What Neverbeens don’t know about China

Well, I’ve returned to my chilly Suzhou apartment after a three week refresher in the “real world” and am slowly getting back into the routine of expat life in China.

Though I still plan to post my wife Maggie’s impressions of Canada, that involves sorting photos and recollecting exactly what we did while away – time consuming endeavors. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of the things I was somewhat surprised to find out people just don’t know about China.

  1. By and large people in China wear the same clothes as the rest of the world: This one comes from a comment made to Maggie at her Welcome to Canada party. An attendee (notice the lack of naming names) point blank asked Maggie if she had bought the clothes she was wearing in Canada or in China. After a hesitant “In China, why?” from my wife, it was revealed that the asker simply assumed that Chinese wore distinctly different clothes. I’m curious to know if they had images of Shaolins, Manchus, or Maoists in mind.
  2. Chinese food in North America is generally Cantonese or domestically fabricated: This one came up quite a lot as Maggie’s complaints of missing food from home grew louder and louder. I had to explain to friends and family that 90% of Chinese food found outside Chinatown is likely to be what is generally classified as “Cantonese”, as in from Guangdong and/or Hong Kong – both of which, though quite populous, are only a small part of the whole country. The reason for this prevalence of Cantonese food in Western nation is that traditionally the majority of Chinese immigrants came from this area.
  3. China speaks Mandarin not Cantonese: Closely related to #2, this is another common misconception among Neverbeens, and for all the same reasons. While China has an endless number of local dialects, of which Cantonese is one, Mandarin is the de facto Chinese language, and incidentally the No. 1 spoken language in the world – though the guy giving you chop suey, chicken balls and fortune cookies is not likely speaking it.
  4. Chinese don’t use ovens: This one came as the biggest surprise to me. I’m not sure why I assumed every Neverbeen knew that 99% of all Chinese homes are missing the most beautiful of baking boxes, but time after time I found myself listing to gasped “But, but how do they make bread, bake cookies, roast turkey!?!” Well folks, 1) they steam it. 2) they buy them in a box or at a Taiwanese bakery, and 3) Turkey? Strictly for export.
  5. Communism is a farce: Most definitely the most overly-confused issue for Neverbeens as relating to China is the conflicting reports of capitalism running amok in what is the world’s largest communist state. Now to set the record straight, China is – in no way, shape or form – communist. State-run monopolies are at a minimum, there are no mass socialistic programs (Canada’s health care and welfare systems are more inclusive), and free enterprise is (somewhat annoyingly) rampant. It’s 100% capitalistic, but under a one-party, authoritarian system. The blame for this confusion should not be put on Neverbeens though, but rather on the shoulders of China’s government and their misnomer of a name – perhaps its time to update the name to better reflect the times in which we live – might I suggest the Cool Party of China, and you’ll not even have to change all your CPC embroidered ping pong polo shirts.

Well, there you have it – my list of things I noticed were the most common unknown or misunderstood bits of China for the Canucks I ran into. Got any to add?

16 Responses

  1. Good comments.

    The party has talked about changing the name for a long time, but it ain’t going to happen, even though it is more capitalistic than the US Republican party.

    I guess you could call it the “Moneymaking Party” of the “Social Profit Party” or the “You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours and We’ll Deposit the Money in Hong Kong Party” but that’s just a dream.

    How about the Skull and Bones Party of China?

  2. I sometimes find the opposite, that people have been so taken by news reports of the China boom, complete with images of the Shanghai skyline, the Golden Arches in Chengdu, and “Starbucks” patrons in Beijing, that some North Americans assume that China is becoming/has become “just like us.” (Whatever “us” might be.) All it takes is 24 hours (or 24 minutes) in the Olympic City to realize that ain’t so and it ain’t happening soon.

  3. My wife is actually more upset when assumptions about China are true. The first time my aunt met her, she asked, “Don’t people spit everywhere in China?”

  4. Welcome back to the Middle Kingdom. I kind of expected some reactions like that. I can’t wait to hear your wife’s reflections on the trip–should be interesting. I’m busy worrying how my wife will handle a month around New York soon.

  5. @Amanda: It worries me that you’ve been talking to my mom 😉 And yeah, that was good fun.

    @Paul: I’m all for the Skull & Bones Party of China – that aught to sort out the whole IPR whinging.

    @Jeremiah: I think you nailed it – that’s the real problem eh. China is just a unique animal no matter how you look at it.

    @Chip: Haha, I think we had a few of those as well!

    @Matt: Cheers man. You don’t have to worry much about the first trip – that’s all “wow” and “ooh” – I’m now worried that if we ever go back to Canada the wife wont want to leave – she’s been more pained about the return to China than I have.

  6. A friend in England asked me once what I got up to at the weekend. I said I went to a few bars and got plastered. He responded : you have BARS in China? Erm, yes, one or two!

  7. Good to see you back, man. No. 5 definitely seems to be the sticky one, although from the phone calls and emails I get, the poisonous toys/food/air due to unbridled free markets seems to throw everyone for a loop.

    Kristof and WuDunn called it Market Leninism in China Wakes.

    I vote for renaming the CCP the “We’re in charge and we’ll call ourselves what we damn well please, with Chinese characteristics” party.

  8. They use oven to bake flat bread in the western provinces link Xinjian.

    Chinese in big ciites dress like the rest of the world. People in poor rural areas in the west do dress differently.

    Unlike Canada, there are plenty of Beijing and other northern Chinese restaurants in US cities.

    So called Cantonese restaurants in North America and Europe don’t serve real Cantonese foods. They are modified.

  9. @I<3ZG: Haha, I don't think I could live in a place like China with out a couple good bars - and not as a comfort, but as a coping mechanism.

    @Chris: How about just the "Chinese Characteristics Party" - CCP... don't really even need to change stuff.

    @Tom: It's a stretch to say the habits of Uighurs are the habits of the Chinese. And I dare say that most people in the countryside (of every country) don't dress like dem dar cityfolk.

  10. Pingback: Matt Schiavenza - Is China Communist? If Not, Then What Is It?

  11. Excellent post, Ryan. As a fellow Canadian, I laughed hard at our country’s misconceptions about China. I added this blog post to our travel forum: chinatravel.net, where it joins other posts from other China Bloggers who have been so kind as to agree to share their work with our new travel community. Keep the good stuff coming. It’s always a joy to read.

    Best Regards,


  12. While I was in China, I was always somewhat intrigued by friends who would constantly be giving me sports scores and updates, as if somehow the Internet didn’t exist in China. The language thing is interesting too. I think most “neverbeens” assume that there are 2 languages in China, Mandarin and Cantonese. Judging by how many Cantonese speakers there are abroad, I can see how this assumption would be made.

  13. Haiku for Maggie with play on ‘East’ meets West’s.

    East……. brought us the bride.

    Warming our chilled wintry hearts

    leaving……. from the West.

  14. Why would anyone think the Chinese are commies? I hear people say that all the time but they never offer a sentence starting with “because”…

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