In so many ways Chinese culture is very different from western culture and these differences can vary from being very obvious to so subtle you barely notice. These cultural differences are a part of the incredible appeal of travel in China and they can often leave you bewildered, confused and angry if you don’t understand them.
The blue and red posters below from a project by Yang Liu are a brilliant illustration of key cultural differences between Chinese and the western cultures. These posters as a generalization are amazingly accurate and extremely helpful in explaining cultural differences.
The blue side is the western side and the red side (politically correct) is the Chinese side.
In the west bicycles are becoming more popular because they are more environmentally friendly and healthy alternative to vehicles. In China on the other hand in the mad rush to modernize and embrace new wealth, people have been dumping their bikes in droves and switching to vehicles.
20 years ago in Beijing bicycles were every where, they had their own dedicated lanes on all major roads and private vehicles are a rarity. Now Beijing and every other major city private vehicles congest roads, bring traffic to a crawl where drivers thump their horns at the slightest provocation and riding a bike is only for the fearless and insane.
In China light skin is beautiful and brown skin is avoided like the plague. Chinese women use skin whitening beauty products and avoid the sun while western women use tanning products and embrace the sun. Travelling around China you will often see Chinese women out and about with an umbrella to protect their delicate white skin from the ravages of the sun.
In ancient times white skin was a sign of wealth and status and brown skin was a sign of poverty and labelled you as a low class labourer or farm hand. Hundreds of years later this belief still dominates perceptions of beauty.
Queuing is for the weak and pushing and shoving are the norm. This sounds very harsh but you will see the reality of it when you go to banks, train stations, shop counters and most other places where people would normally queue in the west. Chinese are slowly improving and you can see nice orderly queues at many bus stops but the general rule in many places is that if you want service, you will have to join the pack and fight for it.
Noise and restaurants
Chinese people love to talk loudly and constantly while they eat and meals in a Chinese restaurant are very noisy and boisterous affairs. Restaurants should be noisy and the noisier it is, the better it is. If you like don’t mind the noise, share meals with the Chinese you meat during your travels and you’ll have a great time. If you prefer a quiet peaceful romantic candlelit dinner while you travel in China, order room service.
Though not as bad as Japanese, Chinese seem obsessed with photographing their travels and spend more time posing for photos than enjoying the sites. If you look at the photo collection of a Chinese persons holiday, just about every photo will invariably have them in it making the compulsory peace sign. Scenic shots will be few and far between if any.
This one is so true. Go to most Chinese parties and you’ll see every one involved in a group activity instead of smaller clusters like we are used to. This comes back to the collective nature of Chinese culture were people see them selves less as individuals and more as members of a group. In terms of travel, you’ll see very few solo Chinese travellers compared to solo western travellers.
Opinions and feedback
Often getting a straight answer out of a Chinese person is like getting blood from a rock only more frustrating. You can ask a western person what they think of your new outfit, business proposal or travel pic and they are likely to tell you it is great or it is horrible. A Chinese person will either tell you it is great when they think it is horrible or give you an indirect and noncommittal answer.
One reason for this is to avoid offending you or making you lose face by giving a negative answer. Very thoughtful but also very confusing. The trick is to interpret their indirect meaning which can be very hit and miss.
Chinese are born networkers and thrive on meeting people and building complex webs of relationships. The expression it is who you now not what you know is especially true in Chinese culture where complex circular relationships involving many people are the norm. This can be very beneficial in your travels as you start to know people and your tour guides, hotel staff and translators can be an invaluable source of contacts and travel information. If they don’t know how to get some where or where to stay, their sister will have a colleague who’s cousin’s brother in law's…………… has the answer you need for the next step in your travels
In most western countries children are raised and cared for by their parents with limited help from their grandparents. In China a child is looked after by two parents and two sets of grand parents who often compete fiercely to be the child’s favourite. This is mainly due to the one child policy that left less grand children to be shared amongst grandparents in a society that has always adored grandchildren.
In your travels you will often see young children spoilt rotten by their doting grandparents with too much time on their hands and a burning desire to make a contribution to the family.