…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: A Foreigner’s Guide on What NOT TO DO While Living in China

This a revised post first written in 2006

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

It always amazes me how foreigners who have no ties with China, know nothing about China’s people, culture, or language, suddenly uproot themselves and plop themselves in China: teaching, learning, working.

Then, when the foreigner arrives in China, one of two extremes occurs, and everything else in between:

1.  The foreigner falls so in love with China and its people, he curses the day he was ever born a Lebanese/Englishman/Botswanan.  This foreigner embraces the Chinese culture and people, tries every morsel of food placed in front of him – alive or dead, dreams of landing a wonderful Chinese wife (for men), and tries to memorize Chinese characters every waking moment of his day.  Given the opportunity, he’d strike up a conversation with any Chinese with his broken Chinese conversation skills.


2.  The foreigner is critical of many things in China – the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the bad sanitary habits of the Chinese people, the squat toilets, why nobody in China speaks good English, the difficulty in finding a good piece of steak, why people are so rude.  He’s here for practical reasons and hopes being in China will look good on his resume.  On the weekends, the foreigner hangs out with other expats in a sports bar discussing any one of the topics mentioned above.

This is a foreigner’s guide on what NOT TO DO when living in China:

1.  DON’T EVER try to pick up Chinese women with your stilted Chinese conversational skills.  (For men only):

I once accidentally became the “interpreter” between a cute, young Chinese Sales Lady in a convenience store, and an optimistic, but naive American:

Naive American: 你好!我要買兩包煙. Hello, I want to buy two packs of cigarettes.

Cute Sales Lady: 什麼?他說什麼? What?  What is he saying?

Naive: (Embarrassed, but bravely continuing in Mandarin): 你好!我要買兩包煙,好嗎? Hello, I want to buy 2 packs of cigarettes, is that OK?

Cute: (Looking perplexed)

Me: (In Mandarin to Cute) 他説他要買兩包香煙. He says he wants two packs of cigarettes.

Cute: 哦!了解!哪一種? Oh!  Understood!  Which kind?

Naive: (Looking perplexed)

Me: What kind of cigarette do you want?

Naive: OH!  (Pointing to a yellow pack of cigarettes and now speaking in English). That one!  (Continues to nobody in particular in Mandarin). 我的國語很不好! My Chinese is very bad!

Me: (In Mandarin to Cute) 他說他國語不好.  He says his Chinese is bad.

Cute: 呵呵….他說的一點沒錯!  Hehe…He’s got that right!

Naive: (Taking the giggles as a good sign and talking to Cute in broken Mandarin again) 你喜歡看電影嗎?  Do you like to watch movies?

Me: (In Mandarin to Cute) 他要請你看電影.  He wants to take you to a movie.

Cute: (Giggles, then giggles with her coworker nearby, who also starts giggling) 可是,他的鼻子好大好大!  But his nose is so big, so big!

Me: (To Naive) She thinks you have a cute nose.

Naive: (Flustered, touches his nose lightly and speaking in English) Ohhh!  Well…I-I-I…never thought….

Cute: 他說的國語我一句都聽不懂!  I can’t understand a word of his Chinese!

Me: (To Naive) She wishes she could understand more of your Chinese so she can talk to you directly, but she is sorry she speaks a different dialect.

Naive: Oh, I see!  (To Cute in bad Mandarin) 沒關係!  That’s OK!

Cute: 他到底說什麼? 我一句話都聽不懂? 他國語夠爛,他到底要不要買香煙啊!  What is he saying, anyway?  I can’t understand a word, his Chinese sucks!  Is he going to buy the cigarettes, or not?

Me: (To Naive) She can’t really see a movie with you.  Her husband will kill her.  Are you going to buy the cigarettes?

2.  DON’T become a stereotype of your home country/your heritage/your ethnicity:

I once tried this new Italian restaurant run by real, down home *I* talians – at least, my vision of what down home Italian boys should be, never having been to Italy.  The Italian owners were complete stereotypes of all things Italian.  There was a big guy with greased down curly, long hair tied back in a ponytail, stubble on his face.  He had some gold jewelry and sharp looking shiny black trousers.  His partner, a smaller, darker man was wearing a complete football (soccer) uniform, was the one who said ciao when you entered and arrivederci when you left.

Mario and Luigi stood behind the bar counter, looking as if they were trapped behind it. They bickered – it sounded like bickering to me – back and forth, with lots of exaggerated hand gestures, like, Mama Mia!  What should I do? type gestures.  And either Mario or Luigi would storm off after such a conversation in a seeming huff only re-position himself behind the counter after going for a smoke, or a pee break.  This continued throughout my dinner.

My point is — it’s OK to be proud of your heritage when you’re in a foreign country, but you don’t need to advertise it like a big neon sign over your head.  Don’t worry, the pods won’t take over your brain, if you live in China over a period of time.  You won’t start hacking on the sidewalk, eating cockroaches, or doing any of the “scary” things that you think Chinese people in China do… which leads me to….

3.  DON’T be afraid to cross the street in China.

Chinese street cleaner on a good day with little traffic

Remember, you HAVE to cross the street at some point.  So you must overcome your fear of crossing the street immediately.  You can do it.  Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step One:  Stand at a random busy street and gauge the speed of the vehicles moving on either side of the street in both directions. (You should never assume one lane has traffic going one way only).

Step Two:  As soon as there is a lull in traffic in the lane closest to you – even if it’s a lull in only one lane of a five-lane road – step out onto the road and start walking, one foot after the other, moving forward in as straight a line as you can.  Get an easy pace and steady rhythm going.

Step ThreeKeep walking with confidence and your head held high.  The biggest mistake motorists and pedestrians make is stopping and losing nerve, when they should continue moving.

Step Four:  Don’t change your mind about walking forward.  A lot of Chinese do this.  They start walking in one direction, then remember they forgot something somewhere, so they go in the other direction.  But then, they are distracted by something in a completely opposite direction, so they start to go in that direction, or just stop dead in their tracks, because they’ve forgotten why they were walking in the first place, or because they’ve just decided they don’t want to live anymore and want to end their lives on a busy five-lane road.


However, here are some cars you want to yield to when crossing the street:

a/  Cars with government plates.

b/  Cargo trucks, trucks hauling containers, trucks with pigs and chickens.

c/  Cars that have dented front hoods with fresh blood smeared across the grille

4. DON’T expect that any of the clothes being sold in stores will fit any part of your foreign-sized body.  (For women only):

It’s a maddening fact and an incredible phenomenon that Chinese women can eat three times their weight in food, but never gain any weight, while foreign women can gain weight by just looking at an advertisement for Tiramisu for over 30 seconds.

Hobbits modeling the Spring 2012 line

So of course you’d expect that in China, clothing for women fit either a) a typical teenager in the West; b) a Hobbit; or, c) a sixty-year-old Grandmother whose body resembles that of a prairie dog.

Fortunately, if you happen to be shopping at a “typical” store in China, you will soon find that you don’t particularly care for the clothing sold in China.

Sweet Box: Candies & Cookies, Willselection. From my personal collection. (I only wear this t-shirt in countries that don't speak English.)

Clothing that is made in China for the Chinese is nothing like the clothing that is exported to countries outside of China.  The Chinese prefer to have some kind of adornment on the clothing, whether it’d be a flashy brooch the size of a goiter, a fake fox head eating its own tail slung casually around one’s neck, or a slogan on an otherwise perfect t-shirt that says, TWINKLE TINKLE STRA POT POWER! and in smaller words the tagline: Forever my dreams….ka ka house.

If, as a foreigner, you don’t find any of the above off-putting and you still try to purchase clothing in China, DON’T be put off by the fact that your thigh won’t get past the waistband of those pants,nor bemoan the fact that the circumference of your right breast is larger than the neck size of the t-shirt you are trying to put on over your head.

5.  DON’T purchase fake products in China expecting that they will look as good or hold up as well as the real thing.

When Gameworks first opened, I went there for a date.  I was sporting a huge nautical-looking watch I’d purchased in Taiwan.  The watch was supposed to be a knock-off and looked like the steering wheel of a big ship.  The strap was so loose on my wrist that the watch sat halfway up my arm, looking like a heart monitor.

We were playing a simulation bowling game, where you’d maneuver a fixed bowling ball around with both hands (like a track ball on a laptop), so that you, as the bowling ball, could go up and down through the hilly streets of San Francisco and finally reach a bunch of bowling pins, which you’d have to hit.

I sucked so badly at the game that I drew crowds.  It was either that or my whooping and hollering, because the game exhausted my arms.  Apparently, my watch was also exhausted, because just as I was approaching the bowling pins – the grand finale – my watch came apart.  The glass face of the watch fell to the ground, the hands of the watch flew a few feet towards a couple behind me  – causing the lady to yelp – and one of the watch springs almost bounced itself into my date’s left eye.

I wish I could say that the trauma of nearly being blinded brought my date and I closer together and today we’re married with kids, but the watch, combined with my bowling abomination and the conciliatory tequila shots I had at the bar afterwards, were enough to convince my date to make our Gameworks date our last.

So, for all of you foreigners, who are thinking about doing any of the above in China –  JUST DON’T.

Related Posts: Too Fat for China: Confessions of a Size 4

12 comments on “Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: A Foreigner’s Guide on What NOT TO DO While Living in China

  1. Pingback: The LostNChina Interviews – MrMary sits with Suzanita 1 « A Spoonful of Suga

  2. Pingback: Toilet Tales « lostnchina

  3. C.
    March 31, 2012

    Don’t buy electronics. It’ll be 20-70 GB off the label. Anything that doesn’t pass QA/QC gets dumped here…


    • lostnchina
      March 31, 2012

      Well, learned that lesson too. TV doesn’t work (almost new). Blender…(just broke in half). Stereo – broken. It’s hard NOT to buy electronics in China, unless one’s used to sitting in a bare-bones apartment staring at a moldy wall.


  4. Linda Pou
    March 27, 2012

    Ha ha.. great story! I remember when I lived there, I def couldn’t find cothes to fit me..but then I have a hard time finding any in my home country!! Love reading what’s written on some of those Chinese t-shirts!!


    • lostnchina
      March 27, 2012

      Yes, there’s no better way to make yourself depressed than trying to shop for clothing in China.

      Thanks for reading, Linda!


  5. gingerfightback
    March 27, 2012

    I know that long haired Italian fella…..


    • lostnchina
      March 27, 2012

      It’s OK, Ginger – you can say you’re the long-haired fellow. Nobody’s going to judge you here.


  6. shardsofchina
    March 26, 2012

    My favorite bad expat here was the American guy who chose to come to China to work in a coffee shop. He picked his destination by closing his eyes and moving to the place his finger landed on the map – Wuhan. The local police took pity on his homeless patheticness and had a whip round to pay for him to fly to Beijing so he could beg for mercy from his embassy. That’s genuinely special…


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This entry was posted on March 26, 2012 by in China, Humor and tagged , , , .
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