The Art of Being Misunderstood In China

Recently I’ve received lots of interesting comments to my old post In China I’m Both Fat And Beautiful and wanted to answer them in this blog post. Many of the commenters saw me as self-centered person who doesn’t want to adapt to the Chinese way of living. But is this really the case?

When you live in a foreign country you encounter numerous new things. And when the new culture is as different as Chinese culture is from Finnish culture, you can’t just hop in and get used to it right from the start. You need to use all your senses to get into the new culture and way of living.

What you also do, is to spend amazing amount of time pondering over all the new things that happen to you. It’s a mess in your brain! Many of us feel like writing our thoughts down in order to make some sense to it all, and that’s why we write blogs.

There are so many things that I think are weird in China. It’s not good or bad, just different from what I’m used to. I need to talk it through in order to get used to it later on. And by writing this blog I hope to share me ideas so when someone else moves to China for the very first time they have an idea what kind of things they will encounter here so they can get ready before hand. So that they know they aren’t the only one feeling a bit lost in China.

So what kind of comments did I get then?

According to many comments:

  • I don’t want to adapt to life in China
  • I want China to revolve around me and get adapted to my way of living
  • I’m self-centered
  • I don’t respect China or Chinese
  • I have forgotten the saying When in Rome do as the Romans do

There are even more comments on some Chinese discussion forum, but I haven’t checked them all yet.

I haven’t encountered these kinds of comments from other foreigners, only from Chinese. What could be the reason for this?

When I say Chinese people don’t line up, is it an observation or a criticism? When I admit it feels bad to be described as fat does it mean I’m not willing to adapt to Chinese lifestyle?

I do think it’s super super weird that Chinese people pay so much attention to skin colour and like telling each other if they are fatter or slimmer than when they met last time. Why is it so weird? Because I lived 20 years of my life living in a culture were these kinds of things were considered weird or even rude. Is it easy to change your mental thinking of twenty years? No, it absolutely isn’t easy.

For others who are planning to move to China or are living here already. Because of cultural differences you might get misunderstood by others and you also might misunderstand the local people for the same reason. It’s an adventure to move to a new country, a process of highs and lows.

I like to think that there isn’t good or bad when comparing two cultures, there is just different. New new habit, way of thinking or custom might feel weird, but that’s because it’s new to you. After a while you will be able to make better decisions about if you want to make that part of culture your own or not.

So what is my philosophy of living in China? Experience us much as you can. Learn the local language in order to communicate with Chinese people and get deeper into the culture. Respect differences and new ideas. Different doesn’t equal bad. If something feels weird for you try to find out why Chinese people are doing or saying something the certain way. You might find surprising reasons behind the customs.

There is a lot I would like to say about this topic, but I will end this blog post with a Finnish saying: If you don’t have anything good to say, better to say nothing at all.

  • Eric

    Hi Sara, 你好 !i m a guy from North China, but i never go to Guang Zhou . I m interesting in reading ur blog, i want to lean how to live in other country as a foreigner, because i m in Singapore now .Hope u everything is ok during in China. hope u like my country . Take care !

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  • Becky

    This reminds me of the time that my best friend (chinese) and I got in a fight. I said something his family did was “weird.”

    “It’s not weird Becky, it’s chinese culture and you should respect it!” he snapped.

    “It’s weird to ME, a foreigner,” I yelled back. “It’s something I am not used to and therefore it is weird at first and something I will need time to get used to. Weird does not imply good or bad, it means different, strange, and to me it is.”

    Then I pointed out all the times he called foreigners “weird” (like how we automatically split the bill and never offer to pay for each other at a meal) and how often we call things we are not used to “weird.”

    And I read your older blog post and felt that it was not at all offensive! You were just explaining your experience, one that I actually relate to quite strongly. (In America I was, and still am, mocked for my extremely pale skin. Yet in China it is suddenly a good thing? It was very hard for me to deal with it at first.)

    I was quite surprised by some of the anger expressed by people in the comments. But I guess the “old” saying is true: haters gonna hate. ;)

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  • Kai

    Hi, Sara. I’m a local chinese living in GZ.

    I couldn’t agree more about your philosophy. But I also want to remind you that some chinese people are quite sensitive about how forgeiners think or talk about china, they are so sensitive that sometimes even some description of fact (like cutting the line) can be seen as a criticism. Some chinese people just couldn’t accept hearing anything bad about china from a foreigner, even they know it’s the fact and they don’t like it either.

    This is especially obvious on the internet. You don’t have to be responsible for what you have said on the internet (or at least those people think so), so some comments can be narrow minded or even extreme nationalism. Some chinese people have a fragile heart and they link everything to national digity. I think one of the reason is that many chinese netizens are relatively young, they are impulsive and easily enraged, just ignore these people, they are stupid kids (小屁孩 in chinese).

    BTW, I think a forum has translated some of your blogs that drag many people’s attention, I admit that I’m one of those people :p. Most chinese people are extremely curious about how foreigners think about our country and culture, I hope you can keep posting some interesting blogs about your feelings about china.

    Wish you all the best.

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  • Wang

    Some thoughts of me and I think they are quite Chinese.
    First, I think some guys just read one post of you and then drew a conclusion. This is very common on the network. So it’s not particularly about you, it’s about a bad atmosphere on the net. Similar conditions happen to local Chinese too.
    Second, there is a saying of China: “林子大了什么鸟都有”, in China, or in any other countries, one wiil meet good people and bad people, lovely people and annoying people. What we can do is to keep a good state of mind.
    Finally, another saying of China for you: “身正不怕影子斜!” When you recevie a criticism on you, try to find out the reason behind it. If you sure that it is not your fault, just ignore it and be yourself.

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    Wang Reply:

    PS: according to Chinese philosophy, when one recieve a criticism, he or she should reflect himself first. Ceng Zi said:”吾日三省吾身”.
    So maybe there are still many difficulties for you to adapt your living in China. But i’m sure you will get through this. Good luck!

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  • SAI

    Net comments tend to be extreme. So don’t let those things make you lost your willing to explore China. Differences or, as you said, some weird things can create unbelievable feeling that if is good or bad just depend on your choice~

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  • thenakedlistener

    Sara, those criticisms you got are pretty standard parols for trolling others. Even a Chinese like me get hit with those more times than I’d care to recollect.

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  • Mariëlle

    Hey Sara! I’ve personally lived in China and I know many foreigners living in China, and I can tell you I’ve seldom met anyone who has gone to such great lengths as you have to adapt to Chinese culture. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and I think what you do is amazing. Keep it up and don’t let the criticism get you down! :)

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  • Allison

    I think this is my first time commenting. :) I can’t believe some of the things people wrote you in the previous post! People on the outside looking in seem to always have something to say, and unfortunately it seems to be negative.

    I taught in Beijing for 2 years (2001-2003), and was a veritable ogre in comparison to my Chinese students and coworkers. I am tall (1.52m), white, and not skinny (not fat, either, at 74kg–I played sports my whole life, so was in great shape). I got looks and comments wherever I went. It was odd to be the focus of so much attention, when in my hometown I blended in quite well and was never seen as “too tall” or “too fat”. True, I was typically the tallest of my group of friends, and I always weighed more than my other friends, but I never considered myself unhealthy, and was brought up to be proud of my height, and to appreciate it.

    One of my last days of teaching in Beijing, a fellow Chinese teacher (a very very slender–I would even say unhealthily skinny–teacher) came up to me and proclaimed, “Ms. A, how fat you have gotten this year!” She seemed truly perplexed when tears sprung to my eyes, and I tried (as graciously as possible) to remove myself from the conversation so that I could have a good cry. I tried to remember that she was probably just happy that I was enjoying Chinese food or something, but it was so hard for me to justify the bluntness of her remark against the stigma in my own country that comes from being a “fat” person.

    I appreciate your blog. I read it and am reminded of how I felt as a foreigner living in Beijing on my own. So many of your experiences match my own. I am sure some of your opinions are not popular amongst the Chinese nationals, but you have to decide if you want to please them solely, or if you want to have an honest journal of your time in the country. Personally, I think that awareness helps to bring about change, so though the honesty of your posts may offend some, I would continue to share what is on your heart and mind. After all, I don’t believe that you are being malicious in any way–if anyone reads your blog regularly, they will know that you love the country and you love the experiences that you are having in it (I mean, why would you choose to study a language in a culture that you didn’t already appreciate??). If they decide to take your words as a personal affront, then they have no understanding of who you are as a person. I, for one, will continue to look forward to reading what you have to say.

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  • Rosie Zhao

    Wow! I read that post awhile and now revisiting it and reading the comments is certainly interesting. Actually, it made me feel a bit sad. I am definitely guilty if making similar observations and even talking with them with Chineses friends. It’s not meant to be offensive! I think people take things much too personally on the Internet (I know I do) and there’s a lot more misunderstanding compared to when you have a conversation with someone.

    Anyways, I suppose we could all be a bit more culturally sensitive (and we could all stand to toughen up a bit more too!). As an American, I am somewhat used to hearing comments that “Americans are so. . . (fill in less than desirable attribute)” and occassionally it bothers me, but I am not defined by my nationality. Chinese people aren’t either. Part of me thinks it’s a matter of confidence and integrity. If you are comfortable with who you are and aren’t ashamed of the way you behave, there’s no need to get defensive about what people say about you or your countrymen.

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  • Ivy

    Don’t lose heart over those mean-spirited comments. I think the people who wrote them are insecure and/or misunderstood you completely. They’re not reasonable criticisms and do not reflect on your actual character or appearance!

    The interesting thing is, it’s been my experience in China that some Chinese people actually like a more fuller-figured look. especially, ahem, some of the guys.

    But really, that’s besides the point. Everyone’s appearance is unique; everyone’s experience is unique. I hope we can all learn to appreciate that.

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    C Reply:

    yes the older generation’s idea of someone attractive is a person with a really roly-poly face, and rather plump, Lmao, while the younger generation’s image of someone pretty / good looking is way different, maybe someone of slender built, refined facial features , tall, not fat etc. the list goes on.

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    Alva Reply:

    It was the same in western countries years ago, in the past being white and chubby, big….was the trend, people with darker skin or too thin were those who worked with their hands (farmers, slaves…), nowadays people like to be tanned because it looks more healthy ( lets say in my case i become super white when i am sick), because it means you afford holidays..etc.
    I can forecast a new trend, being white again, because with all the cancer issues we are finding nowadays people is starting to scare about the sun and they start to protect their skin.

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  • C

    i can only think of one thing why chinese people in general say that to another about getting “Fat” or hung up on physical appearances – BECAUSE they’re too average looking and fatter than usual.

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    Laura Reply:

    The other day I was discussing with my dad about how interesting and at the same time annoying I find that when someone who spends most of the time abroad coming home once a year means exactly this comment in my family. As soon as I get out of the airport first words are: You lost / gained weight. Any of them is uncomfortable cause if you got fat you don´t really want to hear that and if you lost weight you may feel umcomfortable or they are just pleaseing you. I told my dad that I find is interesting that after such a long time without seeing each other people comment weight and not about the flight, luggage or clothes ( which may look different). I can´t get used to that. Do you think that this shows some hidden part of a culture?

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    C Reply:

    Of course you won’t get used to it. Chinese people (i should be fair to say ) from China in general like being obvious about physical appearances. [Cos not alot of them are physically attractive in general? Not to say they’re ugly either but i think most of them fall into the “plain”: category.) You’d wish they would comment more about things that are past physical appearances. It’s a shame, most people (regardless where they’re from or what race they are) just follow what the rest behaves and think but do not stop to think what the other person will think about it…I think you can devise a coping mechanism for these crude comments… Get sarcastic with them or just ask them bluntly “Is losing weight a bad thing or a good thing to you?” I don’t really know what you mean by hidden part of a culture?

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    Alva Reply:

    C when I say I go home I mean to Spain, not to my home (apartment) in China. So it means I cant get used to these reacions anywhere, not even in my own country.
    I know chinese people use it as a fact, is just an adjective, a comment, doesnt mean is good or bad.
    Hidden part of a culture is the part that shows that appearance matters a lot. And indeed in Spain and China, appearance is very important. Do you think is linked?

    I usually ask in a sarcastic way, like you sai, I usually answer the first question you mentioned…but I wonder if people would like it if I come and sa ” Oh you look older”, since old is linked to experienced….
    :)
    Unless you are 5 years old, if someone tells you that you look old…the response is not so good.

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  • yang

    Hi Sara, I’m a Chinese and I just want to say: I’m shocked and astonished by your adventure in China. I never imagined that a foreigner can learn Chinese so well. You don’t need to be too adapted to China, it’s not necessary. First, you are a foreigner in China and that will never change (I’m sorry, but that’s true, Chinese are just not so open minded), so, why bother to be the same like a Chinese? Second, you are the right one. To drop garbage on the street or to cut in line is wrong, no matter it’s in China or anywhere else. So, why change yourself for the wrong behavior? With the development of Chinese sociaty the Chinese people will change their bad behaviors. And last, I want to say: you are so rare a case. If you change your inwardness a bit you will find yourself a lot of commercial opportunities.

    Don’t mind too much about the fluency or grammar of Chinese language, it doesn’t matter. Your language is good enough now. I worked overseas before and language was never a problem, nobody will be fussy about a foreigner’s language skill. Good luck to you!

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  • lucie

    I don’t get what’s with those peoples comments. They are not trying to understand you or your feelings it seems. You just wrote your observation of things from your point of view and these people seem to be judging you calling you self-centered. Well, this is your blog and your point of view so it will be one-sided, duh

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  • Alysa

    I agree with you, and I love your blog and I think it’s amazing that you speak Finnish and English with complete fluency and you are working on your Chinese. I need to catch up! :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Haha, I think my English isn’t fluent, but I’m trying :)

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  • Joy

    I’m really surprised at all your criticisms! I have talked to many Chinese people about what I think of China and their culture. Actually it’s not what I THINK it’s what I KNOW and how it compares to America. Maybe it’s because we’re speaking in person but they’re usually in agreement with me. Living in China is difficult and it’s the most difficult when I judge. It’s something I try so hard not to do but as human beings we judge. :-) Once I let go of my judgements and let it be, I feel much more comfortable in China. Nice post!

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You have an excellent attitude Joy, it’s much easier if you try not to judge so much. But of course critical thinking and writing is also important, that is how we learn about each others and how things change.

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    Joy Reply:

    I think you can use critical thinking without actually judging. Hmm….maybe. I don’t know anymore! I’m a bit finished / negative with China right now. :-)

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  • lovenoodles

    Well,,that’s the way I feel outside China as a foreigner,,too. Western and Chinese cultures have so many conflicts…Like you said, it’s not good or bad,,it’s just differences..I hope American or Western people would be more friendly while I study abroad too..I always say,,I would never get used to the culture but,,learn it…I still make a lot “mistakes” here in the U.S., and that lead to a lot of “misunderstand”…Good luck to you,,and good luck to me,,all the “foreigners” who live abroad..

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank your for sharing your experiences lovenoodles! You are right, no matter from where, we foreigners always encounter different kind of challenges when living abroad. I also believe this way we learn so much more than if we just stayed at home.

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