Guest Post: 9 Things Foreign Travelers Can Learn from China

Guest Post: 9 Things Foreign Travelers Can Learn from China

Like it or not, as foreign travelers to 3rd-world countries, we have a tendency to look down upon the customs and cultures we’re visiting. “We’re a more advanced society” we unknowingly think to ourselves, a mindset that often keeps us from seeing everything we can learn while traveling abroad.

As an expat who has spent over a decade living and traveling around China, my eyes have slowly been opened to the ways in which certain Chinese customs or ways of doing things are, in fact, better than my American way.

It’s easy to bash China and find all the things that annoy us. For a moment, I want to step back to think through the lessons I’ve learned from China and hopefully give you an opportunity to reflect on your own experiences.

#1 Dessert isn’t Part of Every Meal

When I first arrived in China, I was surprised to learn that most restaurants don’t even carry a dessert menu! The only dessert-like menu item was a plate a fruit to end your meal.

This is a huge departure from my American upbringing, where desert was and still is a common tactic used by parents to encourage finishing my meal (“Eat all your broccoli and you’ll get dessert!”).

It’s easier for me to stay healthy while living in China, in part because I do more walking but also for reasons such as this: desserts are no longer an everyday part of my meal plan.

Thank you, China.

#2 Neither are Refillable Drinks

During my travels around China, I have not come across a single restaurant that offers refillable soft drinks or coffee. In fact, most restaurants I visit offer no other beverage options besides hot tea!

I have a friend who is a waiter back in the U.S. and he tells me of people who come in and drink 5 full glasses of Coke during a meal. Do you know how much sugar that is!?

Meanwhile, my biggest problem here in China is that I’m being served hot tea in the middle of the sweltering summer (because, you know, it’s “healthier”). Is it frustrating at times? Of course. But hey, I’m healthier and I don’t spend as much money on a meal.

#3 Personal Debt is not a Universal Concept

Did you know that according to the Federal Reserve’s 2017 numbers, the average American carried $16,883 in credit card debt and $50,626 in student loan debt? And that’s on top of any car loans and a mortgage!

We’re conditioned to carry a balance on our credit card, to “build our credit score”, and to appreciate the value of debt. What we often don’t realize is that from a global perspective, this isn’t normal.

When I first began making friends in China, I was shocked to learn that almost all of them didn’t have a credit card. They didn’t have student loans. In fact, many of them owned their home without a mortgage, and they weren’t yet 40 years old!

Unfortunately, times are changing in China: housing prices in the city are getting so high that most new homebuyers need a mortgage. China’s appetite for luxury import cars (which are taxed at an insane rate) means that many people are forced to get a car loan.

By and large, though, the average Chinese citizen carries little to no debt – and they live perfectly comfortable lives.

#4 “Dialects” and “Accents” are VERY Different

Various parts of the U.S. are known by their special accents: Louisiana, the northeast, the west coast and even my home – the great state of Texas. We may use different phrases or ways of saying something, but for the most part we all understand every word that the other says.

China is fascinating in that the country not only boasts a number of accents (i.e. Beijing accent) but also a number of very distinct dialects (i.e. Shanghai-ese, Guangdong Hua).

Unlike accents, these dialects are practically a different language. A Chinese person from another province likely won’t have a clue what a person speaking “Guangdong Hua” is saying. The Chinese characters are the same but the way it is spoken and the words that are used are very different.

I’ve heard people in the U.S. talk about that “crazy Texas dialect”. I understand what they mean, but China has taught me that there’s a huge difference between a “dialect” and an “accent”.

#5 Clean Air Takes Time

Expats often complain about China’s polluted air, and rightfully so. It’s dreadful.

China has enacted a number of changes in their environmental policy that are meant to improve the air quality all across the country, but they’ve warned that it will take close to a decade for these changes to make a difference.

The Clean Air Act was a policy in the United States that was enacted by Congress in December of 1963. At the time, the air quality in many U.S. cities was terrible. (just ask anybody who lived in Pittsburg over half a century ago)

We Americans benefit from the fact that such a policy was implemented over 50 years ago. It’s something that I’ve grown to appreciate now that I’ve watched China attempt to do the same thing here in the 21st century.

Changing the environment of any country takes time.

#6 Trains are an Extremely Efficient Mode of Transport

After having lived in China for a decade, I am extremely embarrassed at how poorly the U.S. has developed a train network. Unless you live in the northeast, chances are you haven’t taken a train in the U.S.

China, on the other hand, has developed the world’s largest and fastest-growing rail networks. Not only do they have more track than any other country, they also have more high-speed trains in operation than anybody else.

I’ve learned to love taking trains in China (I even wrote my own guide to taking a train in China!). In most cases, if it’s a choice between a train or an airplane – even if the travel time is longer – I’m often inclined to take the train.

#7 Squatty Potties are AMAZING

I find it quite humorous just how difficult it is for foreign travelers to use a squatty toilet. Many of us have a hard time squatting or are turned off by the generally bad smell of China toilets.

The frustration of it all makes it easy to overlook one of the biggest benefits of using a squatty toilet: your butt never shares a seat with anybody else’s butt.

Think about that for a moment. The way we do toilets in the west is nasty. I’m appalled that anybody in their right mind uses a public toilet at Wal-Mart!

Squatting may not be comfortable for us westerners, but in many ways its a cleaner way to take care of business.

#8 Being Old Doesn’t Mean Being Frail

When I get old, I want to be a Chinese old person. They are WAY cooler than the average old person in the U.S.

Don’t get me wrong: every country has elderly people who walk with a cane or who battle with chronic illnesses. We all have healthy elderly and unhealthy elderly.

But China just seems…different.

I remember the first time I went to a public park in China and saw a group of Chinese elderly using the exercise equipment. My jaw dropped to the ground.

I’ve seen elderly here in China who are more flexible and more daring than I am. My favorite was a gentleman who was swinging full 360 like an Olympic gymnast on a high bar. He was 65.

Like I said, I want to be a Chinese old person.

#9 Being a Truly Defensive Driver

I used to think that Chinese drivers were crazy.

Well…actually, I still think they’re a bit crazy. But I have to give them credit: they are some of the best defensive drivers in the world.

I remember when I got my first traffic ticket in the U.S. The best way to get the record expunged was to take a defensive driving class. The class was a joke. If you really want a lesson in defensive driving, go to China.

Insane as they are, Chinese drivers are constantly aware of what drivers all around them are doing. There is no expectation of “personal space” so they all drive around expecting other cars to cut them off or veer into their lane.

I am convinced that I am a much better driver thanks to my experience driving around in China.

Conclusion – Learning from China

As I said earlier, it’s incredibly easy to be a bitter expat who complains about every aspect of life in China. I’m quick to admit that there are plenty of things that annoy me about China, but one of the best ways I’ve found to combat this mindset is to reflect on the things that China has taught me.

I’m healthier, I have a better financial situation and I’m a better driver all thanks to my time living in China.

Do you have any other big lessons you’ve learned as you reflect on your time in China? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

Author Bio: Josh is a travel writer and expat entrepreneur who has been living in China since 2006. In addition to writing about his China experience on his TravelChinaCheaper website, he also hosts The Expat Entrepreneur, a new podcast on his experience doing business overseas.

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