I will start by saying that China is an amazing country. There are so many wonderful things to see and do that you would be crazy not to travel there. I am writing this because there are a few little cultural habits that can be fairly unsettling for the western traveler. Life in Beijing and Shanghai is much like life in any big city around the world. These little habits only really become apparent when you travel into rural China or as I discovered during Golden Week, when rural China descends upon the big city.
I wish that someone had prepared me for these before I left because I definitely found myself in a state of culture shock in China.
A lot of people in China spit, which in itself is not too bad. The unsettling aspect is that it is a deep, oesophagus cleansing cough that ensures that the spittle has a good bit of body behind it. It doesn’t matter if it is a young man or a little old lady. Anyone can be seen or more disgustingly, heard hoiking up the contents of their throat. Most of the time, the phlegm will find its way into a toilet or trash can, but those are not always available so you will often see little blobs of green mucous scattered about the footpath.
You must abandon your manners if you ever have any hopes of getting anywhere in China. There is no system of lining up and if you sit and wait patiently for your turn, you will be there forever. When a train arrives, people descend en mass and create a thriving, crush of humanity. It can make you quite claustrophobic. I have seen old ladies being pushed right out of the way. That said, I have seen those same old ladies pushing right back.
There is no anger or malice in the pushing and it is not aggressive. It is more like someone pushing in front of you in line. Getting angry at someone who has stolen your spot in line will achieve absolutely no results whatsoever. My advice is to keep your loved ones close and push on with everybody else.
If you have ever traveled to a country where there aren’t many westerners, a certain amount of staring is to be expected. The Chinese take it to a whole new level. Everywhere you go outside of big cities, people would stare at you as if you were a three headed alien. After some time, you accept your fate and learn to deal with the staring, but not when it happens in the toilets. I cannot count how many times I was standing at a urinal and the person next to me would openly stare at my privates. Most western men that I met had similar experiences. I even met a few women who were squatting on the toilet only to have the door flung open so that everyone else in the bathroom could stare.
After a a while, the staring stops to bother you, but then, the pictures start. At first, it starts innocently enough. One or two people come and timidly ask if they can have a photo with you. It makes you feel like a rock star so you agree. That is when the flood gates open. All of a sudden, you find yourself surrounded by hundred of flashing lights. Everywhere you go after your first photo mobbing, all you can see is the flash of cameras. People will literally stop in the street and take a photo as if you were an animal in a zoo.
Get ready to squat and have very little privacy. In big tourist centres, you will probably be able to find western style toilets, but don’t expect them anywhere else. A squat toilet is basically a hole in the ground (it’s fancied up with a bit of porcelain) with little indicators that show you where to put your feet and that is how you have to try and use the toilet. It is extremely uncomfortable and if you aren’t well balanced, you might end up with your hand in something gross.
Believe it or not, the squat toilets are the luxurious versions. If you ever have the joy of taking a long distance bus ride in China, be prepared. The bus stops every hour or two and the toilet facilities at these stops are some of the worst I have ever seen in the world. It is a trough in the ground that everybody squats over and there is a horribly, inadequate trickle of water that is meant to wash it all away.
Reading through, it might seem like I hated China. This could not be further from the truth. I had an amazing time in this country. I just wish that someone had warned me about all of these things before I left. It would be very easy to let yourself get overwhelmed by these things and let them spoil your time in an amazing destination