but bothers others. Even in the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, if you’re not at a foreigner university, you’ll have a lot of people staring at you.
In Beijing, the gym where I go to only has a couple foreigners, and every single time I get into the elevator (6 floors) there is some elderly Chinese looking right at my face totally captivated.
She looks at my face for a while, and then looks me up and down noting things about me. My shoes. My belt. My shirt.
The attention you get may or may not bother you. But the feeling I had from all these experiences is that the Chinese simply are naive of the outside world, and any chance they get to see if first-hand, they’ll take.
9. Beware of face
Everyone knows about face in the west. You know, from those old Japanese swordsman movies. The samurai has dishonored the master so he commits ritual suicide.
In China it’s also extremely important and underlies every facet of Chinese society, even in modern times.
Most of the time, it just works like this: talk up the accomplishments of others a lot, and be very humble when taking a compliment.
Sometimes, it’s a little more hostile:
On more than one occasion I’ve had Chinese offer me drinks while in a club, bar, or restaurant just trying to be friendly. At the beginning it freaked me out – we don’t do that in the west unless you want something from someone, or are giving them a roofie-colada.
So, at the beginning, I politely refused. One guy even resorted to speaking English, “I don’t want to have to kick your ass!”
He was drunk beyond belief and I had 6 guys with me, so it wasn’t exactly threatening, but it could’ve been.
It’s just important to know that face is one of the reasons some people won’t drop an argument or end up resorting to fist fights.. and there are plenty of those.
So, if you’re planning on traveling in China, being an expat in China, teaching English in China, or just going to China to study kung fu, you already have an exhausting guide of things to prepare for.
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