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My culture shocks when I visited China

Updated: 2011-06-21 09:31
By John E. Jones (

In stark contrast to North America and Europe when I landed in Beijing and went through customs I was not searched or intimidated by armed guards and police. I was greatly surprised that I saw no guns or weapons of any kind, no bullet proof vests, clubs, tazers, nothing to intimidate me; but this was only the beginning of my first trip and the cultural shocks that I was to experience.

After all the stories I had heard about China this experience came as a great surprise to say the least; but it was just the beginning of a far greater cultural shocks as I travelled the country from Shenzhen in the south to Jilin in the north during two trips to China in which I spent nearly six months in the country.

My culture shocks when I visited China
John Jones and his wife [Photo provided to] 
I had prepared for my trip by working as a volunteer editor for China Travel Guide and learned a great deal about tourist destinations, transportation within the country, sights to see, and Chinese history, so that when I landed in Beijing I had a list of places that I wanted to visit. After spending a few days in Beijing seeing some of the sights, visiting the Great Wall nearby, and getting over my jet lag from flying in from Vancouver I was off to Xi'an.

I travelled with my Chinese wife who was my guide and interpreter; she had arrived in Beijing earlier on a flight from New York. We took a train to Xi'an so that we could view the countryside as we travelled. My purpose in going to Xi'an first of all was to check out the artistic community and then to explore the many historical sights, but Xi'an was also home of the China Travel guide, and the young lady that I had been working with. Finally we met in person and as is Chinese custom she met me bearing gifts, and was an invaluable source in information on where to go, what to see, places to eat etc, in Xi'an.

In order to travel widely through China other than with a tour group a native language speaking guide is almost an absolute necessity; however my Mandarin speaking wife had difficulty communicating with the ethnic groups throughout the country as I discovered in Xi'an. Another cultural shock; China has many ethnic minorities and unlike North American natives there was no program to assimilate them or destroy their cultures, so these ancient languages and cultures not only persist but also thrive and contribute immensely to the diversity in China.

This diversity is most apparent in the menus and the dress as you travel about the country where you can also experience unique exotic meals from one area to another.

Leaving Xi'an we took a flight back to Beijing on an Air China flight where we spent a few more days exploring before taking an overnight train north to Jilin City, my wife's hometown. While I could not see the countryside during the night, during the day what could be seen from the train was very inspiring. We had a very comfortable compartment with beds, pillows, sheets, and blankets. Periodically people came through the coaches selling snacks, and fruit, and there was a dining car where they served full course meals.

Jilin is an industrial city with a population of several million, which is considered to be a small city in China. The city of Jilin has a river running through it with a park on both sides of the river that extends some seventeen miles. Another cultural shock, all the land adjacent to the water was public domain, no businesses, no private housing or reserved private beaches; this was a peoples' city. I had seen numerous parks in Beijing and Xi'an but nothing on this scale. All of these parks contain numerous works of public art, and are beautifully landscaped, as well as immaculately clean; there was no trash to be seen anywhere. These parks all contained playgrounds with swings slides, monkey bars etc for children, and resting places with seating, and also with tables for picnics, there were numerous elderly people sitting and visiting as they watched over their grandchildren..

People were fishing from the shore along the river throughout the park, and they were catching fish. There were few boats on the river, no speed boats, or seadoos to disturb the peace and quiet.

Peace and quiet had been another cultural shock for me during my first days in Beijing. I had been in the city several days before I realized what was so different; there were no sirens, ambulances, and police cars just used flashing lights. A lot of the transportation was electric powered and almost totally noiseless; this was particularly noticeable with the numerous electric powered bikes, some as big as Harley Davidsons gliding around the cities in total silence. What a contrast with North America where motor cycles make as much noise as a truck, and sirens seem to scream constantly.

From the time that I entered China my first impressions of the police were further enhanced on several occasions. We witnessed an argument between a customer and the manager or owner of a street cafe that resulted in the police being called. A single officer soon showed up driving a police car but with no flashing lights or sirens; the officer totally unarmed got out of his car and began questioning both parties; this was another cultural shock. No one was arrested, the customer settled with the cafe manager and then left in a taxi.

Finally I had broken the law myself by renting an apartment in Guilin and not registering with the police. I knew that I was supposed to register but just forgot about it. One evening a police officer showed up at the door along with the woman in charge of the watch over the block. My fear of being visited by the police soon vanished; we showed our passports and were asked to let them take them to make copies, when I offered to make the copies they were quite pleased to sit and visit while I scanned and printed. The policeman was very informative when I asked about his work and not carrying weapons, he explained that armed police only dealt with gangsters and known criminals. Before he left I got another shock when he gave me his business card and told me to call him if I had any problem. I had never heard of such a thing before.

In conclusion during nearly six months of travelling in China I never saw an armed policeman. From the main streets and back alley in the cities to remote country villages accessible only by boat I never felt threatened or unsafe. I felt safer wandering around China than I do in my own country of Canada. The people were mostly very friendly and eager to assist this foreigner who did not speak their language.

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