Two Worlds: 5 Striking Differences Between the US & China

Having now lived in China for 5 years, friends back home in the US often ask me about the difference between the two countries. Chinese friends ask me this also. I hate to make sweeping generalizations that over-simplify the diversity and variation within each country, but people want you to encapsulate the experience – so I make them anyway.

Lately I’ve been taking note of differences – clear, objective, consistent differences between the two countries – that I can relay to friends who ask. I don’t think these particular ones connect to form of a greater trend, or represent the essential difference between the two countries, they are just snapshots. Here are those snapshots:

#1: Traffic Laws Are Not Laws in China

China Traffic

Everyday, lawless China traffic

Living in China for a long time de-sensitizes you to the differences in traffic practices that you noticed when you first arrived.

Sometimes it takes the frightened screaming of your visiting aunt to remind you that Americans only sparingly venture into the oncoming lane of traffic, and when doing so, return to their lane immediately after passing. In China drivers cross the center lane casually, nonchalantly, seemingly without imperative to yield when approached by an oncoming car. Sometimes passing cars just brake, move slightly to their right, and challenge the driver with the right of way to squeeze around them.

I remember being in a taxi on a congested lane, during one such game of low-speed chicken. As we slowed to a stop in the wrong lane of traffic, I remember my surprise that the other driver, who squeezed around to our left, didn’t even honk as he passed us. I was amazed that our brazen behavior was not even deemed a honk-worthy violation. I imagine the logic behind this aggressive approach to urban driving as akin to the doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ that was practiced by the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war. If both parties appreciate the fact that their lives are in the hands of the other, they have a clear incentive to work it out, to yield.

I suspect that the chance that driving in the wrong lane of traffic will result in a head-on collision is even higher in the US than China, because oncoming drivers might choose not to yield on principle.

#2: One Menu Per Table in China

This is actually this part of a larger difference between Chinese and US dining culture, namely, in China the guest and host roles are much more significant and traditionally engrained.

In the US, each person gets their own menu, because each person orders for him or herself. If you go out to eat in China, often (and traditionally) one person orders for the whole table, because that person, the host, will be picking up the check. Treating someone to a meal is a form of social currency in China, acknowledged and redeemable within the moral economy of interpersonal relationships.

Hotpot Restaurant

Another difference about ordering food in China that catches many Westerners off-guard is the timing. In the US, a waiter usually gives you a few minutes alone with the menu before you order, but in China waiters usually expect you to start ordering as soon as you receive the menu. When I was a newly arrived foreigner in China, on unsure footing with the language, it was always anxiety inducing when a waiter would hand me a long, all-Chinese menu and then stand there expectantly, with pen poised, waiting to take my order. I felt rude making the waiter stand for a long time while I contemplated my order, so after a few moments of fruitlessly scanning the menu, I would often just stab wildly at any dish featuring a recognizable character for meat, hoping for the best. This strategy produced mixed results.

#3: Chicken is Valued Differently

I never questioned the supremacy of white meat before I started living outside of the US. I always assumed that the most desirable (and most highly valued) part of the chicken – the breast – was a matter on which there was international consensus. Not so.

Enhancing chicken breast size has been an objective of the American poultry industry for years, but in China (and many other countries) consumers prefer dark meat, which is said to be more flavorful. If dark meat is more flavorful, why are chicken breasts so popular in the US? Maybe for Americans, the convenience of a single boneless piece of meat has outweighed any flavor considerations, as aesthetics have overtaken flavor among our preferences for tomatoes. Having grown up with the assumption that breast meat was most favorable, it befuddled me to discover upon arrival in Chengdu that kung pao chicken, the delicious standard-bearer of Sichuan cuisine, generously heaped with cubes of chicken breast could somehow be less expensive than pepper chicken (辣子鸡,) which looked like nothing but a pile of hot peppers and greasy jagged bones.

Chicken in China

American tastes may be shifting however. Recently a preference for dark meat has started to appear in the American market, with demand for thighs and legs growing.

4. China is Often Diaper-Free

Many children in China definitely do use diapers, but the fraction of people exploring other options – notably split trousers – feels significant. I can definitely see the appeal of crotchless pants for young children. Split trousers combine the comfort of having your genitals exposed to open air with the quintessentially Chinese lack of personal space exemplified by defecating in public.

Split Pants in ChinaFrom a parent’s perspective, they are also tantalizingly convenient – you can avoid the unpleasant task of changing diapers and save money in the process. In the US, privacy and individual rights are sacrosanct. But in urban China, where body boundaries and notions of personal space have been pragmatically reshaped by the constraints of density, and the inescapable proximity of other humans, it’s understandable that people have grown accustomed to watching children relieve themselves on the sidewalk.

When I see children pooping and peeing publicly, I look at the faces of their parents, and rarely detect even a hint of embarrassment. But expat life can make things that were once shocking become passé. After a while, you see a parent dangling an infant over a trashcan on a public street and you don’t even look twice. You think “She’s holding it over newspaper… smart move”. Trying to land it in a plastic bag is a messy affair.

To my Western eyes, the practice is unsightly, but whether or not it is any more unsanitary for a child than a pet to defecate publicly (assuming proper disposal,) I am not sure. In a country with so many people, being squeamish may just not be practical.

5. In China, It Is Acceptable to Tell Someone They’ve Gained Weight

It goes without saying that commenting about weight gain in the US is uncouth (to say the least,) but in China, people view such remarks very differently. Not only is it not rude to talk about a persons weight in China, among close friends it feels almost expected.

I sense that my Chinese friends go out of their way to comment on my weight. They say confidently, ‘you’ve definitely lost weight,’ or ‘you’ve put on a few pounds,’ when I’m sure that I am pretty much the same size I was when I last saw them. It seems to be a polite way to inquire about someone’s health.

Your girth is a baseline indicator of your general health, and when you haven’t seen someone in a while, it’s nice to let them know that you are taking note of their physical well-being. It’s not just a comment on someone’s appearance, people use weight as a segue to inquire about other subject, saying things like, ‘oh, you’ve lost weight, you must be working too hard at work,’ or ‘your wife must be treating you pretty well, you’ve gotten fatter.’

You know what you can’t do though? Call a Chinese girl short. A couple years ago I made a remark about the height of one of my girlfriend’s friends, in the presence of the vertically challenged lady, and I have been hearing about it ever since. I didn’t realize at the time how insulting the remark would be perceived. But in China, where slender figures are nearly ubiquitous, height is the trait that comes at a premium.

Disclaimer: These are sweeping generalizations, and numerous counter-examples undoubtedly exist.

Runners Up

  • People in the US prefer to drink cool water, while the Chinese prefer warmer.
  • In the US you have to tip your wait staff, in China you do not.

What am I missing? Let me know in the comments below what you’ve noticed about how China differs from the United States, or your home country.

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About Eli

Eli is an Atlanta native who has lived in Chengdu for 8 years. He works in the logistics industry.

91 Responses to “Two Worlds: 5 Striking Differences Between the US & China”

  1. I think there are also many similarities between American and Chinese people.

  2. Adding to #5 a bit, it’s also perfectly acceptable to ask, even a perfect stranger, how much money he makes. This really bothered me for a long time but getting used to it now.

  3. I thought of one difference yesterday as I was getting a massage, which was suddenly interrupted:

    In China it is socially acceptable to answer a ringing telephone no matter where you are.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re in a meeting (even giving a presentation), giving a massage, or in a hospital where people are sleeping. If it rings, China is going to answer it.

    I had a brief discussion about this a few weeks ago and someone else posited that it’s related to the fact that voice mail doesn’t exist in China. No one wants to miss a call and everyone seems to have decided, “Go ahead, answer your phone” even if you’re in the middle of something important.

    If I’m in the middle of something like a face to face discussion with someone or a meal, I will usually not answer my phone unless I feel it is truly urgent because it seems rude to the other party. China obviously does not subscribe to this social convention.

    • Maaaan, you are totally right about the difference in cell phone etiquette.

      I sit in on a weekly meeting at my client’s office, and workers will answer their cell phone without leaving the conference table where their boss is talking!

      They just lower their head and cup their hand around the phone. Im pretty sure that in not polite in most American workplaces.

      • A Professor from Europe who had a short visit to our institute noticed it as well. He was surprised that people would cover their mouth or try to put their head under the table whatever way they will just answer the phone. I wasn’t aware of it myself since I am Chinese. Then it looks fun to me.

        I like the professor’s comment which is, think about it the other way, it would be rude too if you don’t pick up the phone. No need to say Chinese officials always have endless meeting thus they just developed this habit after cellphone is manufactured here I guess…..

        • I noticed that Chinese people will always try to call you in two or more consecutive tries. For example, if your phone rings, but you don’t answer it, the Chinese person will immediately try to call you again. This kind of behavior would almost definitely be considered creepy in the United States (unless it were truly an emergency).

    • There are times of course when you wish for the love of god that they would answer their phones. Like if you’re on the subway and their highly-annoying-euro-techno ringtone is loudly telling them to answer their phone while they just look at it thinking ‘Who’s this?’.

      • That might just be their way of giving you a taste of their awesome music.

        One time recently I was seated across from some a Chinese stranger on the subway who was playing techno or pop music on his phone at the highest volume setting. I looked up from my own phone and made direct eye contact with him and as he looks at me, he gives me a completely blank stare. There was absolutely nothing communicated through his eyes. The music continues to play, warbled and distorted due to being played at an obnoxiously loud volume through a cell phone, as he looks around blankly. He bumped his tunes for a stop or two and then got off.

        It was exactly the “quintessentially Chinese lack of personal space” that Eli describes above.

        • I think you hit on a very interesting point. In the situation you described, it sounds like the guy didn’t have any awareness that what he was doing was (what many would consider to be) a dick move. You looked at him and he thought, ‘yeah, this guy is looking at me because I am playing my awesome music,’ not ‘this guy is looking at me to show his displeasure for my rude and intrusive behavior.’ There was no recognition of what is a pretty universal social norm in the West- respect for individual space in a public setting.

          I think that those norms are gradually elaborated over time with urbanization, which is relatively new to China. I bet that many of the people who thoughtlessly violate what we consider unwritten social codes are people from the countryside, who have not been living in a dense urban environment for generations.

          I think cultivating some semblance of these norms, or some awareness of social responsibility and interconnectedness, is part of the motivation behind the 创建文明社会 campaign.

          • Another not-so-considerate-of-people-around-you behavior found in China that would certainly be frowned on in the West is smoking in the elevator.

            In a similar experience to yours on the subway, an old man got onto the elevator holding a lit cigarette, and I gave him a long hard look. And he gave me the ‘hey, nice to meet you’ look, totally oblivious to the fact that his smoking bothered me.

          • Smoking in lifts….. I hate that with a vengeance.

            I told a guy to stop smoking in the lift and he said ‘Thank you’ as he thought I was looking out for his own health.

            And I love the reasons for all of the above – ‘There are too many people in China’ – get real, if that’s the case, why haven’t people learned to respect boundaries and personal space?

          • @ Gay ” And I love the reasons for all of the above – ‘There are too many people in China’ – get real, if that’s the case, why haven’t people learned to respect boundaries and personal space”

            The point I was making above is that those social niceties – like the respect of personal space – are the product of urbanization. And urbanization is relatively new to China:

          • Damn, I guess I can’t imbed an image in these comments.

            I was trying to paste to a graph comparing the urbanization rates for China and the US, and the global average. you can see that here:

            http://i1071.photobucket.com/albums/u510/CaptainSweet/ScreenShot2012-10-27at115859AM.png

  4. Yeah, the similarities are interesting. I hope people reading this post can see Eli’s subtle critique of how we do things in the West – this isn’t a “how could they possibly do that!?” post, but more of a series of observations.

    Man, it would be awesome to have a mainland Chinese living in the US make a good reply …

    • Hey Sascha, good point, but Chinese living in the US wouldn’t take time do such comparisons. They knew the difference already that’s why they chose their new environment. And also, as a personal, it is easier to adjust to the environment than to jump out of it by thinking from another perspective.

      Another thing is mainland Chinese living in the US seldom ends up reading this article though it totally hits the points, because it is really at introduction level about China as the writer claimed: These are sweeping generalizations, and also, if you want to know Chengdu, they will google in Chinese language.

      I enjoyed this web page because I studied in US and I wanted to know how people think about China. Which is quite fun for me. ;)

  5. Well done E. There is something to be said about Asia in general as #1,2 and 5 are totally the a same in Thailand. Chicken is a bit different, and Eli and I have had our discussions and experiences about chicken, mostly about the whole use of chicken. I second Sascha’s idea and would love to hear some Asian raised living in USA versions of Eli observations.

  6. Quality control on food and drink products: had a few moldy beers that went bad about 40 years ago, rendered me half dead for 4 days. I’m sure you wont get that in the U.S.

    Some moldy cigarettes, had a blast on them the other day, not good but then you shouldn’t smoke anyway.

    You can be fired from your job in China without reason or warning, sure you don’t get that in the west, also hired for beauty in china is ok. Can’t turn down a fat ugly bird in the west just coz you think shes ugly.

    Contracts hold little value if not any value at all, i.e in the west, you mess up a contract, I’ll put you up in the front seat and whoop your ass.

    Got a few others, can’t think for a minute.

    But liked the article, good read.

    Cheers

  7. Riding my bike today I was reminded of another classic traffic move in China. The illogical right turn from the left lane, or left turn from the right lane. Instead of merging before you turn, just prove to everyone how good of a driver you are by cutting them off at a snails pace.

    • Yeah – I know what you mean about the audaciously slow traffic violation. Its like, ‘here I come, Im going to cut you off, Im cutting you off, stiiiilllll cutting you off, and now Im done.’ No blinker necessary.

  8. Great job Mr. Sweets I learned something.

  9. Eli, great piece! Another difference I noticed (as a tourist w/ no language skills – and generally speaking of course) is the way the two cultures view exercise. (And I’m not just trying to say Americans don’t exercise.) In the US, we have a culture that either engages in vigorous exercise or nothing at all. In China, it seemed like there is a value placed on ‘low intensity’ exercise like walking around a track or doing tai chi or dance etc.

    • Its funny you mention the ‘low intensity’ exercise – that is definitely true. It reminds me of a comment from another long time China expat, my friend Alex Wiker. On the subject he wrote, ‘When engaging in so-called “exercise” Americans run, lift weights, do push-ups and crunches. The goal is to sweat and burn, get that heart rate up, work the lungs, build muscle. Maybe it’s a long-heritage of qi cultivation, but Chinese exercise is decidedly low-impact when in comparison. Walking laps, ping pong, badminton, arm waving, and hip rolling. I have a balcony, and one of my favorite past times is watching neighbors do home “calisthenics” in their underwear. It’s like they’re just testing to see if in fact their body still works, but not aiming for any improvement. After a couple minutes, they stop for a smoke.’

  10. Great article Eli, really well written as always. Another one I thought of is that Chinese men over 30 wear the same outfit whatever the occasion.

    Going to work? Cheap suit and loafers.

    Going to a wedding? Cheap suit and loafers.

    Going for a walk in the hills (or ‘climbing a mountain’ as they like to call it)? Cheap suit and loafers.

    Going out to get drunk with your buddies over the hot pot wok? Cheap suit and loafers.

  11. To go along with the diaper free comment, China is also spittoon and Klenex tissue free. Spitting in public or blowing ones nasal contents onto the sidewalk or floor in the West is considered almost as distasteful as defecating there. Many grown Chinese seem to find nothing wrong with it, and appear unaware that other people may not want to walk through their “mess”.

  12. Great stuff, my man. Having been back in the US for going on three years, I’m a bit surprised how many profound differences remain unmentioned. There are soooo many. To name a few:
    1.) Chinese people never let bare feet or clothing make direct contact with the ground.

    2.) With some urban exceptions, there is no “party” culture in China. I think the closest thing to a Chinese “party” is eating a huge drunken meal with friends.

    3.) Sports don’t play a central role in everyday Chinese life, but they do in the US.

    4.) Guns.

    5.) Outside of business law, there are almost no lawsuits in China – whereas Americans are highly litigious.

    6.) Chinese people build shit super fast.

    7.) Americans complain about everything and will try to change what they see as a bad situation. Chinese people don’t complain as much and generally try to adapt themselves to the problem.

    8.) Chinese people place considerably more value on elaborate wrapping and packaging.

    9.) As far as I know (I’ve been away for awhile) Chinese lives aren’t defined by social media as Americans’ are.

    10.) Politics.

    Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

    • In terms of social media you might be a tad incorrect. China has some fantastic social media sites and the Chinese love it. Weibo may be the most visited site in the world….

      But parties.. Yeah, the Chinese are pretty clueless when it comes to informal social interaction. A Chinese girl told me that before she meets her friends they text message each other a list of topics for them to talk about. wtf??

    • Hey Al! Loved your additions! I’d like to address some of the differences you pointed out.

      1.) Chinese people never let bare feet or clothing make direct contact with the ground.

      — True! I was just looking at my girlfriend’s feet today, and noticing the utter callous-less-ness of them. Why do you think that is?

      2.) With some urban exceptions, there is no “party” culture in China. I think the closest thing to a Chinese “party” is eating a huge drunken meal with friends.

      — Somewhat true. There certainly isn’t the same house party culture that we have in the states, but Chinese people find their own occasions to get drunk and rowdy. The differences seem at least least partly attributable to class, and Western style party culture seems to be growing with the ranks of the Chinese bourgeois.

      3.) Sports don’t play a central role in everyday Chinese life, but they do in the US.

      — True. Americans are rabidly fanatical about sports in a way you just don’t see in China.

      9.) As far as I know (I’ve been away for awhile) Chinese lives aren’t defined by social media as Americans’ are.

      — Not true these day. Social media hit China like a zombie plague right after you left. Chinese people are consumed with it these days. My girlfriend is probably tweeting right now.

      • The state of your girlfriend’s feet is likely due to one or more of the following:
        a.) She eats a healthy diet of pig and chicken feet – which would naturally replenish her own foot-jing and foot-qi;
        b.) Social Darwinism has favored Chinese women with soft, pliable feet which were less likely to become gangrenous after foot binding;
        c.) 足疗 works!

        Actually, my father-in-law scrubs each foot 100 times before bed every night, and he has a full head of black hair and the ruddy complexion of a teenager. Coincidence???

        • For getting rid of skin on feet:

          Use shower gel (must be gel apparently) and scrub your feet with it. Do not use water. You will find old skin flaking off!

          Then wash your feet and all ok.

          My wife found this gem on the Chinese internet – probably Weibo.

        • Hahahah. Actually, just yesterday my girlfriend was gushing about the great deal she got on some 蹄花汤 in Xindu… only 10 kuai for a giant bowl!

          When you say that about your father-in-law, it makes me think of Marsha Brady, brushing her hair 100 time before bed. Is that the joke you are making? Does he actually do that?

          Can you summarize the difference between the Western medical paradigm and the TCM perspective in verse – with maybe a haiku, or a limerick?

          • There once was a man from Dalian,
            Whose 鸡巴比面还要软.
            A 中医 looked at his tongue,
            Felt a pulse, and was done.
            Then prescribed liquor and fresh 虎鞭!

            Uncured munching hundred-proof phallus,
            Our man visits a clinic in Dallas.
            Thirty Gs and four years
            Sink our man in arrears,
            All for a script of generic Cialis!

            No joke on the foot scrubbing. Give it a try.

          • Wow! That was really impressive!

            You out-did yourself there. That was excellent.

            Can anyone else write a limerick that compares some aspect of China to the West? Wait wait, let me try one…

            There once was a mother of four,
            who came out to China to tour,
            while walking about,
            she exclaimed with a shout,
            “all the children here pee on the floor!”

            this is fun… one more try…

            There once was an expat named Preston,
            who found Beijing’s traffic congestion
            unbearable so
            he asked the po-po
            and was told, ‘every law has exceptions.’

            Anyone else want to give it a whirl?

  13. Great read! I have been working for a Chinese company (outside China, in different countries) for sometime now, and I’d like to add some points,

    1. They hardly change clothes. I usually work on 6 month long projects, and Chinese colleagues finish the project end to end in 1 tshirt/jeans and 1 dress shirt/pants. We have highly technical desk jobs.

    2. My Chinese friends tell me, in China you take a shower before going to bed. About once a week. Not in the morning.

    3. My own proficiency in English is not commendable, but in my office English usage can get hilarious sometimes. One guy said this to a customer “I am really gay to meet you”. (I am really happy to meet you. He uses a chinese to english dictionary on his mobile phone).

    4. Everyone is expected to work late. That is the routine.

    5. Sometimes you think they are screaming at each other in otherwise normal conversations. But they are not. Its some style(phonetics?) in Chinese.

    • @shadeslayer – I really relate to point number two! Most of the Chinese people that I know shower consistently, (many with greater frequency than myself, truth be told,) but as far as I have observed, nearly all prefer to do so in the evening, before bedtime, whereas I always assumed that the normal time to shower was in the morning. That is definitely a clear difference.

      I never understood the benefit of showering in the evening – if you go to bed after a shower, your hair is all crazy in the morning!

      • Vincent NL

        I’m guessing people take a shower in the evening as in the past they had to heat the water before being able to shower. This takes time which they prefered to do in the evening instead of the morning. Of course (for the majority) this isn’t relevant anymore, but is still in their system.
        I prefer to shower in the morning to have a fresh start, although during hot days I shower in the evening too.

        Regarding the “screaming”, that’s a Chinese thing, especially for women and in Hunan although in Chengdu they are pretty good at it too.

        And Chinglish is hilarious!

        • Actually, the showering at night is not just restricted to Asian cultures. At least in Australia it’s pretty common among people working jobs where they will get dirty (i.e., tradespeople or laborers). In Asia, there’s the added concern about not wanting to get the bed dirty, according to my gf.

          The screaming thing is my favorite : ) Every time my gf talks to her family I have to ask, “What’s wrong? Why are you guys fighting?” Of course, they’re just talking about the weather… These guys are Taiwanese, by the way…

          • Hehe, yes, the screaming. Personally I think Chinese people (mainland or othervise) get their volume controll surgically removed at birth. Don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to tat bit.

            Last summer there was a couple of old people outside my flat having an argument, and I swear they sounded like the Disney squirrels Chip and Dale in old TV cartoons.

  14. You know you are in a different culture when buses have the right away over pedestrians in the street.

    Chinese people love foreigners and most see you as exotic creatures. Americans don’t have the same love of foreigners that that the Chinese have.

    Also, Chinese referees do not know how to officiate a basketball game yet. They need some American referees to train them. Seriously.

    • “Also, Chinese referees do not know how to officiate a basketball game yet. They need some American referees to train them. Seriously.”

      Same thing for soccer. We play in a Chinese league with Chinese refs and it is a weekly debacle on the field. Unfortunately, they don’t have the institutional infrastructure yet to produce the required quantity of good refs, at least for soccer. Good refs are hard to find – in the US too – and you really need to have a system in place to consistently train new people.

  15. Eli

    My Chinese colleague pointed out another difference to me today – in China you don’t have to pay yearly property tax, the way that land owners pay in the US. (I am passing along hearsay.) However on the other hand, in the US you have rights to mineral resources on your land, which you do not in China.

    Speaking of property rights, in the US, they are much stronger, to put it mildly. The use of imminent domain in the US is very limited compared to the scale of government land reclamation in China.

    • (1) Land rights vary state to state. In some states if you buy land you buy everything under it. In others, usually Western states, you only get the land to walk and build on. Mineral, water, etc. rights are marketed and owned separately.

      (2) Reclamation frequency aside… in my humble opinion, Americans are duped by their government into “believing” they own land. Try not paying your “rent”… oops I meant tax and see how long you own “your” land. At least China is honest and claims outright they own the land. I find it funny that a Chinese non-owner gets a right-to-live-perpetuity contract with their government… compared to an American who gets a right-to-live-as-long-as-tax-is-paid contract with their government.

      • Many apologies, I’m not following your argument, SJ. I am not sure what this “land tax” to which you are referring actually is. In the US, the government has no right to take a private citizen’s land in response to a failure to pay taxes, which are levied against income, not land (I don’t even know how someone would go about calculating a “land tax” except upon a sale or exchange of land with an appraised value). This is because the government’s right to tax is not secured against your land, but rather against your person via the Constitution. Failure to pay taxes could provide the IRS (or state government) a right to raise criminal charges, which could result in fines or incarceration – but not imminent domain. After you get out of jail, your land would still be yours. Or, the IRS could seize backtaxes by claiming part of your income. All of these punishments, and hence any executive power exercised by the US government, however, can be challenged through judicial process. Americans can raise tax-code-based or Constitutional arguments in court to challenge any claims the US government has against your property (although the argument that the government has no right to tax has been a perennial loser).

        In contrast, what rights do Chinese people really have to their “right-to-live-in-perpetuity contract,” as you phrase it? First of all, the only “right in perpetuity” Chinese people have is in regards to real estate. Nowhere in China does anyone other than the State have a right in perpetuity to land. An individual’s right to land is nowhere endowed through the Chinese Constitution or any other legal doctrine (even if it was, the Chinese Constitution has proven extremely weak in protecting individual rights). The closest right to land ownership one has in China is in non-urban areas where farmers can lease land for up to 70 years. Even then, certain land uses, such as commercial development, are prohibited. Moreover, the State retains the right to exercise eminent domain as long as it provides “just compensation” for taking that which is owned above the surface. “Just compensation” remains a term of art that has proven considerably weaker in China than its analogue in the US. All the while, the Chinese government also has the power to levy property taxes.

        What any argument about the strength of personal rights to property vis-a-vis the government’s right to that same property ultimately boils down to the fortitude of substantive and procedural due process protections. The major difference between the US and Chinese property rights is that Chinese individual rights to due process remain undeniably weak. I don’t think this is the proper forum to elaborate on the lackings of the Chinese judicial system, but suffice to say that these lackings have a direct and substantial adverse impact on any rights – property or otherwise – Chinese citizens possess.

        In any case, this is just my opinion, and I appreciate the opportunity to engage in this dialogue on a topic to which we clearly have some amount of disagreement.

        • If you are talking about eminent domain, that’s just the right of the local government to determine how your land is used even though you are the one who owns it. Sewer needs to come through? Make way for the backhoes. Now THOSE are imminent.

          This is unrelated to taxes. And yes, we do pay property taxes ( this means land taxes, not any other kind of property) in the West. Just not to the federal government. Property taxes are local.

        • Cool – I never thought I would see a discussion about ‘eminent domain’ on Chengdu Living! Eli – your compare and contrast on the US and China underestimates the rights of the individual landowner in China and overestimates the rights of the individual in the US. Apart from the question of eminent domain, the rights of the US land owner are constrained by the city planning instrument – but most people overestimate their true rights in this respect. The word ‘freehold’ is embraced enthusiastically but it is not exceedingly ‘free’.
          The UK and Australia for example have a long history of leasehold, even for private residences, which continues in some forms to the present day.
          BTW, land taxes are a very old device found in most countries including the US, and governments find no difficulty in devising ways to apply them. Not just in the event of transfer. Some US States and cities have been quite innovative in their land tax design, eg. devising ways to fund public investment in infrastructure.

          • David and Syl,
            Thank you for calling bullshit on my comment. I wish SJ had called me out as well. I absolutely overstated my argument about US property rights. Real property (i.e., land) rights are an extremely sticky issue about which I would love to learn more – especially in China (David – or someone else – if you would care to enlighten me). I also owe an apology to SJ for not seeing your point clearly.

            I was talking exclusively about federal property taxes in the US and the rights of the federal government – through rose colored lenses – and I completely neglected to investigate individual rights to real property vis a vis local and state governments. Upon further investigation, even my statements about individual property rights vis a vis the federal government were not completely accurate. This is because, as I just learned, the federal government does have the capacity to tax real property through estate tax, but the property value must be uber high and there are a pile of rules that change year-by-year (we will see what changes with the coming fiscal cliffhanger). Failure to pay the tax could result in the federal government exercising its power to seize the property (but I have a feeling this does not happen too often since the federal rate would be so much lower than the local or state rate – i.e., the local gov would probably have first dibs).

            As I failed to mention and admit now, states and localities do (and do often) levy taxes against property, and they do this in a number of ingenious ways that vary in deviousness from state to state and locality to locality. The more I learn, the more incensed I find myself growing that local and state governments have such power over landowners. These laws that allow state and local governments to levy taxes against individually-owned real property over and over each year and to seize property from delinquent owners seem to be a vestige of the bygone days of feudal lords. As SJ said, it seems like “rent”, and to an extent I have been “duped” into accepting an illusory discourse.

            Although I openly admit the unfairness of property taxes, I still see their rationale as a steady stream of income for state and local governments and, therein, an aggregate public good. If I had experience working in government I might go as far as to say such taxes are “necessary,” but, lacking such experience, I will not go so far at the present. Because I believe tax collection is in the public interest (although of course I don’t always agree on how governments spend the tax money – but no one is always going to be happy when so many interests have to be represented), I can also see the good in a state or local government seizing and selling property if a landowner fails to pay property taxes. It sucks, yeah, but I see the utility. Death and taxes and so on.

            At the very least, no level of US government can take property void of substantive and procedural due processes. I still stand by my notion that a key distinction between US and Chinese property rights – and a key reason why I believe Americans currently possess stronger individual rights to property than Chinese – hinges upon due process protections, which – as far as I am aware – remain substantially weaker in China than the US. That said, I love China, and it would warm my heart to see a solid argument to the contrary.

        • Apologies – my comment above was directed to Alex, not Eli. Do you guys look alike?

          • That’s ok. Alex and I share some similarities. In a past life we might have been deckhands on the same ship.

  16. “Chinese people never let bare feet or clothing make direct contact with the ground”

    This is quite interesting, haha! When I was abroad, I was teased by my foreign friends many times because of this difference! We Chinese like wearing slippers.

    Another matter is that before I liked using umbrella wherever I went. I was teased by my foreign friends as well because of this. Now it seems that I accept their thoughts and like getting myself tanned. But actually not very good for a Chinese girl, haha! Because Chinese men are obsessed with white skin!

    • I recently took note of the slippers thing as well:

      Two Chinese colleagues of mine went to the US for the first time a few weeks ago and visited San Francisco and Silicon Valley for just over a week. They posted photos on Weibo multiple times daily and had a blast at Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park, the Stanford campus, etc…

      Then they realized there were no slippers in the hotel: “How could they not have slippers?? This is ridiculous!!!”

  17. I suddenly remember another thing. In China, if you throw rubbish outdoor, not in a dustbin, you’ll be looked down upon by others. But in foreign countries, for example Australia, people will distinguish that whether it’s a natural one or an artificial one first. If it’s a natural one, you can throw it anywhere in a bush or beside a road, otherwise in a dustbin as well.

  18. Haha! LOL
    You know what, Charlie.
    When I wore slippers, my foreign friends have almost the same question:” Why you wear slippers in the room. This is ridiculous!!” :)

  19. Great article. Enjoy reading it!
    A little bit feedback on the chicken dishes. You are absolutely right. In China, people like to eat meat with some bones because it tastes better. Just like the pepper chicken you are talking about. Chicken wings and chicken legs are the same although people from western countries can’t stand chicken legs.
    Besides chicken, Chinese people also like pork ribs, rabbit heads, duck necks due to the same reason. For the little tilapia dish, how much meat can you get? People just like the taste.
    I just started to blog about China, and my interest is on southwest China including Chengdu. This is my website:www.knowaboutchina.net You are welcome to give some comments.

  20. I just thought of another one that should have been included in the list – in China toilet paper does not come standard in all bathroom stalls. Not just in public bathrooms, but in most bathrooms. I work in a modern office building, and our bathrooms are paperless. It is generally annoying, and occasionally, cause for panic.

    • Yeah, even after more than two years in the US, I still experience a brief moment of panic if the ominous gut gurgle hits at a public place and I know I’m not carrying paper.

      Zippers. On Chinese men’s coats, the female end of the zipper is on the left. In the US it’s on the right (and I am not sure about other countries).

      Or how about tampons? Chinese women don’t use ‘em, just those pads.

      Or swimming. Not many Chinese folk know how to swim, but just about every American I’ve ever met can swim.

      On the other hand, your average Chinese elementary student will school any better than average American in ping pong.

      Has anyone mentioned the dearth of benches in China? Fat Americans need to sit down. Half the time when I see a bench in China, someone is standing or squatting on it.

      • You are correct about the zipper thing! I never noticed that, but it is true… at least true of the puffy Adidas jacket that I bought here last year.

        The tampon thing is somewhat true as well, but I think they might be catching on a little bit… I see tampons in stores sometimes. I think I need to conduct an impromptu survey on the street to gather more data.

        I see swimming as more of a class thing. Swimming is pretty bourgeois hobby. I went to high school in the states with a lot of working class inner city kids who didn’t know how to swim. Then again, China is pretty water resource poor, so their may be a dearth of natural watering holes in which people without access to a pool could learn.

        Ping pong, ok yeah – that’s low hanging fruit. There are not a lot of good linebackers in China either. Less natural blondes also.

        • you can’t ask a Chinese person “what’s up” or “what’s happening” and expect anything but a confused stare or maybe a stuttering attempt to politely respond – be specific (eaten yet? where you going?). Ask an American and you’ll hear about the time his kindergarten teacher scolded him in front of the whole class. Or about a recent bowel movement.

          Chinese girls have various voices and facial expressions for different male-female scenarios. And I know we all have different expressions when we communicate, but these expressions – the puffer face, the nasally-high octave, the foot stomp voice, the weird head shake when you did something cute but they don’t know how to respond – are special and can be found nationwide. I think these are really hard to define, but you know em when you see him.

          American women are for the most part “what you see is what you get” in terms of voices and expressions.

          let me see, what else …

          Men hold hands here a bit more than in the US

          Americans are decidedly more violent and prone to mean mug random people for no reason on the street.

          When Chinese men drink the goal is to get as completely fucked up as you have ever been ever in your life. Everytime.

          In America you can tell a farmer by his clothes and haircut, maybe by the poo on his boots and the conservative glint in his eye.

          In China you can tell a farmer by the fact that he is at least a foot shorter than an average urbanite, hasn’t combed his hair in months, and seems completely lost in any basic urban situation.

          In China Eli can get paid running around in a pirate suit.

          In the US you can get paid harvesting marijuana plants.

        • Eli,
          Swimming a bourgeois hobby? Not sure I agree. Maybe in the city, but in the burbs and country I think most US folk know how not to drown.

          Ping pong is low-hanging fruit? Yeah, I guess you’re right – I would have never picked up on the traffic or tipping differences without your article…

          Please let me know the results of your street survey.

          • Educated sinophile that you are, Im sure you didn’t need to read this article to learn about any of the differences mentioned therein.

            If not a disparity in water resources, or class differences, to what would you attribute the difference in swimming abilities of Chinese and US citizens?

          • Eli,
            I have often thought about this very question, and honestly I can’t figure it out. It remains an inexplicable anachronism. Considering how much Mao loved to swim, what explains why swimming wasn’t the national pasttime during the 60s and 70s? Similarly, the Chinese are awesome at diving in the Olympics, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a diving board at a Chinese public pool. Weird.

            The lack of water resources is definitely a major factor preventing more Chinese folk from swimming, but it is more than that. Where there are clean water resources, Chinese folk still don’t use them for swimming nearly to the extent of Americans.

            Perhaps this has something to do with the types of exercise that are popular in China. You mentioned at another spot in this string the different goals Chinese and Americans have toward exercise. Swimming often falls into the heart and lungs aerobic exercise many Americans love. Not many Chinese folk seem to be into jogging or lifting weights either (again, you have environmental factors, too), unless they like to hit up the gym – which is definitely a bourgeois pasttime.

            The difference may even have something to do with a different outlook on parenting (I think this is a stretch though). For instance, my wife grew up right on the Min river. Her and her friends often even used to play in the water (according to her, the water back then was not the milky cesspool it it today), but none of them ever learned how to swim. How does this happen? If I knew my kids (hypothetically) were swimming in a river, I’d make damn sure they learned how to swim. A lot of kids learn to swim from their parents, but parents can’t teach what they don’t know. This brings us back to square one.

            I think the best explanation boils down to traditional medicinal perspectives on concepts like hot and cold, wet and dry. Wet and cold things have traditionally been viewed as bad for the health, especially for women. You don’t drink cold water, and you definitely don’t want to touch it. Not many aiyi out there are going to agree that immersing the body in cold water for an extended period of time is in any way a healthy pasttime, except in the hottest of hot summers. On the other hand, hot water is definitely healthy. We are all familiar with the ubiquity of bathhouses and hot drinking water. Unfortunately, bodies of hot water are rarely large enough to warrant swimming. These traditional views are changing somewhat, but they remain fairly prevalent. Additionally, environmental and economic factors stand as barriers preventing free and carefree access to recreational waters.

        • The zipper thing was new to me. Interestingly enough: my parents in law (who are Chinese) bough me new coat for my birthday, in California, and sent it back to China. Great coat, but the zip is the wrong way around for me, and I’m European.

  21. I will state one difference. In China the concept of “ladies first” doesn’t exist. Elevators, doors, buses, cars… chivalry is dead at least from an every day perspective.

    • Maybe in the form of door holding and seat offering, but what about the amount of boys you see holding their girlfriend’s purses/carrying luggage?

  22. #1 the most. I can not tell you even video tape the amount of cars that try to cram into small space for a typical SUV in the USA. The ones that really are ballsy are the taxis on four wheels and those 2 or 3 wheel types that because of there smaller profile, fell they can go anywhere. I once made the mistake on riding a motorcycle taxi and talk about a wild ride. Magic Mountain in California did not have any ride that raised my heart rate compared to this guy. THe rider would weave in in out and he dodged one car after and other that would pull out on him. The one that really got me to almost empty my bowels, was when this guy would get in front of a city bus! I was like after the ride, i made the promise never to ride anything small here in Chongqing or in China in general. I will say that in USA, you have motorcycle riders that drive like daredevils but they are usually alone and not have a passenger behind them.

  23. Ray

    Shower before bed but not in the morning. Never got used to that….

  24. Gotta say the whole dark meat thing is changing in other places as well, slowly, but surely.

    Two or three years ago I was browsing channels in the UK and stumble across a program hosted by semi celebirty chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (bloody upper class twit name, but the guy’s TV persona seems OK) where he ran a taste test; some dishes made from white, supermarket bought chicken, and some made with “home grown”, darker meat chickens where the birds had needed to use their muscles. None of the tasters, of course, knew the point of the excersice.

    The result was overwhelmingly in favour of the darker meat! So there is more than just a little something to that idea. I think in the west people have come to place appearances and convenience before the actual taste of a meal. An idea that is kand of silly, if you ask me.

  25. This was by far my favorite post I’ve read on this site. I spent six weeks in China last summer with a host family learning Chinese, so I could relate to this very well. And I lived all five of those striking differences! Especially #5, I remember my host family telling me I was 太瘦了 everyday… haha

    I was just going to add one difference. They like it when you eat their food. If you do not announce, 我吃饱了, they will keep putting food on your plate. I didn’t figure this out till the end of my first week. So at school I would skip lunch to make room for a big dinner at their house!

  26. Someone forwarded me a link to another article on differences between the US and China.

    It takes a different approach to the issue, but is in a similar vein, so I thought I would through it up here for consideration:

    http://www.wallstreetoasis.com/blog/the-fundamental-difference-between-the-us-and-china

  27. Constantine Tung Reply March 7, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I am a Sichuanese (now a Chongqinger, unwillingly), born in Beijing (then Beiping), but have been living in the U.S. longer than (I dare say) all of you on earth. I have been back to Chengdu (1999, 2001 [for a conference on the Three Kingdoms or 三国演义],2005, 2006 and 2008). I really don’t know Chengdu well as you people do. But I really enjoy your “Chengduliving” that is full of fun, wit and humor, and is informative as well. I doubt I will come to visit Chengdu this year as I am going to Europe (Envy me?).

  28. Spitting, especially indoors is a massive difference between the two cultures. And smoking in elevators. How smoking in a windowless box is considered acceptable behavior is beyond me.

  29. People in both nations desire to have freedom to live their lives apart from government interference as much as possible and also want to be able to raise their familes according to their own beliefs also and desire truth which is contained in the word of God, the Holy Bible. Sincerely ;

  30. Just returned from first trip to China, loved it. Agree with all 5 “differences”. Wish we had in the US the parks where random folks just gather to play games, dance, sing, do tai chi, hang out.

    • I know what you mean Linda. On the streets in China there’s often more of a community feeling because there’s a lot of shared space (not to mention a far greater population density). Whereas streets in a lot of major cities in the US are empty at night, streets in Chengdu are never empty – there’s always something happening.

  31. guabrila

    I am in the recruitment process for a hotel in Chengdu. I have no knowledge of the language. Do you think that might make my life hell?

  32. Appreciation for the writer and the comments, this has been a fun read. In my year in Guizhou and two months in Chengdu I’ve noticed some glaring and not so glaring differences. I have experienced all of those listed above as well. First, there doesn’t seem to be a fear of the road and it’s many deathly inducing vehicles. Maybe a better term would be caution. People here will absently step off the curb without a “look both ways”, lines from favored bakery or duck neck stores will meander into the street and those in line don’t seem to notice the scooterscarsbusesbikes screaming by, people will stop in the middle of the road to shout into a cellphone while looking at there shoes, mosey along any road five people wide. Here people just don’t seem to have that the road is not a place to spend time attitude .
    Something I’ve noticed while eating with friends is the lip smacking. This is something that got me shunned at my grade school lunch table and menacing looks from my parents. They are really sucking all the flavor out of the food and aerating it as well.

    • Eli

      I know what you mean about the stepping off of the corner without looking. Sometimes I think a person will see a car coming, and then turn away, intentionally demonstrating that they are not looking, and thus challenging the oncoming vehicle to hit him or go around.

  33. Loved the read. I’ve lived in China for 4 months now and wanted to share my observations. Chinese people are vampires! They have an almost violent reaction to the sun hitting any part of their skin. This explains why they don’t swim. The pool at my appartment is placed strategically so the building blocks the sun. Still the pool does not open til 4PM. I live in Yangjiang, on the ocean, in the south east part of China. It is tropical. To my dissapointment they did not pur water in the pool until June. Also, my female friend, Die June’s father taught her brother how to swim but not her. I am teaching two 5 year old girls along with Die June how to swim now.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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