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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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.