10 Habits I picked up after living in rural China

10 Habits I picked up after living in rural China

There have been many posts by expats talking about habits they picked up, things that have changed since they lived in China. Most of them though are living in an expat community, or in an international university, and in a bigger city.

If you live in a foreign country for a longer time you cannot help it. The new customs, behavior and habits just stick; sometimes to the point where you start adapting, maybe unconsciously. There are a few habits I picked up while living with my parents-in-law. Some of them might not be totally unique to rural China, but they definitely are very prominent there.

1. Hot Water is King! Yes, hot water. The magic cure for everything! When I lived in Shanghai I knew that Chinese people prefer hot water over cold, but I never thought it was THAT important. Living with my mother-in-law showed me otherwise. No matter what you have, a cold, a headache, even a real infection, she would make me drink hot water. I don’t know the scientific proof of hot water as a remedy, but I am sure it does make you feel better. I will never change back to cold water. Hot water is now one of my favorite beverages.

chinese wedding invitation

2. Invitations are totally overrated. There are no invitations where my parents-in-law lived(except a wedding invitation, and even that one is handed out a week in advance). Usually people just pop in whenever they feel like. We might be in the middle of our dinner when one of my father-in-laws brothers would come running in to tell us we have to have dinner with them tonight. Everything is prepared, people are waiting. Well… ok. I got used to the spontaneity so much now, that I cannot stand making appointments weeks or months in advance. But for some things it’s just hard. Germany is no village, and people have commitments.


3. Silence is Not Golden. Some people, especially my mom, accused me of talking too loud every time I come back from China. Yes, it might be true. Restaurants are very loud in China in general. But no one will ever reach the high pitched voice of my mother-in-law. Imagine. And then multiple. And you might have a feeling of how loud it was in our house when she had her weekly Mahjong afternoon. If you don’t adapt to the noise level, no one will hear you.

4. Hello Stranger. Every time we go out, Jin would just start chatting to whoever was standing next to him. Once an elderly man in a bike stopped right next to us. He got off his bike and started slowly working with us while talking to Jin in a friendly voice. They chatted about the market today and about a lady I have never heard off. I asked Jin who the man was. Shrugging his shoulders he said “Don’t know. Never saw him before.” Something like this was happening all the time. After I realized it’s just the way, I tried the same. Being a foreigner and all the effect was insane. But being back in Germany trying the same… well, that didn’t really work out. People would have this freak-go-away-face-expression.

panda shoes5. Pajamas and fluffy house shoes. Have you ever tried to go to the bakery or grocery store in your pajamas and house shoes? Well, I did once in Germany… and regret it the minute I stepped out the house. It’s just not the same. In Niuji, where my parents-in-law live, it’s is so normal to be in your pajamas all day long. Especially during winter. You have those big fluffy outdoor pajamas. They have pockets and keep you extremely warm. And is everyone in every age group, male and female alike, are wearing them, there is no need to be ashamed.

6. Who needs sidewalks, anyway? There are actually no real sidewalks in Niuji. We always walk on the street. In the middle of the street to be exact. It’s not that there are no cars. On the contrary. There are a lot of cars, and busses racing through the village. But somehow everyone just walks in the middle of the street. Try that in Germany and you get screamed at or even fined. There are just some habits you should leave back in China.

7. Don’t take off your coat indoors. Yeah. That one. Something I got used to a while ago. As there is no heating in Niuji, we never take our coat off in the house, or in the restaurant. It is absolutely normal. People even have more coats than sweaters. I remember last year when Jin visited me in Germany, we went to a restaurant and he didn’t take his jacket off until I told him to. Having grown up there those habits stick even harder than it is in my case.

chinese squating8. The perfect squat. Many people even call it the ‘Chinese Squat’. That has nothing to do with being racist. Squatting in China is something really practical. Most of the time you won’t find a clean bench to sit on when you are in the countryside. So why standing for hours if you can squat? Though, I would not recommend doing that in Germany, in a train station for example, while waiting for the train…

9. No firecrackers. No Party. Oh dear firecrackers. I despise you. Some people might think that lighting firecrackers is something solely reserved for Chinese New Year. Well, unfortunately it isn’t. In Niuji you hear firecrackers almost every day. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, business openings, everything requires firecrackers. Although I really don’t like them, I would not want to miss them as well. It is just something I associate with a celebration. I would actually love to light firecrackers at my birthday. But I am sure there are some rules in Germany prohibiting that.

10. That’s not standard Chinese. Lately, my Chinese teachers are very angry with me. Apparently, I don’t speak standard Chinese anymore (not sure if I ever did, though). Apart from all kinds of habits, the language is something else you pick up very quickly. My parents-in-law speak a dialect. And even though my husband tries very hard to speak standard Chinese, well, he just doesn’t. Sorry dear. Sometime I would realize that his grammar and words are dialect and tell him. But most of the time I just don’t know (and actually don’t care). It’s just when my teachers started annoying me with trying harder to learn standard Beijing dialect. Why? Chinese people understand me perfectly (most of the time haha).

There are more habits I picked up over the years. But those are the most visible at the moment. Some of them I have to shed while living outside of China, some of them I just keep because I think they benefit me (like drinking hot water). But even though we pick up habits while living in another culture and country, that doesn’t mean we forget where we came from. On the contrary, we also influence the other people. My husband has picked up so many of my habits that it scares me. But also my parents-in-law are not immune to me. Before I came they would never use salt for their tomatoes, cucumbers or corn (they use sugar instead). Now, they always have salt on the table, even if I am not there.

What are your experiences? Did you pick up any habits or customs while living abroad? Or do you think we should try to stick to our own habits and not adapt?

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

9 thoughts on “10 Habits I picked up after living in rural China

  1. Oh God I hate the hot water rule – mainly because it was 40C outside and my MIL forced me to drink hot water on my period like I wasn’t uncomfortable enough :) I talked about this with out landlords wife and she never even gave a cold water or food to her dogs to keep them healthy. My husband says it helps with digesting plus your body is hot so they match and it won’t cause a stomachache :) psi love the fact ur hubby wears ur shoes – so cute :)

    • I think hot water definitely does have positive effects on our bodies. And btw of you have your period you should never drink cold water, especially if it is hot outside. It actually make the pain worse. But I guess everything depends on the things we are used to. Also has a lot to do with our mind :)

      • for me being comfortable is 90% of forgetting the pain :) with the slippers is true as well, but my MIL loves my husband so much that he’s the only one in a whole family that doesn’t need to wear them haha :) but I cannot imagine sitting in my jacket – my PL flat is always so warm that during winter time I could be wearing summer dress and still sweat, but somehow Chinese people believe ‘if it’s cold just put some more clothes’ – that is the thing I think I will never get used to. Saving money is one thing but being cold and sick… not for me. I’m a rebel and forced my husband to get a small heater for our rented flat – owner is Chinese as well so you can freeze but the heating won’t turn on. One morning I woke up to 12C and I don’t want to do that anymore :)

  2. What I am wondering about the whole heating thing. Why not heating with a fireplace? I mean in our cottage in Finland (the wooden building is over 120years old) we also only have a fireplace for the entire building to heat and even in the coldest winters I have spent there (up to -38 degrees Celsius when I was there) it was just too damn warm when wearing warm clothes. At least in our house it is build that the heat is staying in the stones of the fireplace for at least 12h so you only need to fire up everything twice a day for an hour.
    Even my mom who lived basicaly in a wooden shed in the countryside of Finland in the 1940-1950’s never had to wear any jackets inside.
    It is just so surprising why they don’t build just with a bit more isolation, some better stonework for the oven etc to have warm winter without needing any electricity…

    Besides this all now, I started to drink alot more hot water ever since my first stay in China. Somehow I just got used to it :)

    • Oh man I would love to have a fireplace at my parents-in-laws house. But telling the Chinese to start changing how they build their houses is like telling them to stop using Chinese characters…
      It’s just never gonna happen. At least not in the rural areas, because it would be way too expensive to build better isolated houses or even build in a fireplace.

      • Thats true. It is often difficult for people to change if they are used to something for so long. It reminds me of a guy I know who financed and built mostly by himself a house for his parents in law in a rural area. He had to do most by himself as the workers didnt even know what to do with the glass wool and that they should build a solid foundation. Anyways, the most difficulties he had with his parents in law as he had to convince them that isolation is better and that they will have warm winters and cool summers from now on…

  3. Does drinking hot water really make you feel better? Here’s one pseudo-scientific explanation that I’ve heard regarding the health benefits of drinking hot water: Because we’re mammals that expend energy to maintain our bodies at a constant warm temperature, drinking hot water means that we would lose less energy in the process of absorbing the water into our bodies. This is especially true in cold weather conditions, and if you think about it, the logic is not so different from the reason people drink hot chocolate to warm up.

    Anyway, cool blog!

  4. Some things are definitely the same in the big cities. I live in Qingdao with my Chinese husband and I’ve always been told to drink hot water when I’m not feeling well. Sorry, but after I workout, I need cold water! I can’t get used to the taste of plain hot water but I do love tea. Invitations are given out the same way here. I think people just hand them out to anyone so they can get more money. Here, instead of squatting, people bring these small fold-up chairs around with them. It’s very common to see a bunch of old men gathered on the sidewalk playing cards as they all sit on these chairs. Anyway, I really like your blog! I think you are much braver than I am to live in a rural part of China and I find your journey fascinating. I also write a blog about my life here but sometimes I am not as nice as you are! =)

  5. I find myself adapting to some Taiwanese ways, especially their ‘driving rules.’ I find that it is necessary to drive a little like them to avoid having an accident. Plus, if I wait for someone to let me go first without some initiative on my part, then I would be waiting a long time.

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