In all of my blog posts so far I’ve talked about places I’ve been to in Europe. While every place in Europe I have been to is different and has their own culture, it is still similar enough to the United States that I never felt out of my element. So what should you expect when you finally have the courage to visit a place that’s very different from what you’re used to?
The first foreign country I ever traveled to was China. It is also the only place I have been to thus far that I have actually experienced culture shock. I was sixteen and my high school was organizing a trip for the students taking Mandarin to stay with host families in Shanghai for two weeks and all they had to pay for was the plane ticket. When the program didn’t have enough girls they opened it to other students taking a foreign language. It took me about 5 minutes to decide to apply. So there I was: Sixteen, with no experience with Mandarin, and no idea what I was doing.
Here are a few cultural differences that really stood out to me. Some, I handled well. Others, not so much.
The Bathroom Situation
Luckily, before we left the US, the Mandarin teacher told us to bring some travel packs of tissues to carry with us. I didn’t understand at first, but didn’t bother to question it because I wanted to be as prepared as possible. I quickly came to realize once I go there that a lot of bathrooms at historical sites, in some restaurants, and even the high school that we partnered with had actual holes in ground for toilets and… no toilet paper. It is a common belief in China that going “number one” doesn’t require toilet paper. And if you need to go “number two” you have to provide your own toilet paper. I thought about trying it just to say that I did it, but quickly decided I wasn’t anywhere near confident in my aim and didn’t want to ruin my shoes. So I kept my bag of tissues close and stuck to places that had westernized toilets like museums, shopping malls, and the apartment I was staying in.
Sticking Out Like A Sore Thumb
Another thing that took me by surprise was the locals’ reactions to non-Asian people. But in a country with 1.3 billion people with 91% of them being Asian, practically anything else is going to get attention. But at the time I had never even considered that my blue eyes and blonde hair would be a novelty. I will never forget my first morning in Shanghai when I was standing on a street corner and a man slowed down on his bike and literally pointed and gaped at me. That was just the start. Throughout the trip, my classmates and I were stopped to take pictures with people, asked if people could touch our hair, told we were beautiful many times, and continuously stared at for most of the trip. It was the first time I was different from everyone else. And while at times it was flattering, by the end of the week it was almost unsettling and exhausting. There isn’t much advice I can give to handle this, but definitely be aware of it when you travel to places like Asia.
The Good, The Bad, and The Questionable Food
I knew before my trip that the food situation was going to be very different. And I had promised myself before I left that I was going to be up for trying as much as I could. And I did (for the most part). My host family was very nice about it, but were set on getting me to try as much of their food as possible. The meal I remember being so different to me was breakfast. Instead of eggs or cereal, I was eating things like deep-fried dough sticks and soybean milk, steamed meat buns, rice porridge etc. A lot of them I could handle, but some were just not for me. Most of my lunches and dinners were your typical meat, rice, and noodle dishes, but when we went to a more rural part of China for a weekend I was introduced to stinky tofu. Emphasis on the stinky. I was with the other kids from my high school in one of the oldest markets in China, but we had to find a place to sit inside because we actually couldn’t handle the stench. I’ve heard it actually tastes a lot better than it smells, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. But since I ate beef liver and stomach, I like to think that I made up for it in my own weird way.
My advice for dealing with food is to bring some snacks you really like from home. I had packed some trail mix, pretzels, and peanuts in my suitcase for the trip and I was so happy I did. Even though a lot of the food I had was good, it was still nice to munch on some things that were familiar to me. So whether you are a picky or adventurous eater, pack some of your favorite sweet and salty snacks to munch on. You’ll thank yourself later!
A Land Without Lefties
Since we lefties only make up about 11% of the world’s population, this one isn’t going to apply to most people. But to all my lefties out there planning to travel to Asia — you’re going to get some looks. Most Asian countries force children to become right-handed because the left hand is considered bad luck. I remember the first night I was with my host family and I picked up my chopsticks with my left hand. I got a few stares, but never got any comments. Also, the way the Chinese alphabet is designed makes it much harder to write legible Chinese characters with the left hand. I would know. One of the activities our group did was at our host high school. They had a Chinese calligrapher come in to teach us how to write some words. When I sat down at my desk and picked up the brush with my left hand, the calligrapher and his translator started mumbling to each other until the translator approached me and said, “Do you always use that hand?” I cluelessly said yes and she and the teacher laughed and told me no one ever uses their left hand there. I wasn’t insulted, but didn’t think my using my right hand would make my calligraphy any better. So I stuck with what I knew. This is one tradition that I think you’ll be okay if you don’t follow, but it’s something to keep in mind if people stare at you when you pick up your chopsticks to eat with your left hand. Stay strong, lefties!
China was an absolutely wonderful experience that I loved. I think it also made me a better traveler because it was so different. I was definitely a fish out of water when I started that trip, but felt like I adjusted over time. If you think you’re up for it, I highly recommend traveling to places in Asia. The culture and history is so beautiful and can’t even be compared to. Here is a list of things to know in case you decide to go! What would be the hardest part of culture shock for you? Let me know in the comments!