The last time I went to China was over a decade ago. I haven’t returned since. Why?
There are many reasons, including culture shock and family drama. Nonetheless, I obtained many memories, emotions, and lessons from my trip because the trip was such a different experience as a young Chinese American.
My parents whisked me off to China without forewarning after school ended and Summer started. I was looking forward to a relaxing vacation when I was told by my parents that I would be spending two and a half months in China. Here’s some of what I learned from the experience as a tiny, pre-teen kid:
The sheer amount of people reminds you that you’re not that important. I don’t mean this in a necessarily bad way. It’s just that visiting China gives you an experience like no other about just how many people are out there and how small you are.
I’ve been to Times Square, New York, and that didn’t give me the same experience even though there were a ton of people. There was more space, often many feet, between people in Times Square. But China had some places where hundreds, if not thousands, of people were packed tightly together, like Tiananmen Square.
With so many people rushing and pushing you out of the way to get to where they want, I felt small and insignificant. Naturally, we grow up thinking we’re the center of the world because we’re self-serving, especially as children. So, it’s a shock to the system when you realize that there are billions of people who don’t know or care who you are and that life will move on without you.
It’s one thing to hear this in theory, but it’s another to see it. You have to see it to feel and understand it.
On that note, China has its own ecosystem of pop stars and celebrities. It’s like you enter a giant bubble of 1.38 billion people when you’re there. Almost all of the American celebrities and songs that people are swooning over getting snuffed out when you enter China. They have their own teen idols, #1 singles, and heart-throbs. And they can care less who DJ Khaled or Dua Lipa is.
American songs and celebrities still sometimes pierce through but they have to be the best of the best internationally, like Michael Jackson.
It’s a humbling experience to realize that no matter how famous or awesome you think you’ve become, there’s still potentially billions of people who don’t know anything about you. And even if they do, it’s nothing compared to the pop legends they already care for.
For me, I took this as a lesson on how you just have to make the most out of life and don’t worry about fame or embarrassing yourself pursuing your dreams. No matter how incredible you think your legacy or fame is, that ego streak will dissipate quickly, given how many people there are and how hard it is to keep all their attention given cultural differences. If you get rejected by a girl, there’s so many people who didn’t see it or care. It’s fascinating how quickly I forgot about these lessons as I returned to America. Getting rejected and/or looked down on by a woman was still paralyzing.
Airports don’t have to be clean, smooth, and shiny. After the super long flight (who knew you could survive on a plane for a whole day?), the first big thing I noticed was the airport where I landed.
Compared to the airport I took off from, this airport was dirty and the ground was cracked. The airplane was bumping up and down on the ground more than usual because the ground wasn’t as smooth as back home. I looked out the window and was shocked because it was my first time experiencing an airport that wasn’t all glamorous.
I didn’t know such an airport could exist but when I thought about it, it made sense. An airport doesn’t have to be all sparkly clean and fancy for a plane to take off from it.
Since then, China has taken off as a superpower country. From what I’ve heard, most of its airports are now better than America’s. My point is that it was an interesting lesson about the differences in culture and practicality.
Some Chinese street salesmen and saleswomen can be relentless. My family went to tour and hike up a steep mountain in the city. The walk from where the taxis dropped us off and where the start of the mountain was almost a mile. On our way back from the mountain, a street saleswoman hounded and followed my father shamelessly for the entire mile.
As we walked back, I noticed a bunch of other local sales people peddling other trinkets to people walking by. This woman even had the audacity to stop for a second during her hounding to wave and say hello to a fellow salesperson walking the other way hounding another person.
I noticed other salespeople give up eventually after following someone for a decent distance but this lady kept going and persistently enthusiastically. Her energy wasn’t a “I’m starving to death and desperate energy.” It was more of “I fully believe the worst that can happen is that I don’t get the sale.”
After the first few minutes, I thought this lady would get embarrassed and leave when my dad kept saying, “No” and ignoring her. But she persisted.
He lasted almost all the way there but when we were almost to the car, he gave in for some reason and bought a few of the trinkets.
I asked him why he gave in when he was so close to escaping. He told me that this woman was low class and hustled so hard for so little money. She would never make it anywhere or improve her situation. So it was best to contribute and help her out.
I wondered why she wasn’t scared if someone spit on her, cursed her, or called her names if she annoyed him too much.
When you contrast this to American salespeople at stalls at the mall, it’s a world of difference. Only a fraction have the bravery to talk to you while you walk past them. The rest will give up immediately after you give them a firm, “No, thanks.”
The business part of me thinks that neither are great strategies in the long run though. No one likes to be sold or annoyed, especially when they’re sold something that’s mediocre.
Failing to understand etiquette
As a high school freshman, I was scared to death of failing to respect etiquette. But I wasn’t briefed on Chinese etiquette. I was whisked away to China and only notified the day before my flight and immediately after summer break started.
That’s how little attention or respect my parents to my own planning of the summer. I was disappointed that my whole summer was taken away from me but at the same time, I likely would have been forced to spend it studying anyways.
I was briefed on how to be polite and how the Chinese do it differently during informal rants my dad gave every so often during my trip. At the time, I took my parents’ words as gospel truth. How could they be wrong at anything? They raised me and worked so hard to go from a couple hundred bucks in their pocket as an immigrant to a lower middle-class income.
But looking back at a more mature age, my father may have been paranoid or a bit extreme in his opinions of China. Among the statements he said included:
- The Chinese were much more blatantly superficial and clear about it when it came to if you were rich or poor.
- Chinese etiquette is much more subtle, complicated, and manipulated. If you get a gift, you are expected to repay it back and vice versa.
- Everything is about favors and what you owe others and what they owe you.
Looking back, I don’t think you can accept the stereotype of any country’s culture from any single data point. Everyone has different opinions about how their culture is.
I’m sure some American out there thinks the American way of life is just as you-owe-me. I’m sure someone in Los Angeles thinks Americans are also just as superficial and materialistic. But I’m also sure someone in the south thinks that some Americans can also be kind and see someone as a person beyond their wealth and looks too. Heck, even in Los Angeles, I’m sure there’s someone who thinks the opposite.
I’ve also bumped into Americans who love networking and have mentioned a similar favor-tracking mental scorecard they use to navigate networking events.
What I do know is that a lot of millionaires (Gary Vaynerchuk, Mohnish Pabrai, etc.) I listen to on the Eventual Millionaire podcast and elsewhere claim that they give immensely without any expectations of getting something back and they don’t keep score, and that this rare style of thinking has helped them get rich.
These remarks left me in a state of paranoia. I just wanted to be a naive, innocent, kid enjoying my time in China but it made me overthink everything. Why is this relative being so nice for? Should I accept this gift from the other relative? Why is my little cousin talking about how my family is going to be wealthy and that’s why they’re helping me?
My dad would sometimes back peddle on what he said and say that relatives were the only exception to this favor-for-favor philosophy yet sometimes, even relatives wouldn’t be. It was a bit confusing.
During my time there, many of my uncles and aunts (we have tons) provided the beds and food for me to sleep in. Some offered gifts. I was confused to death about if I should refuse or take it. Thoughts rang in my head telling me the etiquette was to be polite and refuse any gifts. But I longed to take these gifts.
Long story short, I refused most of the gifts, which took a lot of willpower. My sibling didn’t, which built resentment.
I didn’t get rewarded for it either by my parents. I brought it up with them and they asked me why I didn’t accept the gift. Apparently, it’s okay if it’s a small trinket but maybe nothing huge? It was very confusing for me and I don’t know if they truly knew what they were doing either.
Maybe some of it was right on point. Maybe some of it was way off. I think it was just too much for a kid to deal with.
And keep in mind, this was before anyone was talking about China being a global superpower.
Perhaps, that’s why I have such a simple, honest, and different mental model of how to live now. And perhaps, that’s why I follow Warren Buffett’s honest way of doing life so much now. There’s no constant overthinking, maddening paranoia, or feverish manipulation. Just a silent mind, happiness, and kindness.
Along the lines of etiquette, I remember pointing my finger at a table tennis teacher I had when mentioning him. Shortly after, I realized that pointing a finger at someone may be seen as offensive in China. I didn’t realize it at the time because it isn’t offensive at all in America.
But the teacher saw me do it and didn’t react in any way. He probably knew I was foreign and didn’t take it to heart. I dwelled on that and felt ashamed of that moment for way too long, wishing I didn’t offend him. I shouldn’t have worried about it. I should have learned to not do it again and stopped the mental anguish.
Simplicity, connection, and peace
I took a few ping pong classes during my time in China because I was obsessed with the sport. Americans view ping pong as nothing more than a hobby you play next to a pool table. But at the time, I started learning and respecting the sport as it was played on a pro level. Athletes trained their whole lives to be at the top of the sport and it was just as intense as tennis — but even more so, since you had to react faster.
During my classes, I met a young mother and daughter — two people I’ll never meet again. But I still remember their innocent, kind behavior to this day.
The mom talked more than the daughter and they were kind to me. They asked me a couple questions. They made a couple of jokes. The mom said that Chinese people would call me a banana and explained to me what it was (a white man in Asian skin — kind of like how we call white people who act black “Oreos”).
I thought this was funny and interesting. I always didn’t understand the “yellow skin” stereotype Americans used for Asians because we have more tan skin than yellow skin. I thought maybe it was simply because all the other colors were taken that we were stuck with yellow. But it looks like it may actually be a real thing as even the Chinese had a saying for it.
There was a certain innocence, simplicity, and relatability with the mother, daughter, and other little classmates at the gym that I felt like we weren’t so different.
I attended a speaking event where a popular travel blogger, Nadine Sykora spoke. During the Q&A part, she mentioned how she visited China and how it was super difficult for her because she couldn’t speak the language.
I think the experience could be entirely different if you could at least understand the basics of the language. You’ll find that the people here aren’t as different as you think.
On my last day in class, the mom and daughter, as cheerful as ever, waved me goodbye and enthusiastically made a few more comments (or jokes?) that I couldn’t quite remember. All I have left are feelings. I felt sad that I’d never see them again and peace, joy, and gratitude for their simple, cheerful way of living.
Maybe I’m spoiled?
My uncle came up to me and told me that he wants to examine my poop each time afterwards to make sure I was healthy. I said okay but grimaced horribly. Was this a Chinese thing? There may be different viruses and diseases in this area after all.
Heck, the first day we landed, I learned for the first time that mosquitoes were everywhere and you had to seal off your bed with a net so they couldn’t bite you to death when you slept.
But I never did. Each time I pooped, I flushed it. I don’t know why; maybe I was too embarrassed to do so.
I was also told after a while that you’re supposed to throw the toilet paper that you wipe the poop off your butt into the trash can rather than the toilet. In China, the pipes couldn’t support the paper. Oops. I had already done so a few times.
Heck, that was a luxury compared to what I experienced for most of my trip. We were on the road often as tourists, so we had to deal with dirt holes in the ground or porcelain holes in the ground if we went to a restaurant.
My leg muscles were weak as butter since I didn’t lift weights at the time, so it was hard to maintain a squat for long enough to poop. Luckily, they sometimes had sticks nearby you could use to hold yourself.
The first time I experience this, I wasn’t warned by my father. I don’t think he accounted for this. For some reason, maybe because I’m spoiled, the lack of normal toilets was one of the main shockers that have repelled me from returning to China.
I don’t want to paint it as all bad because we did have normal toilets once in a blue moon when we were at certain relative’s houses or could afford a hotel for a day or two.
Probably one of the most memorable, emotional, and embarrassing moments in China that may prove that I was a spoiled kid was my McDonald’s mishap.
I had fallen in love with fast food as a kid. They were a once-in-a-blue-moon luxury, so naturally I was interested in eating out in China. My relatives took me to a Chinese McDonald’s and KFC. They were fantastic.
(Fun fact: KFC’s are much more popular than McDonald’s in China. I guess they established dominance in the market first. Fun Fact #2: Both have modified menus. KFC is much more of a chicken sandwich restaurant than a fried chicken restaurant. And McDonald’s offers Chinese entrees too including rice porridge, a Chinese breakfast staple.)
So, I threw a tantrum. I begged my father to go to McDonald’s for dinner one night when we were touring a city. Instead, he thought it would be more elegant to get dumplings at a real restaurant.
I was so mad and stubborn that I put my head into my hands, covered my fact, refused to speak to him, and started sobbing. The tears made the table wet.
At the time, I thought I was so wrongly mistreated but looking back, he was literally offering better, more expensive food for me. Sheesh.
There was another time towards the last day of my two-month trip that was more rightfully his fault though. He said my hair was getting too long and ordered me to get a haircut. I thought I had some persuasive power but when I refused, I still had to go.
I was still relaxed until I realized what the barber was doing: giving me a buzz cut. I was in high school and cared about how cool I looked, and I started sobbing and closing my eyes. I was angry.
My dad has horrible fashion sense. Or moreover, he thought the buzz cut was the best option. Or maybe, he just didn’t take into account how cool I wanted to look or what I was looking for — it’s happened before, like the time he forgot it was my birthday and I started crying.
I heard the barber get into a conversation with my dad but couldn’t follow it because my Chinese sucked. I just knew that at first, they were talking about how I was crying and how angry I was. Then, they started talking small talk about the local trains.
To this day, I don’t know for 100% why my dad didn’t opt for a cooler haircut for me or ask about it. He got haircuts too and it was never a buzzcut. Based on what I know about him, it’s likely one of the reasons I already mentioned. Or it was because he thought the buzz cut was the cheapest option in the long run so I didn’t have to get frequent haircuts.
I remember getting mad at him and giving him the silent treatment all the way until our final goodbye. Since he lived in China and I didn’t see him often, I felt that it wouldn’t be nice to leave without being kind to him.
Longer silent treatments and more dysfunctional, toxic family moments would occur in the future. But why do you care? Let’s get back to what matters: what China is like.
The Land of the Counterfeits
Yu Gi Oh was a trading card game that was all the rage in the USA at the time. At its height, most of the kids at my school had cards. But years after its decline, there was still a strong base of fanatics that played the game intensely and collected cards.
I was surprised to find that this was huge in China too. There was just one problem.
My theory was that the counterfeit card market was so prominent that they dominated the market and locals saw them as authentic cards. I tried to point out that their cards were clearly fake. They were dull, photocopied, poorly laminated, and there was no Konami logo on them. You could tell the difference immediately if you compared a real and fake card right next to each other.
While there were fake cards in the U.S., they were much less common. But since my vocabulary was severely limited and because I didn’t have any cards of my own to show them, it was a failed effort.
In fact, one of them said, “If Americans think their cards are real, and Chinese think their cards are real. Which ones are actually real?”
I vowed that I would bring a real card to them one day to prove it. You could easily tell when you saw the difference. But it was aggravating that they had bought into the lie so deeply.
Look back, I’d like to say maybe ignorance is bliss. Counterfeit cards are cheaper, right? I still have real cards and my cousin lives in the U.S. now. Maybe I’ll show it to him one day.
More culture shock
My parents were Coca-Cola drinkers. My dad loved regular Coke. My mom loved Diet Coke. I followed their footsteps for years and then, I found Sprite as an option in the line of fountain drinks.
There was something so magical about Sprite. The taste was bubbly, peppery from the bubbles popping upwards, and sweet. But the fact that it was completely transparent made me believe it was healthier (who knows if that’s actually true).
I thought I was in the unique minority of Sprite lovers until I visited China. Just like with KFC and McDonald’s, popularity preferences reversed. Sprite was the go-to soda drink of choice.
And my theory is that it has something to do with the Chinese people loving the see-through color of the drink. Maybe it reminded them of all the transparent alcohol I watched them consumed. But that’s just a theory.
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