Culture Shock in China: My Trip and What I Learnt

I recently spent two weeks travelling around China and Hong Kong, and because I’m me, I spent the whole time writing down social observations about the country and the people, on everything from the road-crossing etiquette to the effects of paternalism. I didn’t expect to have my prior impressions of the country shattered…but I did. This is what I learnt from China.

– Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese people are far from miserable. Everyone was smiling and laughing and everyone looked contented, particularly after work, when I would often see people dancing or playing games in the streets. The locals we spoke to were all very friendly and cheerful, and they would readily discuss (though perhaps not criticise, per se) the government and admit that it wasn’t perfect.

– That being said, in HK in particular we did encounter some of the fabled Chinese surliness when speaking to ticket sellers and the like. Those people seemed quite grumpy, but perhaps it was because they had to deal with obnoxious tourists.

– Manners, in the Western sense, do not exist outside of freakishly expensive restaurants. There is no such thing as small talk, no exchanges of pleasantries, no letting anyone else go first. Chinese people cut to the chase. So I’d fit right in.

– I expected every process in China – passport-checking, ticket-buying, ferry-boarding etc. – to be an assembly-line operation: quick, slick, efficient and somewhat mechanical. That was not the case. There was generally less automation than in the West, and there was a lot of waiting around for everything, which was exacerbated by the overzealous security and the huge crowds. There were even machines out of order, which I would never expect given what I’ve heard about China.


I guess there’s a limit to how efficient a city of 20 million people can be…

– If you’re in someone’s way in China…good luck. There were traffic lights, and a few too many of them at that, but no one paid any attention to them; everyone drove, walked and stopped when they wanted to. And if you decide to start moving and someone in their car decides to start moving at the same time, you’ve had it. The driver will be annoyed that you’re in their way and will drive right up to you at full speed before stopping. It’s fucking terrifying, especially at night. *shudders*


This probably happened in China.

– On the way to our hotel in Beijing, it was dark and pouring with rain, and what we could see of the city was very grey and austere. I was ready for some serious back in the USSR vibes. But Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong were all brightly coloured, even during the day when the neon lights weren’t on. The only thing that reminded me a little of Soviet Moscow or Pyongyang was the high-rise apartments, which were incredibly dense – and ugly.

And we'll be burnin' up like neon lights...

And we’ll be burnin’ up like neon lights…

– As I expected, everything was spick and span. Even the smaller villages (which looked something like Agra in India) were extremely clean. There was a bit of litter here and there, but not nearly as much as would be expected from such busy cities. There has also been a huge effort lately to increase environmental beauty and eco-friendliness in China: there are many more parks, trees and green spaces than I expected, car purchase and use are severely restricted (anyone who wants to buy a car has to enter into a lottery, and only certain number plates can drivd on certain days), there is plenty of investment in alternative energy sources and the public transport is excellent.

– Think there’s a culture of dependence in social democracies? You don’t know what that means. In China, since the government is so paternalistic and *overtly* omnipresent, people literally depend on being given orders. Once we took a shuttle bus, and since the driver was told to leave at 11.00, he wouldn’t leave until that time even though the bus was full well before it. And people were always told not to smoke, not to spit gum, not to touch things – heck, even not to fill their cups too much.

Motherland knows best?

Motherland knows best?

– There were more overweight people than I expected, but on the whole, people in China and HK are really healthy. We saw a lot of joggers and sports shops, and the food is insanely healthy: no dairy, no dessert, no wheat, no processing, green or white tea before every meal, and a lot of fruit, vegetables and seafood.

– Even in mainland China, Western brands, culture and even languages (well, English and French) are “cool.” Reading the faux-English and faux-French (I speak French btw) shop signs and T-shirt slogans was hilarious, especially when they made no sense and no one knew! Everyone does know at least a little bit of English though, and they do learn it at school.

– China didn’t feel particularly oppressive at all. Yes, there was a lot of security (no more than in the US), there were sometimes police and army officials wandering around, and of course there was overt internet censorship and monitoring. But it didn’t feel especially unfree. And in fact, when the lights came on and the live music played and the people danced and played in the streets, it felt very free.

– It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that China is well and truly a regular corporate capitalist country. I mean, it’s at the point where the Youth Communist League is running entrepreneurship schemes for the budding bourgeois. Even the façade of socialism is almost gone. But for someone partial to a little romantic fantasising it’s nice to stand in Tian’anmen Square, look up at those red flags, and pretend.