First Impressions of An Englishman in China: 1st Week Culture Shock
August 20, 2011
I have been in Beijing now for a week and therefore my impressions of China, and more specifically Beijing, are based on the many initial sensory and culture shocks that I have experienced. There have been many. I have, in the past week, seen, smelt and tasted extremely ‘alien’ (to use the term on the customs arrival/departure cards) things for a young English person. Unfamiliarity, however, is something that I am enjoying embracing while abroad here as I wish to gain more than just business experience while in China.
There have been seemingly countless things that, as I have walked around Beijing, have given me the sense of a ‘culture shock’. I use this term to define the emotion of unfamiliarity that I have experienced due to being subjected to the Chinese culture, way of life and attitudes. I have been to various big cities such as London and New York but Beijing seems to have a completely different atmosphere to these other mega-cities.
On my very first night in Beijing some other interns here in Beijing and I went out for some food. Ironically we chose a Japanese restaurant to eat at, upon recommendation. The heat, even at night, here is very unique. It is a sticky warmth due to the high levels of humidity, warmth matched by the warmth and welcoming of the Chinese people. After our meal we decided to have a wander around to take in the atmosphere. This provided me with my first real culture shock. We made our way to a large public square next to Shaunjing station where we’re staying; here we were faced with the real hustle and bustle of Beijing. In this area there were hundreds of people gathering socially in the middle of this busy city to dance together, rollerblade, sing and practice martial arts. We were awe-stricken. People here are unashamed, confident and proud of whom they are and if they want to dance in a group in the street they will. I have since learned that these activities go on every night and are the real hub of the social life of many who live in the Shaunjing area.
The next real and extraordinary ‘culture shock’ I experienced early last week was during a trip site-seeing to the Forbidden City. Here, 4 other friends (male and English) and I stopped to grab some food at a cafe as we had been walking for some time. The cafe was full so we decided to eat our food on the steps outside. Before we knew it we were mobbed by 30 to 40 Chinese people staring at us and taking photos. Many children were coming to sit next to us while we ate and their parents took photos. I still now do not know the real reason why this happened and I very much doubt it was purely the fact we were all tall and ‘western-looking’. Maybe we made a terrible social faux pas eating outside as no one else was doing this? Or maybe they were impressed we were all using chop-sticks quite competently? Or maybe (as I would like to think) they thought we were famous or in a boy-band?
Whatever the reason we briefly peered through the window of what life must be like to be famous and photographed all the time. This social phenomenon, our obsession with the celebrity world, seems more prominent in China. I was lucky enough to be in Beijing when both the Italian football teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan, were here. The media attention was huge! (see photo)
A final culture shock for me definitely has been the Beijing traffic, and in particular the commute to work. Every day I must travel 30 minutes by subway, packed in like anchovies, and then 10 minutes on a bus. The commute to work is definitely an experience I will not forget when I leave here. I have grown to like observing people on their way to work here; I think you can learn a lot about someone in this way. I have found that that the Chinese people are very focused and objective, they have a goal and will let nothing stand in their way (be it another person or a bus!). If one has watched any episodes of the program ‘The Apprentice’ then they will agree this is a character trait that is vital in success in business. However, I wonder if social cohesion will be affected by this as China rapidly grows and its people continue to hold this attitude.
So, as I continue to take part in Beijing life, I am sure that I will experience many more cultural shocks which I will embrace with open arms and feel richer for the experience.
-Neil Rylander, CPG Marketing Intern