The Top 4 Culture Shocks I Had While Living in China

I knew that China would be different before even moving there, but the culture shock began even before landing in the country. Although I was still in the New York City airport, my flight was packed with Chinese citizens heading back home. While some of their actions and all of their language was completely foreign to me, it didn’t even compare to what I experienced every day while living in China for a year. If you are thinking of  traveling to China, check out some of the top culture shock experiences that I had to help you prepare.

#1 Being Treated Like a Celebrity

I am in no way, shape or form a celebrity by any means. I’ve passed through life with little attention from others and sometimes daydreamed about what it would be like to be followed around by the photographers, journalists, and fans. However, from the very beginning of my life in China, I was treated like I was someone important. Locals would visibly be excited just to see me and often ask if they could take my picture or be in a photograph with me.

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Many people would point, have conversations with their friends about me and even offer to buy my dinner and beer. I was paid to be in a commercial, invited to high-profile parties and sought after as a friend by people on the streets. While it got to be a little much after a while, it was still interesting to live kind of like a celebrity.

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#2 The Dining Etiquette

Chinese locals do meals, especially dinner, a whole lot differently than I am used to here in America. Dinners are usually had at large tables with a spinning top to allow everyone to share the dishes. Sharing is the way that it goes and a dinner table is typically filled with family-sized portions of various dishes. Everyone has their own bowl and utensils and take what they want from each dish. Seafood shells, chicken bones, and trash are typically discarded right on the table or the floor and the conversation is known to be loud and rowdy. In fact, getting drunk at dinner is quite common as a meal with friends over beer is more of a thing than actually going to the bar. The servers don’t typically come up to the table and say their name before taking orders like in America and they don’t even get mad when you yell “Waitress!! Check!” as that is how things are done there.

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#3 The Personal Space

China is one of the most populated countries on the planet and because of this, the citizens seem to have gotten used to being quite close. People pack onto buses, crowd each other in lines, walk into each other on the streets and move in traffic like their motorbikes are attached together. There isn’t a whole lot of room  and it took a while to get used to people in my “personal bubble.” There never seemed to be a way to get away from all of the people as there was always noise outside my apartment from animated conversations, cars honking and driving up on the sidewalks and trucks blasting audio commercials as they passed by.

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#4 The Health Beliefs

This one was quite significant for me as my health and wellness have always been on my mind since a young age. I learned very quickly that Chinese people have different views on health and wellness and there is a drastic difference between eastern and western medicine. The first time I ever got sick in China, I was taken to a doctor who prescribed me 6 different powder pills that I had to take two of per day. Taking 12 a day didn’t seem right and I actually had to call a Chinese friend from back home to confirm that it was safe. I quickly found out that the pills all contained varying forms of herbal remedies instead of the antibiotics that I was accustomed to. During my year there, I had friends with stomach viruses who went to the doctor and were told that they were sick because they didn’t wear big enough coats or drank too much cold water. The parents of my students would not allow me to put on the heat in my classroom and insisted that the window stays open in the cold; each one of us had to wear winter coats and hats during the class. In the summers, parents requested that the air conditioning is turned off because it was bad for health and people around the city wore winter coats well into summer.

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Have you ever been to China? if so, what culture shocks have you experienced?

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Shannon Ullman

Hey! I'm a published American travel blogger and teacher. My travel writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Matador Network and Thought Catalog. I spent over a year living and traveling around China while I taught English there. I have also visited dozens of other countries around the world.