It’s time for Christmas holidays with the family in America. After working and living in China for six and a half years, I now experience culture shock each time I return to Washington.
Empty sidewalks. Empty subways. Clean air. Polite people. Polite drivers. (Yes, by Beijing standards.)
I also appreciate those American characteristics that are so deeply ingrained that I can’t change, no matter how hard I try to adapt to my surroundings in Beijing. Here is a list of some of those American traits that give me reverse culture shock – and some I can’t shake.
- American food portion sizes are obscene. The steaks are enormous. And so are the plates. No wonder people eat so much. No wonder we’ve become a super-sized society.
- Americans eat way too quickly. Maybe it’s the chopsticks that have slowed me down. But I seem to be the last person finished with my meal each time I return to the U.S. Eating slowly improves digestion and helps you lose weight. Another reason there are so many obese Americans with heartburn.
- Most of the world doesn’t share America’s obsession with junk food, fried food and gloppy, sweet sauces. I have to admit it: I love good French fries (especially in Belgium). But do we have to eat everything fried, or cooked in/with bacon.
- Americans are impatient. We want what we want when we want it. We don’t like to wait in lines. We like our customer service to be friendly. (But not too “have-a-nice-day” saccharine.) Basically, we want service. Most of the world isn’t like that. They wait in lines. In England, the queue up. They don’t complain. I’m American. I complain. I can’t help it.
- Guns. Rifles. Machine guns. The rest of the world will never understand the fascination of so many Americans with weapons of death and destruction. Try explaining to Chinese (or Europeans, or Africans) why the U.S. Supreme Court says Americans have the right to own and use assault weapons. You can talk about the Founding Fathers and the anger at British soldiers for billeting themselves in private homes. You can talk about militias and suspicion of too much government power. Almost nobody agrees.
- American football does not translate. While NBA basketball enjoys a rabid following in China, and the NHL has a modest cadre of ice hockey fans, the National Football League does not compute. Modern-day gladiators and physical freaks ripping each other’s heads off for the pleasure of the masses and the profits of the few. OK, every society has its peculiar attractions. We don’t eat duck paws or pig’s brains in America, after all.
- The Electoral College just cannot be explained. America is a democracy, right? We tell that to people around the world. But the presidential candidate with the most votes wins? No, she doesn’t. The only things harder to explain than the logic of the Electoral College are gerrymandering and the fact that California and Alaska have the same number of senators. Democracy. In theory: great. In practice, it’s complicated. But better than the alternative.
- What is a Kardashian? The peculiarly American trait of people being famous for being famous is a hard one to explain.
- Binge-watching is unheard of. Most people from most countries don’t sit in front of a screen for days on end and watch a TV series. They find the modern American habit a bit amusing, if baffling.
- More food differences: Americans expect ice in their drinks. Americans expect cold beer. Americans expect free refills on (most) drinks. After six-plus years, I’ve given up ice. But I prefer my beer chilled, not room temperature.
- Americans are caffeine addicts. The morning cup of coffee is American (and European). It’s definitely not Chinese, at least yet. Every visiting professor in my program asks where they can get a morning coffee fix. I now find this American addiction to be amusing. I prefer some nice Chinese tea.
- Americans tip. A lot. And they tip a lot of people. Chinese people don’t tip. Some students of mine, visiting Washington, asked if they had to tip the waiter at a bar-and-grill. After all, the bill already was $30 per person, including tax. Yes, I sternly replied. It’s not optional.
- Americans drive on small errands. In the U.S., people drive to the grocery store, drive to the pharmacy, drive to the library, drive to restaurants. It’s the default means of transportation. I still have to readjust each time I return. I’m so used to jumping on the subway or my bike.
- Americans are very old-fashioned when it comes to paying for products. Cash is almost obsolete in China. Electronic payments via AliPay or WeChat Pay are the norm. Americans use credit cards, many with big annual fees and high interest rates. A lot of Americans still carry cash. How 20th century.
- Americans stubbornly cling to their weights and measures. Almost every country in the world has gone metric. Not the US of A. Every American expat has to translate their heights, weights, volumes and temperatures. Since I’m mathematically inclined, it’s easy. Other Americans just give up. But when they say it’s 32 degrees, they mean it’s freezing. People in China are baffled because they seem to be saying that it’s 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) – 32 degrees Celsius. By the way, I am 168 cm tall.
- You can’t always get what you want. Some food favorites from the U.S. are not popular in China: Bagels, donuts, rye bread, corned beef, cheese, queso, hummus, cream of mushroom soup. We have to be patient and wait for the next trip home.
- Chinese have a different version of Christmas. Yes, there are Santa Clauses, Christmas trees and Christmas songs across China. ‘Tis the season for conspicuous consumption. What’s missing? In a sentence: The Chinese Christmas does not have Christ and does not have a mass. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Do you have any more cultural differences to add to the lift? Post a comment.
I had this vision in my mind of what the Beijing Walmart would look like.
Elderly person at the front door welcoming you to the store. Wide aisles. Bright lighting. A little bit of Middle America in the middle of China’s capital.
My local Haidan district Walmart, just one subway stop south of Tsinghua University’s Wudaokou subway station, is a strange sort of American-Chinese hybrid. The Egg Foo Young of Chinese retailing.
First of all, there is no greeter. There isn’t even a front door, just those semi-transparent plastic flaps that substitute for doors all over China.
The store itself doesn’t resemble any Walmart in the USA. It looks more like your local dollar store. On steroids. Three floors of crowded bargains, from washing machines and treadmills to live turtles (not to bring home as pets).
What’s completely different is the product selection. You can buy Crest and Colgate and Laughing Cow cheese, but not much else that you’d buy in the American big box.
When’s the last time you saw the Walmart “Great Value” brand bag of Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus in the USA? Or Marinated Duck Gizzard? Or Prickly Ash Powder? Or Purple Sweet Potato snacks? Or Pineapple-flavored Beer? Or Apple Vinegar Drink?
The list goes on — check it out in my slide show.
I ended up on a shopping spree that cost me more than $40 in yuan. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, think of it this way: That’s the cost of about 25 meals on campus. Or three months of cell phone service. I think I’ve stocked my apartment for a month with everything from loose Chinese tea and two kinds of tofu to, yes, purple sweet potato snacking pieces.
My most expensive purchase was a living room rug for the equivalent of $13. The second most costly purchases was imported almonds (for hiking, of course), at about $4.
My shopping journey took four hours, most of it pure entertainment. After all, how many of you can say that you carried a rug in a backpack while you rode a bicycle home from the subway while balancing two bags of groceries?