Remember the article I wrote about my visit to Jiuzhaigou national park in China, which could pretty much be resumed to ‘breathtaking views and a bucket full of shit’? What if I told you that was only the beginning and that I have a lot more stories where that one came from? Don’t worry, they’re not all THAT disgusting!
I actually have so many stories that I’m splitting them up in 2 articles. A link to ‘part 2: the wrong direction, the pushing and the skipping the line’ can be found at the bottom of this page.
I’m a sucker for a good culture shock. Call me crazy but I’m most happy when I’m discovering ‘strange’ habits and my heart spontaneously starts beating faster when I see how things that I would consider unacceptable or gross suddenly become the most normal thing in the world and vice-versa. Even though some examples have literally made me want to vomit, I think it somehow is a part of people’s life you get to look into and for that reason one of the best travel experiences one can have.
I don’t like it because it’s fun or because I enjoy it while it’s happening – because well let’s be honest, usually it’s not and I don’t. I mean who would get all happy walking through other people’s spit or sitting right next to a bucket full of shit for several hours? I’m pretty sure you can imagine that “somebody please get me out of here” somehow describes the feeling you get at that particular moment better than “having the time of my life”, right?
But what defines a country better than its people and their habits, no matter how weird they might seem? What’s more rewarding than slowly discovering how the people, even though they seem very different at first sight, are actually pretty much just like us? To see how they’re raised, which values they have and how they live their everyday lives. For me, that’s the true richness of every trip and totally worth ANY kind of experience, no matter how annoying, stressful or even disgusting it is.
In China, I definitely got what I asked for. And then some…
I’d experienced culture shock before, mainly in Vietnam, where people seem so cold at first sight (but really aren’t once you get to know them), where everybody would rather drive right over your toes than make a 2 cm detour and where somehow nobody seems to give a shit about anything (again, at first sight!). And worst of all: everything – and I mean literally EVERYTHING – seems to be another rip off or tourist trap. So after that trip, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the words ‘culture shock’ really mean…
But than I went to China… and those 2 little words suddenly got a whoooole new meaning…
There’s Chinese people EVERYWHERE
No, this is not going to be one of those “I didn’t like China because there were too many Chinese people” kind of articles. But I have to mention it, because it’s something I seriously underestimated. I obviously knew there’s over 1,3 billion Chinese people in China, but I never thought they’d all be in the same place at the same time…
It doesn’t HAVE to be a problem – unless maybe if big crowds really drive you nuts – but it does mean that all of the things I’m about to tell you are constantly multiplied by a few thousand… And that’s why you’d better bring a fair dose of patience…
The shameless staring and talking about you
The Chinese word for ‘stranger’ or ‘person from another country’ is ‘lowai’. I’m pretty confident I’ll remember it for the rest of my life, I must have heard it at least 7000 times during my trip. It quickly turned out that being a ‘lowai’ – especially a female one that’s 1m80 or 5’9” tall – automatically makes you quite the attraction, and that Chinese people are not ashamed to show whatever feeling they have about that.
Most of them stare. And by stare I don’t mean like when you see a cute guy on the other side of the room and try to discretely make eye contact (well at least that’s what people did when I was still ‘on the market’ – please update me if I’m completely out of fashion). No no, by stare I mean look for what seems to be minutes with their eyes and mouth wide open, without any attempt of hiding it.
Many start talking about you and point their finger, a lot of them making gestures to show how huuuuge they think you are – you probably shouldn’t go to China if you have any complex about your height. One girl might start yelling “oooooooooh you are sooooooooooooo beautiful” in the middle of a full bus station and quite a few people will probably come up to you to ask you if they can have a picture of you and them. By the end of your trip, I can assure you, you’ll feel like a super star!
All these things might sound a bit annoying and they definitely made me feel uncomfortable at some times but they’re actually kinda sweet and totally innocent. You might not believe it but except for places like Hong Kong and Beijing, there’s very little western tourists and we seem to represent their ultimate beauty ideal. They want our hair, our eyes, our skin, …
Some of them however take it a step further. They don’t just stare at a distance or point their finger, but come a bit closer to check you out more thoroughly. When I say ‘a bit closer’, I actually mean you-can-smell-their-breath-kinda-close. Suddenly, the concept of your private space doesn’t exist anymore, because you’re sharing it with 2 Chinese guys that are just looking you up and down and saying ‘lowai’ 5 times per – what sounds like a – sentence.
So you move… and they follow. You move some more, asking them not to follow you in English… but when you turn around again, they’re still there… You’re thinking ‘I’m not gonna call my boyfriend, I can handle this by myself’… So you look the 2 guys straight in the eyes, you know like that game ‘who looks away first’… and you lose… not only the game but what was left of your dignity as well… Hey, it was 2 against 1!!!
Finally they walk away… but it’s definitely not because you scared the hell out of them with your killer look!
I think my article about Jiuzhaigou national park explained quite graphically what I’m talking about, but I wouldn’t want you to think it only happened this 1 time, so let me give you some more examples. You’re welcome!
Chinese people spit. All. The. Time. You can hardly blame them, their air is so polluted that after a while any normal human being would probably get some kind of lung or respiratory problem. You might think I’m laughing about it – and I partially am because well, it’s over now – but seriously, it was disgusting. Imagine hearing ‘chraaa-puh’ every 20 seconds or a guy spitting right next to you while you’re eating. Good for your diet, that’s for sure, but a bit less for the general wellbeing of your stomach.
I’d say be prepared, because it’s everywhere and there’s no way of completely escaping it. I see you thinking ‘how to be prepared for that?!?’. Well, although I must admit this is the ‘I’m as ready as I’ll ever be’ kind of situation, I do want to give you these 2 tips that I wish I would have know earlier…
- Whatever you do, DON’T EVER sit next to a garbage bin at the airport (you should know why by now, I’ve been telling you to read my article about Jiuzhaigou for 5 minutes!)
- When it rains, stay inside (but not next to the garbage bin) or bring plastic bags. Why? Because the sewers aren’t always very efficient, and believe me, when you’re standing there with water up your ankles and see 4 guys spit in it right as you walk by, the idea of always having a couple of plastic bags in your handbag suddenly sounds much less ridiculous.
I’d tell you not to eat too close to the street, too, but I can’t seriously tell people to give up street food, can I?!?
Alright, so far for part 1. Check out part 2 here and read all about how I totally lost my nerves in front of 450 staring Chinese people!