The 6 Most Surprising Things About China

The 6 most surprising things I’ve learnt after eight years in China

When I first moved to China at about eight years ago, I had a lot of preconceptions about the country that were rapidly dispelled for me. All the Chinese people I’d met in my life were either second-generation Westernised immigrants, or else polite-to-a-fault overseas students. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally set foot in the Middle Kingdom to find a sea of loud, pushy people who mostly tended to treat strangers like people-shaped swing doors and resembled neither Bruce Lee nor Chow Yun-Fat.
There are plenty of other Western preconceptions about the Chinese that turned out to be a little different from what I was expecting, too. Things like…

6) The kids aren’t the soulless super-students we’re led to believe

I’ve taught Chinese students ranging from the age of four to fifty-four, and one thing has become clear: the kids are not the number-crunching Lex Luthors they’re made out to be in the Western press.
Yes, there are extremely clever kids who excel academically, and yes, they’re pushed hard by their parents. But like any country, there are a range of different abilities. Some kids are just not gifted academically, no matter how many private tutors or classes their parents pay for. Some kids are just plain lazy and unmotivated and can’t wait to get out of class so they can play on their PSPs and read One Piece.

So where does this perception come from? It could have to do with the sheer number of Chinese kids now attending university — 31 million in 2010. It could also have to do with an international test that showed that Chinese students were the best in the world, but that limited their findings to Shanghai. That’s like testing the Hogwarts kids and concluding that the whole of England is a magical fairy tale land of trolls and wizards.

5) Chinese learning completely crushes creative expression

The truth about Chinese kids is that they do excel in some subjects — subjects like the sciences, maths and Chinese grammar. Subjects that have concrete rules that can be memorised and regurgitated. You see, Chinese education is heavy into rote. Kids are told — again and again — the ‘right’ answers to things, the ‘right’ way to write something, and the ‘right’ opinion to have on a certain topic.
Even Mandarin follows this pattern.

In written Mandarin, you either know a character or you don’t. If I really wanted to, I could make up a new concept, like wanking into a sock for a month before hitting a friend in the face with said sock, and give it a word like ‘blumspunking’. You’ve never seen this word before, but you can read it and you can attach the new concept to it. In Mandarin, this is impossible. Even if you created a new character for a new concept, people can’t read it until they are specifically told how to say it. I’ve had Chinese colleagues who can’t read a student’s name because they’ve never seen the character.
Rote study plus an inflexible, undynamic language equals a whole lot of kids who are unable to think creatively. Give them a maths equation and they’ll rock that shit. Give them a complicated question requiring independent thought, like ‘if the Empire had blown up the escape pod, how would the galaxy be different?’ and they freeze up. And that’s not only because of the poor cultural penetration of 1970’s space operas here.
In fact, a common Chinese response to a ‘why’ question is ‘no why’. It’s one of the most frustrating facts about living here: people just unquestioningly accept things, because their entire language and educational system requires that they are simply told the ‘right’ answer by an authority figure.

4) It’s the worst totalitarian society ever

Back home, people imagine China as being some sort of Orwellian dystopian nightmare. People can’t say what they want, everyone’s monitored, and freedom of speech is completely crushed for fear that the people will cease to toe the Party line.
And while it is true that speaking out against the government in any sort of public, organised way is verboten, it isn’t quite the Big-Brother-dominated society you might think. People are extremely blithe about following basic, everyday rules, for example. I work in a school that has had a ‘no parents past this point’ policy in place for some two and a half years, for security and general ‘keeping your sanity’ reasons. Two and a half years later, we have to turf parents out of empty classrooms every single day. The signs are there, they’ve been told countless times, and it’s just not a huge deal for them to ignore that rule.

This extends to all areas of daily life. Smoking has been ‘banned’ in restaurants for years, but good luck finding a restaurant that enforces it. Good luck finding a fucking lift that enforces it, for that matter. Beijing officials tried their damndest in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games to, in their words, ‘civilise’ Beijingers by curbing spitting and queue-jumping, and they ultimately failed: despite fining malcontents, people just went on doing what they’d always done, which is about as close as Chinese people get to telling their government to fuck themselves.

So with this in mind, why is it that Chinese people don’t get tired of their government’s Internet-censoring history-whitewashing bullshit? Because the government doesn’t have to oppress the people on that particular front. They’ve got good old-fashioned nationalism and carefully orchestrated xenophobia on their side, as seen in the 2012 anti-Japan protests, the recent pissing contest with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, the anger over the Korean flag being placed higher than the Chinese flag in the 2012 London Olympics, and the recent anti-Malaysian protests following the disappearance of flight MH370. The government might not officially endorse these spates of outraged nationalistic pride, but they don’t come down on them either. Much like that movie where Wolverine fights Batman with magic and Nikola Tesla, it’s all about keeping the masses misdirected so they don’t see what’s really going on.

3) It’s also the worst Communist society ever

Communism was a self-unfulfilling prophecy, to coin a phrase: by predicting it, Marx made sure it would never happen the way he saw it happening, and China is no exception.

Chinese Communism is often called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’; this is a fancy way of saying ‘not socialism at all’.
Without getting too politically deep into the issues, picture a ‘socialist’ society: universal healthcare, equal rights, social security and all that jazz, right?


China lacks pretty much all of these things: if you’re ill and have to go to hospital, you foot the bill yourself, or your company/family does. If you’re a government or former government employee, then you will get access to China’s ‘universal healthcare’ in which up to 80% of your bills are paid for, but that’s like championing US healthcare by using Donald Trump as an example.

There are even cases of people so desperate, they end up having to hack their own limbs off because they can’t afford the medical costs of surgery. Any system that involves farmers having to stage low-budget re-enactments of the final act of Saw can safely be labelled ‘not-socialist’.
Ditto social security. If you don’t have a job or a means of income, tough shit. The government won’t do a thing for you, and they won’t help you to find a job. Due to China’s traditionally Confucian values, the burden of all of these things falls on your family. And while there is a pension system in place, retirees are typically supported and cared for by their children.

And equal rights? Back in the West we might imagine China as having only one kind of person.

China, however, has fifty-five different ethnic groups. The Jet Li group are known as ‘Han’ Chinese, but there are a shit-tonne of minorities, and a good deal of them are frequently shit on because of religious beliefs or because a minority of their members are crazy machete-wielding extremists. The bottom line is: China is far from equal. And this isn’t even touching the thorny issue of women’s rights in a country where doctors are prohibited from revealing the sex of a baby in case the parents selectively abort a female foetus.

2) They have a weird love-hate relationship with Japan

The average person back home might not even realise this, but the Chinese hate the Japanese. As in, really, really hate them. They’re not alone in this; the Empire of Japan’s little jaunt around south-east Asia and China during World War II resulted in a lot of atrocities, the most infamous of those being the Rape of Nanking (now called ‘Nanjing’ by us pronunciation-switching Westerners), and so the Japanese are hated by China and a whole host of south-east-Asian nations including but not limited to the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, both Koreas, Taiwan and Indonesia. The only group more historically inclined towards over-the-top villainy on a grand scale were the Nazis, and they were busy doing exactly the same thing in Europe.
That said, the hatred for the Germans in (some parts of) Europe has died down a lot. But imagine, for the British people reading, that the Germans had pulled off their land invasion of Britain, occupied Tunbridge Wells or Gravesend, and systematically executed all the men there while raping pretty much everyone else.

Yeah. So that’s why, after some eighty years, the Chinese still absolutely despise the Japanese. It’s completely understandable, even if their protests against Japan take some bizarre sideways twists like Chinese people beating Chinese people for driving Japanese cars.
That said, Chinese kids love them some Japanese popular culture. Anime is hugely popular amongst teenagers and younger kids, and it’s not uncommon to hear kids use simple Japanese phrases in class. Ask them what they think about Japan, though, and you’ll get the usual anti-Japan party line of how evil they are. Functioning doublethink? Fuck it, maybe China is Oceania from 1984 after all.

1) There are, like, no Kung Fu masters

Seriously. I’ve never even met anyone with the most basic knowledge of Kung Fu. Last week, though, I saw this guy with a shaved head, lumberjack beard and red Kung Fu pyjamas who was pretty much the most awesome person I’ve ever seen in my life, but I was too scared to talk to him in case he pulled out the five-point-palm exploding heart technique on me.