Top 5 First Impressions of China

Teeming multitudes at Bao Tu Spring in Jinan
Teeming multitudes at Bao Tu Spring in Jinan

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Heading to China? Here’s What You’re Going to Think

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1. Everything is Bigger in China

From the airports to the train stations to the portions at restaurants, the old adage that used to be applied to America throughout most of the 20th century is now definitively a more accurate description of China.  Expect to wander about with your neck craned upward at the towering skyscrapers in Shanghai or Hong Kong, marveling dumbstruck at the sea of bodies on an average street in Beijing or gazing stupefied at the sheer amount of food a typical restaurant will pile onto a teetering table.

Crowds in Shanghai during the National Week holiday
Crowds in Shanghai during the National Week holiday

2. China is Loud

In this respect, China is most certainly not like the movies you’ve seen.  Don’t expect much in the way of tranquil Buddhist temples, serene bamboo forests or rustic rice paddies.  Although such places do exist, they’re often difficult to seek out amidst and beyond China’s gargantuan, teeming metropolises.  Chinese people speak, eat, spit and honk loudly everywhere and at all times.  Construction is perpetually underway.  Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep to the sound of jackhammers and awake to the earsplitting noise of fireworks.  Blowing stuff up is the preferred way to celebrate weddings, shop openings, birthdays and pretty much everything in China.

The Chinese term, 热闹, re nao, which translates literally to “hot noise” and more accurately means “lively” or “bustling” is used to describe what the Chinese consider a good restaurant or party atmosphere.  Simply put, the Chinese love noise, so get your cotton balls ready.

Delicacy Street in Quanzhou, Fujian
Delicacy Street in Quanzhou, Fujian

3. This is the Big City Buddy – You’re not in Kansas Anymore

The negative stereotype many Americans have of the typical New Yorker – loud, brash, pushy, rude and inconsiderate – is unfortunately the same first impression many Westerners have of the Chinese when they first arrive.  This is down to historical reasons and cultural differences that can be difficult to bridge.  Don’t be surprised to see customers and hosts shouting coldly at each other in restaurants and taxi drivers haranguing you outside the airport to get in their taxi at one moment and nearly running you over at an intersection in another.  People jump the queue and push each other on and off of buses and subways.  The list of complaints about such public behavior goes on and on – whether it’s about smoking, public urination, littering or even eating too loudly.

Try to remember that as a foreigner you’re looking at everything around you with Western-tinted glasses.  Nothing makes sense and everything is distorted, while for the locals this is all a perfectly normal state of affairs.  As I’ve lived longer in China, I’ve grown more patient about some things and less about others.  I’ve come to learn that many, if not most, Chinese are as frustrated by publicly rude behavior as I am and that it really is the bad behavior of a minority that ruins China’s reputation.  In a country as big as China, this poorly behaved minority numbers in the hundreds of millions.

This fellow was photographing me so I returned the favor

4. What Are You Looking At?

As a long-time expat in China, my reaction to the inevitable staring has gone through cycles.  During my first experience traveling throughout China as a college student and in my first few months as a resident in a not-so-cosmopolitan Chinese city, I actually reveled in the stares and attention.  It made me feel so gosh-darned special!  Following that honeymoon period, rather than feeling like a lovely snowflake, I began to feel singled out and hounded by the perpetual stares.  In my egotism I would think, Don’t they realize I’ve lived here for months now!  Why are they still staring!  Have they never seen a foreigner before!  

Well, you see, yes – many Chinese have never seen a foreigner in the flesh in their lives, except on TV.  At this point, more than three years in, I’ve arrived at a grudging acceptance of my status as a bizarre outsider.  The turning point was when I caught MYSELF staring at the occasional unknown gaggle of foreigners inexplicably wandering the streets.  My God, look at them.  So tall and strange looking.  Look at their hair, and their noses!  

Hong Cun Zhen in near Yellow Mountain in Anhui - as seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Hong Cun Zhen near Yellow Mountain in Anhui – as seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

5. “It’s just like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!”

As mentioned before, the Buddhist temples, rice paddies and bamboo forests all do exist – and much more besides.  If you’re adventurous you’ll find towering karst pinnacles, raging gorges, pandas and narrow alleyway neighborhoods.  One of the joys of travel in China is actually discovering that despite the breakneck modernization, parts of the country are as magical as what we’ve seen in the films, and even more so.


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Finally, to round things out, here are some cringe-worthy photos of a young and naive lad on his first trip to China in the summer of 2010 with his friend, Mike.


A Beijing breakfast


The Temple of Heaven, Beijing


Ba Da Ling – the most famous and infamous section of the Great Wall


Soaking up the Lao Wai Love!


The Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, Beijing


A waterfall in Hunan


Our Hunan students


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