This is the seventh article in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich.
One of the most amazing things about living abroad is that every day is an adventure to the senses. In China, I needn't look far to see sights that surprised me on a daily basis. Just when I thought I had my neighbors’ daily routines figured out, one of them would start carefully laying out peppers on the sidewalk (to dry in the sun) or a group of old men would be gathered in the park for kite flying festival. You never know what you're going to see next!
Here are 10 common customs in China that turned my head the first time.
1. People on the streets in their pajamas
While many Iowa students - myself included - have come dangerously close to this fashion faux pas while headed to morning classes in baggy sweatpants, I never witnessed anyone cross the line into a full-on patterned flannel pajama set. In China, you will see all that and more as it is perfectly acceptable after 7 p.m. to wear whatever obscenely fluffy slippers you please when popping out for street food or to the shop (possibly with a matching child or husband).
I’ve had some limited exposure to karaoke in the West (read: middle school parties) but nothing to prepare me for the KTV phenomenon of China. KTV (karaoke) is the social scene of choice for the Chinese and, to be honest, there aren’t many other choices. Most bars are outfitted with a stage and microphone where even the quietest of evenings is inevitably transformed into a tone-deaf serenade by all. The true KTV style though is for a private party to rent out a room with its own screen where you can sing and drink among friends. I even tried my hand at fumbling through a few Chinese pop songs as the selection of English songs was a small and eclectic mix (Total Eclipse of the Heart, Don't Worry Be Happy, Jingle Bells and lots of Backstreet Boys), usually accompanied by an even more bewildering - and completely unrelated - Chinese music video.
3. Dogs in sweaters
Whether these pampered pooches are baby replacements as a fallout from the one-child policy or there are a lot of aspiring cosmetologists, pet dogs in China are dressed to the nines. Most Chinese cities have regulations on having large animals in the city proper so the resulting population of small, rat-like dogs is perfect for manhandling into sweaters, tutus, and booties! These comically dressed canines are common sights peeping out of their owners' bags, on leashes or riding in the occasional stroller. The most ridiculous even sport dyed ears and tails! That said, I just got a Jack Russell Terrier puppy and I’m already thinking how adorable he’d look in a knitted turtleneck.
Why doesn't anyone take me seriously?
4. Calling non-family members “brother” and “sister”
When I first taught a lesson on family in my classes, I was confused when my students talked about their multiple brothers and sisters. Doesn’t China have a one-child policy? So, one day when a Chinese friend introduced a girl as his sister to me, I decided to ask. In short, yes, there is a one-child policy, though exceptions are made in many cases. Farmers, for example, are allowed to have more than one child to help them run their farms. If a couple’s first child has a disability (and therefore would be unable to care for them in their old age), they can apply to have a second child. The same applies if a couple has a girl; they can try once more for a boy to carry on their family name. Minority populations are also exempt.
The terms brother and sister in Chinese culture then are not limited to blood relations, but include those of very close relationship. Cousins and other family members of similar age are referred to as brothers and sisters, but so are exceptionally good friends. My Chinese friend explained to me that it is a title taken very seriously and not distributed lightly. This is one of my favorite Chinese customs. It made me think of my dearest connections back home and how nice it would be if I had something meaningful to call them that would be recognized by society to mean the very best of friends.
5. Smoking in public places
Even though the smoking bans in the West are a relatively new addition, it was still a shock for this late-‘80s baby to see someone light up their cigarette on the bus. There are currently over 350 million smokers in China (note that that’s more than entire population of the U.S.), and although the government has begun to ban smoking in some public places, such as hospitals and restaurants, people still smoke heavily in bars, on public transportation, and even in schools. Cigarettes are a very common gift at holidays and when paying visits to friends and family. The result is an intense social pressure for males to smoke; and while there is a social stigma against women doing so, I still saw more than a few ladies lighting up in the privacy of the gym locker room.
6. Tea houses
Chengdu is famous for its teahouses, and I can see why. It’s hard not to fall in love with these spots of tranquility in the bustling city. Teahouses are similar to coffee shops here in the U.S. They play venue to many a first date and are gathering places for all ages to drink tea, play games, and eat snacks. If you're lucky, you might even get a few tradespeople stop by your table to offer to scrub the callouses off your feet or clean your ears. Many teahouses are outdoors, but that doesn’t seem to make them any less popular in the winter when crowds of people gather around the tables bundled up in coats and hats.
Eating peanuts and drinking tea at Bamboo Park teahouse
There’s now a strong government campaign against the tradition of spitting in public in Chinese cities, and for good reason, because we’re not talking pathetic little spittle spits here. This common sight usually includes at least a full minute of hocking up in preparation. I’ve often looked around in alarm to see who was choking when I heard some people clearing their throats before launching an enormous loogie onto the pavement. Then the offender, not so deathly ill as he sounded a moment before, will simply carry on as if nothing happened. Particularly stomach-turning when it lands on your foot on the bus.
8. Babies pooing on the streets
The first time I saw a baby wearing pants with a slit in the back instead of a diaper I was a little confused. Turns out, it’s exactly what it looks like: before they are potty-trained, small children usually do their business in gutters or trashcans on the street while their guardians help them along. I’m sure it’s more environmentally friendly than diapers, and it can actually be quite funny seeing petite baby bottoms peeking out as they toddle down the street, but definitely less cute when an old woman is dangling them over the sidewalk coercing them to do a baby sized poo right where you’re about to step.
9. Life-of-the-party elderly
I often feel in the United States that people become separated from the general public as they age, so I found it refreshing in China to see how active the elderly population is in city life. While middle-aged men and women go to work and children go to school, the elderly populations are the ones keeping up cultural traditions of leisure by singing and dancing in the parks, flying kites, or playing majiang. Unlike most households in America, the elderly live with their children when they become too old to live alone; and, when a child is born in the house, it is the grandparents’ responsibility to raise it in its years before school while the parents are at work. So you often see sprightly young toddlers alongside the old men and women carrying out their daily exercise in the park. In China, the elderly embrace retirement completely. “I have worked hard my whole life,” one man told me, “now I can fly my kite.”
10. Bike chaos
Chengdu bike traffic, as in most Chinese cities, is almost equal in volume to car traffic. Most of the bikes are old and worn or beaten up intentionally by their owners to deter thieves from stealing them for the lucrative bike black market in Chengdu. To park bikes safely in the city, you usually have to find a “parking lot” which normally consists of an old man under an umbrella chain smoking and drinking baijiu, who you pay to watch your bike along with hundreds of others for the day. As you can imagine, with a population of 11 million, the traffic in Chengdu was intense. There are bike lanes separated by barriers from the road but bikers must share these with pedestrians overflowing from the sidewalks and the infamous electric scooter. The government passed an initiative some time ago to encourage the use of these electric bikes to reduce pollution, and I can’t count the times I was nearly knocked off my seat as they sped past me with their near silent engines. With few to none in the way of traffic laws, it was every biker for himself!
Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.