Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.
Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”
Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.
Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.
Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!
Last month my parents visited us in China, and I think it’s safe to say everyone learned quite a bit! Tucker and I learned a little more about what it’s like to be responsible for people other than ourselves (consistently asking if everyone had what they needed, were they hungry, did they understand, etc. It was exhausting!), and my parents definitely learned a lot more about the Middle Kingdom, this time, firsthand.
When they arrived after their very long flight, we met my parents at the Airport Express station in Beijing. We then spent the following two weeks fitting in as much Chinese culture, food, and fun as we possibly could! We spent a few days each in Beijing, Shanghai, Huangshan, and Hefei: four very different cities in China. Of course, we did lot of touristy things (like walking the Great Wall, shopping on Nanjing road, and hiking Yellow Mountain), but we also went grocery shopping, met Chinese friends for dinner, and spent some time just hanging out in our campus apartment. Overall I think it was a well-rounded trip, and even though we were often on the go, we did still find some time to talk about the things that surprised my parents most about China.
Delightful Surprises: There seem to be three areas in which China excels in my parents’ eyes: restaurants, transportation, and safety. Very early on they were impressed with China’s restaurant game. A la carte menus, ordering for the table (rather than individually), food coming out as it’s ready, and the lack of tipping just to name a few of the positives. They also, as does everyone, loved paying for everything through a mobile phone app (like WeChat or Alipay) – it’s so quick and easy: no receipt, no signing, no waiting! My mom also really enjoyed the plastic tops and to-go bags for drinks on the run, another innovation that we don’t see much of in the US.
As far as transportation goes, they were most impressed with how fast, cheap, and punctual everything was. China doesn’t usually have the reputation of timeliness like, say, Japan, but every train we took left on time or a minute early. They were also amazed that with as many people as China has, the traffic wasn’t really bad and any/all lines moved pretty efficiently. Even I was doubting a few times during the peak tourist hours at the most popular destinations, but even some of the longest lines we had ever seen still moved along pretty rapidly. No dilly-dallying here!
In China my parents also mentioned safety fairly often: how safe they felt with the cameras, hotel check-ins, and security presence and how welcomed they felt as foreigners. They also noticed fewer homeless people and a great emphasis placed on family time and family connections. Perhaps not directly related to safety, but my mom was also extremely pleased that the hole in the ground that she was imagining China toilets to be was entirely exaggerated, and that they are actually pretty clean and easy to use.
Not So Delightful Surprises: Of course, leaving the familiar can always lead to a few uncomfortable surprises as well. One of the most common difficulties foreigners have in China is adjusting to some of the culinary differences, and my parents were no exception. They mentioned the lack of ice in drinks and the lack of good coffee a few times. My dad had also not expected the lack of meat in many Chinese dishes (probably because American-Chinese food is all about the meat). And of course, even after only two weeks, they also started craving Western favorites like a bacon cheeseburger or a plate of fettuccine Alfredo (imagine the cravings after nine months!).
Some other unpleasant surprises seemed related to the expectations of personal boundaries. My parents noticed pretty quickly that a person’s “personal bubble” is much smaller in China, and that bumping shoulders is a way of life here. They also weren’t so pleased with finding themselves head-to-head with a bicycle, scooter, or even the occasional car on the sidewalk (something I was already used to thanks to Poland). And finally, coming across several street-spitters and the rare, but still present, late night street-urinators were also surprises that didn’t exactly fall into the positive category.
A third area of perpetual surprises seemed to be in the lack or inferiority of paper products in China. Due to China’s vast size and population, many public restrooms and restaurants do not provide general-use paper products, instead, customers carry around their own packs of tissues to use however and whenever they’d like. Even when some restaurants do provide “napkins”, my parents correctly pointed out that they would be better off using their pants than the tiny, thinner-than-tissue-paper pieces they could get there. And while, as my parents also noticed, this does actually have a positive impact on the potential overuse of resources, it can be pretty annoying when you find yourself without a multi-purpose paper pack in hand.
It’s always interesting to see what expectations are met or broken upon first arrival to a new place! Although my parents did have a lot of advanced information from my photos, blog posts, and stories, it was still so much fun to see them experience life in China for themselves: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m so proud of my parents for seamlessly adapting to the ambiguity, and at times, insanity, that comes with immersing yourself into a very different culture, and I’m so thankful we were able to share this experience together! I truly can’t wait to do this again with another culture in a few years, and for the impending reverse culture shock I’m sure to experience when we’re back in the States at the end of the summer!
Lodz, Poland and Hefei, China are two cities that 1) not many people have heard of and 2) don’t really seem like they’d share many similarities, but I feel it’s my job as a former resident of one, and a current resident of the other to share some interesting information about these two beautiful places, perhaps increasing their notoriety and proving that two very different cities can actually have quite a lot in common.
Similarities: For me (and Tucker, as I’ve enlisted his help with the following comparisons), the most prominent similarities lie in the locations, reputations, and inhabitants of the two cities.
Location: Both Lodz and Hefei are somewhat centrally located within their respective countries. They are cities that are not known for their tourist attractions, but are instead used as transportation hubs. All the train routes and major highways, for example, seem to connect through these large, regional capitals. We have absolutely loved this feature in both locations because it has made our travels around Poland and China significantly easier (and cheaper). We have also found that both cities are surrounded by farmland. Unlike the US, which seems to be the land of never-ending suburbs, both Lodz and Hefei have a very clear line between city and countryside. This clear division never fails to amaze me as we ride a train out of the city, and I look down for a moment only to look up and see fields and tractors rather than high-rises. While, we knew both cities were geographically in the middle of their nations, the ease and plethora of transportation options and the stark city to farm transitions were not something we anticipated finding in one, let alone both cities.
Farmland outside of Hefei
Train travel in Poland
Farmland outside of Lodz
Reputation: Another similarity we’ve run into is what the two cities are most known for. Lodz was described to us as the Detroit of Europe (or the Manchester of the Continent), a place where industry was king. In Hefei, it is and has always been about business as well; whether the tea or other Anhui specialties from the past or the engineered or technological goods of today, Hefei is also place where industry has thrived. Both cities are also well off-the-beaten track as far as travelers are concerned. Many people travel to Poland and to China, but far fewer have made it to Lodz or Hefei. For that reason, I think the two cities share a sense of undisturbed cultural “essence” that places like Kracow and Shanghai can’t quite advertise. We often joke that we live in “real” China as opposed to places like Beijing or Hong Kong, which have many international residents and conveniences that might not feel that different from any other large city. Lodz also felt like a part of “real” Poland, and no matter which country we’re in, Tucker and I have definitely preferred being one with the locals.
Fitting in in Hefei
Fitting in in Lodz
Cityscape in Hefei
Inhabitants: A third similarity that has appeared in so many ways is in regards to the people. Both Lodz and Hefei, possibly as a result of their lack of tourism, are fairly homogeneous cities. I remember in Lodz feeling like I was missing out on the diversity that, to me, made a city like Atlanta something special. Hefei is similar in that the vast majority of people fit a very similar mold. Even the names fit very specific standardizations in both locations. In one of my classes in Poland I had six students named Marta, four Michals, etc. In China it’s the same but with the last names, I have seven students in one class with the surname Zhang, five with Liu, etc. We’ve also found hospitality to be very highly valued by the inhabitants of both Lodz and Hefei. People in both cities have been extremely welcoming towards us whether we have a connection (via friends or work) or not. From snack offerings and dinner invitations to personal tour guides and assistance with even the most mundane tasks, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike went out of their way in both cities to be friendly and hospitable to us, the newbies on the block.
Dinner in Hefei
Dinner in Lodz
The last similarity that I want to mention, which may even be the reason I’m writing this post, is that people from Lodz (Lodzites, as we call them) and people from Hefei (Hefeians) both regard their cities as “nothing special”. When people asked me what my favorite city in Poland was, truly my answer was Lodz, and they didn’t believe me! Now when I talk about all the things I like about Hefei, I’m met with suggestions for other cities to visit in China. Maybe this can be boiled down to the “grass is always greener” adage, or maybe some form of modesty, but really I think both Lodz and Hefei are great places to visit or to live.
Honorable mentions for similarities: Some other things that stick out as oddly similar between the two cities include:
The prevalence of shopping malls, the of ubiquity of uneven pavements (it’s unclear as of yet whether I’ve tripped more often in Poland or in China), the common appearance of cars on these uneven pavements (i.e. sidewalks, store fronts, etc.), and the the popularity of duck (as opposed to other poultry).
Mall in Lodz
Mall in Hefei
Differences: I don’t think my information about the cities would be entirely complete if I didn’t at least briefly outline some of the differences we’ve encountered as well. When thinking about the ways the two cities are not alike, interestingly, I still come to the features of location, reputation, and inhabitants.
Location: The size of the two cities is quite different. Lodz has a population of about 100,000, while Hefei has between 6-8 million. With the population difference, of course, comes a difference of area. Lodz was fairly walkable; usually we chose to take buses or trams, but if it got too late, we could walk home if we needed to. We were also able to walk to the grocery store, a nearby mall, several parks, etc. In Hefei there is no way to get around solely by walking. It takes us over an hour to get to the other side of the city in the best of circumstances, several hours by bus. In Hefei we end up taking taxis a lot more than we ever have before (cheap, reliable, and fast – can’t be it!). Another locational difference is the fact that Poland is surrounded quite close on all sides by different cultures. Europe, in general, has been mixing the cuisines, festivals, etc. of its various nations for quite a while. China, while also surrounded by other countries/cultures, is much larger and only newly “open” for mixing. The difference these facts have made on the cities is quite evident. In Lodz we could go to an Italian, French, Turkish, German, Chinese, or any other restaurant we might want on any given night, while in Hefei, it’s pretty much Chinese all around. There is variety to be had (Sichuanese, Canton, Beijing-style, etc.), but ultimately to me, it’s still all Chinese.
Reputation: Another difference would have to be the government systems, and perhaps even more than that are the views towards the government systems. In Lodz, I talked about politics more than I ever had previously in my life. We talked about Poland’s history, laws, elections, etc. all the time. I learned that Poland had the world’s second democracy, I heard the word “solidarity” more often than I would have thought possible, and of course, I observed all the negativity surrounding the ideals of communism (which is really no wonder given Poland and Russia’s history). However, now that I’m in Hefei, politics are pretty well avoided. Solidarity has perhaps been replaced with “CPC”, and communism is viewed completely differently, which makes sense, as it is completely different than the former Russian system we’ve all read about. Another large difference in regards to reputation is the presence of religion in Lodz and the almost complete absence of it in Hefei. I took hundreds of photos of churches during my time in Poland, and I think I’ve seen maybe four over the past seven months in China. It’s also interesting to note that in Poland many people loved arguing over the influence the church had/has on the government, but in China that’s just not even possible.
Inhabitants: Finally, there are definitely some differences among the people of Lodz and Hefei. While I mentioned both populations were incredible hospitable, their ways of showing it are completely different. In Poland people had a motherly way of treating guest: Did we want something to drink? Something to eat? Are we cold? Etc. We were asked over to people’s houses for the holidays, and we had no trouble connecting to people on a casual, friend level. In China, we’re treated more like honored guests. We are given the best seats in the house, gifts, toasts, red-carpet treatment (sometimes literally). While hospitable, occasionally we feel a little isolated by this guest-treatment, which has taken a bit of time to overcome and finally allow us to reach the friendzone. Another obvious difference would be lifestyles. In Lodz it seemed like a quiet life was desired. Most people in the city kept to themselves and enjoyed quiet activities like reading or silently playing mobile games while making it through the day (the great exception to this being when a Polish sports team was on TV). In Hefei, however, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly quiet moment. Cars and buses blast their horns around the clock, people listen to surprisingly loud audio messages wherever they are, and with the singing street sweepers and an abundance salespeople armed with loudspeakers, it’s safe to say people here aren’t concerned with the quiet life.
Grocery store in Lodz
Grocery store in Hefei
Honorable mentions for differences: Some other notable differences include:
The amount and importance placed on alcohol as a form of socializing, the ability to regulate indoor temperatures (in Lodz we couldn’t cool down our apartment, and in Hefei we can’t heat it), the emphasis placed on the quality of food, and last but not least, the language (there’s way too much to say about the differences in this aspect, so I’ll save it for a later post).
I’m not sure if anyone really wanted quite that much information about Lodz and Hefei, but when I start talking (or writing) about these two places I always find that I have so much to say! Ultimately though no matter the similarities or differences we’ve found, the most remarkable things we’ve taken away form our time in both Lodz and Hefei are the things we’ve learned, the memories we’ve made, and the people we’ve met. And personally, I can’t wait to find out which city we’ll be adding to the comparison list next!
Tucker and I used to order Chinese food fairly often when we lived in Atlanta. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it’s utterly delicious, but as I’m what I like to call a “safe eater” (read: picky), I only ever ordered Sesame Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, or some other entirely Americanized dish. However, now I find myself living in the Chinese food homeland (allegedly), and since I have yet to see anything remotely resembling those two stand-bys, I’m going to share some of my new favorite Chinese dishes. REAL Chinese food!
Pork , potatoes, and broccoli
But First, About Meals: Mealtimes in China are quite similar to what I’m used to from the US – an early, light breakfast before work, lunch around noon, and a larger, warm dinner in the early evening. A little less familiar is the utter lack of liquids. I’ve previously mentioned the Chinese affinity for drinking hot water throughout the day, but what I haven’t yet described is the fact that it’s rare for locals to have a drink (of anything) while eating. Occasionally they’ll have a small bowl of soup or broth, which they use as a drink substitute, but most people eat OR drink rather than what I previously thought was universal, eat AND drink.
Another thing that stands out is the absence of sweet options. I’m used to having the option of a sweet breakfast and almost always being offered dessert after dinner, but these phenomena are rarer in China. Instead of cereal, pop-tarts, waffles, etc. we see people eating noodles and pork buns on their way to work/class. As a fan of leftovers for breakfast and a former noodletarian, I love that there’s no judgment for eating noodles multiple times a day! However, I do miss the occasional dessert. Sometimes in a vain effort to satisfy my sweet tooth, I’ll pick up a dessert-like-thing from Wal-mart or the campus store, and nine times out of ten, I’m disappointed by a bite of red bean instead of chocolate. Our Chinese friends swear red bean is a dessert (and a sweet one at that), but coming from the US, where processed sugar is pretty much its own category in the food pyramid, I haven’t found much that’s up to my “sweet” standard.
What we usually think of as “Family Style” serving/eating is another prominent characteristic of Chinese meals. It’s fairly rare to go out with a group (even a small group) and each order one individual dish. Instead everyone agrees on 8-10 dishes and shares everything, often at a table with a large lazy-susan in the middle for easy reaching. Tucker loves this way of dining out because he gets to try many different dishes all at one meal, and, of course, I don’t like it for the same reason. Have I mentioned it’s really difficult to be a picky eater in a foreign country?
Blueberry mashed potatoes – why would you do that?!
My face when trying new foods
Regional Cuisine: Very early on we were told about the different regional cuisines of China, and have since discovered that many restaurants will choose a specialty and run with it. For that reason, we can find Beijing, Sichuan, or Hong Kong style restaurants in pretty much every Chinese city; just like we can go to any city in the US and find Italian, Mexican, and Chinese places. Also similar to the US, many Chinese cities have special foods that are almost synonymous with that place (think deep-dish pizza and Chicago or cheesesteaks and Philadelphia). Every time we tell friends about our travels plans, they immediately tell us which foods we have to try when we get there. We’ve had the Hot Dry Noodles (Re Gan Mian) of Wuhan, the Sweet and Sour Pork (Gou Bao Rou) of Harbin, the Egg Puffs of Hong Kong, and many others.
My Favorite Dishes: Okay, time to make your mouth water! Here are the Chinese foods I’ve come to love over the last 6 months:
Dumplings (Jiao): Of course! Boiled (shui jiao) or fried (guo tie), filled with meat or vegetables, these are a staple in my life. You can get them in soup or not, with sauce or not, and we’ve even been known to buy them by the dozens in the frozen food section of the grocery store. Everyone loves dumplings, and China has the best I’ve ever had.
Noodles (Mian tiao): Another favorite that has more variations than I could possibly write out are the noodles of China. There are noodle soups (mian tang), mixed sauce noodles (zhajiang mian), cold noodles (liang mian), handmade noodles, and the list goes on. Noodles disheds can run the flavor gamut from spicy Sichuan style to sour, vinegar-forward Anhui varieties. I’m pretty sure my Chinese friends, students, and colleagues think the only thing I eat is noodles…
Beef noodle soup with guo tie (fried dumplings)
Ji Pai: Translated as “chicken steak”, it’s basically sliced, fried chicken breast served over steamed rice. The campus restaurants serve it with a white sauce (sha la – like salad, as in salad dressing), and it’s delicious! Crispy and juicy with a delicious cream-based sauced (another rarity in China), it ensures I don’t only eat noodles.
Dry Pot Veggies (Gan guo cai): A little difficult to describe, “dry pot” refers to the way these dishes are served: in a wok placed over a small burner on the table. They bubble and continue to soak up the sauces and spices in the wok as everyone works to mix and eat them up. Our favorites include dry pot cabbage with bacon, cauliflower with peppers, and spicy potatoes and onions.
Sticky Potatoes (Ba Si Hongshu): It is no secret that I love potatoes. In Poland I ate boiled potatoes with dill just about every other day, but in China, this is my go-to potato dish. Fried sweet potatoes with a sweet, sticky glaze on top – what’s not to love?
Hot Pot (Huo guo): I call this Chinese Fondue, but it’s not quite the same. Hot pot (literally translated as “fire pot”) is a sort of soup or broth that’s used to cook meats and vegetables at your table. There are many choices to be made when eating hot pot, like which style of broth (spicy, mushroom, tomato, etc.) and which foods to cook/eat, meats (the most popular being lamb, pork, beef, and shrimp), vegetables (like cabbage, cucumbers, and potatoes), and many other choices (including bamboo shoots, bread, mushrooms, noodles, etc.).
Tucker with a much-needed bib
Hot pot four ways
Fast Food: I’m not going to lie. There have been times I’ve craved “familiar” food, broke down, and went to a fast food chain for some nostalgia (and let’s face it, ease). In China we have plenty of McDonalds, KFCs, Subways, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts. We’ve also seen Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Haagen Dazs, and an Outback. If ever we find ourselves at a place like this, I safely, happily order something that I know and love, and Tucker tries the more adventurous route: like a shrimp burger at McDonald’s and a coffee and mochi blizzard at Dairy Queen. He’s a food gambler, and it has yet to truly pay off – fast food classics are popular for a reason, regardless of country.
To be honest this is just the tip of the Chinese food iceberg. In such a vast, diverse, and old country, there’s bound to be a plethora of culinary options. Maybe in the future I’ll write about Chinese snack foods, holiday foods, crazy menu translations, and/or the dishes that scare the hunger right out of me. Until then, I’m just going to eat some more noodles.