Ruth Vahle
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October 17, 2020

10 Things I Learned About the Chinese

After spending some time as a Westerner in China, both living in Beijing and traveling around the country, you can’t help but notice some things peculiar to Chinese people. Below are my top ten things I learned about the Chinese.

This post often generalizes for the sake of brevity. Of course I realize that not every Chinese is the same and I certainly do not mean to offend anybody. My goal is to help you better understand what to expect when coming here, be aware of cultural differences, and have some fun.

1. There are many of them (well, duh!), but I mean all the time, everywhere

The Chinese phrase for a huge number of people is rén shān rén hǎi 人山人海, which translates to people mountain, people sea. Out in the street, on the subway, train station, public park, you are never alone. For fellow Americans, think shopping on Black Friday. From a Northern European perspective, it is like Saturday morning before Christmas in the pedestrian shopping area of a major city. A typical American street seems deserted of people in comparison to China.

2. Chinese don’t like to plan

One Chinese saying is “Plans can’t keep up with change”, therefore no one seem to bother with planning. Quite often something moves forward very slowly with little communication, and all of a sudden it is announced to happen right away.

3. As a people, Chinese can be quite rude, but as individuals very nice

On the street and in public transportation you will encounter a lot of pushing and shoving, cutting in line, running you over, etc., giving the impression that Chinese are very rude. But as soon as you make contact with an individual, for example asking for directions, they are the nicest, most helpful people who often go out of their way to help you.

4. Chinese are stoic

People cutting them off, cars running them almost over, situations where many Westerners would cuss or complain, often barely elicit any reaction from a Chinese. But not everyone is stoic all the time. I witnessed more than one fist fight or shoving match in public, often even between couples.

5. Chinese, at least Chinese women, don’t like the sun

As soon as the sun comes out, women get out their “sunbrellas”. Some look like regular umbrellas, others are adorned with lace and sequins accents and have a special coating on the inside, all to protect the skin from the sun. Being pale is the beauty standard, hence the whiteners in every facial product (see also What to bring when moving to China).

6. Many Chinese are very capitalistic

This may not be what you expect in a communist country. Shopping is a major hobby and showing off the latest purchase and high end brands is common. The shopping center in Xidan in Beijing, which has multiple malls, connected by above-street level walkways, is a shopaholics dream.

7. Chinese like partner look

Chinese couples think partner look is cute, and the options are amazing: her dress with a matching t-shirt for him, matching t-shirts with Popeye and Olivia, “www. …” and “… .com”, complementing graphic designs, etc. You can even find whole families in matching t-shirts. And the matching often does not stop at the t-shirt, but goes all the way to socks and shoes, and who knows what.

8. Chinese don’t know or appreciate peace and quiet

You will rarely find a group of Chinese travelers quietly taking in breathtaking scenery. You will often find radios blaring in a park. There is always action and noise. The Chinese distinguish between “good” noise – rè nao, which can also be translated as “lively”, and “bad” noise – chǎo. A Chinese friend told me, Chinese don’t like to be alone with themselves, because they are not used to being alone.

9. Chinese prefer Chinese food

We already knew that from living in the US, where our Chinese friends and acquaintances preferred to go to Chinese restaurants, buy Chinese food items and cook Chinese dishes. Actually, because Chinese don’t care much about non-Chinese food, it is more difficult to buy cooking ingredients for the neighboring Asian cuisines, like lemon grass or Thai basil, in Beijing than it is in California.

10. Many Chinese think that Western food is all the same

French cuisine, Italian, German, … there is no difference to them. Same as we Westerners sometimes refer to “Asian” food in a catch-all phrase. And Chinese think there is no American cuisine, only burgers.

What are things you learned about Chinese people during your time in China? Please share in the comments. I plan to expand this list with the goal of better understanding across the cultures and would love to include your observations.

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