Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

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Adapting Well to China

An old man is knocking glass out of a window frame with a hammer as a mother and her child pass him on the street. Bits of glass land at their feet; they barely notice. The old-timer will probably get a few yuan for the metal frame.

Across the street, a chef is dumping used cooking oil, rancid and full of bits of leftover food, into a blue drum. This drum is loaded onto a truck and will be used as slop for pigs on nearby farms. Pork is essential in Chinese cuisine.

Not far away, a woman is carrying a chicken in each arm, blood still dripping from their cut throats. A constant thrum of traffic, construction, and blaring advertisements is the soundtrack for this menagerie of China.

I barely notice.

All of this is normal to me. Well, of course, it’s far from normal to my American half. But it’s normal here, I live here, therefore I must accept it as normal. This is not an easy filter of reality to develop. It took a lot of work, and it’s why I’ve managed to live here for 4 years.

Some of the most rewarding, exciting places to live are also some of the hardest. China is one of those places. However, there are four things you can do that will make your time here easier and every bit the memorable adventure it should be.

1. Make an effort to learn the language.

This is number one for a reason. Depending on where you’ll be living, learning Mandarin Chinese is absolutely essential to accomplish even the most mundane tasks in China. Need a taxi? Start practicing those tones. Having a medical emergency? Good luck, buddy. Want to order lamb ribs instead of lamb balls? Time to get hooked on phonics.

Think of the Chinese language as your key to unlocking the best possible experience you can have in this country. Not only does life become significantly easier, your understanding of the country and its people will broaden more quickly than it would if you are merely guessing at the what and why around you.

2. Accept that you will be an object of curiosity.

China has a very homogenous society with 92% of its population represented by the Han ethnic group. Of course, China is a vast country with 56 other minority ethnic groups that have their own unique culture and language. After centuries of intermarriage and integration, it can take a trained eye to spot some of them, even for the locals.

You know what’s not hard to spot? A tall, white guy with Aryan features straight out of a 1940s Nazi propaganda poster. You don’t see that every day, and the locals make that clear. Prepare yourself to be gawked at, pointed at, talked about, and photographed. In the West, this sort of thing is incredibly rude and would instigate a fight in some places.

In China, you are the Other. This attitude is not changing and will not change anytime soon. The sooner you accept it as mostly harmless curiosity and let it fade into the background of everyday life, the better your experience will become.

3. Re-evaluate your ideas on personal space.

The eagerness to point out someone’s differences alludes to something else that doesn’t exist in China, which is what I like to call privacy in public. I feel like most Westerners would agree with these two pillars of privacy in public: 1) Pretend like the people around you don’t exist, BUT 2) also acknowledge and respect their personal bubble, if possible.

The first will not exist for you mostly due to cultural ignorance, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The second doesn’t exist for anyone here for a couple of reasons. China has, like, a lot of people. More than you’ve ever seen in one place. There’s a lot less elbow room to go around here when going about your day. Now, throw a ton of people who were living on farms barely 20 years ago into a city, and expect them to conform to our idea of proper city dwelling norms. It doesn’t work!

This is something that will improve as time goes on, but until then, just accept this as part of China and a symptom of rapid development in general. For every foreigner that gets pissed off at someone cutting in line, there are hundreds more Chinese that feel the same way. Like them, get assertive when you need to be, but accept it when there’s nothing you can do.

4. Learn to go with the flow.

Another difference in Chinese culture that will quickly reveal itself to anyone here on business is the concept of organization and punctuality. More specifically, things are rarely organized well, nor do they happen in a timely manner. Sometimes things will pop up completely out of the blue without any warning, and they are suddenly priority number one.

The twin engines that fuel this chaos are chàbùduō 差不多 (good enough) and méi bànfǎ 没办法 (no solution). Chàbùduō is a very flexible metric for success that can be used for fixing your AC (it will be broken again within the month) or for something as important as organizing a large marketing event (no one checked the weather, or called to get a permit for the event). Once something fails catastrophically due to chàbùduō, méi bànfǎ is quickly deployed to absolve all responsibility. There was nothing we could have done to prevent this!

In other words, the real-time situation for anything you’re doing with an organization here is very tenuous. Sure, familiarize yourself with the plan, but do not set yourself up for disappointment by expecting everything to occur as it’s written on paper. In other words, just go with the flow, provided it doesn’t become a situation where you’re donating your time for free due to poor planning.

China Zen is a State of Mind

I’m not writing this to paint a negative picture of Chinese culture, nor am I demanding any sort of overnight change to appease my Western sensibilities. This is simply how it is on the ground here, and these are things you must do if you want to last here as a foreigner.

It doesn’t matter where you’re traveling to, expecting that place to change in order to accommodate you personally is the best way to have a bad time. It’s also unreasonable to expect a foreigner to completely integrate into a culture that is the complete opposite to what they consider normal.

However, if it’s normal there, then that’s your new normal for the duration of your stay. To me, this is the middle path. Accepting a differing view of what is normal while your standard of normalcy is completely different. This is not saying one way is better than the other, nor an argument for cultural relativism. It’s the simple understanding that, “uhhh…okay, I guess this is normal here.”

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If you found these tips useful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their own long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.