I wasn’t sure what to anticipate as I boarded the massive 777 plane with my passport in hand and a bag full of books for my first trip over to China. All I knew was that I would be the furthest away from home I’d ever been and that, in itself, was scary. As hesitant as I was, I was also fairly eager to see the culture and try the food I’ve been hearing others talk about. My work team was headed to Xiamen, a “tiny” little island (which actually turned out to be enormous) to meet with our suppliers for the next ten days.
Sixteen hours later, including a layover in Detroit and one in Beijing, I stepped off the plane the following evening to breathe in the air of Xiamen. I won’t lie; it was a bit smoggy and polluted. We loaded our baggage into the driver’s van and we were headed to the hotel. My first impression of China…there are SO MANY people here! How dare they call Xiamen a village compared to their other, much larger, cities? I was amazed at how large this “tiny village” actually was. To put things into perspective, the population in Xiamen is a little over 3.5 million people at the 2010 Census while Chicago came in a 2.7 million in 2010. There were high-rise apartments and condos no matter what way you turned. With the exception of a few palm trees by the waterfront, I don’t think I saw much greenery (including grass) anywhere.
Over the next few days, I met so many wonderful and kind people. One of our vendor’s employees took time out of her personal schedule one weekend to show us around. We visited Xiamen University, the beach and did some “village” shopping. I did recognize a few familiar places while there. They had a Wal-Mart which was inside a shopping mall and the busiest store there. They also had McDonald’s, but I can promise you it didn’t taste the same. We even found a restaurant that had pizza! I knew if I searched hard enough, I would find some!
But, let’s get to the real culture shock. The first time I had to use the restroom outside of the hotel. I was at a business office and walked into the ladies room where I opened the stall door and my jaw dropped. Not only did the restroom smell pungent but I couldn’t believe what I saw.I stood there for about 30 seconds thinking, “Now what?!” I was going to have to do my best yoga squat to get this done right. Yikes! I was also informed to please not flush the paper, use the waste basket instead. No wonder your bathrooms don’t smell pleasant. What’s even better, this was considered a “nice” restroom. Most don’t offer toilet paper and aren’t as clean. The women always carry tissue travel packs with them to use in public restrooms that don’t offer paper. This, I thought, takes the cake as far as cultural differences I’ve had to experience. Wait until you have a few drinks and try to perform a yoga squat over this. I’ve got two words for you…not pretty!
I learned so much about their culture while there. All of the offices we visited took a break over lunch and many of the people took that time to take a nap with the lights off in their cubicles. I did my best to try some of the foods. The most daring I got was trying a piece of goose liver. Shockingly, it tasted a bit like roast beef. I couldn’t bring myself to eat any fish heads, whole octopus or some of the other delicatessen items they offered.
All in all, it was a great experience and I was so glad to have the opportunity to travel and learn (not only about our business) but also about the people and culture. I learned from one of the ladies that it is an honor to have your parents move into the house with you when you have your only child. They are considered a blessing for helping take care of the infant while the parents work full-time. The working class doesn’t have daycares or nannies. They rely on their family and have a lot of respect for them as they help raise their child. They may not do things exactly like we do here in the States, but it was well worth immersing myself into for the time I was there.