We’ve been back in the United States for almost two weeks now, but I still have jet lag. So I’m taking that as a sign it’s not too late to write a blog post about some of the things we learned during our trip to China (Note: this is for mainland China, as Hong Kong was completely different and much more Western).
Here are 10 things, ranked on a scale of most surprising to least surprising:
1. People openly and loudly hock loogies
On the first day we were walking around Beijing, a man walked by us and cleared his throat loudly, then launched a huge glob of spit onto the ground. We burst into laughter. OK then!
But to our surprise, that was actually a very common sight throughout the rest of our trip. People hock loogies all over the place — even in subway stations! We even saw women doing this. Apparently it’s just normal in their culture.
In addition, when people sneeze or cough, they do not attempt to turn away or cover their mouths. It’s just ACHOO, straight ahead, out of nowhere.
2. Transportation security is better than ours
I was shocked at the level of security in the subway systems of Beijing and Shanghai (in particular Beijing), because I didn’t think of China as a target for terrorism. But it turns out their subways are better protected than ours.
Before you get to a turnstile in the Beijing subway, you have to go through a metal detector (and get frisked by a wand if you set it off) and put any bags through an X-ray machine (in Shanghai they have X-rays but no metal detectors). They are at every entrance, and you can’t avoid them.
That might not sound like a big deal, but think about the amount of commuters they have. I looked it up, and the Beijing subway system averages more than 9 million commuters per day (by comparison, New York City averages 7.7 million). And yet…we never had to wait in line of more than 30 seconds to enter a station!
I think this shows that cities like New York could beef up their anti-terrorism efforts with minor inconvenience to commuters.
On another safety note, the police in China have a huge presence — but they do not carry guns. They just walk around with big batons. However, that’s because no one else has any guns there, so they don’t have to worry about needing to shoot anyone. In general, we felt very safe walking around the cities.
3. Baby butt pants
Some babies/toddlers in China wear pants with no crotch in them! They look like the pants have been split open, but it turns out they were designed that way. And it’s not like they’re wearing diapers underneath — they’re wearing NOTHING!
We were so confused about this outbreak of babies mooning us, but it turns out this is a fairly common thing and it saves money on diapers. If a kid has to go, they just squat down and do it (pee or poop) on the sidewalk. Then the parents clean up after them (like a dog!).
Here’s a Google image search if you want to see what these pants look like (semi-NSFW).
By the way, yes, the toilets were super weird (public toilets are just squat toilets, not the kind of sit-down toilet we’re used to) and they don’t have toilet paper in them. But we already knew that would be the case, so it’s not surprising enough to make this list.
4. Immaculate cleanliness in public areas
This might come as a surprise since I just told you kids take dumps on the sidewalk, but most of the public areas we visited in Beijing and Shanghai were super clean. Like clean enough that we were like, “Wow, look at that!”
In the subway stations and malls, we saw cleaning people constantly sweeping, searching for little scraps of trash and even bending down to polish scuff marks out of the floor. In general, people seemed to pick up after themselves better than we Americans do.
5. No wedding rings
From what we could tell, it’s not common for Chinese people to wear wedding rings. Apparently it’s just not a thing there. Full credit to my wife, Sarah, for noticing this one (I didn’t realize it until she pointed it out).
6. Lots of shoving
This would be higher on the list, but we already knew to expect it — just not at the level we experienced. There is VERY little personal space in the big Chinese cities, and apparently there’s just not enough time to say our equivalent of “Excuse me” or tap someone on the shoulder if they want to get by; they just SHOVE.
For example: Let’s say you’re standing on a subway train and the person behind you wants to get off at the next stop. They don’t say anything to you, they just push you out of the way and bull their way by (we noticed people do this to other Chinese people as well, it’s not just because we were foreigners).
It doesn’t appear that they do it maliciously, it’s just that in a place with so many people, that’s sometimes the only way to get where you want to go.
7. They’re very curious about white people
I was going to type “Americans” instead of “white people,” but I don’t think we were ever identified as Americans. They don’t know whether we’re European or Russian or what — they just know we look different. Particularly in Beijing, where there are fewer foreigners, we REALLY stood out (even in the tourist areas!).
On the subways, people would sometimes stare at us — particularly children, who would get shy and hide in their parents’ arms if we smiled or waved back. Sarah loved to try and interact with the kids; they were so fascinated by us.
We were also stopped by people to take pictures — with them! — several times on the trip.
Here’s how that would go down: Someone would come up to us and motion for a photo and hold out their phone. I’d think, “Oh, they want me to take a picture of them. No prob.” But then they’d start motioning no, no, they want us IN the picture with them (Sarah was asked to do this more times than I was).
8. They love the New York Yankees (or at least the hats) and the NBA
We never saw anyone wearing any American sports team gear except for New York Yankees hats. They were everywhere, particularly with young, fashionable Chinese wearing them.
Unless I’m missing something, I think this is just because American stuff is “cool” there. In general, clothes with English sayings seemed like a trendy thing (even if the sayings made no sense whatsoever).
Also, the NBA was big over there. We saw players like James Harden in many high-profile advertisements, and NBA game highlights even played on screens in subway cars.
9. Popular chains include KFC and Haagen Daz.
There were KFCs everyyyyywhere there! It definitely felt like there were more KFCs than McDonalds or any other American chain. Also, the KFCs were kind of, well, NICE! Some of them appeared to have table service in the restaurants.
Also, Haagen Daz stores were everywhere. And they were like big cafes, too — not just little ice cream storefronts.
Side note: You know how McDonald’s has its McCafe brand? In China, there were some actual McCafe stores (like Starbucks) that were separate from McDonald’s.
10. How people deal with the smog
OK, we gotta talk about the smog. It wasn’t surprising at all that it existed, because we were very prepared for it (I had bought filtered masks to bring with us). And I had read that on non-windy days in the winter, the smog would probably be bad.
Thankfully, we had three clear days in the week we were there, but the other four were really terrible at times. My weather app would say “Sunny” but we could hardly see out the window on several days in Beijing. On the day we left, we took a high-speed train for hours — and it was still bad hundreds of miles from the main city. Unfortunately, the coal factories there are just major polluters and there’s no easy answer because it’s what they use for heating homes.
But the biggest surprise was how people dealt with it. Since it’s a way of life, many younger people seemed to wear trendy masks that were very sleek and stylish. And then we saw a ton of people — maybe 30-40% — who didn’t wear masks even on the worst smog days.
It’s no wonder they need to hock some loogies.