Even if you failed world geography class, you know that China is an enormous country, in both land mass and population (1.34 billion and counting). You are probably familiar with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the country’s cuddliest mascot, the giant panda. You might also have heard that over the course of a 5,000-year history, Chinese came up with such innovations as paper and gun powder. But some things can’t be learned without time spent on the ground, getting to know the place. Here are some of my discoveries after two years in Shanghai:
1. China is diverse
Before moving to the Middle Kingdom, I imagined the country as very homogeneous. While Han Chinese, at 91 percent, make up the majority of the population, there are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, and around 200 languages spoken. Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Hui, Miao and Koreans all have sizable communities, though the largest ethnic minority group in China is the Zhuang. With a population between 16-18 million, this group rivals some European nations.
Yunnan Province, bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam in China’s southwest, is home to the most diverse collection of minority groups. As many as 100 different languages are thought to exist in Yunnan, some with just a few thousand native speakers.
2. Fireworks aren’t just for Chinese New Year
The Chinese invented fireworks so it stands to reason they are fond of setting them off. New Year celebrations continue for nearly two weeks with fireworks going off around the clock. Anyone can buy them, so displays aren’t limited to those planned by city officials.
Some believe that the loud noise scares away evil spirits and have incorporated fireworks into other areas of their lives. You can often hear the familiar pops in residential areas on weekend mornings, signaling a marriage or the purchase of a new house. Family members and friends try to chase away bad spirits to ensure good fortune for their loved ones.
3. Western names are never boring
It’s a common practice for young Chinese to select an English name for themselves and these can be surprisingly creative. I’ve been served in Shanghai’s shops and restaurants by girls with names such as Dazzle, Leaf, Passion, Energy, Venus, Lemon, September and Fish. Boys get in on the action, too, with monikers like Mars, Dante, Rambo, Wiggle, Echo, Nokia and Beyond. The practice makes our run-of-the-mill English names appear quite dull by comparison. I think I’m going to start calling myself Bōluó (pineapple) because it’s my favorite Chinese word.
4. In fashion, anything goes
For several decades of the previous century, Chinese mainlanders mostly wore standard-issue navy blue suits and cropped hairstyles. When the policy of Reform and Opening Up took effect in 1979, the citizenry was introduced to Western fashion, some seeing it for the first time. With few Chinese style icons to follow, an “anything goes” approach was adopted and continues to this day. Girls will wear lace, bows, sequins, polka dots and animal print, often in a single outfit. Miniskirts and stilettos are the norm, even for the office.
Guys tend to be a little more subdued, though they do have a penchant for mixing stripes and plaids and unusual colors. As in much of the rest of Asia, it’s not uncommon to see couples in coordinating or even matching outfits. I have yet to get my husband on board with this trend.
5. The Chinese get flex-time, sort of
When Chinese are given a midweek day off work to celebrate a national holiday, they are expected to work through a weekend and take three consecutive days off. In other words, Chinese will work the preceding Saturday and Sunday in lieu of two weekdays, ostensibly to maximize what they can do with the free time. While this gives them a lengthy break, it also means working nine days in a row without pause and they have no choice in the matter.
The result is hundreds of millions of people hitting the roads, trains, buses and airports simultaneously to make the most of their long holiday. During Chinese New Year especially, many leave the cities to visit families and hometowns, though more and more Chinese are taking the opportunity for leisure travel. If you are planning to visit China, these festive times should probably be avoided unless you enjoy waiting in line.
6. Number 13 is lucky
Growing up in the U.S., the number 13 was always regarded with a bit of superstition, like black cats and broken mirrors. The horror flick Friday the 13th is a cult classic, while it’s generally accepted that bad things will happen should the thirteenth day of the month actually fall on a Friday. The superstition is so ingrained that some elevators and buildings in North America won’t have a 13th floor, even if the building is 40 stories tall.
Not so in China! 13 is lucky because it is associated with being ‘definitely alive’. The number 10 (十) sounds like the word ‘definite’ (实) in Mandarin while 3 (三) is similar to ‘life’ (生). That sounds like a floor I want to live on!
7. Doors may be optional on toilet stalls
Everyone is probably aware of China’s penchant for squat toilets, with some being little more than a glorified hole in the ground. But unless you have spent some time exploring less cosmopolitan areas of the country, you might not have come across the toilets without doors on the “stalls.” I will spare you graphic details, but let’s just say this puts you in a very compromising position in a very public way.