8 Things That Are Difficult to Get Used to in China

Streets of Shangai, hot pot

A while back, someone asked me about the things that are difficult to get used to here in China. For me, it’s been almost 5 years that I spent here, so obviously I am used to many things that I may have found annoying/hard to accept at the beginning. And although living in China makes people become more patient and resilient (like seriously, there are so many annoying things here that you just have to shrug them off after a while or you’ll go crazy), there are some things that I will never enjoy. Also, there are some things that are shocking to newcomers. So, let’s see…

1. Many people…

There’s a Chinese proverb, 人山人海 rénshānrénhăi, meaning “mountains of people and sea of people”, describing a place that is very crowded. This proverb could be used to characterize most of Chinese cities – there are just so many people here. It becomes evident especially in China’s metropolises such as Shanghai or Guangzhou, where you have to push through people on the street or where in the subway sometimes you have to wait for a few trains to pass by before you can actually get on one and be packed inside like sardines.

2. …plus constant noise

High number of people is one of the factors that contribute to the noise – obviously, if there are many people, just the sound of them talking/watching TV series on their phones without headphones, multiplied by many times, amounts to a louder noise than in other places. However, Chinese people love noise to begin with – they love 热闹 rènao (bustling, busy with activity, lively atmosphere). They like to speak to each other in a raised voice (many times I have witnessed discussions so animated that to me they sounded like arguments, but they actually weren’t). It’s loud in the restaurants here as well, especially since the customers talk very loudly and they only become louder if they drink alcohol with their meal, and enjoying the food in silence is not the Chinese idea of a fun meal. Also, it’s similar in the pubs here – they play music so loud that it’s rather difficult to talk, but the people here don’t mind it – it’s very common to play games such as dice while drinking, rather than talk and debate about the meaning of life.

3. Chinese food

First of all, I need to say that I really love the Chinese cuisine; I love hot pot, spicy hot pot, Hangzhou-style braised pork, barbecue meat sticks, fried dumplings, stir-fried vegetables etc. etc. There are so many different types of food from different regions and so many different dishes that I feel like everyone should be able to find something for them; however, that is not the case. The food here in China is different from what I ate in Poland in Chinese/Vietnamese/Asian restaurants – the flavor and ingredients were completely different from the authentic food, obviously adjusted to Polish people’s palates. So it might be also the case for other foreigners who come here. Many of them find it difficult to get used to the food in China and miss the Western food a lot. Personally, I don’t lack things like pizza, pasta or burgers (I’m not a big burger fan) – and they are the most common “Western” foods here (of course, there’s fast food as well – McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King). I might eat them from time to time, but in my mind they are just too expensive here and don’t compare to the variety of Chinese food.

On top of that, for some people it might be difficult to stomach the questionable conditions in which the food here is prepared – sometimes on the ground in the back of the restaurant (in the building where I live there’s a restaurant on the first floor and I often witness how they cut the vegetables and meat or cleaned fish scales in very dirty surroundings so I’m never gonna eat there; however, that’s probably how food is prepared in many places), on the street in a big, shady-looking pot, not to mention all the “street food” that doesn’t seem very hygienic.


4. Constant spitting

This is something I hate and I will NEVER get used to that. NEVER. People spit here all the time. On the street, in the office (into a trash can), in the toilet, sometimes on board of the train. What is worse than that it’s this hawking sound that precedes the spitting. I’m wincing even as I’m thinking about it right now. I used to think that it was because of the pollution here but spitting is common in every place, pollution or not. I’m not sure why people here love to clear their throats so much but I feel it’s more related to people’s habits rather than outside factors.

Also, another thing I may add here is cutting nails in public spaces, such as subway or the company office. I hear the sound of nail clippers almost every day.

5. Chaotic traffic

Traffic in China is very disorganized (although I must admit that it has improved over the past few years and nowadays can see more police officers trying to contain the traffic). In most places, there’s a special lane for bicycles and electric bikes to ride on (two-wheeled vehicles cannot drive together with cars, the police might stop you if you do that). However, the bike lanes are often occupied by walking people, because the sidewalk is occupied by parked bicycles and electric bikes. Pedestrian will often walk on these lanes and even on the road, so that the car drivers need to be on constant alert in order to avoid hitting someone. Cars usually don’t jump the lights, but electric bikes usually do (so pedestrians have to be on constant alert as well). Especially dangerous are the takeout delivery men – they are on the clock and pay attention to no one. In short, even if you have green you should look around to see if there are no vehicles approaching (usually, there are). Also, I’m not sure why, but car drivers in China cannot seem to stay on one lane and have to change it all the time, so if you’re riding a bus, make sure to hold the handrail tightly because at any minute something (a pedestrian, bike, another car) could cross the path of the bus and cause it to brake hard.

traffic6. Red tape everywhere and shifting responsibility on other people

This topic is so broad that I will have to dedicate a whole blog post to it…

7. Squat toilets

Squat toilets are very common in public spaces here in China (public restrooms, school and universities, restaurants, train/bus stations). In their homes (in cities), people will usually have sitting toilets.

At the beginning I hated squat toilets, but then I came to appreciate them – they’re far more hygienic than sitting toilets and even if they are dirty, you can still use them and not worry about touching anything. If I have a choice between a squat or sitting toilet in a public restroom, I will choose the former. However, it takes some time to get used to them and I guess it’s different for everyone; for me, it took a week because the dorm I was staying in had squat toilets. However, some people live in apartments equipped with a sitting toilet from the beginning, so they might never wake up to the advantages of squat toilets.

8. People ask you a lot of questions

Where are you from? How long have you been here? Are you a student? Which university? Woow, your Chinese is soo good! Do you have a husband? Do you have children? At what age do people in your country get married?

Those questions were entertaining in the beginning, but now I’m honestly just trying to cut the conversation short and get my way out of it. It also depends on who’s asking them, if someone I’m in the middle of the conversation with, then it’s fine, but a random person in the subway – no, thank you.

Also, people here will often stare at foreigners and sometimes take photos of them without asking; in some instances, they do ask if they can take a picture with you but I usually decline – I really don’t feel comfortable with an idea of a stranger having my pictures. I used to agree in the beginning but not because I didn’t mind, but because I lacked assertiveness.

That’s all for today’s list! If you are in China, maybe the things mentioned here are familiar to you, or maybe you’re planning to come here – you can take the above list and prepare yourself mentally for the China experience!

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