5 Surprises for me in Beijing

Here's a speech I gave at Toastmaster's recently and my evaluator
Colin suggested it might make a good blog entry.

In 1994 I was dating a guy from China and he and I were considering getting married. IF we got married we had to decide where we would live and in order to make that decision, we needed to visit each other's countries. So in December 1994 he visited America and in January 1995 I set foot for the first time on Chinese soil. I had lived in Asia for many years already and I thought China would be very similar to Japan and the Philippines and Thailand. I couldn't have been more wrong. I was surprised by many things I saw here in China, and today I'm going to share five of those things with you.

1. Little kids urinating in the street.
At first I thought this was really gross - unsanitary to say the least. Some parents or nannies have their kids pee in the grass or next to a tree, but some let them go right in the middle of the sidewalk or street.

But then I learned about why little kids are allowed to urinate in public - it's part of the Chinese method of potty training. You start teaching a baby when they're very very small how to urinate at certain times. If you're at home of course you have them pee over a toilet but there are times when a toilet just isn't close by and you can't interfere with the baby's potty training schedule, so they go on the street. Finally when the baby is about a year old or so, they're completely potty-trained. No need for diapers.

So my first reaction to kids urinating in the street was - gross. My
second, more thought-out reaction was - very practical and good for
the environment.

2. Women doing hard labor.
I've seen many women working at construction sites right alongside men, shoveling dirt and laying bricks and planting trees. In the US you might see a woman doing heavy construction but she would be assisted by heavy machinery. What amazed me in China is that women often do the same work as men without the assistance of big machines. At first I felt sorry for the women but then after thinking about it I began to see this issue differently. The fact that women work the same jobs as men is a positive statement about women's rights in China. No one is forcing them into these jobs, however if they want to do them there is a place for them, right alongside their brothers and fathers and nephews and sons.

3. Men touching each other in public.
In China it's not uncommon to see a man put his hand on another man's shoulder or back. At first I thought this was weird, probably because I'm just not used to it. Granted, I come from the Buckle of the Bible Belt in a nation that is a little verklemmt to say the least.

But when I thought about it a little more I realized this practice in China was actually very nice. I think it's great that people are free to express themselves in physical gestures as well as in words. The significance of a physical gesture can be as simple as 'you're my friend' or 'I care about you'. I wish American people were that free to express their feelings about their friends. It would probably be good for us.

4. People who live where they work.
I remember the first time I saw this was when I was at my children's preschool. My kids were wandering the halls and they pushed open this one door. I thought it would lead to a classroom or a music room or maybe a bathroom but instead I saw rows and rows of bunk beds. We were in the teachers' bedroom! My first reaction to this was: how sad for the teachers that they spend their days and nights all at the school.

But then when I thought about it a little bit more I realized that this arrangement can have many benefits. By offering room and board, employers can have more flexibility in recruiting excellent teachers for the school. They can go outside of the city and find good teachers who are willing to work in the city but don't know how they'd find an apartment and support themselves on their own. If they can live at the school, it makes the transition to the city easier for them. Also the teachers have more free time since they don't have to commute to and from work. Finally, it must reduce turnover at the school since if a teacher leaves the school she'll also have to find a new place to live. And low turnover is good for the school and the students and the teachers.

5. Workers walking on the expressways cleaning up trash and debris.
In America I've never seen anyone walking along the center divide of the expressway cleaning up rubbish. You might see people walking on the shoulder of the highways but you don't see people walking in the center of the highway. This is so dangerous - surely many of them are hit by cars every day. I wonder how they deal with this knowledge every day, that they might not return home that night.


When I am child, my closed friend and I always put our hands on each other shoulders and walk together. That identifies we are very closed friend. But it is not suitable for adults. The most common scenario is only one man put one of his hands to another shoulder.

Before reform and opening policy, it could be almost all the employer will provide room for his employee. At that time, nobody need to buy apartment. Of course, also nobody can afford it.

I also saw somebody walking and clean up trash on the expressways. For the full-time worker, I guess somebody will pick them up later. Also, there is some local farmer, they was payed to clean up certain distance. So, they are not far away from their home.

Posted by Forrest on January 02, 2008 at 08:52 AM CST #

This is a good explanation to Women doing hard labor. Women are equal to their husband or bothers, that's fine, but this kind of equality is not showing love and consideration to the difference of male and female. Maybe when you see how little girl starts to do hard labor, you may say differently. Women who are doing hard labor, are all grown up from little girls doing hard labor.

Posted by Kevin on January 02, 2008 at 10:06 AM CST #

boys putting their hand over the friend's shoulder is considered normal universally. I dunno why the same practice should mean a different thing when they grow up in the US! :-)

Posted by Madhan Kumar on January 02, 2008 at 11:55 AM CST #

I remembered being wide-eyed everyday when I first went to USA from my home town. I could probably have written down a few observations. Then I came to China few years ago and I am still writing down what amazes me.

It is a blessing that I get to live in "foreign" countries for a big part of my life. Touristic visits are just not the same...

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on January 03, 2008 at 02:44 AM CST #

Forrest, I think you took me very literally about the workers returning home in the evening! :) What I meant was, they might be hit by a car and die and thus not return home. I think that must be a very common occurrence, though I never hear about it on the news.

Kevin, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I think that if women are physically capable of doing this kind of work, it's good that they're given the opportunity. But I can also see your point.

Amiram, I hope diaper genies aren't going to make their way to China too. Imagine what future generations are going to think of us when they find our landfills... :}

Maddy, I think it's because many Americans are verklemmt. I won't claim to be an exception to that rule... :)

Sin-yaw, I would love to read about what you thought was strange when you first moved to the U.S.

Posted by melanie gao on January 03, 2008 at 07:01 AM CST #

Very cool. I'll have to do a top 5 for me in Japan. :) Congrats on Toastmaster's too. I did that for several years. Extremely helpful.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on January 08, 2008 at 03:40 PM CST #

I'd love to see your list of top 5 in Japan Jim! BTW I'm sorry I didn't get to see you while I was there last week but I knew you'd be home relaxing with your family. The pictures you took are absolutely beautiful. Japan is a beautiful place to be at New Year's, isn't it?

Posted by melanie gao on January 08, 2008 at 11:43 PM CST #


Posted by guest on March 01, 2008 at 03:45 AM CST #

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