Culture is different when you go somewhere new in the world. Some people shake hands, some bow, some wave. In Singapore, littering and spitting are punishable by jail time. In Israel, shaking a thumb grasped to all four fingers means “hold on a moment.” In France, you may be greeted by a complete stranger with kisses on each cheek.
Beijing is no different, and there are some cultural aspects to life there that I learned over my recent trip that Americans may find odd, or even troubling.
1. Personal space isn’t really a thing
If you value having a little bubble of personal space around you at all times, a visit to Beijing might be a bit tough on you. Lines become pushing mobs and, given that propensity, if someone wants to go somewhere next, he will be immediately behind or next to you so that others will not cut in. An extreme example (which happened to me) is in line for the urinal in the men’s room at the Forbidden City, where the gentleman behind me was less than an inch away from my back while I was relieving myself. People cut in front of pictures, and took advantage of any space of more than 6 inches to insert themselves. Be prepared!
2. You take your life into your hands at each street
If walking, be aware that while pedestrians may technically have the right of way, cars are larger and don’t seem to care. As they win confrontations, I’d make extra certain to watch out when crossing a street.
As for driving, lanes in Beijing seem to be more of a suggestion. A three lane street might have 4-5 lanes of traffic, not including bikes and mopeds and the aforementioned pedestrians. Honking seems to mean hello, and red lights might just imply slowing down – if that. The local drivers don’t seem bothered by any of this, and other than on the highway to the Great Wall, I didn’t see many accidents at all.
3. Internet censureship is real
At the end of the day, you might want to check Facebook. It doesn’t seem to be working. Neither is Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media site. You try to WhatsApp your friend to ask why, but it won’t connect. You decide just to search online, but the search function doesn’t load, and neither will gmail.
This is Chinese internet censureship, where all Western social media is blocked. Google is also blocked (most phones use it for search function), and all Google based apps (mail, maps, etc…). I knew some websites would be blocked, but this was much more extreme than I was prepared for. Before you come to China, create a yahoo email account (it still works as of today) so that you can stay in touch back home.
Visiting Beijing is awesome, and I strongly recommend it. Just be aware of these cultural differences before making the trip.