While I did question myself for making the decision to move to China for a year (hey, had to experience it for myself before jumping to conclusions, right?!), there were some good things. It was pretty cheap to live there, even if Beijing's really not that inexpensive. There are some very interesting sights to see, despite the fact that getting to those places might be an extremely annoying process (fending off scammers, doing your best to avoid crowds of obnoxious people, etc.). Also, starting a government-sanctioned date in the winter, cities in the north get public central heating, so even if it's -10° C outside, it is never cold inside any building. However, if you're planning to move here, you need to know what you'll be dealing with. Some things are just beyond what you could ever conceive. Things you might take for granted, like clean air, food safety, and basic consideration for other human beings, don't seem to be priorities in China (The price of economic progress?)


How bad is it really? Is it just sensationalized reports? Not to exaggerate, but we didn't realize there were mountains right outside our apartment until about 6 months into living there, because it had been so hazy with pollutants that we couldn't see them!! That's how polluted it was. It was so polluted that it was VISIBLE in the subway and inside buildings. Now that was Beijing in 2012-2013 so I'm not sure how things are now or in other cities. Hopefully things have improved.

looking out our apartment window

a rare good day

If you have a smart phone, China Air Quality Index will tell you how safe the air is outside. Of course there are days that it's not as bad. Other countries may consider readings above 50 to be polluted, but in Beijing, 100 is considered a good day. On days over 300 (which happens every couple of days), I used to wear a ridiculous mask since my lungs sometimes hurt from breathing in the toxic air. However, that does not shelter your eyes or your skin. Before the government admitted that this was indeed a problem, Chinese people were told that it was just "mist". When it's really bad, it is like walking through mist — you literally won't be able to see the building next to yours.

It is pretty heavily polluted almost every single day. I asked my local students if this bothered them, and one of them told me, "It's bad, but I don't feel so bad knowing that the chairman is breathing the same air." That's the spirit!


Solution to traffic?
When you're waiting to cross the street and you see the pedestrian light turn green, your instinct may be that it's safe to cross. WRONG. It is NEVER safe to cross the street in China. This may surprise you, but cars will definitely NOT stop for you, even if the rules say they have to. You must actively avoid cars. It's no joke. My trick is to stand right beside locals and move only when they do.

During rush hours and sometimes even outside rush hours, if you want to take the taxi or the bus somewhere, be prepared to be stuck in traffic. The good news is, ever since they changed the way the taxi meter is calculated, drivers love it when there's traffic and are less likely to scare you by shouting profanity.


Yes, food in China is usually very good, when it doesn't make you sick. Food tends to be quite greasy. Watch where you eat. Do they have refrigeration? Does it seem like a sanitary place? Some restaurants might use gutter oil but it's impossible to tell. Just pray for the best.

Also, they refuse to serve cold drinks as soon as they deem it to be the start of the cold season, regardless of the temperature outside. Starting a certain date, a lot of shops will turn the fridge off. If you want a cold drink, you must specify that you want a cold one [ 凉的 = LiángDe ] or you'll get one at room temperature, even when you order a beer.

A few times I got strange looks or even comments for wanting a cold drink when the wait staff thought it wasn't hot "enough" out to be having something cold. A lot of people believe that having cold drinks is bad for your health, probably based on their take on Chinese medicine.

Along the same lines, in the midst of 30°C+ summer, a lot of taxi drivers will be reluctant to turn on the air conditioner due to similar reasoning. You might be told to simply drink warm water to help with a variety of ailments. It took us months to find an ice tray because we were told it was not the season for having ice.

Not a chance! Photo taken in Japan

Poor Drainage

While it rarely rains in Beijing, when it rains even a bit, the streets will likely turn into little dirty rivers. Just walk on the sidewalk? What sidewalk?! Someone told me it's because restaurants dump oil in the drains and clog up the system. Another student said it's because Beijing was not designed to accommodate this many people. Anyway, have some boots ready in case it floods after just 20 minutes of rain or snow unless you don't mind wading through filthy shin-deep water.


At work, we were told to avoid the 3 T'sTaiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square. Fair enough. When you are living in someone else's country, there's no need to deliberately offend the locals. When you Google any sensitive topics in China, Google either slows down suddenly or gets cut off just for a minute or two. Also, facebook, twitter, or any blogging site cannot be accessed in China without having a VPN set up.

Movies also cannot escape censorship. Only about 34 foreign films are allowed to be shown in China each year, and most of them seemed to be action blockbusters, especially ones that make Chinese people look good or have a random scene in China. Not only do they cut scenes, but they also add scenes. It doesn't have to make any sense.

The worst we have seen were Bait (terrible movie, by the way) and Iron Man 3. Before Iron Man 3 started playing onscreen, there was an ad for this Chinese milk drink... then just before the ending, in an obviously added scene, there was this opposite-of-subtle ad plug of this Chinese doctor slowly sipping that drink before he operated on Stark. We laughed out loud, but nobody else did!! It was almost worse than in Bait when this Chinese guy saved the day by creating a shark cage out of shopping carts. These are only a fraction of all the ridiculous editing to appeal to the huge market.


Of course there are obnoxious people everywhere and I'm sure there may be some cultural/economic reasons why it seems that some people have no manners. A lot of my coworkers and the adult students I taught seemed like such lovely, well-mannered people. I often wondered where they disappeared to when after work, I was forced to interact with people who behaved in the opposite manner. Could it be that as a result of the sheer number of people around, there are also to be more jackasses in public? Yet Tokyo's also really populated and incredibly crowded, but the majority of people abide by the rules and try not to inconvenience others, with some exceptions, of course.

people napping at IKEA

Although I'm fluent in Mandarin, I often could not get the attention of any wait/store staff. That is because it appears that you must shout to get someone's attention. If you politely say, "Excuse me", no one will hear you 99.9% of the time. I don't know why this is the case. Maybe because there so many people who are accustomed to shouting that they will only respond to even louder shouting. You must be aggressive and direct, as I found that saying things like "excuse me", "please", or "thank you" will only distract most people from understanding what you want. Partly because of all the shouting, amongst other things, it is noisy all the time. If you like silence, China (especially Beijing) is not the place for you. Actually, even in movie theaters, people would loudly talk on the phone, discuss plot lines, or practice their English by repeating each line out loud. There is no escape. You can only try to find the humour in it.

Perhaps because locals must compete with hordes of people every day for basic things, many often appear to be quite abrasive. It's a common stereotype that they cut in line or don't even line up. I thought people were just being racist until I saw it for myself.

While some people do stand in queue sometimes, a lot of people often don't and don't even think it's wrong. I have confronted a few people who cut in line — instead of apologizing, I have had people angrily lecture me on why I wasn't more pushy! My bad? I wasn't sure how standing directly in front of the cashier with stuff I wanted to buy on the counter was not obvious enough.

Beijing Subway is almost always very crowded. When it's your subway stop, people waiting to get on often don't wait until existing passengers get off before piling into the subway car, squeezing people trying to get off to the back. Square your shoulders and get ready to push your way out — there is no other way. There are some youtube videos showing this that may shock you, but sadly it's quite a common occurrence.

watch where this douchebag is standing
Something you will also witness frequently would be spitting. One day, on my 15-minute walk to work, I counted something like 22 people spitting. Unbelievable. It's not just the spitting, but the distasteful throat-clearing noise beforehand and the spitter's disregard as to where their wad of spit might land. Something rarer you might also see is people blowing their nose without a tissue and shooting the content in their nose directly onto the pavement. Quite a sight! You could be in a nice, modern shopping complex and this could happen. I suppose bravo for not using tissues and inadvertently saving some trees?

the sign at the Great Wall says no peeing
The same goes with public urination and defecation. While public spitting is mostly committed by older people, public urination and defecation are usually done by kids, often with the encouragement of their parents/grandparents who bizarrely find it amusing. I've seen in on the subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant, in a fancy shopping mall, at the Summer Palace.... you name it. And no, they do not clean it up nor would they be apologetic. The strange thing is, it doesn't seem to faze most people. People don't give disapproving looks or even seem to notice the appalling behaviors.

In fact, from babies to toddlers, they wear split pants, pants with a hole in the crotch for easy assess to pee or poop on the ground. Since public bathrooms are everywhere, it is not due to the lack of availability of a place to do it. One time I even saw a grandma squatting down on the pavement holding a baby to poop over a diaper... another time, in a restaurant over a trash can while I was eating at the next table!! Can't make this stuff up if I wanted to.

While walking around town, you can play a game called "human poo or dog poo". Hint : it will most likely be human poo. Another game you may amuse yourself with is "rain puddle or pee puddle". Since it almost never rains in Beijing, it will probably be pee.

Of course due to unfamiliarity and differences in cultures, there are little annoyances when travelling to or living in other countries. However, in China, we found ourselves to be constantly irritated because of most people's blatant lack of consideration for others: clipping nails in public, nose-picking followed by flicking, blocking the road not getting out of the way for no reason, waiters hovering over you the second you sit down expecting you to order immediately, kids misbehaving and parents not caring to discipline them at all, people pointing you in the wrong direction instead of just saying "I don't know" when you ask for directions, couples properly fighting (physically) in the streets, littering, ...

Mom:"Add oil!" Photo by Liz Bachner

I understand that there are a lot of people in China and maybe not all of them have had the opportunity to understand the importance of manners and sanitation, but I sincerely hope all this will change in the near future.
Oh, what would he say?