The Culture

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So I was trying to think of how to describe the culture in China and the word came to me - it’s fluid.  The Chinese have probably had to adapt faster to more cultural changes than anyone in the last few decades.  They’ve had to hide their religion and superstitions from the authorities for years, when it is one of the most magical places I’ve visited.  After decades of communism and xenophobia, there is now the surge of capitalism and tourism.  Shanghai and Beijing road maps are notorious for being out of date almost as soon as they are printed, and Yangshuo tourism is expanding daily.

Sometimes this fluidity is wonderful, it’s figuratively and literally lying on a bamboo raft while someone punts you down the gentle river.  Other times I felt like a little salmon trying to jump up a waterfall, or just caught in waves crashing over my head.

Take for example trying to get a meal; yes things work differently from town to town, from area to area, from restaurant to restaurant, but I almost lost it in Beijing when I found out there were several different processes... in the same restaurant!

You have to learn, and learn, and learn the culture again in China - just as the Chinese have had to do!

Some of the general information about China varies from place to place, particularly things like tipping.  Some places add a service charge (10-15%) plus there are room taxes that may or may not be included in your originally quoted price.  I’ve included those in and tried to highlight how they break down, but sometimes it is really hard to know whether you have been given the full price.

It’s a little like sales tax in the States or certain domestic/business websites here where VAT is added at the end.  It’s a bit dizzying - but the general rule of thumb I’ve found is that the more expensive something is, the more likely you are to be charged extra (!)

In general you don’t tip in China unless it is added to the bill, and the really great thing about this is, sometimes, if you do give a well deserved tip, the reaction is incredible.  In Huangshan I left a nice big tip with the lady who runs the restaurant and she ran round and gave me extra drinks to take with me, she was so happy.  In Yangshuo Mountain Retreat they do have a tip box, so that all tips can be distributed evenly between the staff.  Cab drivers don’t seem to be bothered with tips that much, but my Beijing cabbie almost broke down in tears when I gave him the (pre-arranged!) fee of just under £8 for an hour trip to the airport!

Likewise when we paid 40 yuan (£4) to an old man with a broken down bamboo raft (no chairs - we had to squat!) to take us across the river in Yangshuo he literally jumped up in the air - we made his week!

And then there are other places where you can pay a ridiculous amount of money and they don’t bat an eyelid.

Don’t be surprised if you are asked for money up front - “money now” may seem rude, but they have their customs and reasons in different places for why you pay when you do.  Get on the raft “money now”, get in a fixed rate cab “ money now”, and then sometimes you can be left waiting for ages while they park the car or do something else, while you stand with your cash in your hand trying to pay - go with the flow.

Gift giving is a very big part of Chinese culture.  We often received a little gift when leaving a hotel (especially the small ones).  In turn if you can give someone a gift it is really appreciated.  In Heathrow I bought some tacky London pencils and pens (probably made in China) just to have something to hand to give as a thank you.  I had thought about giving one or two to the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat ladies but they seemed to be so sophisticated... But after they had helped Mandy sort out her return flight I just gave them all to them.  Within about 30 seconds they were sharpening the pencils and using the pens - they were really excited and I was so happy that I’d given them.  (Next time I’ll take a lot more things like that!)  When surrounded by all the local tourist stuff it’s easy to think that your gifts might not be appreciated, but don’t underestimate how excited people get at a little thoughtfulness.

There are a lot of hawkers in the touristy parts and it’s easy to become jaded, but even in the most touristy of places I was touched by small gifts and gestures.  At the Big Buddha in Hong Kong as I paid for my meal ticket, the lady seemed a little perturbed that I was by myself, so she handed over a laminated card with a Buddhist deity on it - “This is to keep you safe on your journey” she said.  (Boy did I need that!)  For all its brashness and occasional money grabbing, don’t forget that China is very much influenced by Buddhism, and by the importance of kindness.

Several times in China I was asked the same question: “Do you believe in miracles?”  To which I replied “Of course.”  Very often what happened next was that the person would tell me their life story (even in 3 stops on the Hong Kong metro), how they started with nothing and went on to become successful.  So why are they telling me this story?  Because they wanted me to understand China, the huge possibilities, and they wanted to share their joy and wonder at the happiness they had. 

Or there was the other story - the question behind the “miracles” question was really this; “You are someone with a bit of life experience - do you believe that two people from two different cultures and countries can have a life together?”  My reply “Of course.”  And then we went on to share our stories, share the names of books which have helped us, share our ideas and, ultimately, give each other hope that our own miracles might happen.


People dancing in the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing

Information as at September 2010

Food court, Oriental Plaza, Beijing

Happy raft man, Yangshuo

Happy taxi man, Beijing

“Julie”, Luna restaurant, Yangshuo

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