Experience Report

I have now been in China for seven months: almost one month in the southern part of China, four months in Jiuquan, and two more months at several places all over China. I still don’t dare to say that I understand China, and I also can not judge it, but I can give my impressions, as far as I have experienced China, about its culture and the differences from my expectations.

First of all, and here the expectations I had in Germany are similar with the actual situation in China, the Chinese population is enormous. It is unbelievable how many people are living together in just one country. The size of the cities and towns is very different from Germany. The biggest city in Germany is its capital Berlin with about three million people. In China, a city with three million people is almost a town, and there are so many cities here having three million people that you have to measure the number of people in China in other ways. Another aspect is how people live together. In China I have never seen a house, it seems like everybody is living in a flat. Because of this, the area covered by a Chinese city or town is less than a German city or town would use. In Germany, many families live in houses, and because of this the size of a town is quite big. But in flats more people can live together in less space. My hometown in Germany has about 30,000 people but covers almost the same area as Jiuquan, which has 400,000 inhabitants.

Since the population is much higher, this also means that, when you step on to a bus, train or subway, you also have at least twice as many people inside. This is a thing I had to get used to at first. In Germany, your personal private zone is much bigger than the Chinese one. This means that it is no problem for Chinese people standing very close to others. However, in Germany, people need much more private space for themselves. People’s privacy is also a topic I would like to talk about. In the preparation course in Germany I was told that, in many non-European countries, there is almost no privacy. While I was still in Germany I could not imagine this because I had never experienced anything comparable to this before. But as soon as I came to China there was a very big difference from the situation I was used to. It seems like even the smallest matter is everybody’s business. But this is one thing I could get used to, after some time it is nothing extraordinary any more.

A negative thing in China, which is also different from Germany, is the bureaucracy here. In Germany, this is already a problem that is not easy to handle. But in China it is even worse. It seems like everything needs agreement from a higher authority and takes centuries to negotiate. Even if the matter is very small, in China, it takes you a long time to handle it. So, if I have any problem, I need to prepare to wait about one or two weeks until it is solved. When our flat had no electricity once, I reported it to my foreign affairs officer and, only after five days, we had electricity once again. Also, if there are some decisions to be made, it takes far too long. Sometimes it is a problem that could be solved simply by one very small action. But instead of dealing with it as fast as possible, the problem is always brought to the vice headmaster or even the headmistress, who then have to decide about it. But this is all something which nobody can change easily, so I have to get used to it and also calculate the time for every problem’s solution.

Being old in Germany is nowadays still a problem. Many people just stay at home doing nothing except watching TV. Also, a lot of families just put old people in to an old folk’s home, where they are left like something that is not needed any more. In China, this problem is handled much better. I think becoming old in China is much more comfortable. Old Chinese people still belong to society and are also included in many activities and events. Every morning, in the garden in front of my apartment, about 10 old people meet and play ping-pong together for about one or two hours. There is the possibility and also the facilities to do this, and the elderly use these opportunities. In Germany, there are not enough opportunities or facilities for older people in which they can participate and spend their time. It seems like they are not needed any more and, because of this, society excludes old people.

In China old people have a very high position in the family, and they are also integrated into the family’s everyday life. So they help with cooking, cleaning, and so on. In Germany, many think that old folks are not able to do this anymore and, because of this, there is not even the chance for the elderly to try.

Another thing about the family in China is that the influence of parents on their children is very strong. So they can decide what the kids study, where they have to live and even who they should marry. I think, in the case of marrying, it is already much better than in the past, where marriages were arranged before the bride and the bridegroom even knew each other. But in other cases, for example, further education and future career, the parents still have a very big influence on their children. At the same time, Chinese children are very dependent on their parents, so sometimes it seems like they even expect their parents to tell them what to do.

A very big and also famous part of Chinese culture is the food. Already in Germany I imagined that it would be very good, but, when I came here, I just could not believe it – it is not just good, it is excellent! Because of the size of China there is a huge variety of different kinds of cooking. When I was still in Germany, I thought all Chinese people eat rice everyday. Maybe that’s true for the south of China and, during the preparation program in Yangzhou, a southern Chinese city, we ate rice every day. But, as soon as I came to Gansu in the northwest, that changed rapidly. In the northern and western part there are also many different kinds of noodles and also some bread, which supplant rice. So, since arriving in Jiuquan, I eat noodles and not rice almost every day. I think this is a very big misconception on the part of other countries towards China, that they only eat rice and nothing else. Actually I never saw a more varied food culture than in China, because there are big differences between south, north, east and west. But this is also, as I have already mentioned, related to the size of China. So many different cooking cultures have been able to develop because of the huge distances that exist between places in this vast country.

Paul Schneider

August 2012