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8 Things Americans Can Learn From China

by Janny Hoedemaker May 26, 2017

I LIVED IN CHINA for over a year and was hit with culture shock almost every day. It wasn’t just Asian culture in general that gave me a jolt, but what I understood later to be the distinctly Chinese characteristics of living. After observing many Chinese habits, I grew to love and adopt many of them. While I wasn’t fond of the tendency to hock loogies in the street, here are 8 Chinese habits that I think we Americans should consider adopting.

1. Daily group exercise in the park.

While I didn’t see too many people jogging or working out, I did see many, many people in the parks. As soon as the sun would rise, people of all ages (most of them older) would gather in the park for energetic group exercise. There were sword dances, fan dances, aerobics, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, ballroom dancing, and some line dances that looked like conga line. There always seemed to be a strong sense of community among the people and I liked that people were getting fresh air and sunshine early in the morning. Back at home, I hardly see anyone outside — so many of us exercise in a gym, headphones blaring, speaking to hardly anyone.

2. Not saying ‘Bless You’ when someone sneezes.

I hate this American social norm. The origin of saying ‘bless you’ has its roots in a belief that demons enter the body when we sneeze. In this day and age, most Americans aren’t worried about being taken over by demons. I try to avoid saying it in my own life, and am willing to risk looking rude when I don’t. But in China, no one ever said anything when someone sneezed. In fact, when I instinctively said this to one of my students, she thought it was one of the strangest things she ever heard. Once I learned that it didn’t have to say ‘bless you’ in China, I was delighted that I could rid my life of something so pointless.

3. Sharing big meals.

Most foods on the menu in a typical Chinese restaurant come in family-sized portions, and many of the restaurants have tables with Lazy Susans on top, so that all of the dishes can be easily shared. Mealtime came not just with food, but also with beer drinking, yelling, laughing, chatter and sharing. Americans’ more isolated dining experiences just don’t have the same communal feel as dining out in China. How much more fun it would be if we shared dishes and raised toasts every few minutes?

4. Making an event out of tea drinking.

In China, drinking tea doesn’t involve a tea bag thrown into a mug on the way to work. A whole process and ceremony that revolve around drinking tea. When I visited the homes of students or local friends, all had a traditional tea table. I was often invited to sit at the table, while my friends brewed me tea with all sorts of tools and accessories. Tea time seemed to slow down the whole day, giving me a breather and a chance to bond with my new friends. It was a welcome change from hitting the drive thru at Starbucks to grab a hot tea that I inevitably would spill all over my shirt on the way to work.

5. Playing dice in bars.

‘Liar’s dice’ is a game that I saw in nearly every bar I visited. You need a minimum of two people to play. Each person is given a plate of five die covered by a domed lid. Both players shake their die a few seconds and then peak under their lid. On their turn, a player must guess how many of one number came out between all of the players.

They can say, “five 3s,” or “nine 2s” or any other number. If your opponent says a number combination that you don’t think is possible, you call them out, and everyone has to reveal their die. If they were right about the number combination, you have to drink your beer. If it turns out that they were wrong, they must drink.

if you visit China, and you see people shaking little domes of dice at the bar, ask if you can join them. It’s a great way to make new friends.

6. Hanging their laundry to dry.

Many people in China don’t have a dryer for their clothes. If you look at the apartment buildings and many of the houses, you’ll see the clothes hanging outside. I liked that the practice saves on energy and clothes have had a nice, fresh breeze smell.

7. Welcoming foreigners.

From my experience, Chinese locals welcomed the foreigners in the city where I lived. People that I met in the street wanted to get to know me and had so many questions about my life and where I came from. There were many people who wanted to be friends with me, show me around their town and take photos. We could use more of this in the US, and less “Speak English or get out!”

8. Eating street food.

I LOVE street food — and I loved that it was so popular in China. During the day, there are stands selling stuffed buns, dumplings, and grilled corn. But it’s at night that the streets really come alive with food vendors. Fried rice and noodles covered in garlic, and BBQ veggies on skewers were my favorite. While I liked most Chinese foods that I tried, BBQ fish was not my favorite, since it was full of bones. America needs more of this delicious, affordable, and accessible kind of street food.

While we do have food trucks here, they tend to shut down early, while the street food vendors in China come out at 10 pm and stay open until sunrise. The culture around street food in China is social since the vendors put out chairs and tables so that people can mingle, play dice, drink beer and chat. Some nights while in China when I couldn’t sleep, I would head outside at three in the morning just to grab a snack and people watch. This is what I miss the most.

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