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8 American Habits I Lost in China

China United States Student Work
by Lauren Steffen Oct 13, 2015

1. Keeping my privates private

Public bathrooms are very different in China. Moving there, I knew squat toilets predominated, and I knew Man / Woman (男/女) restrooms were not uncommon. I was surprised to find out, however, that in many places the stalls separating the porcelain holes in the floor are doorless dividers about the height of a five year old. I made this estimate against the group of giggling girls, I guessed to be about six years old, who trailed me into a restroom in an outlying area of Xiāntáo, where discernibly few foreigners are seen.

They clustered into the stall next to mine, straining to keep their excited chatter to a whisper. In the college dorms, I would totally freeze up if anyone came into the bathroom to brush their teeth while I was trying to pee behind closed doors. These little girls actively waiting for me to do the deed in a hardly private space inspired a whole new level of performance anxiety. At this point, however, I’d been looking for a Woman bathroom for over an hour could wait no longer.

I took a deep breath and assumed the position. Precisely at the pivotal moment, all their little heads popped over the wall, screeching and fighting for a chance to point out this or that about me. All I could do was laugh and let go with a little wave to the girls. In that moment, my American sense of shame about my body went down the toilet in a mighty release and my puritanical clinging to modesty was replaced with a deep sense of objectivity and humor about life.

2. Waiting patiently for things

People in China do not line up and wait. They cluster and push, and not in the sort of polite way you may shoulder through a crowded club, but in the manner strictly forbidden in school. I couldn’t do it for the longest time, and missed many trains as a result. One night in Hangzhou, I was clustered next to a tiny grandma in a narrow chute, waiting for admission to Impression Westlake.

Tension was high. Seating was open. Thousands of people had waited a long time to see this and wanted the perfect spot. When the gates opened, Grandma did not push or shove me. She grabbed my right boob like a rock hold, with her eagle-like talon of hand, and propelled herself with all her might headlong into the scrambling crowd. In an instant, my inhibitions shattered and I conquered my first crowd like a champion swimmer pushing aside the waves. I got a perfect seat right on the lake and never missed another train in China again due American behavioral mores!

3. Expecting personal space to be respected

When I first traveled in China in 2006, I believe lǎowài (Western foreigner) sightings were fairly uncommon in many of the fishing villages at the outer edges of Hong Kong. My boyfriend had poker-straight, dark brown, long hair above a red, gold, brown, and black kinky-curly beard. He looked like a ’70s porn star trying to go incognito on the cheap. We were eating noodles at an outdoor stand when a random group of little kids ambushed him. Pawing him and trying to rip the beard off his face, they demanded “Disguise? Disguise?”

He gentled them off and showed them it truly was real hair, attached to real skin that really hurt a lot when pulled. The kids took to more gently tugging and ooohing and ahhhing. When that got old, several girls twisted their fingers into my light brown curly hair. After about ten minutes, the novelty wore off for them, but we were left with a joke that never got old for years.

I didn’t start running around tugging on old ladies’ braids or rubbing men’s bellies when they would stand around with their shirts folded up to the nipple line, but I became fine with people pressing up against me in crowds, staring at me in restaurants, and pointing at me on the street as is the norm for everyone in a place where personal space isn’t a cultural concern.

4. Not talking to strangers

In Hong Kong, I commonly met people eager to practice their English and often in quite unexpected places. On Lantau Island, a woman holding a huge ladle of water awaited me just beyond my half-stall in a non-star rated bathroom. She wanted to help me flush the porcelain hole, insisting it was her pleasure to assist a foreigner. After returning the ladle to its bucket, she shook my hand and introduced herself as Sue. She wanted to be my friend and guide while I was on the island for the “pleasure of company and good English speaking.”

Sue was proud to have shaken hands because it was a Western thing from which most Chinese people refrained for sanitary reasons. She explained that, as well as many other cultural nuances, while leading me through a Mangrove Forest, across a silvery beach and to her two-room home where she fed me delicious homemade dumplings and told me stories about her parents before taking me to the dock to catch my ferry. Talking to strangers was my only way into the otherwise inaccessible homes, thoughts, and feelings of the people at the heart of the country. It remains my number one rule to break when living abroad and even at home.

5. Being safety conscious

Nope. Not in any arena ever. Safety is a purely personal choice in China. If you don’t want to potentially die, don’t beg the moped taxi driver to get you to the train in two minutes when it’s fifteen away. He’ll deliver you in two whether you’re having a heart attack or loving the ride.

I will say, if all your neighbors suddenly start wearing masks, you may like to try one too. Mine is a very fashionable plaid navy blue!

6. Talking quietly

Tones may shift with pitch perfect precision all over China, but whether you’re inside or outside or underground, the choices for speaking volume seem to only be ‘loud’ or ‘louder’.

7. Communicating through words

Learning a Chinese language is hard. If you’re not careful, you could call your mom (, 妈) a horse (,马) in Mandarin. Each syllable has several meanings, depending on its tone, and all the different pronunciations, translations, and corresponding characters need to be memorized. With all the tones being pitch specific, and me being close to tone deaf, getting a glass of water was often an insurmountable feat. In my first sweaty weeks in China, I stumped many a person, desperately chirping my most perfect shuǐ, until finally choosing dehydration over fainting from fruitless lingual exertion.

Sweltering on the edge of collapse one particularly dizzying Shenzhen afternoon, I had a massive Ah-ha! moment. Everything I needed to know about life in China, I learned backwards in kindergarten. “Use your words,” was the first mandate I debunked. I could sketch, pantomime and even moo and oink on occasion to make myself understood. People laughed and played along with the urgency of winning a timed round in a board game. One guy took to full-on barking and running in circles to describe his dog! Letting go of “properly” communicating opened up a world of friends and fun everywhere I went.

8. Always telling the truth

When I was little, my Grandmom used to ask if I was “telling stories” to see if I was lying. In China, “telling stories,” and unraveling some of the stories I was told, was part of the excitement. Though the narrative constructs were sometimes frustrating to navigate, climbing around inside all the webbing added an element of challenge and play to even the most banal daily events.

I found breaking this rule very useful upon returning home when describing my adventures to my parents, especially as related to #5: Being safety conscious.

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