Welcome back to our misadventures in China. If you missed the first part, here is the link to it https://wp.me/pdhW2x-5u. In these two weeks between part 1 and 2, I ended up noticing other cultural differences. André helped by questioning some events of the last week, but I did my best to find the most important, interesting, or essential lessons for anyone who wants to know a little more about China. Without further ado:
China is an atheistic country, which means that religious practice is allowed, but some guidelines must be followed.
I had my first holy communion in the parish which was 150 meters from my grandmother’s house, and I studied at a Catholic school run by nuns until fourth grade. In fact, going to church has always been something common throughout my life. I’ve attended Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, and Protestant churches. Today I still believe in God, but I don’t practice any religion. When I was getting ready to come to China in 2013, one of my dad’s concerns was making sure I could come to the country with a bible without getting in trouble, Nevertheless, he gifted me with one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen.
Shortly after arriving, I found out that my boss was from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I won’t go into detail about the religion, but she explained to me that services were held on Sundays but foreigners and Chinese could not attend at the same time. They had a house, not a temple, and sometimes the police would come to check that everything was being followed correctly.
Sometime later, in the same year, I met an American who worked at the university, and he told me that one of his co-workers had been reported for copying and distributing religious material, so he was asked to leave the country.
In short, you can believe whoever you want, you just can’t go out into the street to preach. I’ve been to many restaurants that had altars, crucifixes, or offerings, but no one has ever knocked on my door to ask if I wanted to hear the word of the Lord.
The manufacture of alcoholic beverages in China has been recorded for over six thousand years and is still very popular in celebrations today. It’s not surprising to see drunk men being carried by their coworkers as they leave restaurants around eight in the evening.
Business dinners are still very important here. They are usually accompanied by Baijiu (rice wine). When I was in Tianjin, I met a university student (the same one who was going to help me in Xi’an) and he told me that his cousin and he had an agreement. Whenever they met up, they took turns being the designated caretaker of the night’s drinker. For him it was important to build a tolerance to alcohol before entering the job market. According to him, to impress the boss, it was important to drink but not get drunk.
For those who have never had the opportunity to try rice wine, the drink has an alcoholic percentage that varies between 35% and 60%, it is normally a transparent liquid with a fragrance similar to cachaça (traditional Brazilian alcohol made from sugar cane). Many say that one of the perks is the non-existent hangover the next day, but I remember taking two sips at a wedding once and the headache started before I even left the party.
In Guiyang, I met a group of Brazilians who were working on the design and execution of a small aircraft. We were curious to know how they got here. One day I asked if the person responsible for the team if they had been invited to dinner when he came to negotiate and see the city. The answer was affirmative, and he seemed quite surprised. I continued by asking if there was alcohol during the night. He said yes, a lot, but because of his high alcohol tolerance, he didn’t get drunk. Bingo!
Tip: Chinese always toast when they drink, so if you want to sip your beer it’s good to toast with someone at the table (it doesn’t have to be everyone).
China is not a country known for its punctuality, on the contrary, any appointment you have made will start at least ten minutes after the scheduled time. It only starts when the boss arrives, and as much as everyone else is punctual, you need to be patient and wait.
What bothers foreigners most here is the “lack of planning.” Honestly, I don’t know if they are disorganized or if they’re so used to being that way that they don’t bother to change or improve in that regard.
Holidays, days to be compensated and meetings are usually communicated last minute. Changes are made and due to the language barrier, the foreigner is the last to be warned.
When finishing my contract to come to Guiyang, I asked them how urgent they needed me to arrive. The person responsible for HR replied, “as soon as possible.” There were some dates available, and I wanted to go after my birthday, but she insisted I get there early. Ticket purchased, everything organized, someone from the company should be at the airport waiting to take me to the hotel, I assumed. Days before the trip I received an email saying that I would arrive in the middle of a holiday and that due to last-minute changes no one would be waiting for me, for that same reason I would only be contacted after the end of the holiday. As a result, I arrived in Guiyang, took a taxi that charged me twice the normal amount, and spent my birthday alone in an unknown city, far from everything and everyone.
This year my friend asked why they never know which day of the week they should follow when they teach on weekends. If there is no school on a Monday, it doesn’t mean the Saturday you work will necessarily be a Monday schedule. The answer is always up in the air because schools have to wait for the official government announcement, and they are given it late (according to our criteria).
10. Sweets and bread
I know I wrote about food in a previous post, but only those who ate bean ice cream thinking it was chocolate know the pain of finding sweets in China. Let’s say that in Brazil, we like sweets, in fact, very sweet sweets—condensed milk in everything, unlimited sugar, chocolate, and Nutella running all over the place. But China, it’s almost the extreme opposite, it’s not surprising that 80% of cakes have much more fruit than cream and the dough is dry (a minute of silence for all cakes that could be delicious and aren’t).
If a foreign sweet exists in China, it’s because there’s a market for it. The Chinese seem to really like dry cake and cream, as well as other sweets that I can’t imagine Brazilians would have a positive reaction if they tried it.
Honorable mention to bakeries that are pitiful for their use of sweet mayonnaise in almost all bread, the sweet dough (sugar where you don’t need it), and for the bacon that will never be classified as bacon in any other country in the world. Kudos to anyone who has never bought a loaf of bread and, when they opened it, found raisins or other unexpected sweet things inside. Luckily, you’ll never know the disappointment of not knowing what to do with a loaf of bread that you know does not please your palate. The feeling is truly indescribable.
I’m talking about Chinese bakeries, of course. As today there are franchises such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Café Paris, and others in larger cities that are great, but they hurt your pockets.
I had already heard about Chinese medicine but being here it is impossible not to have the curiosity to understand a little more. There are two types of pharmacies and even places that have a bit of both worlds. Industrialized medicines like what we are used to and shelves full of plants that are used for traditional treatment, usually teas with a bitter taste. The same goes for hospitals specializing in traditional Chinese medicine or with both treatments.
Of course, not everyone likes going to the hospital when the first symptoms of discomfort appear. The first place on the list of options to avoid is visiting a doctor who prescribes hot water for any pain or discomfort you have. Everyone’s first recommendation here is to drink more hot water (assuming you already drink it, because after all, it is good for health), as cold water is almost a declaration of war, and no matter the season you will always see Chinese people walking around the city with thermos bottles of tea or hot water.
In China, there is a medicine for colds and flu called 999. You prepare it like a tea, not too bitter, and it has an almost immediate effect. I still love the ginger tea that was recommended to me once by a foreigner, I add honey and it’s great for the throat. The advantage is that you can find ginger tea in any grocery store or convenience store, as well as the pharmacies.
I remember once tripping on the stairs of the building where I lived. My knee turned purple and sore in a way I’d never seen, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I asked my boss to help me because until that moment I had not needed to go to the pharmacy in China. She saw it and said she would bring homemade medicine, a family recipe. The next day she appeared with a small bottle, inside was a liquid that appeared to be alcohol-based. I’ve never seen a purple fade so fast. And within a week it was like I never fell.
12. You will always be a foreigner
The experience of living abroad is not easy to describe. When you have a set time to go home, all the adversity is uncomfortable, but there’s a voice in your head doing a countdown, and you end up having a lot less conflict because you know it’s temporary. However, when the decision to live abroad is for an indefinite period, it is necessary to be a little more cautious.
Here, until today, no one has ever told me to “Go home.” I have often been asked why China, or why Guiyang. They always ask if I like the country, the food, and they’re very friendly, but…there’s always a but, when you start to question some of the customs too much, or why some things are done in a certain way that could be done twice as quickly and efficiently, the answer is always “Because it’s like this here.” There is no interest in trying something different or explaining why the procedure is that.
It has been very difficult to enter the country for two years because of the virus, and it is necessary to undergo quarantine and many tests, yet some people when they see a foreigner on the street put on the mask that is normally pulled under their chin. If you get into a taxi they ask you to put on the mask and show the health code, though locals aren’t usually asked. When you go to the mall, it doesn’t matter how many Chinese without a mask and without taking their temperature are entering at the same time as you, the guard goes after the foreigner.
You need to know when it’s worth the trouble and when it’s best to go home and spend time in your bubble of comfort where the outside world is forgotten for a while. After all, you will always be the foreigner, and they have no intention of changing because of you—you have to adapt.
I’ve been in China for seven years and the last four I couldn’t visit home (Brazil), sometimes I’m scared by the idea of returning to Brazil and how my readaptation will be. Interestingly, today I was talking to a friend who returned to his country a little over two years ago, and he said that the first few months he had to get used to his culture again, the way to speak and act.
I don’t know when I’ll be back, so I’ll do my best not to worry too soon.