What is the difference between Eastern and Western Culture? As our time in China comes to an end, it is the perfect time to look at how life in China is so different to life at home.
- 1 East v’s West – How is Life Different?
- 2 The People
- 3 Restaurants
- 4 The Roads
- 5 Shopping
- 6 Scooters
- 7 Metro
- 8 Summary
East v’s West – How is Life Different?
One of the best parts of travel is the differences. Seeing how others live, observing their ways and customs and appreciating what we have. Travel often challenges our thoughts and beliefs and teaches us that the way we do things is not always the best way!
After a month based in Nanjing, China, we found loads of weird and wonderful things. In a place where the culture has so many differences to our own, you really don’t need to look very hard to start seeing the difference between eastern and western culture!
Today we share all the weird and wonderful things we discovered in China and show some real life examples of how western and eastern cultures differ!
Spitting and the noise that goes with it.
Every culture has its unique ways. This is true of both the eastern world and the western world and as travelers we try to be very open-minded. We were aware that in China people spit on the street, but it was something that the family as a whole, struggled to deal with.
We read much speculation that in Chinese culture they do it to get rid of toxins, but after further investigation, it seems that there is nothing more to it than the need to clear their throat. And boy do they go for it. The sound of someone next to you hacking up something to spit, is just revolting, and while we try to be sensitive to the way people live in other cultures, this is one aspect that we couldn’t get used to.
And to top it off, they don’t just spit it off to the side of the sidewalk – they just do it right there in front of them, so we literally had to watch where we walked. I will not miss Chinese spitting!
After leaving the western world and spending months traveling through Asia, we’ve become quite accustomed to the attention we get being foreigners, particularly little blonde haired Sienna. When we arrived in Shanghai, the attention hit the roof. In the west, Sienna blends in with other 6 year olds, however in Shanghai, Sienna was an absolute rock star. People pointing and staring, smiling, waving, taking photos and running up to say hello or pat her blonde hair. It was a million times more intense than anything we’ve experienced before and it was hilarious. Sienna, of course, lapped it up and enjoyed ever second.
And then we arrived in Nanjing. The attention was still just as intense, but suddenly the smiles and friendliness were replaced with blank expressions. China is a country that has been very closed off to the rest of the world. Bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing are well-known tourist destinations and western influence is obvious, however, in Nanjing they have not had the same exposure. For the local working class, there seems to be little to no exposure to the outside world. The internet is highly restricted and the locals we managed to speak to had never heard of Facebook or YouTube. Given these restrictions, as a group of foreigners wandering the street, we must have looked very odd. As we understand it, we may well have been the first westerners they’d ever seen. There’s nothing quite like walking into a packed train station and having 80% of the people stop and look at you!
We were sympathetic to the fact that we were unusual to them, and so it was important to smile, say hello, and try to be friendly, as we usually do to break the ice. But in Nanjing, their expressions rarely changed. They stared, they pointed, they grabbed their cameras to take photos or they filmed us as we walked around. But only rarely did they smile. Later in Guangzhou, the attitude towards us was very cold, and locals even seemed scared of us.
In contrast, however, Sienna still got loads of positive attention. A little blonde person with white skin was quite the site! Locals were very friendly towards her and from the few that could, in limited English we were often told “your daughter is very beautiful”. They just loved her. Often they’d run up and ask if they could take photos, or we’d catch them discreetly taking photos or filming her, excited to see this pretty western girl! Other parents would encourage their kids to try and talk to her, and everyone would giggle when she said hello in Chinese.
Using the Street as a Toilet
In general, going to the bathroom in the Western culture is not a public act, but they seems it’s far more open in China! Being confronted with people using the street as a toilet was an eye-opening experience, and something that definitely took us by surprise!
As westerners, we are accustomed to smoking being restricted to certain areas. But in China, it seems restrictions are far less strict. We observed smoking almost everywhere; inside shopping centers, at restaurants, and on the long distance trains. And it seems bathrooms are a popular place to smoke as well. We often noticed cubicles would be occupied for long periods of time with smoke billowing out.
Does nobody in China get hot? With temperatures in Nanjing during our visit sitting between -2 and 12 degrees celcius, everyone was heavily rugged up when outside. But inside, shops were extremely well heated, if not hot! Each time we entered, the four of us would need to strip off our beanies, scarves and jackets, only to receive very strange looks from locals. We were the only ones walking around shopping centres in short sleeved shirts – the locals continued along quite happily, fully rugged up.
Being Served Water
We’ve visited many restaurants during our travels, and, just like at home, receiving glasses of water at our table isn’t anything new. However when we first sat down to a meal in China, we realised the water was hot! And not just luke warm – hot enough to make a cup of tea!
Payment Up Front
I’m not sure if locals have to, or if it’s just something asked of us strange Westerners, however, we were surprised to find in China that when we sat down at a restaurant and ordered, our bill would arrive straight away. Once paid, our order would go to the kitchen! Now that’s different!
English on Menus
In many restaurants, short of using Google Translator, we had no way to understand the menu board, with everything written in Chinese. Occasionally, we were excited to discover some English, however, often that was short lived when we realised that only the headings were in English – individual items were still in Chinese!
On other occassions we would be presented with a menu that closely resembled a magazine. Packed with advertising and articles, eventually we would find a few pages in the middle with food we could order, before the magazine would continue.
Tourists beware – crossing at a pedestrian crossing in China, even with a little green flashing man, does not necessarily mean you have right of way. Having travelled for some time now, we’ve learned that this is the case in many countries, however in China, there is no room for error. Motorbikes, scooters and cars simply do not stop, and seem to believe that a simple beep of their horn is all that is needed to assert their perceived right of way. Why then, do they have little green men?
Whether this is a difference between eastern and western culture or not, our only goal was to avoid being hit, so our solution? To find a local and play follow the leader – whatever rules actually exist, they understood them better than us!
The Road Rules
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always thought traffic lights were a pretty basic concept. A green traffic light means go and a red light means stop? In China, they have traffic lights, however, red seems to mean something different – it certainly doesn’t seem to mean that everyone should stop, with many vehicles continuing on their way! I don’t know that I’ll ever understand the logic or reason behind it, but in the eastern world we regularly saw traffic just continue through the lights, regardless of the colour.
In Shanghai and Beijing, finding locals that speak English wasn’t too hard, however in Nanjing we rarely spoke to anyone in English other than each other. Why then are most of the shop names in English? We found it rather odd, given that no-one speaks English and would not understand what the name meant.
From our experience, all across the world, from Europe to America, a shopping trolley is a shopping trolley. But in China they are different! Regular trolleys are small, much smaller than elsewhere and some stores had a completely different design of trolley!
Trying to buy deodorant in China was quite the challenge. We hunted high and low, eventually finding it in an “imported” section. We found this very odd, however after researching why, we discovered another difference between eastern and western culture. Most East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Mongolian people) have far fewer apocrine sweat glands than most other ethnic groups! The apocrine glands are the smelly ones, so East Asians don’t need deodarant like us Westerners! Well, there you go!
Buildings with Holes
We were surprised to see so many buildings with great big holes or gaps in the middle of them. As we now understand it from research, these are called Dragon Holes or Dragon Windows and are related to Chinese philosphies of Feng Shui.
There is no way to write this list without dedicating a whole section to scooters! They are an extremely popular mode of transport in China, but somewhat different the bikes and scooters we know from home.
For the most part, the scooters are electric. This means that the majority of bikes in China are completely silent (except for the odd squeak or rattle!) Scooters would wizz up behind us without notice, so we needed to be constantly on the look out! We had a few close calls and affectionately dubbed them “silent killers!”
Big city roads in China are still very similar to roads at home, except for one major difference; a separated lane on either side of the road, just for motorbikes.
Occasionally, this lane doubled as a pedestrian walkway and although one might expect bikes to travel in the same direction as other traffic, often we would see them taking shortcuts and riding in the opposite direction. It seems road rules are more relaxed in China!
How on earth drivers get around at night without headlights is beyond me, however we were surprised to discover that most riders don’t use a headlight on their scooter or motorbike. Again, bikes would wizz down the middle of the road in the dark, and we just wouldn’t see them coming!
Scooters drive anywhere
Despite having their own lanes, motorbike and scooter riders were everywhere. On the sidewalk, in pedestrian areas, taking short cuts via pedestrian crossings and riding the wrong way up streets. If there ARE road rules for bike riders, we certainly didn’t see any evidence of it!
It gets really cold in China. And with Scooters as the most popular form of transport, and a climate with temperatures that plummet below zero, how does one stay warm? Wearing a motorbike jacket of course. We had never seen these before and while they look ridiculous, they make perfect sense.
Picture a big thick winter jacket, that you wear backwards! They are attached to the scooter, so as you mount the bike you simply slip your arms into the sleeves. Conveniently the jackets come with big thick gloves that cover the scooter handles, so you can operate the bike fully, but stay nice and warm at the same time.
We found stores that sell only these bike jackets (I have no idea what they are actually called!) along with a range of awesome scooter umbrellas!
Mobile phones while riding
In a world where there is a big focus on not using mobile phones while driving, we had to laugh at the absurdity of watching rider after rider cruising along looking at their mobile phone. Not just talking on their phone, but using their smart phone; holding it out in front of them and looking at it! Not quick glances either!
In a country with millions of people, living in close proximity, peak hour on the metro system means that trains are jammed pack. But we literally laughed out loud when we discovered that during peak hours, as commuters are boarding the trains, staff are employed to SHOVE people onto the trains. That’s right, they stand there and PUSH, packing as many people as possible into each train. We quickly realised that with a 6 year old in tow, peak hour was not a great time to ride the metro. At Sienna’s height, she got squished between peoples legs and backsides!
Smog and haze
Again, before arriving in China we were aware that the cities could be very hazy. We’ve been to big cities, we’ve seen haze, but nothing compares to what we experienced in China.
To be fair, during our time there, air quality was at an all time low, but even on a good day, visibility was very poor. Walking the streets without a mask left a metallic taste in my mouth and we all questioned what it must be like to live here full time, not that many people would know differently. It certainly made us appreciate the beautiful clean air at home in regional Australia.
We have absolutely loved our time in China. The difference between eastern and western culture has made our visit both exciting and at times a little frustrating, but it is these differences that we love to explore and understand.