top of page

From China with Love

I visited my home country China for the first time since 2016. What I learned is beyond my imagination. My experience can be summarized as Reentry Culture Shock, Surprises, and Moments.

by Zhou Fang, Intersectional Group

As an EDI practitioner, my immediate experience after landing in China is that public facilities and amenities are more inclusive these days. There are nursing rooms, unisex and accessible bathrooms in both Shanghai, an international metropolitan, and Guilin (my hometown), a smaller, tourist city.

As a Chinese citizen and U.S. permanent resident, I used to praise the U.S. for having better services and hospitality. Apparently things have improved in recent years in China. Everywhere I went, I experienced warmth and friendliness from folks working in service. Note that I am Chinese looking, so the stereotypical “treating people from overseas differently” assumption doesn’t apply here, at least not immediately. Another “culture moment” is NO TIPPING in China! Tipping could be taken as a disrespect to service workers. People get paid for their work. Tipping could also be felt as an "embarrassment” because people make “honest money” and don’t ask for more.

Speaking of the service industry, my first major reentry culture shock was about smoking. The moment I walked into a restaurant on the second day of my visit, the smell of cigarettes was so prominent that I nearly sneezed. I asked my parents if smoking was legal in China. They responded with “not really but no one really enforces it.” Later I found out a more accurate way of describing China’s smoking policy is that there are currently no national bans on indoor smoking. In many cities and provinces, smoking is “prohibited” and “discouraged”. However, violators rarely face consequences. Most restaurants and businesses that operate indoors don’t want to risk losing customers and choose to tolerate it. Most customers choose to avoid conflicts too. Smoking is a leading cause of cancer in China. I was shocked that no national ban exists in 2023’s China. According to WHO, China is the biggest “producer and consumer of tobacco in the world. There are more than 300 million smokers in China, nearly one-third of the world's total.” While tobacco use is killing the residents in China, the economic impact from a national indoor smoking ban would be too significant.

Speaking of the economy, one phenomenon that surprised me big-time, although I had heard about it, is that virtually everyone pays and gets paid via phone apps. Alipay and WeChat Pay are two widely used transaction tools in China. Consumers and vendors, both in real life and online, use these tools for payments. For example, I bought a childhood snack Ma Ti Gao (a small steamed rice cake) from a street vendor for 3 CNY (about 50 cents USD) and we paid the lady with my mother’s phone. Without exaggeration, even folks who ask for change in the street have a QR code for people to scan and donate. It seemed like the only people who still use cash or credit cards, are those who don’t currently live in China, like myself.

Another phenomenon that shocked me was the market share of electric cars. They are everywhere! Electric cars use green plates while conventional cars use blue plates. From what I observed, electric cars take up a significant portion of the cars on the road. After doing some research, I learned that “in 2022, roughly 30 percent of all new cars in China (including microcars) were rechargeable, and 22 percent were all-electric.

One possible explanation for the electric car boom in China is that electric cars are popular among young families. Gasoline is expensive in China. My family’s 16-year old sedan uses over 1,000 CNY (about $150 USD) of gas per month. Many families have 2 or more cars these days - the removal of the One-Child Policy resulted in bigger families with more children. Due to the increased need for child care, many young parents invite their own parents to live with or near them. A family with 2 or more cars inevitably would spend a good fortune on gasoline. While with an electric car, all they need is cheap electricity. Additionally, China provided incentives for people to opt for electric cars in order to offset the country's carbon emission.

Since we mentioned the end of the One-Child Policy, we should look at China’s parental leave policy. “In mainland China, maternity leave includes two parts – the basic maternity leave and the extra maternity leave. The basic maternity leave is granted by the State Council, which is 98 days for normal birth. In the event of dystocia or multiple births, female employees are eligible for longer maternity leaves. In case of miscarriage or abortion, the female employee can be granted 15-days maternity leave for pregnancy shorter than four months, and 42-days maternity leave for pregnancy reaching four months.” Also, “for the basic maternity leave, the female employee will receive a maternity allowance in lieu of salary, if the employee has participated in maternity insurance for a certain period, as required by the local maternity insurance scheme. This allowance, together with certain amount of the medical expenses for delivery, will be borne by the local social security bureau. But for female employees not covered by the maternity leave, the cost shall be borne by the employer.”

While China’s parental leave policy seems generous compared to the U.S., young families face extraordinary challenges. Like the U.S., COVID threw many curveballs to families that have school kids. One slang I learned this time is 内卷 (Nei Juan), or “rolling inward”. It is a new term that’s used to describe extreme competition in certain industries and communities. Students, for example, is one population that experiences severe 内卷. Kids have to study very late (after 10 pm) every day and many students have to take extra classes even on weekends. Kids start to learn English at the age of 7. I tutored English for my cousin's 9-year old son. His vocabulary already includes words like "wisdom" "giraffe" "spider" "tidy the room" - keep in mind that Mandarin or Cantonese uses an entirely different system compared to English. English words are not used in day-to-day conversations. Another example is my 16 years old cousin. To my absolute surprise, he and I had an hours-long conversation on academics, science, politics and other current topics in English. I only had to help him with finding the right words a few times.

I need to point out that having access to high quality, extra education is a privilege. Only families with financial means end up providing more resources to their kids, which in itself is problematic and inequitable. This kind of 内卷, aka extreme competition is not only exhausting, but also is toxic and dangerous. (Note: in the coming days I will share more new terms and slangs I learned in China. They are culturally and politically fascinating.)

As competition intensifies, more and more children experience mental health crises. One thing that could be seen as “silver lining” is that mental health is much less of taboo here in China now. I learned that many folks I know have gotten or are still receiving treatments for mental health challenges. During my conversations with family and friends, people seemed to be able to share their experiences and discuss different issues openly in a non-judgmental way. To paraphrasing someone's experience:"My husband now goes grocery shopping and cooks for us. He's been supportive (since my depression diagnosis) and takes care of things." Considering how sensitive mental health still is as a topic in the U.S., my conversations on mental health in China are positive culture surprises and moments.

Another pleasant culture moment here in China is how safe I felt out in public. In Portland, while still feel safe enough, I don’t walk alone at night (unless my dog is with me). Reasons being 1. I am an Asian woman; 2. Guns. In the streets in China, I didn’t look different. I also know the chances of me getting shot are close to zero. Although, I did hear about the increase of online scams due to the sharp decrease of the use of cash (few pockets to pick) and the wide and frequent usage of smart phones.

There are many other culture shocks, surprises, and moments happened during my 3+ weeks visit in China. In the coming days, I will share more pieces of my experiences and thoughts on China, accompanied with photos. Please stay tuned and subscribe to our newsletter. I also welcome questions and discussions about reentry culture experiences.

To end this article, I want to share a quote from ancient China: 君子合而不同,小人同而不合 (Jun Zi He er Bu Tong, Xiao Ren Tong er Bu He). The translation is: Wise and noble men (people) coexist in harmony while appreciating the differences of each other; mean and small men (people) coexist in chaos while being essentially the same. When we place the idea of Diversity on the stage of the world, we learn to appreciate our differences, we open dialogues and civil discourses, and we look at our collective challenges and opportunities in a more holistic and compassionate way. Only through open and honest exchanges, countries and the people that live in those countries, can grow sustainably.

Want to hear more on Reentry Culture Moments? Sign up to our upcoming conversation here.

(passed the popularity test, hanging out with my cousins' kids)

With love and humility,

Zhou Fang (方舟)


bottom of page