13 Things You (Probably) Wouldn’t Know About China

Right.  So those reading this probably have a vague idea of what China’s like.  Even if it’s just from the Disney movie “Mulan”.  Calligraphy.  The Great Wall.  Tea.  Pandas.  Kung Fu.  Kung Fu Pandas.  But there are certain things that take special insider know-how to figure out.  And by “know-how” I just mean being able to see stuff and notice that it’s different.


1) People walk on the street, bikes ride on the sidewalk.  No joke: I saw a kid look both ways before crossing the sidewalk.

2) Umbrellas are not just for the rain.  Lots of women (usually women, anyway) use umbrellas as a parasol to protect themselves from the sun.  More effective than you’d think!

3) Traffic is organized chaos.  Maybe you’ve seen pictures of Chinese traffic, maybe not.  It looks like a giant cluster of people not minding the gap, but rather shooting it until there’s nothing left but a gasp of air.  Believe it or not, there is method to the madness.  The trick is moving in a predictable path.  All drivers/pedestrians are expecting everyone else to break the rules, and so it’s very calculated.  On the road, chances are that other drivers have already guessed where you will probably continue to go.  So go there.

(NOTE: This is mainly true for Mainland.  I went to Hong Kong and walked in this assertive way, and almost bumped into people every other step.  One country, two systems…guess they also meant walking patterns, too!)

4) Some numbers are written differently.  I learned that American 6’s (with the tiny loop at the very end) look like 4’s here, and that 7’s that have the dash in the middle look like a capital E.  This is just the way people are taught to write numbers.  I’ve adjusted my writing style to avoid confusion in the classroom.  YOU’RE WELCOME, STUDENTS.

That being said, the way Chinese people write their 9’s almost look like 4’s to me, so it goes both ways.

5) The number one is not always said the way the textbook teaches you.  The number one (一, pronounced “ee”) is one of the most basic things to learn in Chinese.  But a lot of people don’t pronounce it like “ee.”  Instead, they might say “yow” which also means the exact same thing, but you know…more confusing for foreigners.

6) People drink hot water.  Nothing in it.  Like, a cup of hot water at restaurants instead of ice.  You would be amazed at how refreshing this can be, and how easy it is to adapt to.

7) Driers aren’t really a thing.  Instead, clothes are hung outside (or on a clothing rack inside of an apartment).  It’s great on sunny days, but can be a pain in the rainy season, if your apartment is too small for an indoor clothing rack.  In which case, you hang your clothes from the AC unit and hope that your socks don’t fall on your computer.

8) Neither are ovens.  So when people ask me to cook American food, I just sort of cackle and try and find a place to bury my head in the sand.

9) People don’t sit directly on the ground.  The justification is that the ground is dirty, so people will go to all lengths to avoid directly sitting on it.  Newspapers, magazines, plastic bags…this might not sound so strange, but if I go to a park with friends and want to sit on the grass, there’s always that awkward moment as they search for something to keep off of the “dirty” grass.  To be fair, it probably protects their clothing.  But many also do this with backpacks: they always comment on how strange foreigners are for just putting their backpacks on the “dirty” ground.  Hey, culture differences.

10) The National Bird is probably the crane.  Ha ha, this one is a joke.  Because…construction.  Everywhere.  All of the time.  I met some backpackers who, instead of playing “I Spy” on the road, made it a game to try and guess how many cranes there would be in a Chinese city.  In one given street corner, I saw a shop change three times in less than two years.  Always building, tearing down, building again.

11) Holy shit, there are a lot of people.  This one might sound obvious, given that China has the world’s biggest population.  But until you actually experience it in person, you have no idea.  Articles and academic research projects have taught me less than what one ride on a subway during rush hour did.  Overpopulation: the sensation that you are always walking in the wrong direction in a crowd.

12) Chinese dialects.  Between two villages, the locals might speak completely differently and not even understand each other.  Yes, there is Mandarin.  But once you hear someone speaking their local language, you’ll quickly realize that there are hundreds of versions of Chinese.  Because…

13) CHINA IS HUGE AND YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO DESCRIBE IT CONCISELY.  You’ll think you get it, and then experience something totally different that contradicts everything.  You could live there for 5 years and understand a lot, but never everything.  This is part of living in China, which I think is different from living in other countries: You eventually learn to accept that it is a complex beast and that the best you can do is offer snapshots.

Whatever you think of China, just know that in a country of almost 1.4 billion people, it has just about everything.  All kinds of people, all kinds of details you’d never know from the outside.