Monday, 4 April 2016

100 things to know about China No's 1 - 50

1.      The scale of Chinese cities. They are huge. I live in Nanjing where going ‘downtown’ for a beer with my buddies involves a 90 minute trip on public transport.  In England I wouldn’t dream of traveling for one and a half hours just to have a pint and a chat. Also these cities are expanding and eating up the surrounding towns and villages so for example in Shanghai, the "suburbs" are an unbroken string of 10-story+ apartment complexes starting about fifty miles out.


2.     Consequently number 1 above is to blame for No. 2, which is the amount of construction going on everywhere.  At nearly every aspect on the skyline one can see half a dozen cranes and within months new building are appearing on the landscape. That some of them seem to stay empty for a long period of time seems to suggest a building bubble that might burst. But if people are moving from the West of China to the East for work then they will be full soon.

3.     Light stores. Probably as a side effect of the construction boom, there is an unbelievable number of stores packed with elaborate lamps, sconces, chandeliers, and other lights of all types - modern, baroque, sleek, LED, patterned, painted, bejazzled, spangled, neon, beaded, frosted. These light stores have competition from the sanitary ware / bathroom stores. Indeed in some areas there are whole industrial parks dedicated to housewares.

4.     Given there is so many people noise pollution is everywhere. 

Drivers of all ilk, car, scooter, truck, bus are addicted to their horns. Regardless of the signs on the side of the road banning their use they are used day and night. The police man in the road, the taxi attendant, loves exercising the power of his whistle - the only sound that can cut through the deep echo of the noise of the traffic reverberating off the elevated highways. On the school campus music is played at the start of the day, for the start of the lessons, during exercise time, for the end of lessons, plus the loudspeakers are utilized to pass on messages or some such brainwashing of the students. We asked for the loudspeakers outside our apartments to be switched off because they start at 6 am in the morning and do not quiten down until around 10pm 7 days a week. Its relentless. 

5.     I’ve just mentioned the noise pollution but China is polluted in other ways.  The easy target is the air pollution and when its bad its bad. But here in Nanjing after a pretty bad 2013 over the last 12 months the air has been good and we were seeing blue skies rather than the white blanket that usually covered the city. The week before Christmas 2015 saw three days of bad air pollution where masks were recommended. But whilst I wore a mask en-route to school to work, once in the classroom one would find the windows all open, the students wrapped up in layers of clothes and coats – which is pretty much the norm – and as I have to speak I have to take the mask off. I would close all the windows because I prefer to breath air that has been filtered by 30 plus lungs than fresh out of the dirty atmosphere. 

6.     Waste pollution. On the whole the city streets of China are spotless this is because there is an army of cleaners who are constantly picking up after the dirty wasteful habits of their compatriots. There does not seem to be a Keep China Tidy campaign such as is run in the UK. People drop litter willy-nilly everywhere.  Packaging, paper, cigarette butts, fast food cartons, drink containers despite their being lots of waste bins which are nicely lable – recyclable rubbish and non- recyclable rubbish.  This gets much worse the further you get away from the centre of the cities. Whilst there are ‘scavengers’ who pick litter – cardboard, plastics, wood, metal and so on to make a living the rest of the stuff is just thrown in ditches, riverbanks, rivers any discarded bit of land becomes a veritable tip. Flytipping of building rubble also adds to these eyesores.

7.     This scavenging activity brings us to the notion of how much stuff can you fit on a tiny vehicle? Everywhere you go you will see bikes, trikes and motorized carts with bundles of plastic bottles about a yard wide and tall or huge amounts of polystyrene or cardboard or whatever will earn a buck stuck on the back of a bike. A common sight is an entire family on a moped. I’ve even seen a car jam-packed full of people with a guy in the boot.


8.     This leads us to the seemingly virtual absence of traffic laws or the impotence of the police force to police those laws and make them stick.  In the center of the cities, the volume of cars requires more adherence to the laws (of course taxi’s are excepted) but once out of town drivers seem to do whatever they want.  It is not unusual to find cars driving down the carriageway in the ‘wrong’ direction – they seem to do this because its simpler than following the correct route, or their route might be blocked for a few minutes and they have no patience. Double-parking to such an extent that the road is blocked is common as is just stopping the car in the middle of the road, because you need to check your phones, need to check directions or simply light a fag. They leads, of course, to No 4. (above) the continual honking of horns.

The consequences of not watching the road and watching your phone - lots of rear end shunts. 


Of course road rage is nothing new here 

9.     There is also no courtesy on the road, when coming to a junction or a slip road off the main road, its basically everyman for themselves. You can have four lanes of traffic and all four lanes will decide, at the last minute that this is the junction they need to get off at – so the car is directed at the smallest gap and it’s the guy with the loudest horn and the stoutest heart, and often the biggest car (no one wants their relatively new cars to be dented) who gets through – this melee also involves the huge trucks and lorries that use these roads.

10.  Luckily because its such a big country the streets in the cities are very wide, even in the inner cities often three or four lanes across each side, so a six lane road is not unusual in the city. This makes crossing the road heartstoppingly dangerous in the eyes of law-abiding Westerners who have always abided by the Green Cross Code or the No Jaywalking rules of their home country.  Basically what the average person does is just walk across the road, no looking left right left, just wandering across. Fortunately the average speed on the roads is quite low plus the financial penalties, in terms of having to provide health care, time off work compensation and so on is quite high (once again taxis are excepted from the notion of driving carefully – most drivers seem to have learnt their driving skills by playing Grand Theft Auto)

Crossing the road

11.  Despite having large numbers of cars and an excellent cheap and modern public transport system many people don’t seem to travel that much. Of course everyone goes to their hometown during the holidays but from the Chinese I have met I seem to have visited more of China and even more of Nanjing than they have. Even a taxi driver we took last night to get us from Jurong a town on the ‘outskirts’ of Nanjing about an hours drive away hadn’t ever driven to Jiangning, the district I live in so consequently he lost is way so we had to use the GPS on out phones to get home. Some of my students aged 16 and 17 have barely been downtown into Nanjing proper.  One student claimed to me that he had never been downtown despite having lived all his life in Jiangning a district of Nanjing.

12.  Taxis. On the whole the taxis, despite my comments above are fine, I can count the number of times I’ve had a problem on my fingers…and toes. They are cheap and abundant, except between 4:30 and 5:30 pm – rush hour – when the shift changes to the night drivers (in Nanjing), then its chaos. Most people use an app to book the driver. Easy enough to use if you can learn a few words of Chinese. The trick is, if you use them regularly is to memorise the local landmarks as you pass them and you can soon suss out if they are taking the tourist route home or the local route home – which happens in any town or city across the world of course. Having gps maps on your Smartphone helps a lot.  But you still find yourself getting pissed when the journey costs 4 or 5 rmb more than usual until, that is, you realize you are complaining about 30 or 40 pence different.

13.  The amount of English used in the road signage. All the major routes have signage in English and Chinese. All the road names are signed in English and Chinese plus that have the compass direction on them too so you know if you are travelling North, South, East or West. This is useful given that some roads are really long.

14.  Roads are closed if there are visiting dignitaries in town which jams up the road network for hours. I was in a taxi going to meet some buddies and Xi Jinping was in town so all the roads he was travelling on were closed it took me well over an hour (with the attendant higher fare) for the 15 minute drive I was expecting.

15.  There are smells everywhere. Delicious food smells, Horrible food smells – stinky tofu is too difficult to describe even although I’m told its delicious. Strange smelly air, good smells, bad smells, strange smells, pleasant smells. My students sometimes smell strange to me, I probably smell strange to them. I believe that foreigners used to smell ‘milky’ to Chinese because of the dairy in our food. Now they drink more cows milk so we’ve probably reached equilibrium there. In more 'traditional' neighbourhoods in particular, you can walk down the street and get a new smell every 20 feet.
Stinky Tofu vendor near Auchan supermarket

Stinky tofu ad.

16.  Talking about smells the public toilets are a wonder to behold.  On the street the public toilets are basically a concrete tiled trench along the length of the room separated by ‘walls’ about three feet high - with no doors. There is no sense of privacy in a Chinese loo.

And absolutely no privacy in this Chinese loo

Toilets at a visitor centre.

These are the toilets in an abandoned workers accommodation

Toilets in my school - It's 'delightful' when you go in and your boss is doing his business whilst having a smoke  or, even worse, when its one of your students shouting 'Hello Teacher' at you.  Thank god I have western style toilets in my apartment - which is on campus.

17.  Most of the big shopping malls, department stores, restaurants, will have toilet facilities. Most have the more traditional porcelain squat toilet facilities. But some do have Western style toilets – for example Starbucks. In most cases this are serviced very regularly by cleaning staff and are spotless.

18.  If you do find a Western style toilet you might find the seat is broken or the seat is up and there are footprints on the porcelain because some people will hop up onto the toilet and use it as a squat toilet. 

19.  Toilet paper is not provided so you must carry your own supply – usually little plastic bags of paper. Some of the toilets in the Malls have pay for dispensing machines outside the entrance to the toilet.

20.  Toilet paper is also not for flushing, the plumbing cannot cope so you have to dispose of it in the bins provided.

21.  The waste product is also used in the countryside and the vegetable plots in the suburbs as manure. Alongside the country roads are pits of rotting shit. This is ‘managed’ in that all the paper and sanitary towels etc is raked out into a pile next to the pit and later burnt.

This is a local shit pit which once left for a while will be used as fertiliser  - notice the sanitary products to the side. 

22.  Instead of nappies, babies and toddlers wear trousers that are split down the crotch so that they can be held over a sewer grate or just on the sidewalk.  I’ve seen kids being held over the rubbish bins to piss on the metro station. Ive also seen a relatively old kid, aged 6 or 7 having a shit on a piece of cardboard on the pavement as his adoring grandma watches.

This mum, although the baby had a nappy on, undid the nappy to let the kid piss on the floor in the middle of the Mall - behind the wall in front of her are the public toilets.

Pee pee on the floor

23.  Men take a piss wherever they want.

24.  People spit all over the place: on pavements, in restaurants, in bars - everywhere. And its not just spitting there’s an excruciating (to our ears) amount of hawking before the gob is spat onto the floor. I’ve had it done next to me as I’ve been sat at a bar – at least in the past we used spittoons.  I once took a plane to Thailand and I had some grandma sat behind me hawking up the whole time.

25.  Nose picking or just rooting around for a bit up there seems to be a popular pastime on the metro and most other places really. Most people seem oblivious to the gaze of each other and go about their business as if there was no one else about. This is possibly a consequence of such a large population with very little sense of personal space and privacy.

Digging deep

26.  I’m British; the concept of queuing is embedded in my DNA. We queue for everything. In China there is no concept of queuing.  In the supermarket, where you get your vegetables weighed it’s a competition to get your bag of apples onto the scales before the next person. At the train ticket counter, there might well be a queue, but for some people that queue doesn’t exist, it might just as well be in another dimension as they waltz to the front of the queue, barge in and get served. The person behind the counter also complicit in allowing the queue jumper to get served.  But I have seen people complain and make people go to the back and if Im in the queue I don’t stand for it either – its just not British – by gad! Getting off a packed metro train onto the packed platform is a trial of strength and will because as soon as the doors open the people on the platform surge forward hoping to get one of the very few seats whist we, the poor passengers fight to get off for fear of being trapped on the train for hours on end in a never ending loop.

This is me at the supermarket, in the queue. The marrow to the left is a grandma using the first on the weighing scales, first served method. Nobody ever says anything least of all the girl on the till.

27.  Being stared at by an open mouthed Chinese person who is gobsmacked at there being a foreigner on the metro or on the street is pretty normal. In China it is perfectly alright to stare at strangers and then take their photos or demand a selfie with you – or in one case, as happened to myself, be asked ‘why is your nose so big’?

28.  The Chinese are not shy about asking personal or intimate questions. Such as the above – ‘Why is your nose so big?’ or ‘Why are you so fat?’ or ‘How old are you?’ or ‘Are you married?’

29.  Personal space is not respected that much either colleagues have reported students and random people touching their hair, because they'd never felt it before. For some reason some of the girls in my school like to pat my belly (which is not so large and which makes me feel uncomfortable for many obvious reasons) but they just laugh – maybe it’s a Buddha thing for luck!

Chinese on the beach

On the metro is always a busy time

30.  Chinese men generally don't seem to use deodorant or antiperspirant. I think some Chinese people really don't like it at all and think it is quite unpleasant. I mentioned above that some Chinese think we smell bad. Nevertheless Chinese people don't seem to suffer from the same BO smell that plagues western people, especially in the really hot and humid summers. The Chinese don’t seem to sweat as much as we do. Plus many will shower twice a day and thus don't require such heavy deodorant use.

 Its difficult, but not impossible to find deodorant and antiperspirant in the shops. This deodorant is in a 'Japanese' 10 rmb shop called Miniso - but it is difficult to find in general chemists and supermarkets.  

31.  It's also hard for women to buy tampons – sanitary towels are the solution of choice for most Chinese women it seems – there are long rows/whole aisles of sanitary towels in the supermarkets but they might only carry a few boxes of tampons. In the countryside or the more rural areas they might be even more difficult to find.

The whole of this left hand aisle is sanitary towels. There was 1 box of tampons amongst the lot. 

32.  How many layers of clothing people wear. When it is just starting to get nice and cool after the baking summer and I’m still walking around in shorts and T-Shirts people start to wear their winter long johns and thermal underwear. They would show off their three to four layers, peeling the layers off their wrist. Colleagues would stop me in the school as I was just wearing a shirt and ask me if I was cold. People seemed very impressed that I didn't fear the cold and wore so few layers.

These guy were brave going for a swim in a mountain lake in March but perfect for showing off the layers 

33.  Its always suprising to see how much underwear can you see line-drying outside windows as you walk down the street. Usually big grandma pants flapping away in the wind and in the poorer neighbourhoods you can see how well time-served they are from the patches and darns in them

34.  How few clothes people own. Some people would wear the same clothes for a whole week – this of course is a generalization but because of the huge gap between rich and poor – those who are not so well off will not have so many outfits to wear. Chinese friends are surprised at the number of shirts I have though.

35.  It’s not unusual to see people exercising in their normal/work clothes. One my campus I regularly see teacher jogging around the track in their suits. In a country that practically makes all the sports paraphernalia and clothing in the world you would thing sports clothing would be de-rigueur. Teachers also come into the little gym we have and jump on the machnes for a few minutes but still in their ‘work clothes’. Even my school students will go out to PE lessons and do the exercises in the clothes they are wearing and in the summer come back into class soaking in sweat – the boys mainly, of course – with the attendant smells – see above!

36.  Fashion is big in China. So big that it’s not unusual to go to the parks and mountains to see girls tottering up the rocky trails in really high heels and sparkly outfits. But saying that having hiked a lot in the UK up mountains you do tend to see similar  mistakes

37.  Despite the influence of fashion there is little self-expression allowed in school. All students wear the same tracksuits in summer and the same winter uniforms.  Dyed hair is not allowed. Makeup is not allowed. Dating is not allowed.

38.  Getting a haircut in China can be a risky business give the lack of languages skills by both parties. But generally the cutters are pretty good. In the first placed I lived with a large student population there were lots of hairdressers to choose from – but which one.  My tactic was to choose the hairdressers with the gayest looking boys in there with the most modern haircuts as I assumed they would know what they were doing. It seemed to work for me. Most cheaper hairdressers seem identical. A bunch of fashionable guys (I’ve not seen girls cutting) with cheesy music blasting from some outdoor speakers. My haircut is around £4. Plus they wash your hair before and after the haircut.

Me getting a cut 

39.  And there are a lot of hair salons to choose from which makes the choosing all the more difficult.

40.           Generally people don’t seem to have as much ‘stuff’ as we do in the West. I have been in many Chinese homes in Anhui Province and locally and they are pretty spartan. In a big room there might be a dining table a settee, some hard back chairs (suitable for said table) a big screen TV perhaps a dresser. On the walls maybe some calligraphy or a picture of Mao. That’s about it.

41.           In many places there is no evidence of heating or AC – people just put on more clothing to keep warm and keep the doors wide open. Obviously this probably doesn’t happen in the North - Anhui province where I went, even in the mountains, is in the ‘warm’ south.

42.           Once upon a time some beaurocrat member of the party drew a line across China, it stretches from Shanghai across the country. Above that line it is ‘officially’ cold and below that line it is ‘officially’ warm. This means homes in the ‘warm’ south are not built with insulation and decent heating.

43. Throughout the year one will hear insanely long strings of firecrackers constantly going off at the crack of dawn or late into the night.  These are often set off to celebrate the opening of a new store or a marriage procession along the motorway – they drive away bad luck for the recipients but pollute the air for the rest of us. It had got so bad that here in Nanjing the local government have banned fireworks.  We still hear them occasionally but even at Spring Festival and New Year it was quite, unlike the Chinese New Years eve I spent in Shanghai a few years ago where it was like being in WW3 and the fireworks lasted over 24 hours.

Shanghai Chinese New Year

44. Karaoke, or as its called in China, KTV is huge. The places where you can go to sing, badly and out of tune, are all over the place, its big business here.  In fact as it was my birthday we went last weekend. The room cost around £35 (350rmb) for 5 people. Yes, unlike Karaoke in the UK where its done in the bar of the local pub so you can humiliate yourself in front of the rest of the punters whilst singing ‘Lady in Red’ to your cringing girlfriend KTV in China is done in private rooms with big screens, great sound systems and waiter service.  Drinks are expensive and you can buy snacks. My 350 rmb booked the room from 6pm to 2am – but we ate out first so go there around 9 and spent 2 hours caterwauling. It is great fun.

45.  During the winter months its not unusual to see sausages, fish and meats curing on the clotheslines next to the pants or hanging on the boughs of a handy tree or the telegraph/electric lines because they are drooping low enough. After all why use a fridge when its cold enough outside.

46.  It is quite jarring to see people who have shopped at the fish market, taking the fish home alive and still flopping around in plastic bags.  The fish section in the supermarkets are also not the place to visit if you have any feelings for animal (fish) welfare. Tanks are overfilled with gasping fish living out their last moments, some are clearly damaged floating around upside down – its not a good experience.

47.           Plastic bags from the supermarket are hopeless as they are very thin and the type of bag one uses in the rubbish bin are so thin I marvel at the technology used to make such thin bags and have them on a roll at the same time.

48.  If one is ill it is possible to go to a pharmacy and buy most things your doctors back home would give you a prescription for. For example antibiotics aren't regulated, so its easy to by Amoxicillin for example. The problem with this is they are seen as a cure all and you will be told to take an antibiotic even for a common cold or for a stomach ache.

49.  Instant coffee is everywhere. Everyone loves Nescafé but in the little sachets one buy its usually sugared so you end up with a hot sweet brown coloured beverage that is masquerading as coffee.  If you want real coffee and make the mistake of going into one of the many ‘coffee’ houses such as Blue Mountain Coffee you will get a small cup of very expensive, but good, coffee.  Of course Starbucks and Costa sell western style coffee at around 30rmb but Chinese chains such as 56 degrees (In Nanjing anyway) do decent coffee for half that price and indeed KFC and McDonalds coffee is bearable for a much smaller price.

This is my preferred brand in my office - hot water is always available in the hot water dispenser by the toilets

50.  Napping is the national ‘sport’ or habit. My students could nap for China. Everywhere you go, at any time of day, people will be napping. In the shops – IKEA runs regular announcements stating that the beds are for display not sleeping in. But its not unknown for grandma’s and granddads to be left napping in a chair whilst the family shops. People use restaurants like KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks – all with AC and wi-fi as handy places to nap – you don’t even have to purchase anything. I’ve even had to ask staff to wake people up and move them so I could sit down with my purchase –this is done without so much as a murmur of dissent.  People nap on bikes, in carts, on the metro actually anywhere and everywhere is codusive to 40 winks or more.  The Chinese teachers have camp beds in the office for the lunch time nap.

Note - all of the photographs on this blog are mine except for one or two - if they are yours and you don't want them here contact me and I will remove them. If you use my photos please do try to contact me about their use.


  1. good and truthful list :) why you were in many Anhui houses? I guess the houses in Nanjing generally look a bit better. Nice pictures

  2. Really enjoyed this! My 15 year old son just moved to Nanjing 4 weeks ago. He is attending school there as an AFS Exchange student.