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Cultural Differences Between America and China

October 1st, 2014

Before I visited China, I knew that I would face some extreme cultural differences during my travels there. I was very accustomed to my life in America and the ways that people live here. I am a middle class, white, American female and my life reflects the average life of a person with that description. However, my profession requires that I am surrounded by international people more often than not. I am an English as a Second Language instructor and I interact with students from all over the world, especially China.

I recently transferred jobs from one university to another. The transition was difficult for me because it left a gap in my schedule for a time during which I was not going to be employed, waiting for the new job to start. This caused anxiety and uncertainty as I approached the period of time that I would be jobless. How was I going to pay my bills? How was I going to eat? Where was I going to sleep? These questions rattled my mind as the gap drew nearer and nearer.

One day, I received an email from a man I did not know. His name was Peter. However, I could tell that his real name wasn’t Peter because he was a Chinese man. Peter emailed me saying that he had found my resume on the internet and that he wanted to offer a job opportunity to me to teach English in China for five weeks. I was skeptical because I didn’t speak Chinese and I didn’t have a strong interest in visiting that country. When I considered my upcoming, jobless situation, I decided that I had to take advantage of the offer because I needed to make money before I started my new job at the other university. So, I accepted his offer, arranged my visa paperwork and boarded a flight to China within two weeks.

I immediately noticed cultural differences even on my plane ride to China. The man sitting next to me on the plane kept hitting his own arm several times throughout the flight. I assumed his arm was asleep or having circulation problems. However, in America, it would be unlikely to see a person hitting their arm so frequently. I thought to myself, “Maybe this is a just a quirk of this particular man and not a quirk of the entire Chinese population.” Nevertheless, it struck me as different. Upon my arrival, the two people in charge of picking me up from the airport greeted me with a sign and huge smiles. However, within about 10 seconds, they said “Ok, let’s go”, grabbed my suitcase, and hurried out the doors of the airport. In America, people take more time to greet one another and small talk before moving on to the next activity. Maybe those people were just in a hurry.

The next cultural difference I noticed immediately was the manner of driving. Needless to say, I was scared to death. Cars can drive anywhere they want on the roads in China. When my driver passed vehicles on the highway, he used his turn signal for the duration of the pass, which you will not see happen in America. People drove over the middle lines of the highway for long distances. Traffic weaved in and out. There were no accidents, though. Everyone seemed to have the same crazy method of driving, just similar enough to not hit one another.

The next cultural difference I noticed were the light switches in my assigned apartment. To turn on the light, flip the light switch down. In America, it is the opposite. It took me a long time to get used to this difference. Another big difference I noticed in my apartment was the firmness of the couches and beds. In short, the furniture in China is rock solid. In America, every furniture company tries to make its furniture softer and fluffier than its competitors. This was very unusual for me. I found myself stuffing the fitted sheet on my bed full of blankets to provide extra padding. I wonder what Chinese people think of America mattresses.

The final initial cultural difference I noticed in China was the manner of eating. At every meal, every member of the group shares plates of food that are placed on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Most tables are circular, whereas most tables are square or rectangular in America. You can turn the lazy Susan whenever you would like to try food from another dish. Also, there are many courses to a meal in China. There are several plates for appetizers, several plates for the entrée and several plates for the “after meal”. I often ate much less than the Chinese people I was with, so I had to constantly convince them that I didn’t dislike the food, I just wasn’t a large enough person to eat that much food! Despite the cultural difference, the food was delicious and I enjoyed the communal atmosphere of each meal.

Differences like these mentioned above are difficult to adjust to, at first. However, after some time passes, a person can begin to appreciate the culture for its uniqueness and can more easily adapt to the unfamiliar environment in which they find themselves.