8 Habits I Lost in China

by Danica Bansie Nov 11, 2015

1. Caring about restaurant and bathroom cleanliness.

As a child my dad once said to me “if you go to a restaurant and the bathroom isn’t clean, don’t eat there — assume they take the same amount of care in the kitchen.” This is good logic in North America. This is not good logic in China. If I were to only eat at pristine restaurants I would miss out on some of the best food China has to offer. Often, the more unsatisfying the place looks, the better the food tends to taste. Attention and detail are poured into dishes that I could never enjoy anywhere else in the world, run only by a few people leaving no one to regularly tend to the cleanliness of the “establishment”.

2. Waiting in line.

Lines are nice. They keep things fair and orderly. They make it so the little guy also gets a chance, the timid can be attended to, and the meek not forgotten. In China, you can forget orderly lines. If I were to wait my turn every time I needed to get my vegetables priced at the grocery store, I’d still be standing there like a dumbfounded wàiguó rén.

Things move fast in China, they have to. In a country where the population is about 1.3 billion, lines tend to seem trivial. Pushing and shoving is a very necessary part of metropolitan Chinese culture, and not at all considered rude but rather efficient. Grasping this made me feel like I could function in the whirlwind society. It also helps when you receive respect in the way of a smile and a nod from the woman you just strong armed while trying to nudge in front of you.

3. Whispering in public.

I don’t know if it’s because of the language barrier, or because the average person in China tends to yell-talk but the amplitude of my conversations certainly greatened. Walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant with a friend, the conversation was bound to be loud, expressive, and sometimes boisterous. It doesn’t end there either, being the type of person with an affinity to say “weird shit”, it is very easy to get comfortable saying whatever you want, wherever you want.

I’m sure Chinese taxi drivers would have some good stories for their friends, if they understood English.

4. Relying on verbal communication.

When I first moved to China I did not speak Chinese, not even a little bit. Though I learned fairly quickly that I either needed a crash course in Mandarin (impossible) or another solution to getting by in China (fun). Within my first few hours I became thankful for past years of family game night, I never would have thought Charades would be my saviour in a foreign land.

Not only did motioning and acting out what I wanted help me to achieve more than I would have ever thought, it also helped to create a connection with whomever I was miming to. Granted this is not exactly what life-long relationships are built on, relying on natural non-verbal communication was a great way to actually learn the language, and have a laugh.

5. Drinking cold water.

It is common belief in China that cold water can lead to cancer and that it is ultimately “bad for your healthy”. I don’t know if this is accurate or not. I do know that when I got sick with a common cold my employers always jumped to the assumption that maybe I was drinking too much cold water and a nurse would insist that all I do is drink a lot of warm water until I had fully recovered. And, to stay well after recovery, continue to drink warm water. And, to live a long life, drink warm water. And, if I need a drink with my meal, drink warm water. Basically, just drink warm water and drink a lot of it.

6. Picky eating.

I am one of the many unfortunate North Americans with a peanut allergy. Peanut allergies are as common as unicorns in China. A lot of delicious Asian cuisine is made with peanuts, so I had to make myself very clear when eating out. However, I never wasted my time asking what else might be poking around in my meal. As it turns out, choosing blindly pays off. Sometimes it was great trying something out of the ordinary and realising I’d just discovered my new “go-to” dish. Sometimes it’s best to just eat and not ask questions.

7. Eating dinner alone.

In China, the best foods are served for dinner. It is customary to eat dinner with at least one other person and order a lot of food. At a standard Chinese restaurant a table will order the amount of dishes plus one extra for the amount of people at the table. All of the food ordered will then be shared amongst everyone at the table. It’s a great way to get a taste for new things and have leftovers for lunch for the next day.

Eating with companions always fares well. Though it is best to keep in mind that traditionally there are three instances where you may find yourself footing the bill; if you are the oldest member at the dinner table, if your seat is facing the door, or if you invited everyone to dinner.

8. Feeling embarrassed.

Whether it be someone running up asking to take your picture, confusing Chinese tones and completely misinterpreting your message, having one of your students ask “why is you’re this fat?!” while patting your butt, or enduring the many stares of shock and awe while you peruse the grocery store, embarrassing moments are inevitable for a foreigner in China. Most times people are simply curious about where you are from, and why you look different. Ultimately the best way to handle the uncomfortable and embarrassing situations is to embrace them. Laughing off some of my initially awkward moments made me feel more at ease with myself. When I introduced myself by saying that I am a mouse (lǎoshǔ) rather than a teacher (lăoshī) to a group of Mandarin speakers, the only good reaction was to laugh.

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