Every country, nation, nationality, culture and all manner of identity markers have stereotypes and misconceptions. These are often fed by the media, positive or negative experiences, hearsay and 2nd hand (or 3rd, 4th, even 5th hand) accounts. And when one decides to relocate to a new city/country, one is often bombarded by these accounts in order to prepare oneself.
When I decided to come to China, I could probably list the things I knew about China on two hands and that China would be about as far as I could get from everything I knew without leaving the planet. And when I got here, it certainly wasn’t what I expected. Granted, I didn’t really know what to expect. Any misconceptions I had (funny how most misconceptions crop up only when you’re confronted by the subject of the misconception) and ignorance were quickly dispelled the minute I stepped off the plane at Chongqing Airport.
This is one of the first things that I learned during orientation - China is not a totally homogeneous country but is home to 56 ethnic groups, of which Han Chinese is the biggest. Each of these 56 groups has its own customs, traditions, cooking styles, architecture and often language or dialect. The migration, settlement and interactions between ethnic groups is woven into the tapestry of China and provides a rich collection of dynastic, cultural and social history, food and cultures.
Map of Ethnic Groups 1
One thing that I did not know about China was it’s political and administrative geography. In its current make up, China is home to 23 provinces, 5 Autonomous Regions, 4 Municipalities and 2 Special Administrative Regions. Given the vastness of the country, the richness and length of its history and number of different ethnic groups, travelling between provinces, even cities in the same province feels like travelling to a different country, without crossing the border.
Administrative Divisions of China 1
If you’re looking for the sweet and sour chicken with noodles or the prawn spring rolls you’re used to ordering from the Chinese Take Away back home... you might have some difficulty. In my experience, what is often considered “Chinese food” in the West, is actually part of the Catonese cooking tradition (as it encountered and fused with Western cooking traditions during various stages of the Chinese diaspora). Chinese cooking is as regional and as varied as its people and its landscape. Broadly speaking, there are 8 traditional regional culinary traditions - Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian. Hunan, Guangdong and Sichuan.
That is not to say that Chinese food is limited to these 8 regional traditions. Each city and province have meals, snacks and ingredients that are unique to each city or province or are prepared in ways unique to the area.
A classic misconception is that the staple diet of many Chinese people consists of rice, dumplings and noodles. While these meal items are staples in many of the culinary traditions in China, they are certainly not the only ones. Fresh vegetables (served hot or cold), hotpot, BBQ, fried chicken (not KFC or Pop Eyes) and dessert are among the components of the culinary tradition in China (Try the toasted bread and ice cream, its AMAZING).
Toasted Bread & Ice cream
Currently, China is the second in the world for the number of accredited UNESCO World Heritage sites (Italy is first with 57). Some are well known such as “The Great Wall of China”, “Imperial Palaces of Ming and Qing Dynasties ” (Beijing and Shenyang), “The Summer Palace” (Beijing) , “The Grand Canal” (Beijing to Zhejiang) and “The Potala Palace” (Red Valley, Lhasa, Tibet). Lesser known sites include the “Mogao Grottoes” (Gansu Province), Longmen Grottoes (Henan Province) and Fujian Tulou (Fujian Province). Downloading a list of the UNESCO sites in China provides an epic travel itinerary if you’re so inclined.
Partial Map of UNESCO Sites in China 1
This particular misconception is not one that I personally held but heard a lot of from people who had returned from working and/or traveling in China. In my experience, Chinese people are no more rude than people in other places. In many cases, Chinese people are extremely friendly and helpful. Whether trying to order a taxi or lunch or you’ve gotten hopelessly lost, whether you’re trying out your Small Star level Mandarin to buy Starbucks or using a translation to pay your rent, locals are willing to lend a helping hand in Chinglish, via translation apps or using TPR.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure when or where this particular stereotype started but it is definitely one that I had heard of many times prior to coming to China. And was I ever proven wrong. At 1.63cm (5ft 4in), I am generally considered of average height back home but I am (or more correctly have felt) quite short since I arrived in China. According to worldpopulationreview.com, the average height for Chinese men and women is 1.69cm (5ft 6 1/2in) and 1.58m (5ft 2in), respectively, thus falling within the global average range. The lived experience is somewhat different...
Average height by country
Writing this post was an interesting experience that has reminded me of two things: One, I really didn’t know much about the country I was moving to (other than what I already knew) and that two, sometimes ignorance is bliss because it makes everyday an adventure.