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Have you ever seen that 90’s movie “10 Things I Hate About You”? It’s been a while since I’ve watched it, but it came up in conversation the other day and led to a discussion of “10 Things I Hate About China.” Having lived here for many years, I definitely have a love/hate relationship with the Middle Kingdom. This is natural – people love and hate things about where they live no matter where that may be. For those of you who may be pondering a move to China, I’m going to share with you ten things that I both hate and love about China. We may as well start with the bad and work our way up to the good, so here goes nothing:
Many foreigners arrive in China and are surprised to find people constantly taking their photo (whether they agreed or not), yelling “Ha-lo!” in their face, pointing, and staring. When I first came to China I thought this was quite funny, and I’d humor people by flashing the peace sign (it’s actually “V for Victory” here, because they win?) and waving back with my own very brutal version of their common greeting (“Knee-how!”). After five years, though, I’m sick of being a zoo animal. No bumpkin from the middle of nowhere China on their holiday in the big city is ever going to stop and ask me how long I’ve been in China or try to make any small talk for that matter. Hell, half of the fun for many Chinese people visiting big cities is to see the silly foreigners and try to sneakily take cell phone pictures of them. I always wondered how Chinese people traveling abroad would feel if I did the same thing to them in my country, so one time I did. We found a huge tour group of Chinese folks in New York City, doing their usual routine of wearing matching hats and following a flag, when I yelled to my Girlfriend… “Look! Look! Chinese people! There are Chinese people!” We pointed and giggled and then awkwardly ran away, as they do to us on a daily basis. Something tells me they didn’t like it very much, but I can guarantee they’ll do the same thing the next time they see a foreigner in China.
A humorous look at the word “lao wai.”
This goes hand in hand with the point above. “Lao Wai” (老外 – lǎo wài) means “foreigner” in Chinese, but it’s not exactly the nicest way to say it. Plus, when someone randomly walking by you on the street, points at you and yells “Foreigner!”, you’re not going to have the best reaction regardless of what word they use. I’ve been called “lao wai” so many times in China that I like to joke around and tell people it’s my Chinese name sometimes. The word doesn’t bother me as much as it does other foreigners here, but after five years of constantly having it shouted at me, I’m fed up. It doesn’t matter how long you stay in China – you will always be “lao wai.” You can speak Chinese fluently, practice tai chi, prepare a mean plate of dumplings, and write Tang Dynasty era poetry in water calligraphy, but if you don’t look like them, you’ll still just be “lao wai.” Perhaps this is the reason that even though I’ve been in China for five years on and off, I refuse to make a long-term commitment here. I don’t study Chinese as much as I should, I don’t go out looking to meet Chinese friends as much as I should, and I don’t try to integrate myself in the culture as much as I should. This is most likely due to the fact that I know, no matter how hard I try, I’ll still just be another “lao wai.”
An intro to the Great Firewall of China.
It’s no secret that China has a tight grip on the Internet. Commonly referred to as “The Great Firewall of China” and perhaps more impressive than the original, this drives both foreigners and Chinese crazy. At least there are Chinese versions of many of the sites that are blocked – WeChat is Twitter, Ren Ren is Facebook, Youku is YouTube, Baidu is Google, and so on. That’s great for Chinese people and all, but none of my family or friends in the States use any of those sites. If you’re hoping to keep up with people on Facebook, write a blog, use GMail, or post videos on YouTube, make sure you buy a good VPN before you arrive in China. There’s so much more to my hatred of the Chinese Internet than just a few blocked websites, though. Foreign websites that aren’t blocked load incredibly slow. Speaking of slow, get used to the turtle’s pace of your connection here. The worst aspect of the Internet here to me is without a doubt the insane amount of energy and resources that the Chinese government pumps into this whole operation. There are millions of people employed as “Internet police” around the country, spending their days censoring WeChat posts and blocking sensitive content. There are far more pressing matters in this country that deserve at least a fraction of the attention that policing the Internet gets. For more on Internet censorship in China, check this post from a few months ago.
There are few things worse in life than being out and about in China and suddenly needing to go running for the nearest bathroom. With all that oily and spicy food, it happens quite often – especially to those fresh off the boat. Upon entering a guy’s public bathroom in China, you’ll be greeted by a few dudes squatting over holes in the ground with no doors in sight, usually smoking and yelling into a cell phone while they do their business. Hopefully you brought your own TP and hand sanitizer, because you sure as hell won’t find any of that here. While these things grossed me out beyond belief when I first arrived here, I’ll admit that I’m used to the squatty-potty and don’t really mind it at all. I also make sure to always carry tissues and a bottle of hand sanitizer, just in case. What I’ll never get used to, though, is the gut-wrenching stench that seems to permeate every public restroom in the country. Personally, I can’t take China seriously as a world power until they at least figure out how to somewhat mask the horrendous odor pouring out of every single one of their bathrooms. While we’re at it, some doors on the stalls would be nice.
Maybe I had some romantic idea of China before I came here, that it would be pandas running around doing kung fu while old men with awesome fu man chu mustaches sat around smoking long pipes and women wore their colorful traditional clothes, but I have found it harder and harder to find ancient Chinese culture. Sure, much of it was purposefully destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but Chairman Mao didn’t open all of these Starbucks and KFCs. Nor did he tear down traditional neighborhoods in favor of hideous shopping malls. Much of China is in such a rush to modernize that they willfully abandon their unique culture of over 5,000 years. In another millennium, I doubt anybody will be listening to the Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga songs that China goes crazy for now, but I’m sure that ancient Chinese music will still be sought out. That is, if it manages to survive. On a recent trip to Lijiang, I attended the Naxi ancient music concert – a full on orchestra playing traditional music from hundreds of years ago. Many of the group members are over 80 years old, and they had to bury their instruments during the Cultural Revolution to save them from destruction. What endangers this music today is not the Red Army, rather it is the army of domestic tourists who would rather take selfies in a bar blaring awful pop and techno than see this traditional show. It’s not that you can’t find real Chinese culture out there; just head to a local park and get your fill. What bugs me is the willingness to destroy it in favor of shopping mall and fast food culture. If I wanted to see that stuff, I’d have stayed in America.
Another big shocker to people who first visit China is what goes on in public places all over the country. People spit all over the place, and men seem to have no qualms with blowing a giant snot-rocket on the sidewalk. Littering is just another part of life here, as people throw bottles, cigarette butts and other assorted garbage everywhere but in a trash can. This isn’t just true in the city, though – go on any hike in China and you’re sure to find piles of garbage scattered amongst the trees. “Leave no trace” is not a policy here whatsoever. There’s also no such thing as a line in China, as people push and shove their way to the front whether it’s to get on the subway or buy vegetables. Perhaps most shocking of all to newcomers here are the children going to the bathroom just about everywhere. I get it – diapers are expensive and wasteful – but that doesn’t make it OK for you to allow your child to make a poo-poo on a newspaper on the airplane. At first I thought the split-pants were kind of cute, but now I just get grossed out when I accidentally step in a puddle because I realize it’s probably urine.
I love throwing back a few cold ones with friends, so you’d think I’d get into going out and drinking with Chinese guys. That’s not the case at all. Chinese drinking culture is painful, and that’s coming from a guy with 50% Russian blood, another 20 or so Irish, and a graduate of a Big Ten party school. There’s no such thing as casually having a few beers while chatting with your pals here in China. Instead, it’s glass after glass of rocket fuel (AKA Chinese bai jiu) and constant calls of “Bottoms up!” The Chinese word for “cheers” (干 – gān bēi) literally means “dry glass,” and they will accept nothing less. When drinking in China, it seems to be black-out or get out. It’s not just that, though – Chinese beer and liquor are absolutely horrendous.
Any time I need to go to the bank in China, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. This is because I already know that at least two hours of my day will be wasted. Ditto for registering with the police, setting up the Internet, or any other mundane task that you would think should be quick and painless. It doesn’t help that most people take a 2 1/2-hour lunch break plus nap in the middle of the day. At my old place in Beijing, this was the insanely tedious process of registering:
• 1. Go to the basement and fill out a form in English.
• 2. Take said form to the office. Fill out another form with their help in Chinese.
• 3. Bring the form that’s in Chinese to another basement and have a lady stamp it.
• 4. Take everything to the local copy shop and make copies of it all.
• 5. Go to the police station, give them everything, and wait.
If stamp lady is out on her break, or the police are sleeping, you just have to come back the next day. This is merely one example, but I won’t bore you with any more.
“Chinese Long For a Different Kind of Holiday”
For public holidays in China, the government likes to make people think that they’re getting a long holiday. As such, people will work extra days before and/or after the holiday in order to extend it a few days. During a recent Spring Festival, many people worked nine days in a row so they could have seven off, and they worked an extra day the week after the “holiday.” As a result, you’ve got millions of stressed out, tired people all trying to travel at the same time. It is complete chaos in bus and train stations, on the freeways, and in airports all over the country. People pay more for tickets and hotels during the holiday week, fight through massive crowds, and return home more exhausted than when they left. That’s why I’ve been doing absolutely nothing this National Holiday week and loving it. If you’re going to work in China, be prepared to deal with these absurd “holiday” schedules.
“How to Survive a Chinese Tour Group.”
Speaking of traveling, there’s probably nothing I hate more in China than organized tours. After a horrible experience on a packaged tour from Shanghai that visited Suzhou and Hangzhou, I learned my lesson. A majority of the day was spent crammed on a bus, although we did make plenty of stops – a silk factory, a massive shopping complex, and an awful, overpriced restaurant were all on the day’s itinerary. We didn’t see much of interest at all, but thankfully I was with a few friends who decided to make the best out of a bad situation. Regardless, I vowed to never waste my time or money on a Chinese tour group again. That was until I got conned into them again… twice. This is the part about Chinese tour groups that really grinds my gears – their willingness to lie and rip each other off (you’ll rarely find foreigners on these things). If you found that you’d been suckered onto a tour bus, lied to, and cheated, you’d probably be pretty upset, right? Well, for the Chinese patrons joining us on the tour, they just sat back and took it. Although I heard them complaining amongst themselves, they wouldn’t dare speak up and voice their grievances. This just isn’t part of Chinese culture, which very much values the group and not losing face. I don’t care about face, though, so I let these “tour guides” have it with my mediocre Chinese abilities. Hey, at least I know how to swear in Chinese… Should you ever be propositioned to join a Chinese tour group, run as fast as you can. Otherwise, you’re guaranteed to spend a day sitting on a bus, seeing nothing but tacky “workshops” and knick-knack shops. Learn from my mistakes, and don’t let this happen to you.
With that off my chest, I’m excited to get to work on writing about the things I love about China. While this post may give the impression that I’m a miserable, jaded expat living here, there are far more things I love about this country than the few that I hate. In fact, it took me much longer to compile the list of ten things I hate than it did the things that I love.
Update: This post has received many comments over the years, some positive and many quite negative. As the writer, I must remind people to please read the entire post, as well as the follow up – “10 Things I Love About China.” Through the comments, it’s clear to me that many people didn’t even read the entire post, let alone the follow-up. Once again, I had an amazing six years in China and the good most definitely outweighed the bad. This post was meant to give a clear picture for aspiring expats of what it’s like living in China – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I could just as easily write a list for my home country, and also for Indonesia, where I spent the last year.