Accepting China: A Roundabout Love Story

Secret Time: When I first visited China, back in October, I kind of hated it.

Japan had been easy and fun, but my first few days in Shanghai were a confusing, draining mess. The city was loud, crowded and dirty. Nothing made sense to me: not the clouds of smoke hanging everywhere, not the odd smells creeping around every corner and not the motorcycles zooming at murder pace down the sidewalks. It was all so much muchness!

Although there are a ton of well known tourist attractions in China from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors, you are very much on your own when it comes to tackling the day to day challenges like ordering dinner or crossing the street- yes they are both serious challenges. You can pretty much throw out everything you thought you knew about cultural mores; spitting in the street? A-ok. Cutting in line? What line. Staring at strangers like they escaped from the zoo? Of course.

It’s really stressful at first, to have your whole world view tossed out on it’s ear. You can’t understand China. Some parts of it are just not comprehensible to your puny Western mind. And that’s okay. What China ultimately taught me, is that it’s okay for things not to make sense.

Back in college I minored in anthropology. One of the major issues we talk about when discussing different societies is cultural relativism- viewing a different culture through the framework of your own. To really “see” a culture, you have to separate yourself from your preconceived notions and really embrace the place you’re in. This is of course, much easier said then done.

In China I felt like I was constantly veering out of control because I didn’t know what was going on. I’d try to reason WHY people were driving on the sidewalks, but there wasn’t a reasonable answer, at least not one I could understand. In order to enjoy China I needed to totally re-adjust my mindset. The key was, instead of getting frustrated with the situation, to embrace the anarchy. To understand there were things going on outside of my control or understanding and just enjoy the ride. Kind of like a 12 step program.

After I started making an effort to embrace, and find humor, in the chaos things got easier. That’s not to say things still weren’t frustrating- sometimes just going grocery shopping seemed like a Herculean task, but more often than not I was able to shake my head and say “Oh, China.”

Oh, China.

One day, I successfully took the bus downtown and back all by myself- navigating confusion and crowds, somehow, against all odds finding my way. As I sat in my hard-earned seat, I smiled as I realized I was actually going to miss China… and I wanted to come back. The thing that’s so addicting about China for so many is that while it’s not easy, and it’s often frustrating, it’s definitely exciting.

34 Responses to Accepting China: A Roundabout Love Story

  1. Roy | Cruisesurfingz June 21, 2011 at 10:11 AM #

    Nice story. I would love to visit China but I’m a bit afraid that the culture shock would be overwhelming!

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:02 PM #

      It will be overwhelming, but that’s part of the experience! Totally worthwhile.

  2. Sally June 21, 2011 at 10:26 AM #

    I think I had the opposite reaction to China. When I first got here, I loved it. I thought it was awesome that people were such cowboys — riding their motorbikes willy-nilly on the sidewalks and wearing fuzzy slippers in public. It was such a change from the restrictive nature of Japan, I felt. But then I started to miss the peace and quiet and clean air… and being able to walk on the sidewalk without having to constantly watch my back.
    These days, I feel more accepting. I’m not trying to make sense out of it all… and, man, when winter comes, I’m wearing my fuzzy slippers in public!

    • MaryAnne June 21, 2011 at 6:29 PM #

      Funny- I got here after 6 years in Turkey and an autumn spent chicken-bussing around Central America and for me, landing in Shanghai alone in a grim, rainy February and having to get my life set up (again alone) was….refreshing! It was so easy, so calm, so straight forward compared to the relative chaos of my previous locations.

      Sure there are scooters on the sidewalks but…there are sidewalks! Wahoo! Sure there’s traffic noise and firecrackers at 3am but at least there aren’t military helicopters circling low over my flat or reallllllly loud Arabesk music blasting from a neighbour’s flat ALL NIGHT or gunshots being fired into the air after matches or weddings or….And getting a flat on my own was so much easier than it had been in Istanbul- so methodical with no scary hidden surprises.

      To me, Shanghai was a calm relief, though I certainly can’t say it was a breath of fresh air (cough cough!).

      • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:07 PM #

        haha, like i wrote in my last post it is really interesting the way your most recent destinations can influence your opinion of a new place.

        It reminds me of when I met up with Mike in Bangkok over New Years. I had flown in from Sydney and was choking on the dust and noise, while he had come in from Xi’an and couldn’t get over how clean the air was!

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:03 PM #

      Honestly being home, I have to remind myself you can’t stare here or throw your food on the floor. It’s kind of a sensible system they have going.

    • Sasha June 28, 2011 at 3:24 AM #

      LOL Sally you would be the first person I’ve ever heard who thinks the Chinese people were such cowboys! But now you mention it…

      • Steph June 28, 2011 at 8:29 PM #

        It’s a pretty good analogy! Although I think of them more like the Borg…

  3. steph_fig June 21, 2011 at 10:57 AM #

    I’ve never been to China, but reading this reminded me of the normal 😉 chaos we experienced in Hong Kong. And you’re absolutely spot-on about the whole cutting-in-line-what-line bit! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. 🙂

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:04 PM #

      Oh my visits from the mainland to Hong Kong the city seemed so clean and orderly by comparison! Lots of Chinese tourists there though which does make it a bit chaotic.

  4. Emily June 21, 2011 at 11:03 AM #

    It really is so hard to separate your own culture from a culture you’re visiting and not make comparisons. I’ve tried and failed many times, but I do try to at least be aware of the fact that my own cultural background is affecting my reaction to somewhere new!

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:04 PM #

      I think the awareness is the most important bit.

  5. Alex June 21, 2011 at 1:18 PM #

    I wrote a similar post when I left Grand Cayman… when I arrived there to work I was so disenchanted, it was so westernized and so similar to home and I was craving something different.

    By the time I left I had a soft spot for the place and now, nearly a year later I have positively rosy memories! Time has an odd effect on our mind. I wonder how you will feel in a year.

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:05 PM #

      I think that sometimes distance can give us so much perspective. Also time.

  6. Dean June 21, 2011 at 7:21 PM #

    I had the same experience when I first arrived in Kathmandu. It was chaos and nothing really made any sense. I kept thinking “What am I doing here?”. But when I just let go and accepted the place for what it is, I learned to love it.

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:07 PM #

      It’s a super important skill to learn as a traveler- to be able to accept places for what they are and not what you want them to be.

  7. Anis Salvesen June 21, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

    Cultural relativism is so fascinating! I used to travel to Mexico as a very young child and stay with relatives, and when I returned to the U.S. where I lived, I would experience the American culture I had left behind as a Mexican.

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 11:08 PM #

      Coming home and experiencing American culture as a slight outsider is one of the really special things about travel for me. It really gives you a whole new insight.

  8. Amanda June 22, 2011 at 3:37 AM #

    I only spent a week in China, but people still ask me what I thought about it. The only word I can come up with to sufficiently sum up my experience is “overwhelming.” Because China is just that!

    But overwhelming doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. In China’s case, like you said, sometimes it’s worth it to just embrace the chaos.

    • Steph June 26, 2011 at 5:58 PM #

      Overwhelming is a good word, I usually go with “it’s like another planet.”

  9. Kit Whelan June 22, 2011 at 11:50 AM #

    I love your honesty & new outlook! I’ll try to remember this when I finally make it China! 🙂

  10. Sabrina June 22, 2011 at 12:02 PM #

    That’s EXACTLY how I feel when we visit Marco’s mom in Guangzhou. It’s complete crazyness…. until you sort of give in and try to just go with it. What makes it so hard for me I think is that really nobody speaks English and most people don’t understand the horrible version I speak of their language (the few words I know that is; including names of places). And that I’m never quite sure what i’m eating 🙂

    • Steph June 26, 2011 at 5:57 PM #

      Chinese is extremely difficult to learn. I’ve never gotten much past hello.

  11. Mags June 22, 2011 at 3:08 PM #

    What a lovely post about a hectic world. I’ve been to China and felt exactly the same – and I’m Chinese!

    People push and shove, people barge you out the way, people don’t have qualms about pointing and staring, and I almost died when someone spat on my flip flop. But the total craziness is the country’s charm in a weird way.

    This is definitely a bitter sweet romance 🙂

    • Steph June 26, 2011 at 5:54 PM #

      The spitting drives me CRAZY. I’ve seen people spitting in restaurants- even in the Forbidden City! Don’t think I would ever get used to that.

  12. Camels & Chocolate June 23, 2011 at 2:32 AM #

    Truth: I’ve never had a desire to visit China in the slightest. I don’t like crowds, I’m super sensitive to smog and the like, and there’s, you know, the whole communism thing. Heh. And then I went to Hong Kong and Macau two years ago and loved them. And now I’m going to real China this fall for Semester at Sea, and I’m hoping the same will happen…

    • Steph June 26, 2011 at 5:50 PM #

      I never really had a desire to visit China before this year either but I ended up figuring out how to enjoy it and I’m sure you will too!

  13. eagertravelercris June 24, 2011 at 1:17 AM #

    great read… something to motivate me for my stay in China, Beijing specifically… i feel that i will not survive a week’s stay..

    i was reminded how much I didn’t enjoy Hong Kong, the city was just too much for me.. Though I enjoyed Shanghai (probably because it was winter and there were a few people around)..

    I’m so much of a control freak, that i don’t want to be lost in translation!! haha… but i don’t want to join a tour group because you don’t exactly enjoy the places you go to when you’re pressed for time..

    • Steph June 26, 2011 at 5:45 PM #

      I really liked Beijing, it’s an exciting city, and much more modern and international than most of China, so I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just enjoy the show!

  14. alexis June 28, 2011 at 7:08 PM #

    I’ve always been curious about China and scared at the same time. My friend is there now learning Chinese, and he said that it takes him an hour and a half to get to class. He takes 2 buses and a train to get there. I can’t imagine doing that everyday!

    But being scared of something different is a reason to go! It opens up your mind to new things and makes the rest of your life a little easier since you’ve had to deal with more difficult things. Learning is the most rewarding part =)

  15. Solo Mate Travel July 30, 2012 at 12:48 PM #

    I love traveling to new countries and experiencing their cultures. I’m glad you were able to come around and give China another a chance.

  16. Louise M December 16, 2012 at 6:48 AM #

    I know this is late in the game but China is a beautiful country. I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice and I’m planning my third trip with my boyfriend. I went with school and my teacher took us on a walk in a different direction from the school every day so we could try and see new things.

    You must get your hair washed! It’s a very different experience but so much fun. I admit the smog takes a bit of getting used to but hey it happens. I found Shanghai to be a little less crazy than Beijing but both were fantastic. I hope you all enjoy your future adventures to the Middle Kingdom. It’s beautiful!

  17. Daniel | TeacherGig August 5, 2013 at 8:46 AM #

    First of all, thanks a lot for the post! I’m headed to Shanghai later this year. This was a reminder of what to expect.

    But your experience really touched a nerve for me with where I”m living. I live in Taiwan. I teach, I write, and that’s about it. But on the off chance someone gets me out and about (usually my dog), I get the culture shock that still hasn’t disappeared after 8 years. Old people staring at me like I have two heads. Cars and scooters whipping past with inches of clearance. Semi-owned dogs that are as likely to ask for a belly rub as snap and snarl. Well, I’m well known around here for belly rubs, so it’s a more common response.

    So your comment at the end is absolutely true: it can be a maddening place to live this Taiwan, just as I’m sure Shanghai will be, but it’s definitely never dull.

    Thanks for the post! Happy travels!

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