I consider myself to be a smart traveler. I bargain wisely, eat well, and explore places on a budget. And hey, I was born in China and speak the language! But to my surprise, I recently experienced enormous culture shock in Asia.
Could it be that I have taken things for granted in America?
My nine most embarrassing/surprising moments in China:
1. No longer a skinny chick
When I shop in China, my nickname, “skinny chick,” doesn’t apply.
“This dress won’t fit you,” a saleswoman in a Shanghai boutique shop said after staring at me from top to bottom. “You need a large size.”
“You are kidding,” I responded. “I wear a size 2 in America!” As soon as the word ‘America’ slipped out, I lost my bargaining power. The Chinese think that America is rich so the salespeople rarely lower their prices when they find out that you are American.
Today, two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese. What right do I have to tell the saleswoman that I am a petite?
She showed me a smaller sized dress to prove her point, and it was so tiny that it would only fit a 12-year-old.
“Just give me a medium,” I said. She didn’t listen and brought out a large instead. It fit. My face was flushed. My only consolation was that she gave it to me for half the price.
2. Begging for toilet paper
I was stuck in a public bathroom in a shopping mall in Kowloon, Hong Kong. I forgot to bring toilet paper with me. There was nothing in the bathroom, not even thin paper sheets to cover the toilet seat. Thankfully, there was a lady in the next bathroom with her grandchild.
“I am sorry that I have to bother you. I didn’t bring toilet paper. May I borrow some?” I begged. Then I stuck my hand out under the partition, waiting. I should have said “give” and not “borrow.” How am I going to give her back her toilet paper?
“Let me help my grandkid pee first,” she replied. Moments later, she handed me a couple of tissue papers. I grabbed them with gratitude. “Is it enough?” she asked.
What a kindhearted woman!
3. No free water
I like to sip hot water with my meals. When I ordered hot water in China, the waitress instantly said, “It costs three yuan renminbui (about 50 cents USD) for a glass of hot water.”
My husband was upset so he told the waitress, “I’ll pass.”
I was embarrassed that my husband wanted a freebie. That’s the rule in most restaurants in China. After all, the price is much less than what restaurants in Europe charge for water.
To compensate for my embarrassment, I persuaded my husband to get the water.
4. Venice in Shanghai
Zhou Zhuang, a water village in Shanghai popular among millions of Chinese visiting from overseas, was one our destinations. This was our first time to the village. The village was once owned by a rich man named Mr. Zhou. Yet, the local taxi driver had never heard of the village.
We had to show him a map and coached him on how to get there. On the way, he even got lost. He was embarrassed, but we were patient.
The story has a happy ending though. The driver took us to the village and other interesting sites. We ate lunch outside the village, saving $50 USD and an hour’s time. Had we taken a tour bus, it would have cost more, even without lunch. We would’ve gotten stuck in traffic. To avoid traffic, we followed the hotel staff’s suggestion, taking the subway and hiring a taxi.
5. Polluted water and filthy restrooms
As an immigrant, I view China as my mother, America as my father. I love them both.
Whenever I see my native land in substandard conditions, I don’t feel good. I want to be proud of my homeland. China, now a world power, has the most polluted waters. I was disillusioned with the dirtiness of the water at Zhou Zhang. But the villagers did not seem to care. The village restaurants even washed their things in the canal.
Another serious issue that destroys China’s modern image is their horrible public restrooms.
Why can’t China do something about this? It has $20 billion in reserve. I am ashamed whenever my American friends gripe about how unsanitary China’s restrooms are.
6. Real cashmere vs. fake cashmere
My mom’s favorite store in Hong Kong is the Japanese-style department store, Sodo. We were there on my second day. She could quickly spot what was on sale. For $25, you can buy a designer cashmere sweater with a tag that states, “Made in Italy.” My mom urged me to buy it. I tried it on in the dressing room. It fit. I thought it was a bargain.
A few days later, I was in Kowloon on the street where all the budget items for women, from clothes to electronic items, are sold. Suddenly, I spotted the same designer sweater. The stall owner said, “This is man-made cashmere, $15 each.” It did not have a tag. So I bought two in different colors for $19.
I thought the Sodo sweater was made from real cashmere and the ones from the street were made from artificial materials. What did I find? All three sweaters were the same size, knit, and pattern and even had the same inside labels. I bought no real cashmere sweater after all!
7. Throwing noodles
My husband ordered a small bowl of noodles for breakfast at our hotel restaurant’s buffet. What we didn’t expect was that the chef had to put on a show for the diners.
“No need to go through all of that,” my husband said, “for a few strands of noodles.”
But the chef insisted that he had to hand-make it from scratch. We were embarrassed to have caused that much trouble. We relented and watched him mix the dough, then swing the hand-shaved noodles up in the air, back and forth, for a few minutes
before he cooked them. Everyone in the restaurant watched the show.
The noodles were heavenly.
8. Obscured view from the tallest building
Visiting the top floor of the tallest building in Shanghai, the SWFC Tower, would cost about $12 USD per person. The day we went, it was foggy. But I still wanted to experience the view from the top floor, so we settled on dining at the Park Hyatt Hotel restaurant on the building’s 90th floor. The restaurant required reservations. We went to the 90th floor to make reservations and looked around.
The view was nice, but the menu items were not. We left the hotel and called the restaurant to cancel. I was embarrassed that we behaved like typical Chinese.
Great food is more important than a great view.
9. American vs. Chinese dinner
My husband’s friend wined and dined us over a superb seafood dinner in Hong Kong. Live abalone, scallops, Australian prawns, and rock cod.
I was not expecting a debate. But suddenly, our host complained about America’s stand on China as being too tough. No one else seemed interested in arguing with him.
So I jumped in. Why not? I felt he was biased because he has many businesses in China. I told him that it all depends on the angle from which he looks, and that there is no absolute in each case. I was afraid I might’ve made him feel like he lost face.
A few days later, he called again. My husband said he actually enjoyed being challenged! ♦