Culture Shock in China: Time to Sink or Swim!

Take it from somebody who knows, nothing will ever prepare you for the inevitable culture shock in China. 

When I first travelled to teach English in China at age 23, I knew very little about being a real functioning human being (not that this is my area of expertise now either to be fair). I was relatively fresh out of university, still lived with my parents and had never even flown on my own. The decision to move to China was made on a complete whim and once I met my hosts in Wuhan airport, I had no doubt that I was completely and utterly, out of my depth. 

I remember sitting in the taxi being driven to my new apartment. My only taste of Chinese air had been in the fleeting moments as I had left the airport. Immediately the culture shock had set in. The air felt kind of heavy in my lungs and even once I was in the safety of the taxi, neon lights flashed and car horns blared all around me. 

View from Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan
Nothing had prepared me for the Chinese culture shock!

Throughout my year living in China, culture shock was a frequent opponent which I constantly battled against.  And just when you think you’ve seen it all, you realise you’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’re heading to the Red Dragon, listen up little Laowai (foreigner). These are a few of the culture shocks you’ll experience in China. 

17 Jaw-Dropping Examples of Culture Shock in China

Disclaimer: The below examples are based on my own personal experience living in China. They are not meant to cause offence but to provide concrete examples of culture shock in China for those not knowing what to expect. And if that is you, brace yourself! 

1. The language is completely overwhelming

If you come from an English speaking country, you probably haven’t been to many places where you won’t hear another English voice (FYI: it’s called privilege). And communication can be a lot more challenging when you’re suddenly in the minority!

To help you get by, I completely recommend learning the basics of the language. Hello, goodbye, please, thanks and how much are good starting points. 

You’ll also need to up your game when it comes to charades. Not knowing how to ask for period pain relief led to a very embarrassing roleplay by me in the middle of a packed chemist but (most importantly) I came out of the store with what I needed. Who knew culture shock in China would give me so many new skills?

2. Supermarket trips are crazy on a whole other level

Tortoise on menu in China
Do I really have to eat this little guy?

Forget about your boring Sunday morning pootle around Tesco’s, shopping for your weekly groceries in China is more like a trip to the zoo. You name it, you can probably eat it.

Whilst supermarkets are tamer than wet markets, frogs, turtles and eels still make regular appearances in Metro. Whilst I encourage you to be bold with your food choices (coming from the girl who used to spend £20 a week on imported cheddar), don’t leave the supermarket with a bag full of live toads and take them on the bus. No-one wants to be that guy.

3. You’ll be given hot water to drink, regardless of how hot it is outside

Queasy? Have some hot water. Thirsty? Have some hot water. Headache? Have some hot water. In China, there appears to be no ailment this steaming liquid can’t solve (and yes ladies, that includes period pain too).

It is commonly believed in China that hot water is healthier for digestion than cold water. Therefore, any restaurant which provides water will serve it hot. If hot water isn’t your jam and it reminds you of opening your mouth in the shower as a kid (everybody did this, right?), you can try asking for cold water but be prepared to be met with an incredulous response. 

4. The transport is not only terrifying but bizarre

Bikes are a great way of transporting literally anything in China but they aren’t the safest vehicles. Be prepared to watch whole families of four or five zip past you on the same moped and don’t expect to see a helmet! 

Keep your eyes peeled for those heading to the market too, the telltale sign in the bags and nets full of live poultry. Who needs a car when you have a moped?!

5. The toilets, oh the toilets! 

Squat toilets
Squat toilets take a little bit of getting used to!

Although squat toilets are less common in China than they used to be, especially in large expat cities, they do still exist and one day, you may become faced with one. Let’s just say, it’s a learning curve and an experience that will really give you the opportunity to work on your thigh muscles. 

6. China’s ‘Dancing Grannies’

It sounds too crazy to be true. As dusk falls, hoards of women take to public squares to dance the night away. Usually equipped with a boom box, the (generally older) ladies perform choreographed routines to traditional Chinese music to stay fit. Who needs a gym membership?

7. The downright baffling drinking culture

Okay, so we’ve already addressed the fact that if you want water to drink, it will be hot. (It’s for your own good, you just need to accept it.) Did you know, that works the same with beer though? Because why oh why, would anybody ever want to drink cold beer?!

Yep, it baffled me too. Not only that but the Chinese usually order the nights beverages in one go at the start of the evening but they will be brought over by the server, cracked open and left to sit (warm of course) and get flat. Make it make sense… 

If you’re having a bit of a heavy one and especially if there is baiju around, you can expect the phrase ‘gan bei’ to pop up regularly. This toast literally means empty glasses and that is exactly what is expected of you when the words burst onto the scene. Thankfully, in China, you’ll tend to drink out of mercifully small glasses which lessen the risk of a potential headache the next day. 

8. Being asked ‘Have you eaten?’

This strange question seems to be asked by locals in order to assess your wellbeing. Even if you say that you haven’t yet eaten, they won’t offer you any food.

9. Be prepared to be ‘papped’

Sheree being photographed
To begin with, it is odd having your photo taken with strangers…

Have you ever found yourself packed on a stuffy underground train, surrounded by giggling locals who are snapping photos? No? Well, you’re in for a treat… 

Nope, they haven’t just seen Kim Kardashian, it’s you they are looking at! That’s right, little normal old you. Many Chinese people are not used to seeing westerners and the shock of a white face (and in my case ginger hair to boot) can be too much to resist. 

The braver spectators may come and ask to have their photo taken with you. Whilst this is a little strange at first, it is much preferable to the candid shots which people insist on taking, no matter the situation. During another one of my sleeper train journeys, I actually woke up to three people standing over me, all taking photos. It was a rather rude wakeup call, to say the least!

10. Dodging flying mucus when you walk down the street

Many Chinese men spit a lot. They could be walking down the street, eating dinner in a restaurant or hocking up in a toilet; the spitting habits of the Chinese know few bounds. It might be a stigmatised practise in the West but China wholeheartedly prescribes to the ‘better out than in’ philosophy. 

To be fair, the horrendous pollution and freakishly strong cigarettes go a long way to explaining why spitting is so commonplace. You try puffing away on one of those seriously strong Hongtashan and see what your lungs feel like. 

11. It is not uncommon to see people napping in public places in the middle of the day

Man sleeping in China
There is no bad location for a nap.

The Chinese love to sleep and you will see them doing so pretty much everywhere. On mopeds, sprawled along benches outside, during lunch breaks, when shopping in IKEA… The list goes on.

12. Hilarious translations on signs

These signs are the gifts that just keep on giving! Whether it is confusing instructions that seem to make no sense or t-shirts with inappropriate slogans emblazoned across the front, the entertainment is endless. Check out this post by the Telegraph for a good laugh.

13. Smoking… absolutely everywhere

For many people visiting China from the West, they will have never seen such a widespread smoking culture. Although it is mainly men that smoke (it is still stigmatised for a woman to be a smoker), it feels like smokers are all around you. 

The thing that is most weird to get to grips with, is that you can smoke pretty much anywhere. In bars, on buses, in hospitals, pretty much anywhere. One caveat for this is that technically you aren’t really allowed to smoke in taxis, however, if you offer the driver a cigarette and he takes one and lights up, this is considered fair game for any passenger. 

14. Everything about Chinese New Year is madness

Chinese lanterns

Prepare to witness the largest human migration in the world. In 2017, a staggering three billion trips were predicted to take place over the Chinese New Year period. Watch cities transform into ghost towns and familiarise yourself with the sounds of firecrackers, they will be all you hear for the next few weeks!

15. People wearing pyjamas out and about in broad daylight

In the West, pyjamas are exclusively an indoor garment. You might take out the bins in your PJs but that is about it. Not in China. 

Sleepwear is a hugely popular trend that is not limited to dog walking, grocery shopping, moped riding and street cleaning. Well, they do say that comfort fuels efficiency…maybe they’re on to something!

16. Personal space will quickly become a thing of the past

Packed Chinese elevator
The metro is particularly crowded in China.

If you feel very uncomfortable when random strangers invade your personal space, China is guaranteed to shock you. In this country, personal space is yet to be invented. Whilst the metro is the worst example of this (I was once so squashed into the man standing next to me that I could feel his armpit hair tickling my shoulder), it happens on the street too. 

To get into my gated apartment building, I had to swipe my key on the front gate. The gate was wide enough for a single person only. There was one occasion where I unlocked the gate and had a guy in a moped literally drive over my feet to force his way through. I was so shocked, I just stood there with my mouth open. 

17. Dating in China goes from 0-60 in a second

Living in a new country, hoping to meet interesting people, have a bit of fun and see where it goes? Not likely. The dating culture in China is the polar opposite of the dating culture in the West.

If you’re dating a local, it is not uncommon to have the love bomb dropped very early and talk of marriage and kids is commonplace. Unlike with British etiquette, taboo questions are not off-limits. It is very normal for a prospective partner to ask what you earn, especially if you are the male party. All of this information is required to determine your suitability and your commitment to the potential relationship. 

I once met a guy on a Chinese sleeper train and we got chatting and swapped WeChat numbers. We’d gone our separate ways at Beijing’s station before I noticed he had posted a selfie of us both. My friend translated the comments and it turned out he had told everybody I was his girlfriend and his Dad was asking when he would meet me. Talk about being a fast mover, we hadn’t even held hands!

Avoid Culture Shock in China

As you’ve probably realised after reading the examples above, China can be pretty damn overwhelming, even for an experienced traveller. To get the most out of your visit and equip yourself to better deal with culture shock in China, check out these methods to mitigate the sensory overload.

Chinese streets
Knowing what to expect can help you deal with culture shock in China.

Know what to expect

Just by reading this article, you’ve given yourself a fighting chance to easily transition into Chinese life. Knowing what to expect when you arrive can alleviate a whole load of surprises. 

Stay connected

We all have those days where we feel completely overwhelmed by the cultural differences between China and the West. It is normal to pine for the familiarity of home every now and again, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Making friends while you travel will help you to adapt to your new environment and staying connected to those back home can offer comfort when you’re struggling. 

Embrace the culture

China is one of the world’s most incredible countries. It offers a plethora of breathtaking landscapes, fascinating history and incredibly welcoming people. Throw your reservations to the wind and get stuck in! Accepting the things you find strange and embracing the experience is bound to make you enjoy your journey more. Gan bei! 

Do you have any experience of culture shock in China? Let me know in the comments below!

9 thoughts on “Culture Shock in China: Time to Sink or Swim!”

    • Most definitely! I love being forced to look at the world in a new way, being pushed out of my comfort zone is what I love the most about travel!

  1. This is so entertaining! I love the sound of the dancing grannies… and McDonald’s delivery service, I think they are on to something there!

  2. I laughed SO HARD reading this, Sheree! What a great freaking post! I thought I knew China pretty well but apparently not! I had no idea McDonald’s delivered! This just reminds me of how close-minded people are when people assume Chinese and Japanese are the same, haha! I was born and raised in Japan and you would never see ANY of that….other than the “engrish” of course! 🙂 Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday! Hope to see you again this week. xo

    • Glad you enjoyed it Kana! 🙂 I agree, there are so many generalisations made when it comes to Asian countries but they are all so different in their own ways!

  3. These are quite funny. I feel bad for the animals in the markets though as most of the time they are meals etc. The motorcycle with the birds does look terrifying though! Hope to see you this week on Fly Away Friday!


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