Bamboo rafts sail on the Yulong River in Yangsuo, Guilin, China

11 Cultural Quirks Witnessed in China

I love that we’re all different and we all have cultural oddities that, while considered totally normal in one country, may cause visitors to raise their eyebrows. China was full of these little surprises! Some were amusing, some were heart-warming, and some were a little unsanitary to my out-of-town eyes, but all contributed to my enjoyment of my trip and make me look back on it with great fondness.

 

I will certainly be returning to China with Alex and Theo; it’s a fascinating and beautiful country and I was lucky to meet some wonderful people who were able to teach me about their history and culture. So, in celebration of our idiosyncrasies, here is a list of 11 cultural quirks I witnessed in China.

 

1

Spitting isn’t considered rude. Much like sneezing and coughing, it’s just another normal bodily function in which fluids are expelled, and one’s throat and nose are cleared.

The sound of people hacking up phlegm much like a cat brings up a furball takes some getting used to, especially when in the close confines of public transport and restaurants, or when the noise is coming from the stranger walking right on your heels down a busy street. Taxi drivers are particularly renowned for this delight, but who can blame them when the spend all day breathing in heavy car fumes?!

 

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Similarly, spitting food out isn’t something that’s done discreetly with darting eyes to check no one’s watching and behind a hand or napkin to preserve your dignity in case you are spotted!

My most memorable experience of this was during an incredible meal shared with new Chinese friends. Ghost Street (Guijie) in Beijing stretches for over a mile and is home to over 200 casual, family-run restaurants serving up mouth-watering dishes at tiny prices at any time of day or night (transport tip: alight at Dongzhimen subway station).

Red lanterns hanging above the street flicker on shortly before sundown and contribute to the festival atmosphere. The celebration is food; traditional recipes from each of China’s regions along with international fare.

We entered a Sichuan restaurant and after a brief exchange in Mandarin between the waiter and Hoover, a born and bred 30-something year-old teacher from Beijing, we were shown to our table and promptly served complimentary appetisers while we waited for the bull frogs, lobster, prawns and hot pot that Hoover had ordered. Provided you don’t have special dietary requirements, always allow a local to choose your meal! The zing of ginger, the aroma of garlic, and the fire of chilli filled my mouth – the food was amazing (although, personally, I found both duck and frog intestine to be a little chewy for my taste)!

I learnt something new during this meal: humans can remove the shell, legs and head of a prawn using nothing but their tongue (not this human, but others evidentially can!). As my dining companions dissected their food inside their mouths and then proceeded to indiscreetly discard the inedible and unwanted bits by spitting them on the table and floor, I looked around and saw everyone else doing the same thing.

I am all for cultural immersion and doing as the locals do, but the stereotypical overmannered Brit in me could only manage removing my frog bones and prawn shell behind a covering hand, placing them neatly on the table and ashamedly concealing them under the lip of my plate.

 

3

It is common for babies not to wear nappies before they are toilet trained. Onesies have gaping holes at the crotch and if they need to go while out and about, parents simply hold their infants either over a tree or over a public rubbish bin.

I still haven’t worked out how parents predict this and prevent themselves from being accidentally covered; speaking from experience, babies don’t give much warning for their toileting needs and once they start, there’s no stopping them while you get them to the nearest tree! Are parents in China carrying around multiple changes of clothes for themselves instead of for their baby, as I did?!

I support anyone not wanting to use disposable nappies, but I think I’ll stick to our lovely cloth nappies rather than dangling defecating children in public places!

 

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On one occasion, a baby wearing one of these gaping onesies was thrust at me, which brings me to my next point. Be prepared for a lot of attention and endless photograph requests! The mother of this child wanted me to hold her baby so she could take a photograph of me holding him. I posed for photographs taken by strangers like this every day of the 7 week trip, and although I always obliged with a smile, it got very exhausting and I longed to once again blend into the crowd.

 

5

Weirdly though, I sometimes felt invisible. I wasn’t; a white, blonde female by herself with a backpack – I stuck out like a sore thumb!

Brits are known for loving an orderly queue so I had to bite my tongue through the seemingly mandatory pushing and shoving that is more common in China. Queue jumpers lurk next to every ticket booth, information desk, and till, and the use of elbows is recommended for surviving the metro crush.

In London, if someone tries to get on a tube without first stepping to the side to let people off, they receive a tirade of dirty looks, huffs and maybe the odd sarcastic comment. I did the same in Beijing but was promptly bulldozed directly into the people trying to alight by a wall of angry, shouting commuters behind me (as an aside, in Beijing, every hour is rush hour – don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

 

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Speaking of shouting, unless you speak Mandarin, everyone sounds like they’re shouting and angry. Of course, they’re not; Mandarin is a tonal language and requires a wider vocal range than English, and I think the Chinese are also possibly more expressive in their speech than Brits.

 

7

Although my culture tells me that the tendency to push and shove in China is rude, I found people to be exactly the opposite. Complete strangers really wanted to go out of their way to be helpful.

After stopping people to ask for directions, I was shown around Chongqing by an 18 year old who wanted to practice her English and was then taken to lunch by her and her mother, and a guy in Hangzhou took me on a tour of several temples, translating every information point we came to and also giving me additional history and politics lessons, that were fascinating and included details I would never have otherwise known.

I have numerous stories like this of kind people jumping at the chance to help me out, but my favourite occurred on a night train.

My zig-zag travel across China was all done by train and I booked my onward journey when I had got to each place and figured out how long I wanted to be there. This meant that several of the sleeper trains I booked didn’t have beds available, nor seats, so I slept in the aisle on my backpack for journeys as long as 19 hours.

Anyone who has travelled on China’s trains in the budget carriages will know that they are no Virgin Trains (or even Southern Rail – a timely joke referring to Britain’s currently most hated rail network), which feel like luxury in comparison. They’re filthy, smelly, incredibly cramped, and the toilets are enough to give you nightmares, but they got me from A to B relatively reliably and I met some interesting characters that made the long distances feel shorter.

On this particular over-crowded journey, there was a rush to buy tickets for the beds that had just become available as passengers disembarked at each stop, and huge crowds formed around the conductor selling them. I jumped up and focused my attention on at least grabbing a newly empty seat.

At the next stop, the conductor approached me through the swarm of people trying to wrestle for the much coveted tickets and passed me a note. I opened it. Scrawled in handwriting that suggested the author rarely formed these foreign shapes, I read the words ‘Follow me’. My brain did a quick ‘this could go one of two ways’ calculation. Screw it, I’m following him!

He led me through the heaving carriages, stepping over other unlucky passengers in the aisles, and into a sleeper carriage. Now, I’m not in the habit of following strange men into bedrooms but as he showed me to an empty bunk, I was very grateful for his kindness in reaching out to me (and also now pleased that I didn’t blend into the crowd – it’s swings and roundabouts!).

 

8

There’s no such thing as personal space. I found people in China to be very touchy-feely. It’s really very endearing, but a bit of a surprise when your culture is just the opposite!

Londoners complain about having to get up close and personal with other commuters on the tube; a trip to Beijing or Shanghai would certainly put it in perspective!

It’s not just the forced closeness though. I was constantly touched by strangers, all intended in a friendly way but nonetheless, a little unsettling at first. Unexpected hugs, taking my hand, patting me on the arm, even a few cheek pinches, which I don’t think anyone has done to me since I was a toddler!

 

9

I was in China during the height of summer. It was sweltering! When I stopped in restaurants and cafes, I really wanted cold water, but was always brought freshly boiled water (obviously knowing your water has been boiled is very reassuring but filtering it or treating it are also alternatives to buying bottled water). I don’t drink tea or coffee, and don’t understand how hot drinks can possibly be considered refreshing when it’s a million degrees and humid, but I was always looked at like I’d just walked off Mars whenever I explained that I was after cold water.

 

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I’m no stranger to squat toilets and was expecting to only find seated toilets in accommodation, but thought I’d mention it here for anyone who isn’t yet clued up about this. All public toilets in China are squat toilets, you won’t find toilet paper in any of them, nor will there be any soap. My advice is to always carry loo roll and hand sanitiser, use the toilet before heading out for the day and again whenever you stop in restaurants. Having soap with you is a nice option but there’s no guarantee that toilets will even have running water with which to wash your hands (or flush the loo!). A word of warning: public toilets can be disgusting everywhere in the world, but China’s are the worst I have ever seen. Let’s just say, they’re not well maintained and some people clearly haven’t mastered the squat and catastrophically miss the hole when they do their business. Eek!

 

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Don’t miss out on visiting the public parks; they’re lovely hubs of everyday life and I learnt so much about Chinese culture by sitting and people-watching. Unlike in the U.K., where the most interesting things you’ll see on your average day in your average park are dog walkers, runners, cyclists and kids with scooters, parks in China are central to the community and used by everyone for a whole range of wonderful activities. With speakers blaring, large groups of people gather to partake in group dancing (mostly ballroom and line dancing), tai chi (with and without swords!), kung fu, and a sport that blends tai chi and tennis. People of all ages line the paths, engrossed in games of Chinese Chess and Mahjong, and intricate calligraphy is painted on the walkways. Paper and bamboo kites float on the breeze, and large spinning tops are flung into rotation by the crack of a whip. These are pastimes for adults as much as children and can even be taken to competition. Feel free to join in as well!

What quirky cultural differences have you noticed when travelling? Perhaps you spotted something in China that I haven’t included here. Share it in the comments!

A starry night at Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique

8 Destinations for the eco-conscious traveller

A

re you looking for the ideal ecotourism destination? Somewhere committed to both environmental and social sustainability? Look no further! I’ve asked some of the top travel bloggers out there for their input on their favourite eco locations.


1

Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm, Malaysia

 

Kahang-Organic-Rice-Eco-Farm-Malaysia Kahang-Organic-Rice-Eco-Farm-Malaysia

My family and I stayed at a rice farm in Malaysia recently, which was a beautiful place to relax in and an excellent eco-friendly accommodator to support. KOREF (Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm) is a “leisure farm”, so it is not a place to work hard on farm chores, but rather learn a bit about farm life while having some fun. There are many activities visitors can choose from, including rice planting or harvesting, bamboo rafting, kayaking, a water obstacle course and jungle trekking. KOREF also has a sustainable fish farm, which guests can learn more about and even try to catch and release some fish.

Another activity was wonderful for cultural understanding. Visitors can choose to visit an Orang Asli village in the nearby rainforest, with an excellent guide who works closely with KOREF staff. We did meet the beautiful people there, and were very grateful for the experience.

KOREF is and organic farm at heart, and they use their own food as well as locally-sourced produce for the delicious meals provided to guests. KOREF also provides free filtered water from a fountain to everyone, and separates their rubbish for recycling. Unfortunately, this is uncommon from what we have seen in Malaysia.

We loved staying there and getting a taste of farm life in such a beautiful setting. It is a great destination for kids with all of the activities on offer, and the fun and stress-free ways they help people learn about farming. School groups from cities in Malaysia and Singapore arrive often to get a very different view of life!

Submitted by Emma Walmsley from Small Footprints, Big Adventures


2

 Las Terrazas, Cuba

 

Looking at Las Terrazas, Cuba, through the trees Looking at Las Terrazas, Cuba, through the trees

Initiated in the late 1960s as an ecotourism project, Las Terrazas is a UNESCO biosphere reserve about an hour west of Havana, in the Cuban countryside. It is a lush complex with dense foliage, tropical swimming holes, waterfalls and 18th century abandoned coffee plantations. Although you can see Las Terrazas in a day, this is a place that merits more time to truly experience it.

The town has something for everyone. Bird lovers will appreciate that Las Terrazas is home to almost half of Cuba’s endemic birds. The nearby Sosoa Botanical Gardens maintain a collection of rare orchids. There is a selection of trails led by students at the biosphere that take you through the local flora.  For the more adventurous, there is also a thrilling canopy tour which whizzes you over six lines extending over lakes, a forest and much more.

The artists in the colony live in town and their workshops are in their homes.  People are welcome to enter their homes and watch them work, browse their creations and possibly purchase some very nice and authentic pieces of art.  There is a little coffee shop in the area, Café de Maria, that bills itself as having the world’s best coffee. With advertising like that and at about .40 cents a cup, you have to try it.

The local Hotel Moka sits on a hill-top with a beautiful view overlooking the forest and the small village. In keeping with the eco-friendly theme of the location, the hotel has a tree growing in the middle of the lobby and serves only locally grown produce. The two must-try restaurants in town are vegetarian and delicious!

Submitted by Talek Nantes from Travels with Talek


3

 Tasmania

 

Tasmania hills and forest green Tasmania hills and forest green

Tasmania is a nature lover’s paradise. This small island, about the size of Ireland or West Virginia, is home to vast wilderness and completely unique ecosystems compared to the rest of Australia, complete with endemic animal species and subspecies not found on the mainland. So precious are Tasmania’s varied landscapes — from verdant rainforests to mountains to white-sand beaches — that around 20% of its landmass is World Heritage listed. And that’s without mentioning its quaint country towns, impressive local food scene, and wealth of convict-era sites and ruins testifying to a rich, if often dark, colonial history.

Unsurprisingly, Tasmanians are increasingly embracing sustainable tourism. But few places boast the eco-friendly credentials of a certain private nature reserve in Tasmania’s northwest by the name of Mountain Valley. Situated on some 61 hectares, this reserve is run by a husband-and-wife team with a passion for wildlife and conservation. To protect the vulnerable habitats and fauna on site, they’ve signed schemes agreeing that their property can never be logged or degraded. It’s also a release area for rehabilitated wildlife — and a one-of-a-kind, no-frills accommodation option, complete with 1970s-style log cabins.

With old growth forests, caves and even a glowworm grotto, Mountain Valley is a haven for wildlife. Wild echidnas, wombats, platypi, possums, Tasmanian native hens, pademelons, spotted tail quolls and the sadly endangered Tasmanian devils all call this place home. Lucky guests may even just find a few local critters on their very doorstep.

Submitted by Sarah Trevor from World Unlost


4

 Iceland

 

Rocky cliffs and ocean waves on the coast of Iceland Rocky cliffs and ocean waves on the coast of Iceland

Iceland is a wonderful eco-friendly destination and one of the world leaders in sustainability.  The nature of Iceland is so pristine and clean that it is almost impossible to wrap your head around how pure things are there.  While tourism is on a major rise there, the country is doing everything it can to cater to this tourism boom in a sustainable and ethical manner.  Nearly 100% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable energy, which is remarkable and a model that every country should aspire to follow and achieve.  Another thing I loved about Iceland, Reykjavik in particular, is how easy it was to find vegetarian and vegan options.  You don’t necessarily associate Iceland as being meat-free, but the options are there in masses.  You can rent a bike with ease in Reykjavik, too.  I think Iceland is a country that really sets the benchmark for clean energy and spectacular nature.

Submitted by Megan Starr from meganstarr.com


5

Eco Hostel Gili Meno, Indonesia

 

Gili_Meno_Eco_Hostel Gili_Meno_Eco_Hostel

In Indonesia, just a boat ride away from Bali, in the paradise island that is Gili Meno, you can find the Eco Hostel Gili Meno.

Gili Meno is a small island that can be walked in 1 hour and the Eco Hostel is conveniently located by the seaside in front of Turtle Point, where you can snorkel with turtles.

The Eco Hostel is an incredible place that is all built around the logic of sustainability and eco-tourism.

You can sleep in bungalows by the beach on just a simple mattress or in the fantastic Treehouse, while the concept of dorm-room is taken to another level by letting you sleep in hammocks that can be zipped from the inside to avoid mosquitos nuisance in the night.

The toilets are composite toilets and the showers are half salt water and half spring water. Everything is built out of wood.

There is a bonfire area by the beach and in the morning people wake up before sunrise to enjoy the majestic natural show in the communal area.

It is a place that you will never want to leave, once you get used to the slow pace of life and to the chess challenges with the young Indonesian boys working in the hostel.

Submitted by Sara and Ale from Foodmadics


6

 Wisconsin, USA

 

Kayaking at the Apostle_Islands_Sea_Caves Kayaking at the Apostle_Islands_Sea_Caves

Wisconsin offers unique travel destinations and was home to environmental legends, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, and Aldo Leopold. Travel Green Wisconsin certification recognizes businesses that have made a commitment to reduce their environmental impact.  Here are just a few.

  1. Wilderness On the Lake is an upscale resort in the Wisconsin Dells, “The Waterpark Capital of the World”.  The dells offer indoor and outdoor waterparks, live entertainment, thrilling attractions, and awe inspiring natural beauty!
  2. Door County Bike Tours is an eco-friendly way to experience Door County, “the Cape Code of the Midwest” – a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan – where you can watch both a sunrise and a sunset over the water!  It offers cherry orchards, art galleries, wineries/breweries, five state parks, 19 charming communities, fish boils, and 11 historic lighthouses!
  3. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore consists of 12 islands and coastline on Lake Superior, hosting a unique blend of culture and nature including sea caves, nine historic lighthouses and shipwrecks.  Discover each island’s story via tours, kayaking, and hiking.  They host endangered plant species, important nesting habitat, and one of the greatest concentrations of black bears!
  4. The Harley-Davidson Museum, in Milwaukee, isn’t your typical museum.  The interactive displays provide a unique experience, exhibiting more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts on a trip through time.  It was the first museum to gain the GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certification and has an ongoing process for environmental improvements.
  5. The Stonefield Historic Site, located along the Great River Road in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, includes a re-created 1900s rural village, the State Agricultural Museum, and the homesite of Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey who has a nearby state park.

These are just a select few of Wisconsin’s eco-friendly destinations!  Explore the ‘Travel Green Wisconsin’ website and come take a look for yourself!

Submitted by Kristi Schultz, aka The Trippy Tripster, from Road Trippers R Us


7

 Germany

 

Rieselfelder Bird Sanctuary, Münster Rieselfelder Bird Sanctuary, Münster

Germany is the ideal destination for the eco-conscious traveler. A country full of history, culture, fabulous cuisine, and beautiful landscapes, it has so much to offer, but it is impossible to be an economic leader and be ecologically oriented, right?  Wrong!

The German government is making dramatic strides in environmental issues. Nuclear power is being phased out, and replaced by renewable energy forms. The Cogeneration Act requires manufacturing firms to utilize the “waste heat” created in their production processes. Rather than being demolished, old factories are often converted into cultural centers and tourist attractions, old wastewater facilities into bird sanctuaries, and military bases into wildlife habitats. Old buildings are also upgraded to meet new standards of efficiency, and re-forestation efforts have saved the Black Forest and cemented its status as one of the country’s greatest treasures.

But what is refreshing is that the German people embrace the environmental policies. Extensive recycling is legally required, but also widely practiced.  Each home and public venue has a number of separation categories for trash, so that little more than biological waste ends up in the landfills.  These separations were diligently applied in homes.  Nosier neighbors even make a point to check on the recycling practices of others on the block!

But more surprising is that the separations are made in public as well.  On the train, in the park, walking down the street, people visibly separate their disposable items into the correct categories, and take the time to put each in the proper bin.  Watching this gave me hope!

Submitted by Roxanna Keyes from Gypsy With A Day Job


8

 Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique

 

A starry night at Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique A starry night at Guludo Beach Lodge, Mozambique

Time for my contribution! There are so many wonderful places to choose from but this one deserves a special mention; Alex and I chose it as our wedding venue for good reason!

Guludo Beach Lodge in the Quirimbas National Park is an award winning ecotourism destination, with an ethos firmly rooted in social and environmental sustainability. The lodge was designed so that no trace would be left, and has been constructed using only local, natural materials. There is no running water or electricity, and yet it feels luxurious. Built and staffed by the local community, every decision was, and still is, made following consultation with the village residents. Located right on the beach, the setting is beautiful, the seafood is fresh and delicious, and there are numerous activities on offer to delight both adults and children. A percentage of your fee will go to the onsite charity, Nema Foundation, which has funded multiple wells, school meals and resources, ambulance vehicles, and construction projects. The staff are Guludo’s best asset and they will go out of their way to make your stay memorable. Certainly, we will never forget them or their bright smiles! Find out more about the highlights of this beautiful country here in my recommended two week itinerary, which will give you a taste for all that Mozambique has to offer. Thanks to Alex Miller for the photo, taken at our wedding.

 

A selection of three images from Iceland, Mozamabique and Tasmania, advertising a post on 8 destination for the eco-conscious traveller A selection of three images from Iceland, Mozamabique and Tasmania, advertising a post on 8 destination for the eco-conscious traveller