The Chinese flag and Pearl Tower

First Impressions of China

by Heather on 3 December, 2012

It was 2:00 AM on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon. Hmm, it was actually 2:00 PM on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon. I guess I should stop using EST (Eastern Standard Time) when referring to my life. That will be the first of many changes I’ll quickly realize have happened in less than twenty-four hours. Back to the story of my first impressions of China…

It was 2:00 PM on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon in Shanghai. I was landing after a twenty hour flight. From Baltimore to Shanghai with a three hour layover in Chicago. I boarded my flight at 6:00 AM on Wednesday and I was starting to landed nearly twenty hours later. At least, I think we’re finally landing. I was asleep before my first flight left Baltimore, slept for two of the three hours during my layover while hoping that I woke up in time to catch my next flight (no cell phone=no alarm clock), and for about twelve of the fourteen hours during my second flight. I strategically didn’t sleep the night before my flight and only slept for about six hours the prior night.

My first look at China

My first look at China

After waiting through customs and hulling my luggage onto a cart, I was walking through the exit. Everything was a little confusing. I wasn’t sure what to expect with customs or where to exit when I retrieved my luggage. And how would I find my boyfriend in the crowd? Fortunately, a tall, ginger-bearded man isn’t too difficult to find in a crowd of shorter Asian-skinned men and women. Jitters aside, he was there waiting with a panda (named Bruce) and one-thousand (or about ten) kisses.

First Impressions
The next two days passed quickly: New Orleans-style dinner, a late night walk home, an early morning Skype with my mom, a walking tour through Shanghai, a traditional tea ceremony, a German lunch, an expensive dinner at M on the Bund, and a next day bullet train ride to Nanjing, my soon-to-be-home.

A traditional Chinese kitchen in Shanghai

A traditional Chinese kitchen in Shanghai

Before leaving Shanghai for Nanjing, I thought living in China would be a simple adjustment. Western restaurants, English speakers, foreigners by the thousands, foreigner markets at every other corner, full kitchens, bathrooms with bathtub and/or enclosed showers, and the list goes on…

Clothing dryers are non-existent in China, even in Shanghai

But I wasn’t living in Shanghai. I was living in Nanjing which boasts a short list of western restaurants, faint whispers of English, blurred images of pale faces, one foreign grocery store within a twenty minute cab ride, one hot plate in a desolate kitchen, and a shower stall with no shower walls. China wasn’t exactly America. But that’s why I moved here, right?

Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Impressions
I’ve only visited four Chinese cities in the past two months (Shanghai, Nanjing, Changzhou, and Lianyungang), but I think it’s safe to make some first impressions of China:

  1. Bathrooms are scary in China. The traditional toilet is a porcelain hole in the ground which most foreigners refer to as “squatters” because you squat to go to the bathroom. Bathrooms do not contain toilet paper, hand soap, or paper towels, so bring your own. You can’t flush toilet paper in public bathrooms, but you can in apartments and hotels. And public bathrooms do not have hot water for washing your hands. Alas, these are the decent bathrooms. I won’t share the details on the latrine-style, no door bathrooms that I’ve encountered. Oh, and the bathrooms stink, as if I haven’t already scared you aware from using a public bathroom in China.

    Chinese "squatters" (porcelain holes in the ground)

    Chinese “squatters” (porcelain holes in the ground)

  2. The stereotype about Chinese drivers is accurate. They are insane! Getting into a Chinese cab was one of the scariest experiences of my life. They swerve in and out of lanes, drive incredibly fast around sharp cliffs, and drive on the wrong side of the road when it’s convenient for them. Oh, and pedestrians do not have the right of way in China. They will hit you. So along with the scare of being in a cab, I was nervous to cross the street for the first two weeks. Imagine real-life Frogger, if you will. They also use their horns in a different way than most western countries. They use the horn not out of anger, but to signal that they are passing in another lane. This includes: cars, buses, and scooters. Which leads to my next impression…

    The tallest wooden pagoda (and structure) in the world is in Changzhou, next to a small parking lot in the middle of the road (notice the red car and tan bus).

    The tallest wooden pagoda (and structure) in the world is in Changzhou, next to a small parking lot in the middle of the road (notice the red car and tan bus).

  3. China is really loud! Between the horns and the fireworks, I’ve had more headaches in this country in eight weeks than in the past eight years of my life. I explained the horns, but the fireworks are a topic of their own. You see, the Chinese are a very superstitious group of people. They believe that fireworks scare away evil spirits, so fireworks are an all morning, all afternoon, and all night occurrence.  And no, they aren’t the colorful fireworks. In fact, they don’t go up in the air (from what I can observe), they just make loud banging noises at any given hour of the morning, afternoon, or evening.

    According to Chinese tradition, you will have good luck in every aspect of your life if you step over this ledge six times.

    According to Chinese tradition, you will have good luck in every aspect of your life if you step over this ledge six times.

  4. Spitting is normal. Going along with their superstitious idea of scaring away evils spirits with fireworks, they also believe that phlegm and mucus are evil spirits in their body, so they spit. Children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly spit. Men and women spit. They spit everywhere. They spit on the sidewalks and streets, on buses and metros, in shops and restaurants. After watching three of my students spit on the floor of my classroom, I had to institute a new rule: “no spitting in class”. The spit-lined ground makes crossing the street that much more difficult.

    I watched two of these men spitting as they played cards on the sidewalk

    I watched two of these men spitting as they played cards on the sidewalk

  5. Chinese people are fascinated by pale faces. They stare at anyone who looks different than them.  They want to, as they would say, “make friends” with every foreigner. They tell every foreign female that she is beautiful. And it’s an almost every other day happening that I’m asked to take a picture with a Chinese person. I was even asked to hold a Chinese couple’s baby for a picture to bring the infant good luck. Maybe they think we’re all rich and famous?

    This baby's parents asked Chris and I to take a picture with their baby to bring the child good luck in the future.

    This baby’s parents asked Chris and I to take a picture with their baby to bring the child good luck in the future.

What were your first impressions?
 What were your first impressions of another country? Were your first impressions accurate?

Chris December 7, 2012 at 7:49 pm

I reckon my mother’s heart skips a beat every time she sees that photo of me with a small Asian baby and a pretty girl, haha

Heather December 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Tell her that we didn’t adopt a small Asian baby. We should also tell my mother the same.

Ryan Brown December 8, 2012 at 10:39 am

Sounds like China is a wild ride already! New Zealand drivers are insane as well when it comes to hitting you if you are in a crosswalk, nearly got killed plenty of times. And NZ gave me a taste of the photo posing since there are so many Asian people there working, I was asked to pose over 40 times at a party once.

Have an awesome time!

Chris December 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Ha! I got similar celebrity treatment when Heather and I visited Changzhou Dinosaur Park. She was getting a bit fed up with the interruptions, but I love me some free press :-p

Heather December 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm

It’s definitely quite an experience! The picture posing is funny, but it can get a little annoying at times. Chris and I were at a theme park in Changzhou where we were the only pale fales besides one other twenty-something male. We were asked to take pictures with no less than 25 people. At one point, I just told Chris that we won’t get on any rides today if we don’t start turning them down. You couldn’t image that happening in America, but it’s so common in China.

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