What traits are peculiarly American? A U.S. expat reflects.

Shotgun Santa

Only in America: Even Santa totes a rifle.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. What is a Kardashian? The peculiarly American trait of people being famous for being famous is a hard one to explain.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.

Greetings from China: 5 pleasant discoveries and 5 things that might take some getting used to

This is where I went hiking ... for the history, the exercise, the fellowship and the fresh air.

This is where I went hiking … for the history, the exercise, the fellowship and the fresh air.

The eagle has landed. I’ve been in Beijing for four days now — long enough to hike a remote section of the Great Wall, sample the best Peking Duck (Beijing Duck? Just plain roast duck?) of my life and explore every nook and cranny of one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world — but not quite long enough to get over jet lag.

Rather than write the traditional “first impressions” story, I’m going to share five of my pleasant discoveries in Beijing and an equal number of things that will take some time to get used to.

Pleasant discoveries

The campus is stunningly beautiful, an island of serenity in a bustling metropolis.

The campus is stunningly beautiful, an island of serenity in a bustling metropolis.

1. Tsinghua University is one of the most beautiful in the world. It’s made one of those top ten lists for beautiful campuses, and I can see why. From the magnificent gates to the marvelous and varied sculpture, from the breath-taking canals and lily ponds to the impressive architecture and ivy-covered walls, this is a fine environment for teaching and for learning.

2. The high quality of the faculty. They don’t call it the MIT of China for nothing. The professors here are among the best in the world. The journalism faculty is uniformly excellent. I hope to live up to their very high standards.

3. The high quality of the students. I could tell from the moment I began my new student orientation session last Friday morning. These students are the best and the brightest, not just from China but from around the world. They are smart and they are motivated.

4. I can get around town without too much problem. It is a problem that I don’t speak Chinese. (Yet.) But the Beijing subway — most of which was built for the 2008 Olympics — is modern, efficient, inexpensive and very easy to navigate. Crowded? That’s a given. There are more than 20 million people here in the capital.

5. I can communicate with the outside world. Yes, I heard all of the warnings about the Great Firewall of China. And all the blocked sites. The good news, at least at this point, is that I have been able to communicate with all of my old and new friends with only minor problems.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. It's even bigger in Beijing. Here I am with one of the campus' lions.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. It’s even bigger in Beijing. Here I am with one of the campus’ lions.

Things that might take some getting used to

1. A fifth-floor walk-up apartment. On the bright side, I’m getting a lot of aerobic exercise every day.

2. Cold showers for four days. Well, I finally have hot water. Actually, I’ve had it all along but haven’t known how to turn it on. You see, the instruction guide to my apartment is in Chinese and I’m linguistically challenged. It means I also couldn’t figure out how to use the satellite TV. Or the apartment internet. The take-away lesson: Keep taking those Mandarin lessons on the Mango app.

3. Can you believe the way people drive around here? Washington drivers are awful. Drivers in Rome are maniacs. Drivers in Naples view traffic signals as suggestions. Drivers in Beijing are all of that and more. U-turns in the middle of traffic. Left turns from the right lane. Turning right on red without stopping or even looking for pedestrians or bike riders.

And while you’re at it, watch out for the bikes coming at you every which way. And the pedestrians darting across highways and major thoroughfares in the middle of traffic.

4. The parking situation. People park any place they can find a space. Not a parking space. Any old space. They park on sidewalks. They park on pedestrian malls. They park where they want, when they want. Just get out of the way when the car is coming at you.

5. Peanut butter is hard to find. I love Chinese food. I could eat it almost every meal. But I am going through peanut butter withdrawal now. Yes, yes, I’ve been told that you can get peanut butter at Walmart and in European grocery stores in Beijing. But I haven’t gone on a scouting mission yet.