"I'll be the first to admit that I know little to nothing when it comes to Chinese cultures and practices, and that puts me in the right places to be shocked by several things since moving to China (Shanghai - a Tier 1 city) to teach English.
I knew enough about China to survive one or two things, but one thing, only first-hand experience taught me, was the harsh realities of language barriers. Unlike most countries where you can find one or two people ready to assist you in English, China doesn’t offer such comfort to foreigners. Even though I am in a Tier 1 city - meaning the locals are exposed to more foreigners - I unfortunately struggled to get by the first couple of days after landing in Pudong, Shanghai.
My phone didn’t have international roaming (thanks to a Telkom consultant who unfortunately lied to me that international roaming was activated on my phone). Connecting to WiFi was impossible because it required me to have a Chinese number which I didn’t have. So I was essentially "phoneless" in a strange city.
I was met by a gentleman who spoke enough English to have a coherent conversation with me; he helped me withdraw money while convincing me to use his taxi service (He was just the middleman). I was charged 450 RMBs (~R1170), and I negotiated it down to 420 RMBs for an hour-long journey. Fortunately, I could connect to WiFi within the cab, and that allowed me to connect with the individuals who were helping me with my arrival arrangements. They were panicking that I wasn’t in a Didi (which I don’t think I was gonna be able to order it anyway). Real-time locations were being shared left, right, and center, and this whole time I was just calm. I was either being kidnapped for human trafficking purposes or I would make it to the hotel in not so long; either way, I was gonna find out soon enough…
The driver tried to drop me in what seemed like the middle of nowhere because everything was new and strange. I couldn’t tell east from west, but I was glad when I could see that I am close to my manager’s location. Without formally understanding me verbally, the driver could understand that I wanted him to walk me to the Lobby, which he did. To my blessing, I was met by friendly ladies who couldn’t speak English but still gave me great service. While waiting to go up, my manager and her daughter finally showed up, and the rest was history, or so you would think.
I was excited to be in a new city and trying to make out as much as I could of the heart of Lingang (Star Street). I arrived around 8 PM, but my excitement led me to go out that same day to explore what I could of the city. With only 80 RMBs at my disposal and not knowing when and where I would be able to withdraw money next and walking out of the hotel virtually phoneless as I couldn’t connect to the internet, I started walking in and around Star Street that same night. I eventually made it back to the hotel and asked for WiFi (By signaling vs. translating or speaking). I was told I needed a number, I told her I didn't have one, and she gladly used her number to help me connect.
I honestly saw God’s mercy and provisions within the first 48 hours of landing. I unfortunately might have had a terrible experience too. The “might” is because I’m not sure in what context this experience truly occurred; only the alleged perpetrator and God know. So day 2, I woke up late and decided to go to KFC, as I saw it during my stroll last night. It was quite big, but their menu was different. I saw beef, rice, noodles, soup, and what looked like Sephatlho. I walked in confidently, although I had no way of translating and thinking I would simply point out what I wanted. What I forgot is that KFC serves different things at different times of the day, and this one was no different.
I pointed out what I wanted from the menu, but it seemed like the waitress couldn’t process my order for several reasons, the main one being the language barrier. A gentleman with one or two kids spoke a bit of English, and he became our translator. It was then I realized that pointing out from the menu wouldn’t work, as the gentleman just finished helping us with a mini-translation there and there. I felt a slight stroke on my bum. I can’t even tell you what stroked me, but I knew it was a stroke. This sensation was so brief, but I knew it had happened. I just simply walked back to the hotel. Asked if they had breakfast, and to my fortune, they did. I had breakfast, and the rest was history.
I think from what I have mentioned, you can tell I had several unique experiences as I navigated this foreign land. Here are some of the culture shocks I experienced."
Minor disclaimer some of my views will be misinformed as I do not understand the cultural nuances within China but I will try to be culturally sensitive and as aware as possible.
Their noodles and rice are truly exceptional. Recently, I purchased a rice cooker, eager to try my hand at Chinese rice preparation. Cooking noodles from scratch isn't my forte; I once tried ramen noodles, but either my cooking skills are lacking, or the taste just doesn't measure up. Interestingly, ramen noodles aren't as popular in the East as they are in the West.
Chinese food in South Africa, like Chow Faan and Chow Mein, isn't as widely embraced here. The flavors I've encountered in China are unparalleled, though I became a bit wary due to the widespread of MSG/chicken powder in a majority of the meals. While scientific opinions on MSG health effects differ from one source to the other, I had a raised eyebrow moment upon discovery of this fact. Chinese cuisine doesn't incorporate the spices and herbs familiar to us apart from ginger, chilies and garlic.
The excessive use of oil in cooking raises questions about weight regulation in China. Without any formal stats, the average Chinese individual is slender/slim. However, I recently found out that natural remedies and an active lifestyle seem to contribute to their well-being. Tea and water are staples, without the addition of sugar, providing a healthier beverage option.
Certain Chinese foods, such as sausages and bread, taste distinctly sweet compared to their South African counterparts. Additionally, full cream milk is a rarity, with low-fat or fermented milk (nothing like Inkomazi- this one is thinner and smoother) being more prevalent.
Their deserts, sweets, and biscuits have less sugar than in the West. Their cake range is mostly sponge cake but I really enjoy their sweets and they make me feel less guilty as I can taste that they are less sweeter which probably means that they are less bad, I guess(zero scientific backing whatsoever)...haha.
China boasts one of the world's best public transport infrastructures. Local buses cost either 1 RMB ~ R2.60 or 2 RMB ~ R5.20, while longer trips on the city's metro are around 10 RMB ~ R25.
Speed trains offer efficient intercity travel, although they come at a higher cost. Rental bicycles and E-bikes are commonplace, with some E-bikes only costing R2600 on popular online shopping sites such as Taobao.
Shanghai, Which I dub the Sandton of China, exhibits high rental prices, reaching up to 50,000 RMB ~ R130,000. Decent accommodations start at approximately 4000 RMB ~ R10,400.
Foreigners typically pay 3 months' rent, a deposit, and an agent fee before moving in, while locals may pay significantly less due to income disparities. This means that you might be expected to pay R47 000 to move into an apartment.
Another surprising fact is the ability to move immediately since foreigners usually don't have a credit history. There aren't any checks that the landlord run to determine your eligibility. They do not even ask for proof of employment or anything as surety. Money seems to be the only way to determine your ability to afford the rental amount.
Public toilets in China are predominantly squatting toilets, usually well-maintained. Flushing tissues, regardless of use, is discouraged to avoid bathroom flooding. Contrary to stereotypes, these toilets are not inherently smelly; any odors typically result from inadequate cleaning.
Basins are generally clean, although water marks and soap residue are common. Handwashing habits vary, with some people using only water or washing hands briefly.
China is a largely cashless society, with QR codes from payment apps like Alipay and WeChat Pay dominating transactions. The West tends to think everything in China makes use of advanced technology(4IR), but I've found many factories still rely on traditional machinery and hardworking employees.
Facial recognition systems exist but may not be as effective for individuals of color. I still use the old-fashioned access card to access my workplace, I won't even bother to try to register for facial recognition access as I usually need some services to be bypassed due to facial recognition software not recognizing me.
Certain cultural practices, like throat clearing and spitting, are more common among older generations but are diminishing. Squatting to relieve pressure during long periods of standing is a widespread practice.
In Shanghai, the working class operates seven days a week, with most establishments open consistently. Family-run businesses are prevalent, and the high level of competition leads to extensive working hours. Education is prioritized, with children often engaged in after-school programs funded by parents.
Family holds a paramount position in Chinese culture, with intergenerational households being common. Grandparents often play a significant role in caring for grandchildren, emphasizing a strong family bond.
Most families tend to spend time together on weekends. There are several family-friendly activities across the city.
Public displays of affection are commonplace among couples of all ages, from university students to those in their seventies.
Couples sometimes argue in public as well without the women generally instigating these quarrels.
I've also had versions of what could either be domestic violence or just an occasional grievance from a particular couple within my community. There will be a day or two in a month when she will be shouting from the top of her lungs, I am not sure about what.
Religion vs Culture:
Religion isn't prominent in daily life, with Taoism being sporadically practiced. Chinese holidays often revolve around ancestor worship and other forms of periodic rituals.
I still haven't been able to go to Church since I got here, and only certain churches are allowed to practice within China. the nearest legal church to me is 2 hours away from me using public transport.
Shanghai hosts a considerable number of affluent individuals, as evidenced by exclusive services and amenities. While gyms are relatively affordable, personal trainers and VIP services can be expensive, catering to the city's affluent population.
Perception of Foreigners
As a homogenous society, foreigners, especially black foreigners stick out like a sore thumb. You notice yourself being noticed all over again, people whisper all sorts of things to one another and sometimes you might internalize a spit out or two as perhaps having disgusted the individual.
One other thing I have found from individuals who rudely stare at you is to stare right back with the same level of intensity. This works every single time and the prepatrator tends to never look in your direction again. This type of stare is quite intimidating as if they are asking you or themselves how you came to exist but they aren't forward enough to ask or just really don't want to talk to you but wonder a whole bunch of things about you.
Chinese are very much Patriotic, you can not say anything negatively about China or Chinese people without a slap back. They have flags everywhere especially during national holidays and events.
They are also wary of outside influences and interests. For example, there was this other content creator (non-Chinese), married to a Chinese lady, they have a child together. These individuals had a brand partnership with a company that helps people understand their ancestry through DNA testing. The comment section was wary that this might be a ply to collect data and if there is ever genetic ammunition then these individuals would have enough data. I was so surprised at the way the thought because I just wanted details on how I can get my next ancestry DNA test... haha.
I haven't experienced any form of racism. The only thing that bothers me is the staring and illegal picture/video taking. No one has ever tried to touch me against my will and apart from the KFC incident no one has ever stroked me or anything of that sort although I predominantly use the bus and metro sometimes even in very crowded conditions, I tend to notice people do not want to sit next to me, honestly to me, I find it as a blessing because I tend to have more space to myself even whilst using public transport...haha.