The following is my own personal guide to China that I made for my wife, Ellen, who’s coming here in less than three weeks (!) with less preparation that I had:
The Rules Do Not Apply Here: Everything you’ve ever known about how things should be, what constitutes courtesy, and what common sense is, just forget about all that stuff. Let it go. People ride motorcycles on the sidewalk here; toothless old women chew on nuts that make the few remaining teeth they have turn black; prices for anything and everything are negotiable beyond belief. Ultimately, it’s not that it’s that different, but it’s different enough that it might be easier to work from scratch than to backtrack. Open your mind reeeeeeeeeal wide and prepare to become just a little bit Asian, if you’re not already. It doesn’t hurt a bit, won’t last forever, and will make your experience here a lot more fun.
It Smells, Often: Everywhere, almost all the time, it smells. Usually like fish, feces, or exhaust. Sometimes like a combination of things. If you mentioned it every time you smelled something foul, you’d lose your voice pretty quickly. Grin and bear it for a while, and soon you’ll find that you smell the acres of fresh pineapple, but not the piles of water buffalo dung in between the banana trees.
Water: a) Brush your teeth with anything off the faucet– a teeny bit of foreign intestinal fauna might help you, actually and b) anything boiled will be fine, and you’ll be served hot water or tea on most occasions. Even in the 90˚ afternoon, eating spicy noodles straight out of a 500˚ wok, people just love their hot tea. I will never understand. And, c) Water pressure and temperature varies. China is the largest producer and consumer of solar-powered water heaters in the world; if you take a shower at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, you’ll at least rule out a cold shower. Sometimes. Your greatest memories of China will be when you get a big showerhead with thunderous, steaming water coming from it.
What Is Clean?: When you get here, almost everything is going to seem dirty somehow– chipped laminate or flooring, oddly-stained sidewalks, graffiti, permeating dust, a weird stain on a sheet or the wall– it feels like a Midwestern church basement gone horribly wrong sometimes.
The buildings are largely from the 80s, and you’ll be caught off guard by how run down everything looks on the outside. That’s the legacy of concrete.
Although I’d recommend watching where you step, I promise you that it’s not as dirty as it seems as when you first arrive, and that I’ll let you know if something really is dirty. Chinese people are ritual cleaners, but they have a totally different standard of what looks clean compared to the Western world.
Litterbugs!: I do not understand why Chinese people feel so compelled to litter anywhere, anytime. You are going to see trash, cigarette buts, plastic bags, etc. in the most unusual places; you’ll see people throw mountains of garbage out of their cars onto the road beneath them. When we eat, you can just throw whatever is not being eaten onto the floor, and it’ll get swept up after you. I guess with a population this size, it’s not hard to find a cleanup crew?
Honk Honk: I’m trying to figure out how I can transmit a message to every person in this country that says “I look before I walk into the fucking street, alright?” Car sales climb about 300% every year, so a lot of people are a) getting their first taste of driving in b) their first cars in the history of the oldest country in the world. It’s like people honk their horns here just to remind themselves that they finally own a car. They’re really defensive drivers, but the “rules of the road” generally resemble total lawlessness from our perspective. In reality, it’s not– just make sure you’re paying attention. Everybody else seems to be.
Smilely Smile: These are the nicest people in the world, though they’re not without their own occasional bad eggs. They have the impression that all Americans wear a permanent smile, but there’s a reason for that: It’s body language, which the Chinese have a completely different regard for than the Western world, and that most laowai that come here don’t make the first effort to learn the language and thus have to get by on a smile and their good looks, should they have them.
At any rate, if you treat the people you meet like they are your neighbor and not a tourist attraction (it’s harder than it sounds, despite the obvious moral protocol involved), people will love you. Especially old ladies, and my goodness are they fun. They are the keepers of this society. Prepare to talk about yourself, your home, your family, your job, etc.; and to ask questions of a similar caliber when you meet someone new.
Get Ready to Squat: The western-style toilets are few and far between here; sometimes they pop up in the strangest places, but generally speaking, you’ll have to get used to making sure you don’t pee on yourself!
If It Falls, Let It Go: When you eat, if something falls on the table, it’s done for. If it falls on your finger, don’t lick it off. You might not be compelled to do these things anyways, but generally if it’s not in a bowl, on a plate, between your kuaizi, or in your mouth, it may as well be on the floor.
Anything That Can Be Accomplished By A Human Being Can Be Done Better By A Human Being With A Cigarette Hanging Out of His Mouth: Cop, butcher, dentist, bubble tea shopkeepers, cooks, bus drivers– they all smoke, and no, they will not stop smoking while they replace that crown that popped off your molar. Read the rest of this entry ?