A Foreigner’s First Thoughts on Living within the Chinese Culture

Jinan is the capital of Shandong province in Eastern China

Last week,I packed up my apartment, donated or threw away all my stuff, and became a P.T. (perpetual traveler).

I’ve been in Jinan, China for a couple days now, and it sure is…quite a trip!

One of my first nights here, I was able to meet some foreigners who were here teaching English at private schools in the area:a Canadian, a Scot, a Brit, and a Californian – all looking for answers elsewhere.

During our dinner of many mysterious meats, I interrogated them for a few minutes until our conversation was interrupted by the gentlemen at the next table puking his guts out all over his table… and just… continuing to eat…

“That happens quite a bit here…”

Really?  I knew I was halfway around the world but I didn’t quite expect that one – or the parents telling their kids to urinate anywhere near the dinner tables – which they did plenty.  Off to a good start, yes?

But don’t worry – I have much more to share with you besides the spitting, snot rockets, and lack of hand-washing that is the local Chinese culture!

I try to live life in the present, and not have too many expectations, but it was hard not to think of the propaganda drilled into our brains about “Communist China”.  In the past few days I’ve found many of my expectations were extremely outdated.

As I write this I’m sitting down next to my latest read: The Little Red Book or “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung”.

My first thought: this dude is a nut job.

Although I couldn’t quite say what I would do with absolute power… maybe I too, would have every worker read my book and have daily discussions about it during lunch time (might put me on the New York Best Seller’s list) – but come to find out, that tradition died the day Mao did.

In fact, I’ve learned a lot of those ideals have gone out the window.

One of the things I’ve learned here is it’s not just impolite to talk politics – it’s illegal. Heck – if I wrote what I say about the U.S. about China – I’d be serving 1-4 years of hard labor next week.

But, for all of its faults, so far I only have positive things to say about China. Sure the culture is different, sure it’s freaking dangerous to cross the street, and it’s insanity to expect anything to be clean, but I’m really enjoying my time exploring here.

I’m going to try my best to share what I’ve learned so far, and I’ll ask you to bear with me, as my thoughts are all over the place – maybe it’s the military base across the street distracting me with their constant drills – or maybe it’s whatever I had for lunch… but let’s get started.

Interestingly – just as our President waves a Democratic flag and practices Socialism; in China, the current party waves a Communist flag and practices Totalitarianism.So there really isn’t much for social welfare.  Older folk either have to provide for themselves or rely on their kids.  The have and have-not gap is fairly large here.

I also thought there would be bicycles everywhere.  This is a thought one of my friends shared until a teenage student corrected him “Yes teacher, maybe FIVE YEARS AGO!”Both of us were shocked by the time frame.  You mean to tell me that within five years, everyone got a car?  Apparently, yes.I understand the current party preaches “progress at any cost” – but man, that’s fast!

While it looks clean and organized on the surface, Stephen has been surprised by the uncleanliness of some parts of Chinese culture.

And it does come at a cost – pollution is a big problem here. There’s a constant grey smog cloud around this city in particular. Earlier this year, it was so out of control, you could barely see your hand in front of you as the levels hit “Super Unhealthy”.

Luckily for me, it’s been pretty nice and I haven’t developed “China cough” just yet. While I’m not too worried, I haven’t been going for my daily run – I’ll wait for the clean air of Riga for that.

There is progress here though.  While culturally I place Jinan about 20 years behind the “Western game” (they are teaching kids not to spit in school this year), I think they’ll catch up really quickly.  They’ll have to if they have any hopes for survival.

The one negative about this area in particular (I’ll be visiting Beijing and Hong Kong in the next couple weeks to compare) is the total lack of sustainability. It’s completely okay to throw trash on the ground, or defecate in the streets and no one cares…

Any country has challenges to overcome, but I’d like to share two that I think could be the undoing of this one in particular. The first is lack of innovation. Children here are taught to think inside the box.  While you aren’t necessarily given a “work assignment” like I thought a communist country would do – everything revolves around your school test scores.

If you do poorly in school, you are severely limited by what careers you can choose. But if you are the top of your class your options multiply and you could even be invited to join the ruling party!

And I’m sure if you had the ability to think outside the box you could talk your way into a new career, or start a business, but for most, that thought is extremely alien.

The best-selling products in China are not Chinese products – they’re American. They are extremely good at copying the best out there – but what happens when America is no longer the innovator? Will someone else step up?  I guess we’ll see!

The second major challenge is The One Child Rule.

There are rumors of newborn girls being killed by the hundreds or thousands here. While I’m not so sure of the truth, I do know that it’s rare for a Chinese kid to have a sibling.

The “One Child Rule” basically says your first child has a free pass. You don’t have to pay for the delivery, inoculations, vaccinations, health care, and more… but if you decide to have a second child – the full bill is yours to deal with.

And since boys are still seen as “more valuable” to the culture, the male-female ratio is increasing extremely rapidly. In fact, within the next few years statistically there will be about 3 million more boys than girls.What happens when 3 million boys come of age with no girls (or pornography due to internet censorship) to keep them busy?  3 million frustrated boys who have a tough time scraping by in life?  Sounds like a population ripe for revolution.

But – what do I know?

I’m just an incredibly handsome guy traveling the world…
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have lots of pictures to take with locals who have never seen a foreigner before!

Stephen Hilgart is the Director of Marketing and Conference Operations for Global Wealth Protection, www. globalwealthprotection.com.

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  1. Ken June 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    What a nightmare. Thanks but no thanks.

  2. Jacky July 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    As an expat originally from Canada, I’ve lived in China for more than 10 years.

    Never had any problems, people are friendly, but they have bad manners due to lack of education.

    Sure, it’s not good to talk about politics in China. But look at the US now, if you open your mouth about anything you’ll be put in jail without question or worse yet, you may get shot by trigger happy cop.

    If you live in China for any length of time, best to live in a major city which has imported food from overseas. Simply make the food you are used to and don’t eat Chinese food as it will you problems in the long run. Sure, imported food costs a lot more but that’s also true with the rest of Asia. Food prices are high.

    Regulations for most things are difficult to enforce, but you have to play by the rules and you’ll never have a problem.

  3. PB September 24, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Sophomoric, trite and inaccurate, especially after drawing conclusions, several apparently second-hand, from living in China for a few days. I’m no expert on China, but going on 3 years now, I know it’s complex enough that several of your observations require more analysis and thought than you’ve given.

    • Tony January 14, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      Yes, this was not a very well written piece by Stephen, who seems to not understand well either US or Chinese politics. One doubts that his observations are any more real about Chinese culture than this sort of fluff was on the mark about politics and economics…

      ‘Interestingly – just as our President waves a Democratic flag and practices Socialism; in China, the current party waves a Communist flag and practices Totalitarianism.’

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