“China isn’t really that different from living anywhere else,” said no one. Ever.
One thing is sure when moving to China – things are going to be drastically different to “back home”.
But it’s more than just the obvious adjustments like swapping forks for chopsticks.
What I didn’t realize is that I would change – saying goodbye to many of my Western ways and “hello” to some useful Chinese habits, which have ultimately changed me for the better.
I stopped being polite
Well, let me rephrase. I stopped being overly polite.
As a British Aussie, saying my please and thank yous is sacred.
Back home if someone bumps into me in the street, I’ll say, “oh sorry, excuse me”, like a crazy person.
So, when arriving in China I was surprised to notice a severe lack of thank you or “谢 谢” (xiè xie).
Whenever I opened a door or held the elevator for someone – nada. Sometimes a smile or a nod, but definitely no xiè xie.
I was starting to think I was living in a country full of people with no manners, when my Chinese friend, Su, shone a light on the situation.
She explained that being too polite, especially with friends and family, can actually be seen as rude as it creates distance between you and the other person!
Now, I save my thank-yous, sorries and excuse-mes for when I really mean it, and not just as conversation filler.
After all, I don’t want to be impolite.
How and What I Eat
Like any sane person with taste buds, I like Chinese food.
Before moving to China, I was in Paris where, in an average week, I would consume my own weight in sugary fats.
Delicious chocolate pastries for breakfast, three types of cheeses after dinner and a baguette on the table at every meal.
Chinese breakfasts however, are savory and if I’m being honest, pretty greasy.
Puffy steamed pork buns 包子 (bāo zi), egg crepes 煎饼 (jiān bǐng), boiled eggs, all washed down with a warm cup of soy milk 豆浆 (dòu jiāng).
I’ve all but said goodbye to cheese, deli meats and cake, while drastically cutting down on milk.
I no longer eat until I explode and all my meals come with a steaming cup of hot water – great for digestion!
I also eat earlier, having my lunch at around 11.30am and, like most Chinese people, take a hearty 20-minute nap afterward.
It’s not uncommon to see people sleeping at their desks, in cafes, parks, and restaurants, or even construction sites.
I dress how I like
I sometimes hear people say there is not much creativity in China. But I don’t believe this for a second.
You only have to take one look at Chinese fashion to know that this place is positively oozing with creative ideas.
Each day, I see an assortment of original outfits, on both men and women; some chic and sophisticated, others kitsch, and some just plain schizophrenic.
Previously living in Paris, I wore black, white and if I felt a little daring that day, maybe gray.
But in China, I indulge my inner child and wear what whatever the heck I like – nobody cares!
I’m so much more confident and happy knowing that, if I want, I can rock double denim with crocs and no one will bat an eyelid.
I’m getting whiter
In Australia, the bronzed look of “having a tan” is something to envy.
Not in my entire life has anyone complimented my ultra-white skin before. That was until I moved to China.
Here, being white, especially among women, is seen as beautiful.
Now, instead of roasting myself for hours in the sun and applying fake tan until I’m a bright orange shade of Oompa-Loompa, I actually enjoy my white glow and take much better care of my skin.
And like most Chinese, I carry around a sun-blocking umbrella – or as I like to call it, my sunbrella. See what I did there 😉
My sunbrella acts as a portable shade spot everywhere I go, not only protecting my skin from those harmful rays, but also from the sweltering heat!
I haven’t gone as far as to wear a facekini, but I do take my brolly to the beach now – even in Australia.
I really care about the temperature of things
Whether it is the temperature of food, or your body, how hot or cold something is, is incredibly important to Chinese people.
Growing up in outback Australia, there was always ‘air-con’ blasting and ice cold beers in every room.
But here in China sub-tropics of China, they serve all drinks warm (even beer) and believe that cold winds are bad for your body’s qi, causing back and neck pain.
This goes double for babies, who are wrapped up like Christmas presents, practically all year round.
Walking down the street with my four-month-old, perfect strangers become the temperature police, who search through my bag for extra blankets to wrap her in.
On the flipside, some people run after me to fan her with palm leaves to cool her down.
I can’t win.
I talk to my phone, A LOT
Sitting in a cafe in most parts of the world you’ll see people with heads down, frantically tapping out messages on their phones.
But not in China.
Here, using your thumbs is for chumps. Voice messages are where it’s at.
Using China’s most popular instant-messaging app, Wechat 微 信 (Wēixìn), everyone from your neighbour to your grandma, sends voice texts to each other.
It is the way Chinese people communicate with one another.
After getting over the initial, ‘omg-I-hate-the-sound-of-my-own-voice’ insecurity, I now chat away on my phone, putting the speaker to my mouth, to send voice texts to my friends.
It is so insanely practical, I have no idea how I ever lived without it.
I stopped poppin’ pills
I admit freely that I’m really terrible at being sick – I cough, I complain, I Google pneumonia symptoms.
So, if I feel even the slightest hint of a sore throat coming on, it’s off to the doctor, and onto antibiotics.
This, thank goodness, is a habit I’ve lost in China thanks to my wonderful nanny or 阿 姨 (āyí), who has shown me all kinds of Chinese medicine concoctions to cure my ailments.
A sore throat? Brown sugar and fresh ginger tea.
Itchy mosquito bites? Rub garlic on it.
Back pain? Sleep on a wooden bed.
Now, I don’t even take a paracetamol for a headache and I feel healthier, happier and my immune system has a new lease on life.
Going to get an ultrasound was the turning point for me to no longer follow the rules.
At about six months pregnant, I waddled into a hospital in Zhuhai, took a ticketed number and patiently waited in line.
As my number came up I went over to the door only to find about 20 other pregnant women in front of me, pushing one another to try and get in first.
Pretty soon I realized if I was going to get an ultrasound that day, I would need to get my elbows out! (So to speak)
Now, I am a bonafide rule flouter.
I sneak ahead in queues, pinch napkins and chopsticks and see red tape as little plastic hurdles in my path.
I’ve learned that sure, rules have a reason sometimes, but that breaking them is as exhilarating as it is time efficient.
I’m a firm believer that when in China, do as the Chinese do.
Trying something a new way for the first time can be daunting. You may scratch your head or shake your fist at the strangeness of it all.
But some of these habits may be useful, and some might even stick – leaving you to laugh at yourself for all those times you said “sorry” when someone bumped into you in the street.
What Chinese habits have you picked up that have changed you for the better? Share your experiences in the comments section below!