Living in China: everyday cultural surprises and curiosities

After living in China for 7 years, it still surprises me every day.

Living in China is quite an experience. After 7 years in China, if there is one thing I have been able to prove is that this country is so different that it surprises you every day. Even when you’ve been there for a while and you think you’ve seen it all, suddenly, it surprises you again.

To celebrate my 7 years in China, I am going to tell you the 5 everyday curiosities that have surprised me the most and that you probably need to know if you plan to travel to China or live in China.

The list could be endless, but I have preferred to shorten it to what I consider that influences the day to day life and that, if I compare with other countries I have been to, are things that impact at first sight. Let’s start:

Curiosities of China - Everything fits on a motorcycle
Curiosities of China – Everything fits on a motorcycle

List of the 5 cultural differences that have surprised me most about living in China

1. Almost everything is paid for by cell phone:

Although cash is still used, most people now pay for almost everything with their cell phones. You can live in China by leaving home without a single penny in your pocket and spend all day buying things with your phone. There are a few apps that are used to pay, although the most famous ones are Wechat (微信) and Alipay (支付宝). Wechat is undoubtedly the most widespread. It is a messaging application like What’sApp only with a thousand more tools.

It has a wall like Facebook to post photos, an option similar to Tinder to see who you have around you, a song search engine like Shazam, links to different applications and games… It’s an all-in-one.

But even with all that, its success is based on the fact that you can link your bank account to your Wechat account, which allows you to manage money from there. Apart from paying for day-to-day things, you can send money to friends or even collect your wages. Then you decide how much money you leave in the Wechat account to spend and how much you send to the bank account.

Living in China – How to pay by cell phone?

It is very easy to use. There are two ways of payment. The first would be physical. The payment is directly to the store on the street. Each store has its Wechat QR printed on the store shelf. When it’s time to pay you just scan that QR, type in the amount to pay, type in your secret code to make transfers and you’re done.

In supermarkets they do it the other way around: they hand you the purchase, tell you how much it costs, you show them your barcode or QR code and they laser scan it.

The other way is to shop online in standalone apps. For example, you can order cabs, buy airline tickets, movie tickets, order food delivery, and so on. These apps, at the time of payment, ask you which app you want to use to pay, Wechat or Alipay. Then you are redirected to that app, enter your password and that’s it – purchase done! Spending money has never been easier. It has never been so easy to consume. If you come to China, know that it is almost impossible to live without Wechat.

Living in China - Wechat Pay
Living in China – Wechat Pay

2. Cities are full of electric motorcycles:

It is curious to arrive in a Chinese city and see that there are thousands of motorcycles circulating in silence. Apart from the beeps you only hear a sound as if the bike was about to take off. In the city it is very rare to see gasoline motorcycles. At most you see one a month and by chance.

With a full battery the electric motorcycle allows you to travel an average of 40-60 km depending on the speed you go and the weight you carry. All neighborhoods have an area where you can charge the bike or simply park it. In my case, for example, I pay 15 euros to park it for 3 months in the parking lot. In addition, every time I charge it, I pay 50 euro cents (3Rmb). I usually charge it 2 times a week and, if I use it a lot, 3 times.

The prices of electric scooters can vary. An average and new one, can cost you 300 euros (2500Rmb) and a second hand one about 150 euros (1200Rmb) or less. When my friends tell me that in Spain an electric bike costs 1000 euros I still don’t believe it.

Living in China - Kunming electric scooters
Living in China – Kunming electric scooters
Living in China - Electric motorcycle
Electric motorcycle

3. Modernity and tradition hand in hand:

Among the most remarkable curiosities of China is that the daily life in China goes hand in hand with so much technology and so much modernity, but they have been able to preserve many traditional aspects of their culture. For example, here the elderly and teachers are still respected as the most. Children also respect their parents and rarely contradict them.

They still marry very young and in many families it is still important that there is at least one child in the family. Having a house of their own before getting married is essential to feel secure and stable. Weddings are usually paid for by the husband’s family, but more and more they are paid for in half.

If you go out to eat with friends, one is always invited and the next day another one pays, and so on and so forth. However, this custom is slowly disappearing because now, right after one pays the bill, the others send their share via Wechat. No one has the excuse anymore that they don’t have any money on them or don’t have any change. At most you can say you have no battery. Regarding couples, usually the man pays the bill since his salary is usually higher. This custom is also changing, but much more slowly.

In case someone offers you something, the normal thing to do is to accept it, refusing it can be taken as bad manners. When toasting, I try to put my glass under yours to show that I respect you. There have been cases of toasting almost on the floor so as not to let the other person put his glass lower than yours.

China Facts - Kunming twin towers
China Facts – Kunming twin towers

4. Chinese food and cuisine:

Before going to China I loved the Chinese restaurants in Spain. The spring rolls, the chicken with almonds, the tres delicias rice…. But since I have been living in China, unfortunately, I no longer like them. The reason: the Chinese food here, “the real”, is a thousand times better.

There is a huge variety of dishes and many different flavors. There are spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet, mixes of salty and sweet, sweet and sour, etc.

You don’t need to cook at home if you don’t want to and you don’t need to go to the supermarket to buy. There are fresh fruits on the street and street markets in every neighborhood. In restaurants you can eat for less than two euros, there are barbecues at night, and all kinds of Chinese snacks during the day.

As if that were not enough, another of the curiosities of China is that in each province you eat differently. The food in Yunnan has nothing to do with that of Beijing. In Sichuan the food is so spicy that your mouth falls asleep. Yunnan food is spicy but bearable. In Beijing it tastes more salty and in Shanghai it tastes more sweet. In some places they eat more rice and in others they prefer noodles.

When many Chinese travel in China, the first thing they want to see is what is eaten in that province. It is said that a foreigner came recently with the intention of touring China trying each of the different dishes that exist. He started in Guangzhou, and after two years of tasting dishes, he is still in Guangzhou.

China Gastronomy - Gong bao ji ding
China Gastronomy – Gong bao ji ding
Chinese Cuisine - Mixian Yunnan Typical Dish
Chinese Cuisine – Mixian Yunnan Typical Dish

Living in China – Dining customs in China

If you are thinking of living in China you have to learn the customs when it comes to eating. It is very surprising that there are so many rituals to take into account when eating. For example: if several people eat together it is normal to order different dishes to share and at least one dish more than the people we are.

Always wait for the host to start eating, and then you can start. You don’t leave the bowl on the table and bend your head down to eat, you take the bowl to eat.

When you go to eat at someone’s house you will always get extra food. You have to finish everything you put in your bowl, but, what you should never do, is finish everything on the table. If you finish it all, the host will feel that he/she has looked bad for not having enough food and, as they say here, he/she will lose face.

At the end of the meal, if someone takes out a cigar, first of all offer it to everyone at the table. Cigars, at meals and gatherings, are shared among everyone. You never see anyone light up a cigar for himself without first offering it to everyone else.

China - Yunnan Gastronomy
China – Yunnan Gastronomy

5. China’s ethnic minorities:

When I arrived in China for the first time, I had no idea that there were ethnic minorities here. I arrived, got to know them and fell in love with all of them (In this video I talk about them). In China there are 56 ethnic groups, which are divided into a total of 55 ethnic minorities and the Han; the common Chinese, the largest ethnic group on the planet.

Each ethnic minority has its own culture, its own dialect, its own defining clothing, its own typical dishes, a different physique…. Even the architecture of the villages also varies depending on the ethnic group to which they belong.

The largest minority is called the Zhuang. They total 16 million and are from Guangxi, a province in southern China, neighboring Yunnan. The most minority group is called Lhoba, they live in the southeastern area of Tibet and have a total of 3 thousand inhabitants.

Living in China - Ethnic minorities
Living in China – Ethnic minorities

Yunnan, the province with the most ethnic minorities

The province with the largest variety of ethnic minorities is Yunnan province with 26 different ethnic groups. In each region of Yunnan you find different ethnic groups which gives the province a huge cultural variety and a much more exotic touch than other Chinese provinces.

Despite how different each of the ethnic minorities are, the best thing about them is that they get along well with each other. There is a sense of unity in belonging to this unique and special group. Every year festivals are organized everywhere where all ethnic groups are invited to dance and celebrate their differences together.

If you found this post about the 5 most surprising everyday curiosities about living in China useful or interesting, don’t forget to leave a comment. And if you want to visit Yunnan, you can take a look at our route through the highlights of Yunnan or our list of practical tips for traveling to China.

The most beautiful things are those you don’t expect.

Living in China - Yunnan - Ethnic minorities festival
Yunnan – Ethnic minorities festival


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