5 Aspects of Living in China that May Give You Culture Shock

Culture ShockFact#1: The sheer masses of people –

After living in China for 12 years, I can say that the absolute hardest aspect to adjust to is the sheer crowds of people. If you live in the city, expect to face thick crowds whenever you go out, especially at rush hour. Lately I work in the suburbs and rarely travel into the city during rush hour. One time recently, I made the mistake of taking the subway in Guangzhou into the city during rush hour, and on the most crowded line in town (a quadruple “no-no”). There were literally thousands of people waiting to get onto the same trains (I will not say they were waiting in queues.) When the doors opened, a few unlucky people tried to push their wait while the masses tried to push their way in. One elderly lady seemed to have no hope to make it in as she was stuck two feet outside of the doors. But after pushing and pushing, she somehow squeezed in. To a Westerner, it seems more violent than football. We hesitate while trying to keep some semblance of dignity. Meanwhile commuters continue squeezing past. Though I did see two men in a fist fight once presumably because one bumped the other one a bit too hard, the crowds keep surprisingly calm. This is just what it is like going to work in the morning. Either accept it and go with the flow or be driven crazy.

Buses are even worse because they pack in just as many people but the air conditioners don’t work well and the buses get stuck in traffic. For holidays, it is routine to just go out and window shop for the whole day, so if you plan to go out at peak times brace yourselves to deal with the crowds.

Culture Shock Fact#2: Few people use air conditioners –

For Westerners, air conditioners are a way of life. Central units are everywhere and as such we take them for granted. On a typical summer day in Texas you may spend 3 minutes out of the air conditioner while walking from your house to the car and back again. On a similar summer day in Guangzhou, bump that time up to 8-12 hours. Many homes do not even have air-cons (as we call them here). Those that do often don’t use them or set them on very high temperatures in order to save electricity or because it is considered unhealthy. On the other hand, sweating is considered to be very healthy and you will have no shortage of it.

Culture Shock Fact #3Chicken feet are more expensive than chicken breasts –

The Chinese method of cooking is completely different than Western countries. We tend to like large pieces of meat, which are marinated or spiced. Then we also add in dip or sauce for extra flavor. Asians prefer the all-natural flavor of meat and cook it in a way that “brings out its natural” juices. Therefore live chickens and fresh animals of every kind are preferred to frozen chunks of meet. The most surprising example of this is that chicken feet are more expensive per pound than chicken breast. While I understand the concept of natural flavor, I will freely admit that to this day I do not begin to comprehend why chicken feet are so popular. What is there to eat on a chicken foot? So far I have not been able to answer this question, but if you try and discover the secret, please tell me.

Culture Shock Fact #4: If you catch a cold, it is your fault –

Sooner or later you are bound to catch a cold. When you do, the first question your colleagues will ask you is “why?” “Huh? Why did I catch cold?” You will probably not be able to answer why so they will graciously give you some reasons.

  1. You used an air conditioner, didn’t you? Air conditioners are considered to be unnatural and unhealthy. The drastic change in temperature between the air conditioned room and the outside air is believed to cause sickness.

  2. Did you leave your windows open? Leaving your windows open and getting all of that fresh Chinese city air is THE secret to living a healthy life.

  3. You wore shorts again, didn’t you? This reason may remind you of your grandmother’s admonitions to wear more clothes. Chinese have an amazing ability to wear jeans year-round even in sweltering heat.

  4. You should drink more soup or more tea or massage yourself more or exercise more. These are a few more of the preventive things you can do in order to ward off sickness.

While I think these things are funny, I will admit that Chinese people as a whole are much healthier than their Western counterparts and my wife also catches a cold much less often than I do, so maybe there is something to it.

Culture Shock Fact #5: Expect to be asked personal questions –

Perhaps you take your kids down to the playground to play. Soon you start a conversation with another adult watching their child. It could go something like this:

“Hi. Where are you from?”

“I am from the U.S.”

“Oh, America is very good. People in America are very rich. How much did you pay for your house?”


“You must make a lot of money. How much do you make in a month? My friend says teachers get paid very well.”

“Emm. You tell me first and then I may tell you!”

I have not figured out the reason yet, but I have been asked similar questions hundreds of times. Now I am not surprised anymore, but try to graciously change the topic without answering. To avoid culture shock, you should plan ahead how you will address this question so it doesn’t fluster when it inevitably comes.