Travels in China: 2011

Travels in China: Part 3

Notes about the people in China. Their homes, their lives, fashion and clothing, and what they do.

People in Public

What do you see in public? In central China, I didn’t see any other foreigners. In the small cities, villages, and mountains, it’s only Chinese. Everyone stares at foreigners because these are so rare. If people know some English, they’ll talk with you so they can practice their English.

It’s very crowded in China. Wherever you go, at any hour, there are many people on the streets, in plaza, in stores. A number of Americans told me that after a few months of China, they go to the USA and feel lonely.

How else would you carry a live carp though a city?

In the US, public and private life is clearly marked. The border is blurred in China. People will set up a folding table and chairs outside and move out to eat or just sit and talk. In the evening, you see folding tables and chairs at street corners, where people gather to pass the evening. Often, a restaurant’s kitchen is open to the street. Cooks will sit on the sidewalk and prepare food.

There are few benches on the streets. Often there isn’t anywhere to sit down. Whereas the streets and sidewalks in Shanghai and Beijing are in very good condition, you often see potholes or cracks in central China. You have to walk carefully. There is also the strong smell of urine nearly everywhere. The sewage systems appear to be overloaded. Even the Chinese complain about this.

Nearly everywhere, I was able to use my iPad and smart phone to log onto the web because many people have Wifi, but they rarely use password. They don’t seem to mind sharing their Wifi.

You often see people carrying live chickens, ducks, or fish. They take a bus to visit family in the country and come back with a few chickens or ducks. We never saw people jogging or running. They walk along calmly. The buildings in city centers are covered with billboards.

This woman has several bags of live chicken. She lives on a farm and every once in a while, brings chickens for her son’s family in the city. We asked her where the chickens would stay. “Oh, on the balcony!”

He’s moving a basket of ducks from one farm to another.

What Do People Do?

Everyone works. Everyone is busy. In the smallest corner, someone opens a shop. We talked one morning with a young brother and sister who had a small street stand where they sold steamed buns. These are 1 Yuan (less than US$0.15) each. They may earn only 200 Yuan per day (about US$30).

Helen’s circle of friends and family are lawyers, MBAs, city power department, and engineers. A nephew is a police officer; an uncle is a professor of literature at the university. Her brother is the manager of a large bookstore chain, similar to Barnes and Noble in the USA. He is a semi-professional photographer (he’s won prizes and his photographs are often published). He also has an extensive collection of cigarette lighters. They live comfortably. Her sister is a government official. She is married to an architect.

To me, Chinese can be very frugal in some things, often much more than Westerners, but they are also very generous, also much more than Westerners. They often keep things far past the point that we would throw it away. On the other hand, the amount and value of gifts is remarkable. Relatives and friends gave us so many gifts to bring back to California, including silk robes, many large boxes of excellent tea, and so on.

In contrast to California, women don’t want a tan. Women use sun block creams and skin bleaching creams. They often carry parasols to avoid the sun.

In the House

What’s it like to be in homes in China? I visited quite a few homes of friends and family. People were glad to show me around (and when Chinese friends come to the US, they’re also interested in seeing my house).

Something that’s different about China is the way they buy houses. Houses and apartments are sold with plain unfinished walls. There are no fixtures, windows, doors, kitchen cabinets, or bathroom items such as bathtubs or toilets. You add those yourself. In the US or Europe, you generally get a choice of style A, B, or C. In China, you get bare walls.

In general, houses and apartments are pretty much like what we have in Europe and the US. The differences are in small details.

First of all, you enter the house by stepping over a high door sill. These can be 12 inches high in old houses (that’s 800-year old houses). In modern houses, these sills are still 3-4 inches high. I asked people why these are there. It’s just tradition. Some said that it blocked out demons, but today, it blocks out wheelchairs.

Chinese are fastidious about cleanliness and they don’t like to mix street and home, so nobody wears shoes in the home. When you enter, you switch to slippers or sandals. They always have many extra pairs for visitors. I suggest you bring your own flipflops, because their feet are smaller.

The center of the home is the living room, which are large and comfortable. However, beds are very hard. They don’t like soft Western beds.

Kitchens tend to be small, with narrow counters and just a few small cabinets. There are only a few pots and pans. Generally, only the maid works in the kitchen, so it’s not a space that you enter as you do in US homes.

Kitchens are simple and functional…

Bathrooms are often elaborate and modern because they buy modular bathrooms or shower cabinets. They often install European shower cabinets with many water jets. If there is a second bathroom, then it is generally a squat toilet. There is no center roll in toilet paper.

But the showers are space-age! I think this has 20 shower nozzles.

The clothes washers are small. I never saw a clothes dryer. People think it’s healthier if things dry in fresh air. I’ve been told that even if they have a clothes dryer, they won’t use it.

Interior decoration is often basic. They hang scrolls, posters, and photos on the wall. But light bulbs are often bare, without a shade. I never saw an incandescent light. All lights are fluorescent.

Condo courtyards and apartment balconies tend to have elaborate gardens of lush plants, often with ponds or small streams.

In the center of the city, on a busy boulevard, enter through a small gate and there’s the inner courtyard of an apartment complex.

They have lots of pets. These include dogs, cats, birds, turtle, fish, and crickets, which they categorize as “the Four Pets”: mammals, birds, fish, and insects. You see lots of small pet dogs everywhere; many houses have bird cage in the garden. The bird is brought out in the morning and brought in at night. Houseplants are common.

Nearly everyone we visited had maids or cooks. A maid’s salary is about 750Y per month (about US$120) in Nanchong, who is there all day, from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. (In Beijing, house staff are 1,000Y to 2,000Y per month.) (That’s US$160-320 per month.) She washes, cleans, makes lunch and leaves dinner ready. The cook makes lunch, sets the table, and joins everyone at lunch and takes part in conversation.

From left: Mom, dad, the maid, sister-in-law, and Helen.
The maid cooked lunch, set the table, and is part of the family.

Chinese can be frugal to an extreme. They turn off the water heater after use. They even turn off the pilot light in the stove and heater. My water heater hasn’t been turned off since I bought my house 14 years ago. To avoid turning on the water heater, they put hot water in thermo bottles and place these in many rooms.

Here’s a short description of several homes:

  • Helen’s sister works for the city’s department for industry and commerce development. Her husband is an architect, so the large spacious apartment is European minimalist modern, with clean empty surfaces and furniture made of glass and steel wire. One room had only a telescope and a punching ball. Quite minimalist.
  • Helen’s brother owns a city apartment with large outdoor balconies and many large tropical plants.
  • Her parents live in a 3-bedroom apartment in a gated community.

  • Her niece owns a small fashion shop next to the university and she dresses very stylish. She owns a large roomy two-story apartment with five balconies. The center two-story hall has a flower chandelier. She sleeps in a round canopy bed. The apartment is also a luxurious Mediterranean-style gated complex with ponds and a large swimming pool.
  • A friend’s apartment in Chengdu: The family own a string of franchises and are wealthy. They live in a large gated complex of luxurious apartments, with lush gardens and ponds. The thick foliage of the gardens soaked up all city noise. Their son had a separate apartment in the complex with several extra empty bedrooms and two large balconies.

  • A friend in Beijing is a successful international attorney. They have a large comfortable apartment with a large living room, piano for the daughter, a number of bedrooms, and a large modern kitchen. They live in the embassy district in east Beijing. They lived 12 years in Palo Alto, so their home decoration is a mix of California and China. They want their 14-year daughter to study at Stanford, so they rented a two-story apartment in Palo Alto for her.


China is a shopping paradise. The large stores have many more kinds of things than in US stores. Because production is cheap, there are very large stores for women’s purses, shoes, and boots.

In general, if you’re looking for luxury brands, such as Dolce and Gabbana or Prada, buy them in the USA or Europe, where they’re cheaper. Luxury items are 50% more expensive in China, yet there is such a large market and so much demand that China buys 25% of global luxury goods. The Chinese are #2 consumer of luxury (Japan is #1.) We saw many Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche, including Rolls Royce, Ferrari, and Maybach.

There are many copies and cheap versions of Western products. We saw two fake Apple stores and a fake Walmart. We also saw Green Dog bus (a copy of Grayhound). Some of these replicas are very good and (to me) indistinguishable from original brand items.

There are also excellent Chinese items. We bought ceramics that much better than what you see in the USA. The Chinese invented porcelain around 2,000 years ago and have a very rich tradition. It was only in the 1700s that Germans discovered how to make porcelain; the Chinese are still far ahead. Silk clothing is also very good. The costs are generally what you’d expect to pay for fine products.

Fashion and Clothing

In Sichuan, people mostly wore functional clothing, especially in the small towns and villages. This is similar to what people wear in rural areas of the US, which means jeans, boots, running shoes, and T-shirts or polo shirts. Women wear either functional clothes or somewhat trendy clothes. A few dress well, but hardly any women dress as they do in Paris or Hamburg, even in Shanghai.

White socks go with anything. Red and green socks also go with anything. Basically, anything goes with anything. I don’t think they’re aware of matching their clothes; they certainly don’t notice or care. But this is probably the same as their attitude towards matching in food. They prefer contrast and discontinuity.

Although there are many hair salons, few women have styled hair. Most cuts are the same basic styles. It’s very rare to see dyed hair. Men generally have crew cuts, which is inexpensive and easy maintenance. I expect as they become more sophisticated and stylish, people will began to style their hair.

I also noticed that no one wore baseball caps. In fact, few wore hats.

Although some Chinese are tall, most tend to be smaller. I tried to buy some shirts, but XXXL was too small for me (my US shirts are mostly medium). The large Chinese told me it was also difficult for them to buy clothes; they buy their their clothes online.

Chénzhuó. That’s “Chinese for “savoir faire” 🙂

Politics in China

When you talk with Chinese, you’ll find they are very direct in their questions. They’ll ask how old you are and how much you earn. And they’ll also discuss politics. I found it fascinating to compare what they and we had been taught in school about various events and wars. With a number of people, I had long discussions about politics.

So we have Twitter and Facebook in the USA. The Chinese have Weibo and Renren, which are their social media sites. Hundreds of millions of people chat and discuss everything. Chinese are quick to complain and there are frequent spontaneous demonstrations. They are unhappy with corruption and the growing gulf between the wealthy and everyone else.

The McClatchy news bureau wrote about recent political scandals in China and made a point about China’s two central issues of the lack of political participation and corruption. In two short sentences, McClatchy shows how these are related: “On one hand, the nation’s rulers insist that the party remain the unquestionably dominant force over the government and anything that resembles political speech, an approach that largely has shielded officials from accountability amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power. The accompanying lack of political flexibility, however, makes it difficult to address public grievances in a large-scale manner, leaving issues such as corruption or abuse to fester.”

When a group holds absolute power, the group sees any form of criticism as a threat because criticism raises questions, which can lead to a weakening of power. However, this raises leads to two secondary problems: a conservative society (change is prevented because it may raise unknown situations) and corruption. Corruption arises when criticism is suppressed because government officials hide behind the shield.

There are many examples of this in China. We can understand this better if we look at the USA. After 9.11, the threat of al Qaeda led the US government to enact many restrictive laws that curtailed our freedoms. The White House carried out massive surveillance of all US citizens, including imprisonment and torture of Arabs, both in the US and in the Middle East. In the panic, any criticism of the officials and their actions was considered treasonous.

This led to the two secondary results. Under that political protection, corruption exploded: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost perhaps 3-4 trillion US dollars; perhaps half was stolen. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others can’t be indicted for war crimes because it would open a horrible web of corruption and scandals. This situation allowed Wall Street banks to steal 16 trillion dollars.

We also have the other result of repression: the USA has become deeply conservative. Obama is clearly to the right of Richard Nixon, yet to many Americans, he is considered a dangerous leftist.

I bring up this example so we can understand what is happening in China. The details of their politics are complex and don’t make sense to us, but the basics are the same as ours. The inability to participate in the political decision process allows the centers of power to protect themselves from criticism. That produces corruption. This happens in China, the USA, Russia, and many other countries.

Cultural Differences

Here’s a list of many small cultural differences.

The Chinese don’t sell things by the dozen. You don’t buy a dozen eggs. Their numbering system is base-10. We use dozen because an old European numbering system was base-12.

We don’t think much of our hands and feet. At most, women will get manicures, paint their nails, and wear rings. There’s nothing done for men’s feet in the West. The Chinese concept of foot reflexology goes much further. To them, the foot is a major part of the body, with much attention paid to its features and nature. They have foot massage spas which are literally everywhere. It’s a social activity to go to a foot spa, much in the way we go to restaurants with friends. Friends sit together in a comfortable room, where staff first brings you a small meal of soup with dumplings and some fruit. When you finish, masseurs come to give you a foot bath and massage. This can take several hours. It’s fairly inexpensive and a widespread custom.

We think of China as small rice villages. China is mostly vast cities of skyscrapers, massive malls, crowded freeways, lots of advertising, and iPhones.

The biggest cultural difference is the way they eat. Food is a social event. Chinese put the platters in the center and share everything, taking only small portions, whereas in the West, we sit with our own food on our own plate.

People dress very casual. Generally, it’s polo shirts with jeans or slacks. They dress mostly like Californian brunch casual.

They don’t use much heat in houses or restaurants. Restaurants can be open to the air and ice cold. People wear their heavy parka in restaurants or at their office desk.

Chinese pay much attention to their social groups. If you’re a friend-of-a-friend, then you’re part of the group and they’re very friendly. They like to hug for welcome and goodbye (in contrast, Indians won’t hug at all.) When you’re in the group, they’ll also share everything with you and ask you anything that comes to mind.

Every girl has an iPhone. There are more than 900 million cell phones in China (there are only 300 million people in the entire USA.) Kids say “oh my goddeh” in Chinese. They also say “cool.” Although China is developing rapidly, it’s an uneven mix of things from the 1950s and the 2000s. You see things that are 2,000 years old next to smart phones and iPads.

Chinese + English = Chinglish

What’s China without Chinglish? Sometimes, the menus are filled with misspellings and odd English. Here are several menu entries for coffee and cocktails at the Laguna Restaurant in Nanchong:

  • Smack Blue Mantian (They’re talking about Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.)
  • Individuality Password
  • A Rain Season in Morgue (I think this is something about a monsoon.)
  • Dependance Snuggles Up To
  • Arrow of the Napolean
  • Visits the World (No idea what this is.)
  • Happy Fruit (the Chinese word for “pistachio.”)


In the West, we can drive by only looking ahead. We don’t have to be concerned with other drivers because we know they stay in their lane and obey rules.

In China, you drive by looking in all directions. You have no idea what another driver will do, and he’ll often do whatever possible. You have to constantly watch 360 degrees.

Chinese drive better than Indians or Saudi, but that doesn’t say much. There’s a general lack of rules. There are often no stop signs. Drivers ignore zebra stripes. They don’t look at oncoming traffic when they enter a larger road, they just swerve in. They’ll take a U-turn anytime, anywhere. They ignore turn lanes. The strategy is pretty much that you do whatever you can.

Chinese drivers will suddenly speed up, race along, and then slow down to a crawl for no reason. They blow their horn at anything and everything.

Beijing University and Tsing Hua University

We spent a few days in Beijing to visit friends. Helen graduated from Bejing University, which is the elite school of China. Many of her classmates are now professors there, so we had dinner twice at the university. My book was published by Tsing Hua University, which is the MIT of China, so we had lunch with professors from Tsing Hua. There are at least 70 universities in Beijing alone. Beijing University and Tsing Hua are very large, with dormitories, student restaurants, and faculty buildings. The dormitory courtyards are filled with bicycles.

At Weimin Lake in one of the university parks, two Chinese came up to me and spoke Spanish. Somehow, they knew I spoke Spanish. We talked for 30 minutes. They spoke excellent Spanish, yet they had never been outside of China. They hoped one day to go to Peru and Argentina.

Next: Peking Opera

China Part 4: Peking Opera