Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ upcoming visit. Kunming, China is a long way from their small Michigan city in the U.S. While it’s important to warn them about the differences, I don’t want to inflate the “foreignness” of life in Kunming. But with their visit in mind, I’ve once again begun to notice things that jarred me when I first arrived.
- Personal Space. Even when the street is not crowded, people will inexplicably bump into each other. Rarely do you hear someone excuse themselves in this kind of situation. Cars and bikes follow a similar pattern of winding and weaving down an empty street only to screech their brakes at the last moment to avoid the lone pedestrian crossing the road.
- Smoking. Smoking is permitted in a lot more places here than in the U.S. You can smoke in most stores and businesses. The idea of a non-smoking section in almost any restaurant is laughable. You can’t smoke on the public buses, but sometimes it’s tolerated on long-distance transportation. On trains, for instance, you’ll see people smoking in between cars or sometimes in the cars themselves. In Kunming smoking is especially bad because cigarettes are a local industry. However, it is considered a man’s vice, and when women light up in a public place they get plenty of stares.
- Spitting. People spit here. And although anyone will tell you it’s rude, you can’t go anywhere without someone making that deep, guttural sound before spitting something terrible on the sidewalk beside you. Often they aim for the gutter, but not always.
- Watch Your Step! So, of course, when walking down the street, you will have to dodge those spit wads. Also, watch out for dog poo. Small dogs are very popular here, and although people are generally responsible about tending after their dogs, there are plenty of strays without cleanup crews.
- The Squat. People of all ages can be seen perched on a curb, step, or sidewalk in a squatting position. There is nothing precarious or unstable about this position and it seems to be a comfortable alternative to merely standing.
- The Mother-Child Squat. Sometimes you’ll see a person squatting with a child hovered over a gutter. The adult is usually whistling a clear, high pitch in attempt to coax the child into peeing or pooing. Occasionally you’ll even see kids of 3 or 4 squatting down by themselves to pee or poo in the gutter. Ew!
- Sneezing. You do not say “bless you” or anything else after someone sneezes.
- Coughing. People don’t usually cover their mouths when they cough.
- Toothpicks. Toothpicks are popular, but are used by discreetly cupping one hand around your mouth while manipulating the toothpick with the other.
- Ear Cleaning. You’ll see friends helping each other clean their ears. This intimate act is often performed between girlfriends and boyfriends. Usually they use a long metal instrument designed for the purpose, but occasionally they’ll use their house keys.
- Shoving. Standing in line might seem like the ideal way of waiting your turn, but besides banks (where there is uncharacteristic law and order) people in Kunming don’t like to wait their turn. Mob scenes are common even at a relatively empty convenient store. You’ll be waiting behind someone paying for their items when *bam* someone has reached around you to slam their items on the counter and throw money at the cashier. This is not always tolerated, but it happens. Some cashiers have the magic power of ringing two people up at once, so she can quickly accept the money from the crazy impatient person and simultaneously ring up your items. Shoving also happens routinely at bus stops, where elbowing your way through is the preferred method of getting on board. In any case, shoving is usually rewarded behavior, but expressing shock and dismay can occasionally cower people into waiting their turn.
- Thank you! In Mandarin, “thank you” is translated as 谢谢. (The pinyin is “xiè xiè” and is pronounced “sheh sheh” with each syllable inflected down, as if you were finishing a sentence.) Although 谢谢 ostensibly means “thank you” the use isn’t exactly the same. You needn’t say “thank you” here as often as you do in the U.S. It can even be considered rude to over-use the word, especially with people close to you. For example, you would never say 谢谢 to your mother for making dinner. The implication is (a) that she’s doing something that’s you didn’t think she could do and (b) that you have a formal guest-host relationship. However, because Westerners tend to say “thank you” to everything, it’s become kind of trendy to use it more often. I still find it impossible to break the habit of saying “谢谢” all over the place.
All that said, Kunming is very good to me and I’m not complaining at all. The people I know here to a greater or lesser degree have similar thoughts about these things — not only foreigners, but also people from Kunming and from other places in China. These are just some small examples of the culture clash I’ve experienced. Sometimes things are annoying or strange or disgusting, but you quickly learn to let go. You become immune. Mostly immune.