10 differences between China and Europe – Observations from a freshly-baked Expat

After my last blogpost Welcome to Beijing I received the question if I didn’t have a culture shock when moving to China. I thought about it and I wouldn’t say I had a real culture shock…I guess it’s because I expected it to be so different. And of course, there are many differences, like there always are when you go to a new country, but that’s probably why traveling/moving is so exciting.

I realize though that everybody has a special picture about China, so do/did I. To give you a better idea of how life looks like here I put together a list with 10 things that make China so “different” from Europe based on my own experience as a newbie here.

1. Green is not green
China has her own street rules. Crossing the road as a pedestrian on a zebra crossing when the lights are green can be still a life-threatening undertaking, especially if it’s a crossing. You are safe from the cars on your street but you still need to give way to cars turning into your street. I still have trouble getting used to it….

2. Number 4
Chinese try to avoid the number 4 as often as they can since it sounds like “death” in Chinese. Therefore in buildings for example there are no 4th, 14th, 24th or 34th floor. In our apartment complex there is also no tower 4, nor 14. Since you can choose your mobile number here when getting a new sim card there are also few phone numbers with a 4 in it. It is also not done to give somebody 4 flours for example.

3. Hidden secrets
Shopping malls and supermarkets are most of the time in the basement of buildings, often not visible from the outside at all. I still have “aha” moments when by accident I discover another huge and often very modern mall in the most random buildings. And every time I see such a mall I wonder how those shops can survive since there are most of the times quite empty.

4. Everything is negotiable
Bargaining is quite “normal” here, not only on markets but also in shops or with service organizations. I still find it a bit awkward sometimes so I often end up paying the asking price.

5. Naps
Taking naps in China is not a shame, even if you are at work, in shops or in cafe’s. In fact I heard that many organizations actually encourage their office employees to take a nap after lunch.

6. Everything is prepaid
For almost every service you need to prepay a certain amount. Electricity, gas, water, mobile etc. The good thing is that you can transfer the money 24/7 via ATM-like machines.

7. Membership cards
Most service providers like laundry services, shoe polish services, spas, massage salons, hair dressers etc. will offer you a membership card where you can choose to advance a certain amount for which you will receive a discount on the service price. So if a service normally would cost say 100 RMB you can get a 10% discount if  you advance 1.000 RMB, a 20% discount if you advance 2.000 RMB etc. I think this is a great marketing tool to bind your customers to you. Needless to say, I have now at least 6 different membership cards :-) Why don’t we have it more often in Europe too?

8. Micro-businesses everywhere

You can find micro- and small entrepreneurs on almost every corner of the street. Some of them only appear during rush hours in front of subway stations for example, others are active all day. The products they offer vary from food, to books, balloons,  phone covers, socks etc. but there are also people who offer services like shoe polishing. There are so many taxis in Beijing but at night, especially during weekends, the demand for taxis is still bigger than the supply. Therefore there are many individuals with a car who become “part-time” taxi drivers during peak hours. The last time I was at the IKEA here (they look exactly the same as the IKEAs in Europe except that you might see customers taking a nap in one of the showroom beds), I somehow overpacked my shopping cart not thinking about how to get everything home. Thanks god I was saved by one of these private people who offer home delivery services at a much more attractive price than IKEA does. For a few extra Euros my saver even put together the cupboard I bought.  Win win for both of us since it saved me so much time, energy and also money.

9. Drinking warm water
Most restaurants will serve you complementary warm water. At first I had to get used to drinking tasteless “tea” but I quite like it now since it calms my stomach. Most Chinese women woudn’t drink anything that is cold because they think it is not good for their bodies. Apparently there is a recognized Chinese Medicine man who published his research results confirming that drinking cold things is not good for Asian women. I am happy that doesn’t apply to me since I really love drinking cold things :-)

10. Wearing masks
Before coming to China I always thought that people who wear masks in public (you see them for example on airports) do it to protect themselves from viruses etc. but now I know that they actually wear a mask because they have a cold and they want to protect others. I like that.

I could go on like this but I think the important thing is to have an open mind and to respect the fact that every culture is special without trying to be too judgemental like “this is good”, “this is bad” etc. It’s just different :-)


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8 Responses to 10 differences between China and Europe – Observations from a freshly-baked Expat

  1. Zsófi says:

    Thanks, Anna, nice post! I am looking forward learning more and more about China.
    Before my actual visit. :-)

  2. Sarah says:

    Loved reading this! Am determined to bring the afternoon nap to the NZ workplace. Can’t wait to read more posts from China x

  3. Ansella says:

    So good to read this! It seems you really enjoying your time in China. And funnily yesterday at work me and my colleagues were complaining that we we’re always so sleepy after lunch and that we wished we could have an after lunch nap.
    But unfortunately we live in a culture where time is money, so no power naps for us!

    • Anna says:

      I know and that’s such a pity since I actually believe that power naps do increase efficiency. And maybe China’s booming economy is a good proof for this. Might be an interesting topic for a final thesis :-)

  4. Trisha says:

    The green is not green will be more confusing than other 9 things. I am a pedestrian and always hate the traffics in asian countries.

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