I’ve lived in China for more than 4 months now. Specifically, I live in Shanghai.
You probably know that Shanghai is big.
But you may not know that it is the biggest city in the world. It’s 23 million people.
That’s more than three New York Citys, plus a couple of Austin Texas’s thrown in for good measure.
As a big city, it has everything you would expect, good and bad.
One of my colleagues says there are two main things you need to understand about going to China. I’m sure these are true across the country, but I find them especially true in Shanghai.
First: Forget about your notions of personal space – they aren’t respected. (I’ll talk about that one another time.)
Second: Don’t over think anything that you see that is outside of your normal experience or other behaviors that you would typically expect. Instead, you simply have to get used to saying to yourself ‘that’s China.’
How about enjoying a quiet Friday evening in your apartment, hearing something of a commotion outside down on the street, going to your balcony to look out, and seeing a giant bonfire has been started in a lane of a very busy seven lane road, with people around the fire banging drums and chanting in rhythm and, seemingly, throwing items in the fire – no fire trucks, no police, only what looked like a citizens brigade armed with a hose just in case.
Mind you, this is in the middle of the city’s most central business district. It would be like someone lighting a bonfire on 5th street in downtown Austin or Avenue of Americas in NYC near midtown. I have it on video. It went on for about an hour.
How about walking along a few paces behind a regular guy, dressed business casual, just like you, on a nice (busy) downtown street during a regular work day and having him (by all appearances, not drunk) suddenly turn to the side, whip down his zipper, and take a wiz right there on the sidewalk, against a wall? I’ve seen that happen multiple times.
How about visiting with your Chinese colleagues over a drink and talking about favorite places to eat and having a 30-something young lady say to you (somewhat sheepishly) that she likes a certain place because they serve the ‘freshest blood.’ She likes the fact that you can get extra portions of it and that they don’t charge you extra when, for example, you use it to flavor your soup.
But, “that’s China.” Order ice tea, and expect to get hot tea with ice poured into it and a cup you would use for coffee.
Go to a happy hour and rather than get drinks at a discount, expect to get two of everything.
Shop for bath towels at the local Costco equivalent, and expect only to find what you would think of as hand towels, because that’s what they use for bathing. I could go on.
China is a giant country, but it is all on one time zone. And that zone is literally the opposite side of the world.
When it is noon in NYC, it is midnight in Shanghai. Just starting to gear up for your day in Boston at 9am? Just starting to gear down your day in Beijing at 9pm.
The opposite time is perhaps a good symbol for the opposite – or perhaps, better put, ‘other worldly’ – experience that I’ve had living in China.