Here are 10 random things that we experienced during our time in China that we found interesting or unique. This is actually our second “10 Things” post for China, because we visited Yunnan province back in February and wrote a post for that trip (link here). This post is focused on what we observed during our two and half months living in Yangshuo, China over the summer.
You can view our other “10-ish Things…” posts here.
1. The importance of family
The Chinese culture puts great emphasis on the importance of family. In a typical family, the role of each member and their relationships with others in the family are clearly defined. For example, a grandmother is expected to help take care of her grandchildren, and a son is responsible for taking care of his parents financially in their old age. A positive effect of societal expectations being so clearly laid out is that family structures are extremely strong in China, with a system of support available for people in all stages of life. Older family members are integrated into the lives of their extended families, and the responsibility of raising children is spread out among more of the family, not resting solely on the parents. We found the strength of family in China to be especially memorable, because it differs so much from the United States, where the individual’s desires are prized over the collective’s, and family members who fall behind are more likely to be left behind.
Though our overall impression was a positive one, it’s impossible to gloss over the negative side of these societal expectations. One issue we heard about from our Chinese friends is that it is common to be trapped in at least one unhealthy or abusive family relationship. One relationship type especially prone to becoming tense is the one between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Typically, the new bride moves in with her husband’s family, and the mother-in-law takes a major role in raising her grandchildren. The daughter-in law is treated as a subordinate in her new home, and this dynamic can create a lot of friction. In a close second — and uncoincidentally — the relationship between husband and wife can also be strained by these roles, in no small part due to its inevitable collision course with the son-mother relationship. Another direct and depressing effect is that many parents still prefer to have sons rather than daughters, because the son’s family will be obligated to take care of their parents, and they will carry on the family name. In addition to how this affects women socially and economically during their lives, this factor leads to more abortions of females and a skewed sex ratio.
2. Dancing old(er) ladies in the park
Come sundown, at every park, square, or wide sidewalk in China, an extremely endearing phenomenon occurs. One older woman with a boombox rallies a group of other ladies to dance together in unison. Anyone is welcome to join in and follow the moves (which are easy to pick up), but most of them are regulars who show up every day and know all the dances by heart. In one park you are likely to see several groups of varying sizes, competing for dominance. It’s a fun and laid back environment, with small children running around and locals using the opportunity to catch up with each other.
The “old man” equivalent to this is playing Chinese chess on the street. It’s really wonderful to see how active older people are in China and how much they like spending time outside and in their communities.
3. Taking a nap after lunch...
At our language school, when we noticed that our Chinese friends didn’t want to make plans during the long break after lunch, we didn’t make much of it. Later, when we realized that their overall class schedule was shifted so that they had a two-hour break after lunch (while the foreigners only had an hour) we had a feeling something was up. It was then that we learned that a post-lunch nap (wǔ shuì, 午睡) is an integral part of the daily schedule in China. Not all of our Chinese friends napped, but the pro-nappers were shocked when we told them it was unheard of to take a nap after lunch in the US. The most common response to learning this information was “But, don’t you get tired after eating lunch? How do you work?”. Given that most people experience a post-lunch “slump”, they make a very good point. Employers in China even give their workers two-hour lunch breaks so they can nap after lunch.
4. …and a walk after dinner.
It is also very common to take a walk (sàn bù, 散步) after eating dinner. This is a social activity, and explains why the streets are so lively in the evenings. Going on a walk with a friend seemed to us like the equivalent of grabbing a drink with a friend in the US. Except much cheaper and healthier!
It’s also much more common to meet up at a restaurant than a bar. Our Chinese friends were really confused about why foreigners always wanted to meet up at bars.
5. Low alcohol beer
We found it extremely hard to get drunk on beer in China. In order to feel any effects, the only viable way would be to chug them successively. Nearly all of the beers available have between 2% and 3% alcohol. We searched the internet trying to find out if there was a legal reason for this, with no success, though there is some indication that alcohol percentages have been steadily decreasing in recent years. Our Chinese friends told us they thought it was just that most people wanted to drink low alcohol beers.
6. Vegetables ≠ Vegetarian
China is almost a vegetarian’s paradise. Of all the countries we’ve visited so far, no one matches China in the abundance and variety of vegetable dishes available. There’s only one issue: just about every vegetable dish has meat sprinkled on it. If you don’t see the meat, it’s actually more reason to be suspicious, because it means the meat is camouflaged somewhere inside. Beware of fat chunks disguised as potatoes and pork rinds disguised as onions! Good thing Chiara isn’t a very strict vegetarian…
7. Dishware at restaurants
When you go to a sit-down restaurant, your dishes, cups, and utensils come wrapped all together in plastic. This packaging indicates that the dishes have been washed and sanitized since their previous use. We found this interesting, because we generally focus on the cleanliness of the food ingredients and the hands of those who are preparing the dishes, rather than how washed the dishware is. But, it goes even further. At the start of the meal, you are served a big pot of black tea and handed a large bowl. To be even more confident that the dishware is clean, restaurant goers pour tea on each item to rinse them off one more time. Afterwards, you pour the rinsing tea off your dishes and into the big bowl in the middle of table.
8. Unexpected travel advice
We often asked our Chinese classmates where they would recommend we visit in China. The responses had two main themes, and neither of them were what we expected. The first piece of advice we received was that we shouldn’t bother visiting all of the big cities (Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai, etc), because “once you’ve seen one big city, you’ve seen them all”. This was surprising, because when you hear about China, those are the places that are most often mentioned. However, by the end of our trip we generally agreed with this assessment. With the exception of Chengdu, the other big cities were less interesting to us than smaller cities and towns. Though, we should mention here that “small” cities in China would be considered big cities in most other countries.
The second piece of advice was the total opposite of what we expected to hear. They recommended that we go to Tibet or Xinjiang. As you may already know, these two provinces in Western China have a long history of resistance to China’s rule, and they are constantly in the news (outside of China, anyway) for human rights violations and repression of ethnic minorities. We dream of visiting both regions, but the government’s tight control of foreign tourism in the area was enough of an impediment to stop us from visiting on this trip. We had assumed that limitations on foreign tourists in those areas would also apply to Chinese citizens, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Xinjiang and Tibet are highly desired domestic tourism destinations, and the government encourages Chinese citizens to visit those areas. There are even (highly unprofitable) high speed trains that go to Lhasa, Kashgar, and Urumqi. As Chinese people become wealthier, they travel more and more domestically. Over 90% of Chinese people are ethnically Han, and we found that many young Chinese people wanted to visit Tibet and Xinjiang to experience other cultures within their country’s borders.
9. So many tunnels
We’ve raved enough about China’s absolutely superb network of high speed trains, so we’ll focus on another fascinating aspect of the country’s infrastructure: tunnels. If you hate windy roads, but love the mountains, China is the place for you! Their civil engineers prefer to plow directly through mountains instead of building switchbacks up and down the slope, or having too many turns in the train tracks. In southwestern China, where there are lots of small limestone peaks and very short tunnels, the view out the window of the train is constantly flashing light/dark as you go into a tunnel, then out of a tunnel, then into a tunnel again. In areas with large mountains like Sichuan Province, the tunnels are extremely long, and traveling through them is enough to make you claustrophobic as it feels like you are journeying to the center of the earth.
10. The history of Chinese characters
Chinese is one of the oldest continually used writing systems in the world, and the history of Chinese characters is actually super interesting, although we will only touch briefly on it here. The earliest recorded inscriptions of Chinese characters were found carved into bones that are over 3,000 years old, called “oracle bones”. Those early characters look a little different from the characters that are in use today, but there is a continuous thread of use and modification throughout Chinese history, and even today the old characters are recognizable as their modern-day counterparts. Chinese characters fall into six different categories, the simplest two being pictographs (the character looks like the thing it represents), and ideographs (the character looks like the abstract concept it represents). From these two basic concepts, the rest of the Chinese characters are formed by combining phonetic characters with symbolic characters to form complex characters. For a full explanation, please consult your local Chinese language scholar.
Over the years, the characters have undergone modification and standardization by various ruling dynasties. Characters are created using a specific set of brush- or pen-strokes, that must be done in a specific way, and some complicated characters can have over 20 strokes. In the 20th century, the People’s Republic of China created a set of simplified Chinese characters to make it easier for the average person to read and write. These simplified characters are the standard script used in mainland China today, but the traditional characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In our Mandarin Chinese course we learned how to read and write the simplified characters. We even had a culture class on how to do Chinese calligraphy. The average person needs to know roughly 2,000 characters to be able to get around in day-to-day life. The total number of characters in use is difficult to pin down, but some people estimate that modern Chinese has about 8,000 characters that are widely used. We memorized about 400 characters in our Chinese classes, so we still have a long way to go! Although, even knowing just 100 of the most commonly used characters can be immensely helpful when trying to navigate in China because outside the big cities, there is virtually no English signage.
(Bonus) 11. Qīngbǔliáng
If you made it through all ten of these, your treat is that you get to learn about qīngbǔliáng (清补凉), the greatest of all summer refreshments! It’s a bowl of cold coconut milk, filled with fruits (watermelon, mango), tapioca balls, grains, and jellies. Typically, you custom order the contents, so you can make it fit your taste and mood. If you are reading this on a chilly fall or winter day, you may not fully understand the magic of this delight, but if you’re drenched in sweat on a hot and humid day, you can probably imagine how good it feels to drink this up…