Five things that baffle me about China

I’m Chinese, and before I went to China I thought that even though I don’t agree with everything they do, I’d at least understand why. Obviously, I was wrong. Below I’ll share with you 5 things that Chinese people do that completely baffle me.

1. Chinese people are extremely anxious about their children. In the winter, you’ll often see Chinese children wrapped up in so many layers that they look like large puffy balls (they’re convinced that the cold will make them sick). Loved pets are often abandoned for fear that they’ll pass on diseases to their children. Thrifty parents will not hesitate to buy the most expensive milk powder for their babies. And yet, you’ll often see mothers jaywalk across a busy intersection with their child in their arms. Does that make sense to you?

2. People in China will spend two month’s salary on a new cell phone, but argue with a vendor for an hour over 10 yuan. They’ll save for a luxury bag, and then ride the bus to work to save on transportation costs (trust me, the bus is not a pleasant way to commute during rush hour). When they go home for Spring Festival, they’ll blow a month’s salary treating their relatives and friends to a meal, then go home and eat instant noodles for a month. The Chinese call this “slapping the face to look fat” (打肿脸充胖子). I always knew that face was important to them, but can it really mean that much?

3. They think that cheating is ok, even a smart thing to do. I was shocked when my students freely admitted that they cheated while in school, claiming it was “something that everyone does”. One explained to me that because everyone did it, you’d be at a disadvantage if you didn’t.

4. When I first started working in China as an English Teacher, I was uncomfortable with the “pretty” compliments. Coworkers would tell me that I will do well because I was “pretty” and the boss “likes” pretty girls. Students told me that I would be a great teacher because I was “pretty”. Sexual harassment was pretty much expected and accepted in the workplace; my boss would comment whenever any member of the female staff wore skirts.The boss often made very sexist comments towards the female staff, and pressured them to go out for lunch or dinner. Chinese friends were surprised that I would consider that kind of behavior sexual harassment, and thought it to be just how things worked. It’s pretty much accepted that a beautiful girl would have more opportunities in the workplace.

5. Women are expected to be “weak”, and they seem more than happy to fulfill that role. Despite the fact that a lot of women work, and some even command a higher salary then their men, women are still expected to be the weaker sex. If they earn more, they’re encouraged to keep it under wraps for the sake of the man’s ego. If they’re taller, they’re forbidden to wear heels to de-emphasize their height difference. Mind you, many of them take full advantage, taking time off because they have menstrual cramps (they realize this happens every month, right?), having male coworkers do work for them, and even going out to lunch with men so they can eat for free (splitting the bill isn’t common in China). I’m surprised both at the women for accepting this notion, and at the men for enabling it.

I’m sure I’ll think of more, so keep an eye out for updates! Also feel free to share anything you’ve noticed ^^

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Happy Chinese New Year! 新年快乐!

Xin nian kuai le! Happy new year!

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2014 is the year of the horse (马, ma)

My family celebrated this holiday while I was growing up, but it was limited to family and the occasional lion dance in Chinatown. To be honest, all I cared about was how much lucky money I was going to get. Celebrating Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, in China is a whole new ballgame. The scale of it is mind-boggling! The entire country moves around so they can be home with their families, and everywhere you go is adorned with red and gold and everything that symbolizes luck and prosperity.

So here’s a post on some interesting Chinese New Year tidbits that I noticed while I was living in China.

1. Lucky…everything

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If you were born in the year of the horse, it’s recommended that you spend the new year’s festivities in red undies!

Almost everything done during New Year’s is meant to bring good fortune for the new year. Fireworks on New Year’s Eve is meant to ward away evil spirits and bad luck. Around the time of the Spring Festival, firework stands pop up everywhere. The safety standards are pretty lack; both customers and merchants can be seen smoking at, in and around the fireworks. And you wonder why there are so many accidents…

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Beijing on New Year’s Eve! You really don’t have to go anywhere in particular to enjoy the fireworks…

Another issue with fireworks is the effect on the already unbreathable air. The day after New Year’s Eve, the PM 2.5 is usually at least 5 to 6 times higher than recommended levels. Firework debris also litters the street (I sprained my ankle after slipping on some two years ago), not to mention the noise pollution for two weeks straight.

Fish is eaten because it sounds like “leftover” in Chinese (年年有于, nian nian you yu), and is meant to represent that you will have leftover money in the coming year. Dumplings are eaten because they look like they gold or silver nuggets (元宝,yuan bao) back in the day, and if you find money in yours, you’ll be especially lucky that year. If it’s your animal year, it means the gods have their eye on you, and you need to wear red underwear to avoid their wrath (at least I think that’s what it does).

2. Ghost towns

One distintictive feature of Chinese New Year’s is that the major cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) become completely deserted, as everyone returns to their hometowns. The usually crowded streets are oddly empty, and it’s the only time of year where you can actually drive above 40 km/hr. The downside? Most of the staff in a lot of service industries (restaurants, postal services, government facilities) have gone home, so expect delays and closures.

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It only ever looks like this during the Spring Festival…

3. Red envelopes (or red packets or lucky money)

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Counting the money in front of the giver is a big no-no!

In northern China, red envelopes are given to the younger generations until they start working (parents to children, aunts to nieces/nephews, grandparents to grandchildren etc.) Once they have a job, they are now obligated to give red envelopes to their elders (parents and grandparents) and the generation below them.

In southern China, red envelopes are given to the younger generations until they get married. Once you get married, you not only have to give out red envelopes to your elders, but also to unmarried people in your own generation. For example, my mom (who’s from Taiwan) gave a red envelope to her younger sister until she was 36, which was the year she got married. It had only $20 on it, but it’s supposed to be like a “good luck, I hope you get married this year.” I still get red envelopes if I spend Chinese New Year’s with my parents or relatives, even though I’m 26 and have been working for over 4 years.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of negative attention on red envelopes, with people’s wallets being stretched to the limits with the increasing amounts they’re obligated to give. Etiquette dictates that red envelopes should be somewhat equal, as they’re meant to symbolize luck and not as a way to earn money. This means if my aunt gives me $20, my parents should give my cousin $20 as well. Now, people use red envelopes as a way to show-off wealth, giving more than the receiving end can give back, causing stress, tension and embarrassment. Other issues with red envelopes can include the number of kids (if you have more kids, you get more red envelopes), who gave who more (grandparents playing favorites), and kids comparing who got more money. It really puts a damper on what is otherwise a festive holiday.

4. Food, food and more food!

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If you think a lot of food goes to waste, you thought right…

If you didn’t gain weight during Chinese New Year, you didn’t do it right. This is a food holiday more than equal to the Christmas holidays of the west, with days and days of banquets. Often, people only go back to their hometown once a year, and once home they’re faced with the daunting task of eating (and drinking!) with every single relative and friend, as failing to share a meal with someone can be seen as a slight. For some people, this has become a very stressful (both financially and physically) part of the holidays.

5. When are you getting married?

Many of my Chinese friends fear going home during the Spring Festival, and a lot of has to do with the inevitable questions that every single person back home will ask. If you’re single, when are you getting married? Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? You don’t want to get married too late, or no man will want you!  If you’re married, when are you having kids? How many? Don’t make your parents wait too long for grandchildren! If you’re working, how much do you make? When will you get a promotion? What are your career plans? It’s enough to drive everyone crazy.

6. “Gong hay fat choi” VS “Gong xi fa cai”

I’m really tired of people saying “gong hay fat choi” like it means “Happy New Year!” because it actually means “Congratulations on getting rich!”. It’s a way to wish someone good fortune in the new year. “Gong hay fat choi” is also Cantonese, and you would only greet someone with that in Canton or Hong Kong. “Gong xi fa cai” is Mandarin, and would be used in regions where Mandarin is widely used.

This year I spent Chinese New Year in the UAE, and was surprised by how many year of the horse products I found. It seems like the world has adopted this Chinese holiday, which makes me hopeful that one day I can celebrate with my kids, no matter where I end up in the world!

Have you eaten yet? – Food Culture in China

This is a conversation I had often when I first arrived in China:

Person: Hi, how are you?

Me: Great! What about you?

Person: Good, good. Have you eaten yet?

Me: No, not yet. Want to get something to eat?

Person: Oh no, I’ve already eaten.

Me (thinking): Well then why did you ask?

This was before I found out that “Have you eaten yet?” is basically the Chinese version of “How are you?”.

Food is very important to Chinese people. There’s a Chinese saying, “The person who’s eating is as important as an emperor” (吃饭皇帝大, chi fan huang di da), nothing is as important as eating. Almost everything revolves around food; when a baby is born, family and friends gather for a banquet to celebrate its birth. When someone is promoted, it’s customary to for that person to buy dinner for other people in the office. Business meetings are held during meals. It’s social, it’s business, it’s a way to maintain relationships.

What I don’t like about Chinese meals is the waste. Things are getting better now, but when I first went to China almost 10 years ago, nobody ever took any leftovers home. It was considered “stingy” or “greedy”, like you’re so poor that you’d want to eat leftovers. I almost always take leftovers; I found that when I did so, others almost always followed my example. Most people do think that it’s a waste, but they don’t want to lose face by being the first.

And there were a lot of leftovers. Hosts often order way too much food for the amount of people eating, because not having leftovers meant they didn’t provide enough food for their guests. Wealthy men and women would order extravagant amounts of food, often expensive items like abalone and shark fin, only to throw most of it away in order to show-off that they could afford to do so.

The custom of “hosting” was also something I had to get used to. In the US, when I went to eat with friends, I almost always paid for myself, except for special events like birthdays and celebrations. It’s interesting to note that in China, the birthday girl or boy pays for everyone’s dinner as a thank you for the birthday gifts. In China, someone almost always buys dinner for everyone, even if they didn’t know some of the people at dinner very well. I felt very uncomfortable having dinner paid for by people I don’t know well enough, but found that when I tried to pay for myself, it was often taken as an offense.

One guy asked me if he wasn’t good enough to buy me dinner. After asking my Chinese friends and coworkers, I came to the conclusion that “hosting” was a give and take situation. When someone buys you dinner, you’re “taking” and you’re eventually expected to “give” back. By refusing to let him pay, I was saying I didn’t want to owe him anything, that I didn’t want to “give” back later, and basically drawing a line between me and him. Huh?

Men almost always pay for women in China, whether or not they’re their girlfriends, or even friends. Most women wouldn’t think twice of having a male coworker or friend pay for their meals. If a man’s girlfriend brings a (female) friend to meet him, he’s expected to pick up the bill. After struggling with it for a year, I eventually gave up and just let them pay.

Another faux pas I committed was trying to pay when everyone else had accepted the offer of the person paying for dinner. Apparently by offering to pay for myself, I was making them look bad because they didn’t offer. Who knew that trying to pay for myself was so complicated?

At meals, you’ll often see two or several people fighting for the bill. It’s a sign of wealth, that you’re able to pay for others’ food. While there are some people who always “have their hands in their pockets” when the bill comes, there are others who grab for the bill. A person who never pays is considered “抠门 kou men” (stingy) or “爱占便宜 ai zhan pian yi” (likes to take advantage of others). Someone who always tries to pay whether it’s their turn or not is called a “凯子 kai zi” (someone who’s easy to take advantage of, indiscriminately generous).  Both are considered to be bad; like I said, “hosting” is a give and take kind of thing.

Most of the friends I’ve gotten really close to while in China accept splitting the bill with me now. For a while I was very anxious whenever the bill came. Should I pay? For all of us? For myself? Is it my turn or theirs? How do I make it clear that it’s just a meal and not anything more if I don’t pay? Is that offensive? I even began to avoid eating out with people. Friends eventually caught on to the source of my anxiety and offered to do it my way. They confided that sometimes they don’t even know what’s proper and what’s not, and male friends told me about the pressure they feel when they have to pay for a meal they can’t really afford. Some girls are completely willing to split the bill, but are worried they would make their boyfriends feel like “less of a man”.

I guess we’re all confused.

The Language Barrier – Can you speak English?

So this year’s been kind of crazy travel-wise, so I think I’m going to start out in China. In June 2010, I moved to China, fresh out of school and no idea what I wanted to do. So I did what many young would-be travelers do: I became an English teacher, packed my bags and went to Beijing.

Now this is where my experience starts to differ from all the other foreigners in China. My father’s lived in China for years, and he was nice enough to help me get set up. I didn’t have to worry about finding an apartment, figure out how to pay for utilities, or any of that other new country stuff. Oh, and I speak fluent Mandarin, so stuff I didn’t know I figured out pretty quickly.

Because of my unique perspective of being both a foreigner and having near-native language skills (yeah, I’m not very modest), I’ve learned some things about China from both locals and expats. From conversations with fellow expats, I figured out that I had it good. Really, REALLY good.

The first thing that goes wrong is language. Yes, everyone knows that when you go to China and you don’t speak Chinese, it’s going to be hard. Some have taken Chinese classes, and feel confident that they can get by. It’s not that simple.

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On the left in traditional Chinese, used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. On the right is simplified Chinese, used in Mainland China.

For example, rental contracts are only valid in Chinese. If you’re lucky, they may have an English version for you to read, but the Chinese version is the only one that will count legally. Essentially you’re signing something as important as a rental contract in a language you don’t understand at all. If you’re lucky, maybe you get a  trustworthy agent and an honest landlord. If not, the contract could include a number of things that imposes on your right as a tenant. The landlord may impose a clause that allows him to raise rents whenever they want (Chinese law requires that they can only raise rents after the contract is up, usually a year), take back the apartment whenever they want, or ask for two-months rent as a security deposit (it’s supposed to be only one). Many landlords say that renting to foreigners is more of a risk than renting to a local, because supposedly we can up and run whenever we want. Therefore they try to impose restrictions such as asking for a year’s rent upfront or higher security deposits. While the former is legal, the latter is not. The agent has no incentive to warn you of these things. For most of them, the important thing is to get the contract signed and get their commission.

Real estate agents survive on commission; their fixed salary is pretty much minimum wage, or sometimes even lower. When it comes to renting, the agent usually get a month’s rent as commission. If the rent is under a certain amount (it differs between cities) the tenant has to pay the agent their commission. If the rent is above a certain amount, the landlord pays the commission. Now you can imagine, knowing that you don’t Chinese, an agent can easily double-dip, taking a commission from both the landlord and you. Since expats tend to rent higher-cost housing, this happens quite often. If (and that’s a big if) you finally realize you’ve been duped, you’ll find the contract says that the landlord pays the commission, and you have no proof that the agent double-dipped.

The best way to counter is to make a trustworthy Chinese friend (one of my former colleagues told me that his roommate in China helped him sign the contract, then realized the rent was 1000 yuan cheaper than what he said it was 2 years later. Guess what happened to that 1000 yuan?). They can help you navigate the contract, as well as tell you what’s reasonable and what’s not.

Even eating out can be intimidating when you don’t know the language.

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It’s actually just fried fish.

While Beijing has apparently come out with a list of “standard” translations for food, you’ll see names like the picture above all the time (http://www.chinasmack.com/2012/stories/official-translations-of-chinese-food-names-announced-by-beijing.html).

As if it weren’t difficult enough to navigate, sometimes the menus are poorly designed and have pictures matching the wrong dish name. You could totally end up ordering chicken feet, bull testicles or rabbit head. Unless you like that kind of thing, then it’s no problem.

You should probably try to keep track of how much each of the dishes are. Some restaurants tack on food you didn’t order (or eat), and add it to the bill thinking you wouldn’t find out. Usually when you point out it’s too much and try to go over it with them, they apologize and change it. Some servers also don’t give you a receipt and only tells you the inflated total, then pockets the difference.

Google translate is very popular in China. How do I know?

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Taken in a novelty shop in Beijing. Actual translation: Would it kill you to like me a little bit?

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Taken in front of my community in Beijing. I think I kind of get it…

Moral of the story is, don’t trust English translations.