Here are 10 major differences between China and the United States based on my experience in Beijing this summer. Though I highlight differences, there are far more similarities between the countries. People generally want the same things in life and there are many ways to achieve those results. That being said, visitors to China should be aware of these key distinctions.
It is difficult to fully grasp just how many people are in China. Nothing can really prepare you. China has over 160 cities with a population of over 1 million. The Unites States has 10. Beijing is a huge city, both in density and landmass. People are everywhere. All the time. This leads to insane traffic, packed sidewalks, and significant pollution. However, it also creates a palpable urban buzz similar to my experience in New York. It is exciting; never boring. People come to Beijing from all over China, bringing with them unique cultures that creates a truly world class city for the arts, food, and politics.
Speaking of the population, the subway is profoundly impacted. Beijing’s subway system is very modern, highly efficient, and inexpensive. However, riding the subway anytime near rush hour is both thrilling and absurd. Throw in Beijing’s extreme summer heat and it is far from fun. Cultural differences start with the queuing up process. Each subway station requires passengers to enter through security and have bags screened in an x-ray machine. This process is unavoidable often takes a very long time. Next, riders
line up jockey for position to get on the train. As the train doors open, absolute chaos ensues. People push in attempt to get off the train as others push to board the train. It’s like two rivers flowing in opposite directions, crashing into one another at the train’s doorway. Once aboard, don’t even think of lifting your arms, moving your legs, turning your head, etc. Absolutely packed. Always!
Internet is widely accessible throughout Beijing. However, major differences are connection speed, reliability, and censorship. Hearkening back to the population, bandwidth issues are understandable given the number of people online. It is extremely frustrating trying to check email, let alone download a podcast or watch a video. Connection is also fairly unreliable. Some days it’s just slow or disconnects frequently. You will get used to it. On the other hand, it takes quite a long time to adjust to China’s internet censorship. Accessing social media like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram all require a good VPN. As do reputable Western news outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Though certain websites are blocked in China, a VPN makes it appear as if you are in an unrestricted location (Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.). While this usually works, it makes the speed even slower. Access to information is vital for any nation. Censorship hinders productivity, business, innovation, and politics. Not being able to post a selfie on Instagram is the least of China’s concerns.
There are essentially two styles of toilets in China: “squat toilet” and Western style. As the name suggests, the squat toilets are basically holes in the ground and are found even in luxurious places. Hand soap and tissue paper is also somewhat uncommon. It’s a good idea to keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you.
- Pale Skin
Chinese people adore pale white skin. It is a sign of higher social position. There are many skin creams marketed to help people make their skin whiter. Majority of Chinese women use umbrellas and/or avoid the outdoors during the daytime. It is not uncommon to see women wearing jackets to cover skin in the summer. Beijing gets very hot. The Western idea of sun tanning is truly a foreign concept in China.
It should go without saying that the food is much different in China. I happen to love it (check out my favorite restaurants). However, dining in China can be much different than other parts of the world (beyond chopsticks). First, the location of your seat matters a lot. The most important person in your group will always sit with their back facing away from the entrance. The next most important people will sit on either side of that person and so on. The person with their back to the door is often the one who will pay. When dining in larger groups, the table is almost always round and features a “Lazy Susan” that moves the dishes around the table.
Drinks (other than the occasional beer) are served warm or hot. Chinese people do not drink cold beverages; it hurts their stomach. Room temperature or hot is always preferred. Rice is also served at the very end of a meal, if at all. Rice is thought of as filler food and rarely ordered when dining at a restaurant. It is only ordered if you are still hungry after eating the main dishes.
- Clean Water
China does not have clean drinking water, even in “first tier” cities. As such, it requires drinking bottled or boiled water. In a country with over 1.3 billion people, this is a massive problem. Plastic bottles are horrible for the environment and the difficulty of getting clean water to those in poor, rural areas is significant. 1 Liter bottles of water can be purchased for 4 RMB or less. Plan accordingly.
- Saving Face
Chinese culture values the concept of ‘saving face.’ Confrontation in public is highly discouraged. People are rarely seen arguing, yelling, and certainly not fighting. People never air out their differences in public. I once saw two scooters crash on the street. Both parties got up off the ground, looked at each other, picked up their scooter and road away. Not a single word was spoken. This would never happen in the US. As someone studying law, this is a unique challenge. People seldom sue one another or go to court. The idea of tort law is still very new and not widely used. This stands in stark contrast to America.
- Right of Way
In most countries, pedestrians have the right of way. Drivers wait for walkers to cross before passing through an intersection or street. Not in China. Cars are king here. When at an intersection and the light turns green, you must always check to see if cars are coming (even if their lane has a red light). Cars always have the right of way and people walking or on bikes must pay careful attention. Many of my American friends initially found it rude when cars nearly hit them while crossing a street only to later discover that they were in fact in the wrong. Pay careful attention to this difference!
Many homes will have a washing machine but none will have a dryer. In China, people hang clothes up to dry in the sunlight. Someone told me that they believe the sun helps clean the clothes. My hutong is lined with clothes hanging in the windows of apartments and our apartment has a sunroom dedicated to drying laundry on hangers. Though it takes longer and makes my clothes crunchy, I applaud the environmentally friendly method.