Life in China: An overview (part 1 of 2)

In this article I discuss various aspects of life in China.  In particular, I discuss (i) alcohol, (ii) attitudes towards foreigners, (iii) dating, (iv) eating out, (v) education, (vi) family and (vii) food.  Bear in mind that I am writing about my experiences living in Hubei province (central China).  Not all of this article will apply to all areas of the country.

Alcohol

China has a minimum legal drinking age of 18.  My students did not believe me when I told them this, though.  This is because the government does not bother to enforce the legal drinking age.  There is simply no need.  Chinese people (in general) have a healthy attitude towards alcohol and they drink in moderation.  It is common in the UK to drink alcohol without food.  But Chinese people only drink alcohol to accompany food.  Moreover, they only drink as a social activity.

Alcohol has an important place in Chinese culture.  Adults drink beer or spirits (usually bai2 jiu3) when they eat out together.  It is common in the UK to propose a toast to the whole table.  But, in China, it is customary to toast the other guests individually.  It may be considered rude to drink without proposing a toast first.  And it is always rude not to drink after somebody has proposed a toast to you.  Be prepared that Chinese people may coerce you into drinking strong alcohol with them.

Attitudes towards foreigners

I have found the Chinese to be very helpful and welcoming to outsiders.  But new visitors to China will attract open-mouthed stares and endless curiosity.  Do not forget that Chinese people living in rural towns and villages may never have seen a foreigner before.  And some Chinese people are under the impression that all Westerners are rich and successful.  In my case, they only stared because I am white.  It just so happens that the Chinese find pale skin attractive.

Chinese people would stop me in the street to offer me part-time jobs.  I was invited to many events that turned out to be promotional opportunities.  And I had to avoid smartphones and video cameras.  At first, I enjoyed this kind of attention but it got annoying after a while.  The interest is only superficial and you have to be careful that you do not get exploited.

Dating

In China, young people start to date at a later age than their Western counterparts.  This is partly because High School students are not allowed to date.  It may also be because Chinese society is nowhere near as sexualised as Western society is.  For example, Sex Education is almost non-existent in China.  Chinese young people take dating seriously and do not date for fun.  Many Chinese people from rural towns and villages grow up wary of dangers caused by the excesses of the West.

Matchmaking is a common pastime in China.  Parents, grandparents and even non-family members take a keen interest in playing match-maker to the younger generation.  For this reason, blind dates are still very common in China.  In many cases, the woman speaks to the man’s family in advance (i.e. before she even meets the man).  Online dating is (slowly) becoming more acceptable.  No matter how the couple meets, it is the man who pays for everything (meals, cinema tickets, clothes…).

Eating out

There are (at least) three options for eating out in China: (i) street food, (ii) hole-in-the-wall restaurants and (iii) family-style dining.  The first option is the cheapest.  There are many food stalls in Chinese cities, especially in the evenings.  Vendors sell familiar food (i.e. barbeque skewers and roasted chestnuts) as well as unfamiliar food (e.g. caramelized hawthorn and steamed buns).  You may be concerned about hygiene and food poisoning.  This is no excuse to miss out; just buy food from the most popular food stalls.

The second option is also surprisingly cheap.  Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are small, family-run places that often serve a limited menu.  Some of them specialize in noodles; others specialize in dumplings, and so on.  The third option is potentially expensive.  The larger restaurants cater for large groups.  When you eat out with friends in China, you all eat family-style (i.e. you share all of the food).  Moreover, guests never split the bill.  The person who makes the initial invitation must foot the bill.  His or her friends will (hopefully) repay the favour at a later date.

Education

Children have the option to attend Kindergarten from age 2 to 5.  Children then attend Pre-School from age 5 to 6, Primary School from age 6 to 12 and Middle School from age 12 to 15.  Compulsory schooling in China ends at age 15.  Children have the option to attend High School from age 15 to 18.  High school in China is a preparation for further study and it culminates in the infamous gaokao exam.  The gaokao is so important in China that cheating carries a 7-year prison sentence.  After High School, students can study at college (i.e. 3 years for a certificate) or at university (i.e. 4 years for a degree).

Chinese school pupils are worked much harder than their Western counterparts are. The school day ends in the evening and students complete reams of homework.  High School students are not even allowed to have boyfriends and girlfriends, so they can concentrate all of their efforts on passing gaokao.  The curriculum focusses on facts and does not encourage students to think for themselves.  Students learn entirely by rote memorization.  There is a still a lot of bribery (for school places) and a lot of plagiarism at the university-level.

Family

The dominant family structure in China is the nuclear (or traditional) family.  This is partly because same-sex marriages are not allowed.  It is also partly because divorce is a stigma in China.  A divorcing couple not only bring shame on themselves; they may also lower their children’s chances of finding a partner later in life.  Until recently, the One Child policy meant that parents could only have a single child.  If a couple had a second child illegally, they would incur heavy fines and may even have been fired from their jobs.

It is common for Chinese parents not to spend money on themselves (although this is changing).  Many parents do not have holidays or buy lots of new clothes.  Instead, they save every penny to support their children.  It’s a good job they do, since living costs in China (e.g. cars, apartments…) are very high.  In return, children show a lot of respect to their parents.  Parents have a lot of influence when it comes to choosing an ideal husband or wife for their children.  Chinese people are responsible for supporting their elders in old age, since there is no social welfare system.

Food

The staple foodstuffs in China are rice, wheat and soybeans.  Rice is used to make noodles and alcohol; wheat is used to make noodles and dumpling wraps; soybeans are used to make noodles and tofu.  For reasons of climate, wheat is more popular in the north of the country and rice is more popular in the south.  Potatoes are not a traditional part of Chinese cuisine, although they are becoming more popular.  Food in China is surprisingly cheap because it is so abundant.

The Chinese do not greet each other by asking How are you?  Instead, they ask Have you eaten?  You will hear this at all times of the day.  This common question reflects the importance of food in Chinese culture.  Two generations ago, many regions of China were still in poverty.  Now, food is abundant in the cities and the country is importing more and more food from overseas.  The Chinese love food: they love talking about it, cooking it and sharing it.  And it’s all delicious.

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