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SURVIVING CULTURE SHOCK IN CHINA – Part 1: the crowds, the spitting and the shameless staring

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.

Culture shock in China, part 1: crowds, staring and spitting

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…

Surviving culture shock in China, part 1

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…

Surviving culture shock in China, part 1

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!

Surviving culture shock in China, part 1

The spitting

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…

  1. 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!)
  2. 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! 

SURVIVAL GUIDE: Culture shock in China SURVIVAL GUIDE: Culture shock in ChinaSURVIVAL GUIDE: Culture shock in China

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Leave a Comment

  • Rosemary 11th March 2016, 7:53 am

    What a fascinating read about the culture shock you experienced in China. It’s on my list of countries to visit, but I have to admit I’m a little nervous based on the things you mentioned – staring, spitting, etc. Did you enjoy your experience?

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 11th March 2016, 12:48 pm

      YES!!! I loved it! Please stay tuned for part 2 of the article, I’ll publish it this weekend. There’s more stories and also a ‘conclusion’ that I think will answer your question perfectly! 🙂

      Reply
    • Greta 11th March 2016, 8:16 pm

      To be honest, I did not enjoy mine. I never got used to the spitting, smells and rudeness.

      Reply
      • lilistravelplans 15th March 2016, 9:19 pm

        That’s too bad Greta! I can’t really say I got used to it, I’ll always find it disgusting, but I also think it’s very eye-opening in many ways 🙂

        Reply
  • The Guy Who Flies 11th March 2016, 10:13 am

    Always interesting to read other people’s perspectives on China and yours reminds me a lot of Sarah Bennett of The Adventures of Bennett, she is tall too.

    I’ve been to China more than two dozen times and overall love going there. Cultural shocks are something I keep experiencing and I am reminded as to the sounds of them clearing their throats, pushing in with no respect for queues and a whole host of other things I find different to my life at home. What really strikes me is the prevalence of urinating in the street that goes on. Wonderful cities are spoilt by the smell of urine all over the place.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 11th March 2016, 12:44 pm

      I have the pushing and skipping the line ready for part 2 of the article 🙂 I also just looooove a good culture shock, and the country’s wonderful too so totally worth it. But indeed, I think there’s some things you just never get used to, no matter how often you go! 🙂

      Reply
  • Greta 11th March 2016, 8:14 pm

    This is so true! I am just as tall as you and black-much worse lol.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 13th March 2016, 6:21 pm

      Hahaha yes I guess that must be even more exotic for them!! 🙂

      Reply
  • Rachael 12th March 2016, 4:17 pm

    We’ve never been to China but it’s definitely on the bucket list…your article gives an honest insight in to what it is like! A great read! Keep it up. Happy travels 🙂 Rachael & Elliot

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 15th March 2016, 9:20 pm

      Thanks Rachael! I do find it important to sketch an honest image of the places I go to 🙂 I hope you’ll have a great trip if you ever get to China!

      Reply
  • MariaAbroad 13th March 2016, 10:22 pm

    “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…” This is one of the points that frustrated me about China the most. When I lived there, I sometimes hid a day in my apartment, just because I needed some alone time and not be surrounded by people all the time. I found it especially frustrating in “nature” areas where I was looking forward to some peace and quite. But the Chinese turned it into a Disneyworld. It definitely took me a while to get used to it, but then I realized that Chinese tourists must think that all the National Parks in the US and Europe must be so underdeveloped 😉

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:23 pm

      Hahaha so true 🙂 It really surprised me, there were SO many of them!! And they all seem to like stick together in groups! Luckily in some of the nature areas, like Jiuzhaigou national park, I managed to escape them by simply doing what seemed ovbious to me: walking! Haha, turns out Chinese people don’t walk, they take the bus 😀

      Reply
  • christine 14th March 2016, 2:30 pm

    Your article took me back to the time I lived in China. When going there you have to be open minded. The culture is so different from ours and the ways of being are not ours. The spitting for example is due to their belief that it is very bad for your health to keep things in. So they spit it out! They actually find our way of blowing into a tissue quite disgusting.
    So you are right you have to go prepared. and we good shoes.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:26 pm

      Oooh that’s a great compliment 🙂 Being open minded is the key to every great trip I think and discovering other cultures is soooo rewarding, I love it – even though sometimes it’s disgusting 🙂

      Reply
  • samiya selim 14th March 2016, 5:57 pm

    I love reading travel stories that have been laughing out loud, cringing as I picture myself in some situations and going..yep, I went through that too 🙂 I experienced some of this when I was in China – the staring, spitting and asking me questions were all there, but am used to (some) of that being from Bangladesh, also used to that many people in any one place, but having lived abroad for 11 yeears (UK and New Zealand) with 1/10th of the people, I must admit, getting used to all this again will be bit of a culture shock!

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:24 pm

      Hehe I can totally imagine that going back there would give you a bit of a shock, even if you were used to it before 🙂

      Reply
  • Keri 14th March 2016, 6:22 pm

    Ah the staring – unfortunately they’re not the only nationality known for it! Great read

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:25 pm

      It’s totally innocent but it did make me feel soooooooo uncomfortable at some times!! 🙂

      Reply
  • Jenny 15th March 2016, 3:50 am

    Yep, China provides some of the biggest culture shock there is! And they definitely have different standards of hygiene and appropriateness than most of us Westerners do. I hope you enjoyed your time there anyway!

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:31 pm

      I did, the trips where I had the biggest culture shock are mostly the trip I remember as my best trips afterwards 🙂 I love focussing on people when I travel so culture shock is really a part of it for me 🙂

      Reply
  • Vicki | MakeTimeToSeeTheWorld 15th March 2016, 4:59 am

    Wow! I’m used to the culture shock (Hanoi was an experience!) and being started at for being the tall white girl – but I haven’t come across spitting before – and I’m thankful I haven’t! I’ll remember to pack extra plastic bags when I (eventually) get round to booking my China trip!

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:32 pm

      Haha yes just put them in your bag 🙂 I sooo thought I was ready for anything after cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, but well, turned out I hadn’t seen nothing yet 😀

      Reply
  • Ajay Sood 15th March 2016, 5:38 am

    Have you been to India? Well, the number of people are not quite as many (we are about 1.2bn). You may find it exciting even here 😉

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:33 pm

      Haha I’m sooo sure I would, India is very high on my list, so I’ll definitely go someday 🙂

      Reply
  • Kevin Wagar 15th March 2016, 4:15 pm

    As our trips to China are coming closer and closer to fruition, I keep coming back to your articles for a good laugh and a reality check on what to expect when we visit!

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:34 pm

      Oooh I’m happy that you do Kevin 🙂 Seeing the other adventures you’ve already been on, I’m sure you’re openminded and interested in other cultures enough to survive this kind of experiences! 🙂

      Reply
  • Jamie Italiane 15th March 2016, 5:40 pm

    These are things I have never considered. I have never visited any place with such a different culture.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:34 pm

      I don’t think I had considered most of them before going there either, I guess that’s why it hit me so hard 🙂

      Reply
  • S 15th March 2016, 9:28 pm

    I really like your humorous approach to the topic. Never heard about the spitting.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:35 pm

      Hehe thank you, you gotta keep on smiling and turn any situation into something positive, right 🙂

      Reply
  • Angela 16th March 2016, 1:34 am

    I don’t really know what to write right now! I’m laughing, happy for your honesty but also quite disgusted! What an experience. Thanks for being real. I have never heard any of this before.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:43 pm

      Hahaha thanks for writing something anyway 🙂 I totally get you, it really was disgusting sometimes and I had never seen anything like it outside of China either. I didn’t want to make it look ‘prettier’, but really tell the ‘real’ story. Trying to see it with a touch of humor though hehehe 🙂

      Reply
  • Scott MacLeod 17th March 2016, 2:59 am

    What an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing your hard learned lessons.

    Reply
  • Hung Thai 17th March 2016, 6:17 am

    LOL. I’m Asian so when I was over there nobody stared. The one thing I noticed though, and I’m not sure if you did too, is the fact that kids will walk around with clothes on in the bright of day – it’s rather odd to be but I’m not surprised.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:47 pm

      You mean without clothes? Yes I noticed that, really – euh – ‘special’ :p

      Reply
  • Fern 17th March 2016, 10:29 am

    Liesbeth, I love reading your stories they always give me something to laugh about, and with you definitely not at you! I have probably learnt more about what to expect from the destinations we want to go from your blog than anywhere else.

    China especially, I am now a little more prepared for, however something tells me from this post that nothing can really prepare us for the real culture shock 😉 Wish us luck in China!!

    Fern & Yoel

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 17th March 2016, 7:51 pm

      Aaauwh Fern, that’s the best compliment 🙂 Traveling – at least to me – isn’t about what you find in the guidebooks, but about this kind of experiences. I try to tell them as I’ve lived them, and with a fair dose of positivity, but never changing them to make it look prettier. Every travel experience somehow is a good one, I think there’s no need to change anything when telling the stories 🙂
      I wish you a great trip to China, I’m sure you’ll love it! 🙂

      Reply
  • Svetoslav Dimitrov 19th March 2016, 9:57 am

    I love China with all its peculiarities. Yes, the constant spitting is disgusting but at some point it just got so funny my friend and I were laughing our asses off.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 27th March 2016, 8:54 pm

      Haha you’re right, you should always stay positive about these things 🙂 Perfect attitude!!! 🙂

      Reply
  • Kerri McConnel 20th March 2016, 8:22 am

    This is what I love about travel. If everywhere we went was the same it would be pretty boring wouldn’t it. But, sometimes, the culture and customs are quite in your face, like you have mentioned. I remember when I was living next door to a lovely Chinese family. I just couldn’t get used to the spitting and hacking. The staring is also something I remember well from when I was in Turkey. Actually feels quite uncomfortable.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 27th March 2016, 8:56 pm

      It does feel uncomfortable but usually it’s totally harmless – luckily 🙂 And you’re so right, what’s the use in traveling to the other side of the world if it were to see the same thing we see at home every day? 🙂

      Reply
  • Dominic 20th March 2016, 9:55 am

    Wow that is a culture shock! I can relate to how you felt regarding Chinese people being everywhere. When i was on Koh Phi Phi, at one point i thought they were invading. They seem to travel as a whole family or so it seems, and yes there was even the infamous spitting you talk about.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 27th March 2016, 8:57 pm

      Yep, I really didn’t want it to sound like those people complaining about too many Chinese in China but woow, it was REALLY impressive, there were SOOOOO many of them, you just can’t imagine it if you haven’t seen it I guess 🙂

      Reply
  • Jessica 21st March 2016, 4:06 am

    The staring thing. I’ve experienced that in many places. And people wanting to take pictures with you (and especially your children). Once we visited a zoo in Nigeria and people were taking pictures of us instead of the animals. Lol.

    Reply
    • lilistravelplans 27th March 2016, 8:58 pm

      Hahaha it’s really weird, right? 🙂 The first times I actually thought they wanted me to take a picture of them or that I was sitting in the way of their picture or something, but no… 🙂

      Reply
  • Peter Harwerth 4th April 2016, 11:16 pm

    Hey listen I have been driving bus loads with Chinese tourists in the Rockies. Well, they did not spit or stare, BUT they wanted a thousand pictures with me and my Cowboy Hat and the first topic their tour director told them in Chinese was the 10-pages explanation about COWBOYS (pronounced Koboys in Chinese) I was supposed to drive and keep my concentration on the road but I tell you….every stop we made at the glaciers I was on duty as a model.

    Reply
  • Manu Stanley 2nd August 2016, 12:11 pm

    I haven’t read much of your blogs, but the ones I came through made me laugh and think a lot. I promise, I wasn’t laughing at your mishaps (sorry if it sounded so), but the way you narrate each incident, is so lively that it is impossible to live that moment and laugh. And those long funny hashtags – I don’t know if people use such long hashtags at all, but that made me laugh as well.

    If you get to visit India, please be prepared for similar situations. Though people don’t point fingers at you outright, there will be the ones who stare at you. I have read some blogs where a lady said, she smiles at people who stares at her, and they sometimes disappear altogether, or maybe smile back sometimes.

    And the crowds, they are everywhere. We are the second most populous country (after China) and hence would be natural to expect long lines of people waiting to buy train tickets, or long line of vehicles waiting for traffic signal. Despite being a local, I too sometimes come across strange situations, which I try to blog sometimes. Hope I am not scaring you off. There is much to see around here.

    Reply
  • Joanne @notesofjo 16th October 2016, 5:18 pm

    Excellent post! I recently wrote an article about my experience as an expat living in Shanghai, and the 7 valuable skills you need to acquire if you plan to visit Shanghai (Link: https://goo.gl/vJtytu). I agree with you. Privacy and personal space are definitely overrated in China. And the spitting …. yes, I try to ignore it every day, but it’s not easy :-/

    Reply