Dealing with Culture Shock in China

Culture shock can send people running for the next plane home, but before you start racing backwards there are always ways to deal with it.

A part of travelling is being brought out of your comfort zone, and dealing with culture shock is one of the challenges most people face when they visit a country that differs greatly to the habits they have grown accustomed to. Polar opposites can often be found between government systems, etiquettes, educational systems, religions, fashion trends, and cuisines but however different these elements are to your own idea of normality it’s important not to feel overfaced.

I find it helpful to follow the advice that someone once gave me which is to ‘go with an open-mind and expect the worse’. But if ‘expecting the worse’ isn’t the kind of cynical attitude you want to adopt (understandably) then I’ve put together a few of China’s cultural differences to prepare you for – because knowing they exist is the first step to understanding….


Toilets without doors

Squatting toilets in China
These photos are taken from Flickr because I was too traumatised most of the time to even think about getting my camera out when I went to the ‘ladies’ room. But now I wish I had for the comic value because I experienced toilets even worse than these…. If you can imagine a communal sewer, then you probably have the right image in mind. Now I should apologise for putting that imagery in your head -so, I’m sorry.

Squatting toilets can be difficult to adjust to, but discovering public toilets without doors are the norm in China made me cry in disbelief.  In larger cities you’ll often get the luxury of a door and if you’re really, really lucky you might find a Western toilet, but in small cities you’ll be lucky if you even have walls! If you’re faced with these types of open toilets then I suggest using an umbrella or newspaper to hide your dignity!



Split Pants, baby, China
Babies bums are just part of China’s landscape when split pants exist in the world.

Basically these are crotchless pants. Yep, you read correctly, babies and toddlers in China don’t wear nappies so they’re able to do their ‘business’ wherever and whenever (!).  This means you can look forward to seeing a full moon almost every day when you’re walking around simply trying to mind your own business, enjoying the sights and sounds. Quite frankly, I miss my daily dose of bum cheeks now that I’m no longer in China.


‘Can I have your autograph?’

Because I’m Eurasian I had quite an easy ride, but I imagine people with blue eyes and blond hair get this one a lot. However, there are definitely worse things to put up with than people taking photos of you and asking for your autograph so I suggest you happily play along with the attention even if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable. I should stipulate here that I was living in a quite a small city so if you’re in somewhere larger it’s likely that you won’t become too much of a tourist attraction to the locals.



I was introduced to the nation’s habit of spitting on my second day in China. I took a 4-hour bus ride from Shanghai to Wuhu and sat at the front of the bus wide-eyed and full of optimism. However, that optimism quickly descended into disgust after only ten minutes into my journey when I realised the bin residing next to my seat was being used as a spit bucket.

Much to my chagrin, the whole journey became a musical chorus of spitting noises and hocking sounds. If that wasn’t bad enough, one woman brought her baby up to the bin and used it as a toilet. Charming!

With 1.3 billion people in China, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I was spat on a few times, though not on purpose I’m quick to defend. That’s just what happens when you live in a place where a bad habit and a lack of space exists. Ahhh the memories! I’d be forgiven if I thought everyone in China loved to spit because it sure seems that way!



Saying all this, once you manage to look past the chaos of China’s busy streets and cultural differences, it’s hard not to fall in love with it.

A way of avoiding or getting over culture shock is accepting that all countries have different habits and rhythms, and sometimes you have to work harder at pushing your own personal judgements aside to see the positive parts of a country that’s vastly different to where you come from.

The frontier between hell and heaven is only the difference between two ways of looking at things ~ George Bernard Shaw

If you want to find out more information about Culture Shock and people’s experiences of it then you should read a post written over at Any Latitude titled, Culture Shock Experiences From Expats

A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.

'Dealing with Culture Shock in China' have 29 comments

  1. August 10, 2013 @ 12:48 pm Mike | Earthdrifter

    ‘Different’ feels like an understatement to what the average westerner would perceive over there. How about ‘Hard-Core’: I’ve never seen a spit/shit bucket on a bus, nor have I seen squat toilets without walls. I don’t see toilet paper or even a water hose. My guess is that it reeked nastily, inducing nausea. When you’ve survived that, you’re ready for any destination. 🙂


    • August 11, 2013 @ 1:55 pm admin

      If there’s not a bucket some people just spit on the floor, it doesn’t matter if they’re in a restaurant, shop or public transport! Yeh the squatting toilets without doors really shocked me, and it was a really surreal experience using them whilst seeing other women use them!

      You’re definitely right though Mike… after going to China you feel like you can take on a lot more! That’s partly why going to China is such a rewarding experience, and full of funny moments!!


  2. August 10, 2013 @ 1:43 pm memographer

    Haven’t see open-space squat toilets for a while 🙂 Using those can be quite shocking experience…


    • August 11, 2013 @ 6:54 pm admin

      They’re definitely not something I’m ever going to miss 😉


  3. August 11, 2013 @ 10:26 am TheTuscan

    I remember my first impact with traditional spitting in China at Beijing capital airport, in a early morning, after a long night flight over Europe and Asia.
    I was sitting close to a trash can 🙂
    Later on, a colleague of mine told me spitting etiquette has improved a lot over the last twenty years. According to him, trash cans were not used too much in the past.
    I have good memories of China. Those habits which are disgusting for us Europeans are there to remember us that the world is varied, and that we are not the center of the world nor we are unique.


    • August 11, 2013 @ 7:02 pm admin

      Yeh after talking to some of my students who disapproved of spitting I think it may have got better over time, however, even when there were no bins I was still shocked to see and hear people spitting on restaurant floors and shopping malls (definitely not something I should be subjected to whilst I’m eating!)

      But you’re right, I love how varied the world we live in is…. many of the habits I listed above I actually look back in with fondness… especially the split baby pants!


  4. August 11, 2013 @ 7:39 pm Savi of Bruised Passports

    Enjoyed reading this post. You’re right – ‘difference’ is all about perspective. I’ll skip those toilets but the baby pants are cute – aww!


    • August 13, 2013 @ 4:51 pm admin

      Haha I won’t look back at the public toilets with fondness any time soon, but those baby pants on the other hand are very cute indeed! 🙂


  5. August 12, 2013 @ 8:36 am Mary {The World Is A Book}

    I haven’t been to China yet but these are things I’m not looking forward to experiencing. I’ve seen the doorless squat toilets in Asia but don’t know if I can handle the spitting. Those split pants are something else. I’m just glad it’s for babies and not adults 🙂 Glad you got through all that. Part of the reason we travel is to experience a different culture and learning to accept and adapt. Great post, Shing.


    • August 13, 2013 @ 5:37 pm admin

      I could handle the spitting, but the doorless toilets put the fear of absolute dread in me – or maybe I’m just prudish?!

      Haha, the first time I saw split pants I was flabbergasted! Yes – I’m glad they’re for babies and not adults too, could you imagine?!! 😀 I think you’d love China Mary, in spite of the points mentioned above!


  6. August 12, 2013 @ 10:38 am Lizzie

    Wow! I’ve never experienced hardcore culture shock like this but I can imagine it would be (as my mum would say) very character building! I’m not sure how I’d cope with the toilets and as for the spitting – I have trouble watching people hack up at the best of times, let alone when it’s happening all day every day, wherever you go!


    • August 13, 2013 @ 6:10 pm admin

      I share the same mantra as you and your mum Lizzie! Eeek I’d hate for this post to put you off China! Luckily, for every bad point to China I could probably describe a hundred good ones!


  7. August 12, 2013 @ 5:57 pm Richard

    I am in shock at those split pants – seriously, do parents let their babies/toddlers poop in the streets? Do they pick the poop up?


    • August 13, 2013 @ 6:14 pm admin

      Richard, you have to see it to believe it! Erm, I’d love to say no to your question, but I saw parents let their children poop in the streets, and no…. they didn’t pick it up! Delightful eh? 😀


  8. August 14, 2013 @ 10:40 pm Carl

    I’m quite glad I didn’t make China my very first stop on my very first time in Asia last year as originally planned, as I think these aspects really would have sent me into full-on culture shocked mode ha!

    I do really want to visit China now though, but I don’t think anything I read can prepare me for their public toilets it seems…


    • August 27, 2013 @ 6:07 pm admin

      Sometimes it’s good to plunge into the deep end, but more often it’s probably best to test yourself with something a little easier on the psyche first 😀

      Haha the toilets were the worst things to try and adjust to (try being the operative word), but surely it must be easier for guys though… Thanks for commenting, and you’ll have an amazing time when you do end up going!


  9. August 24, 2013 @ 6:18 pm Stefania

    Oh my God, those pants, ahahahah!!!


    • September 2, 2013 @ 6:03 pm admin

      Hehe aren’t they wonderful? But as you can imagine they do lend themselves to some not-so-good toilet habits!


  10. August 30, 2013 @ 2:17 pm Mary @ Green Global Travel

    It’s true that there is often a great deal to adjust to in a new country or culture, though it can be surprising how quickly one can adjust, particularly when you take the opportunity to get the local perspective on practices. Differences in relation to cleanliness (split pants and spitting) can be harder to adjust to without question, though often easier than it can seem on first reading or otherwise learning about these practices – especially once you are in the midst of it all and are just one more person engaging in a local custom.


    • August 31, 2013 @ 5:36 pm admin

      Hi Mary, I think you’ve really hit the nail on the spot with your comment. When we’re in the ‘midst of it all’, we can often surprise ourselves by how adaptable we become to local customs. And if you’re having trouble understanding certain practices then certainly trying to get a local perspective is a step towards understanding and integrating. Thank you for commenting.


  11. September 8, 2013 @ 6:41 am Agness

    Hey Little Miss Culture. I miss you, you know that? After 6 weeks of being in Europe, I’m finally back in China so I can definitely relate to this post. It actually made me laugh as I keep seeing these little babies and kids running around with split-pants and I guess I will never get used to Chinese toilets bleeeeee so stinky and disguising!


    • September 14, 2013 @ 3:11 pm admin

      Haha Agness, I’m glad you can related to the formidable toilets! Glad to see you blogging after a summer of travelling and looking after Cez (I hope his recovery has been speedy!) x


  12. November 16, 2013 @ 8:10 pm Imissmallory

    Ahah! I am going to China for ESL. I know it will be different but I am still just as excited for China as I was before I left! Any more aspects I should be aware of?


    • November 17, 2013 @ 2:28 am Imissmallory

      I don’t know why I wrote ‘before I left.’ I meant ‘before I read this.’ LOL


    • November 17, 2013 @ 10:01 am admin

      Hi! I’m pleased you’re still just as excited to go as this post is not supposed to deter anyone from going, on the contrary!

      In regards to your question, there is another aspect of China which I should probably write into this article and that’s its animal and human rights policy. Perhaps I missed it out because the topic seemed too ‘serious’ to be placed next to ‘split pants and squatting toilets’ which have their funny side.

      The vast difference between accumulated wealth and poverty is a lot more visible in China than in European countries. We have a greater ‘safety net’ so to speak.

      To experience China is to experience loads of difference emotions. It can be challenging but it’s an incredible journey, especially in the personal sense of the word.


  13. February 26, 2014 @ 12:18 am Brandon

    Thanks for the “insight”. I think the Shaw quote about sums everything up!


  14. May 13, 2014 @ 9:19 am Go forth and get educated! | in transit

    […] wear diapers (so watch where you walk), and spitting. Think I’m exaggerating? Have a look here, and […]


  15. February 19, 2015 @ 1:26 am Adan

    Nice post but you forget to mention one weird thing that Chinese people (men and women) do not shave their hair at under arm and between legs. This is an other shocking culture in China.


  16. February 4, 2016 @ 2:15 pm Merantau di Guangdong – mamarantau

    […] potensi culture shock lainnya, bisa ke link ini, cukup membantu untuk yang pertama kali ke China […]


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