At least once a week, sometimes more, I am engaged in a conversation that goes along the lines of:
Them: How long have you been in China?
你住在中国多久了? (nǐ zhù zài zhōng guó duō jiǔ le)
Me: Nine years.
九年了. (jiǔ nián le)
Them: Really? Are you accustomed to life here?
真的吗？你习惯了吗? (zhēn de ma? nǐ xí guàn le ma)
Me: (I pause while I think of how to reply...)
Have I adapted? In some ways: yes, quite well. In other ways: no, and I feel like I never will.
But there are several habits I once considered strange that I've come to call my own, which have helped me feel more at home with those around me.
Drinking hot water
As I write this, those of us living north of the Yangtze River still have a month to go before the central heat is turned on in our buildings. So my mug of hot water is my constant companion to help me 取暖 (qǔ nuǎn) - keep warm.
Hot water, and other beverages like warm Coke with ginger (which is surprisingly tasty) are common in China all year round since Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) relies on many Chinese food remedies for balancing yin and yang and staying healthy.
People will serve it anywhere you go: at your friend's house, in the office, even at the police station when you do your routine visa renewal. It's something I've grown used to and now enjoy (although I may add a bit of lemon for flavor).
Walking or bicycling nearly everywhere
Chinese people are very active in terms of day-to-day living. Gyms aren’t a huge thing here; the two that opened in my town both failed within their first six months. But Chinese understand the importance of being active and tend to walk or bike whenever possible.
At first I found it appalling to have to walk half a mile to the market each day, but I soon came to enjoy it.
On a practical level this isn't so crazy if you consider just how many people there are in China, how crowded the roads are, and how difficult it is for a foreigner to obtain a Chinese driver’s license.
I've found that I really enjoy walking places, even when others would rather take the bus or a taxi.
Doing a (modified) "moon month"
In its purest form the 坐月子 (zuò? yuè ?zi?) , frequently called the moon month or forbidden month, is the month (or two or even three) following the birth of a new baby in which Mom must observe numerous customs that vary by location.
It’s said that women are most vulnerable to illness following giving birth, and there’s no doubt that their bodies undergo numerous changes.
To alleviate future ailments, the new mom is instructed to do as little as possible while her mother-in-law comes to care for her.
Common customs include:
- Not showering
- Not touching anything cold
- Staying covered from head to toe
- Not doing anything besides feeding the baby
- And eating up to a dozen eggs per day.
Given that I have a Chinese mother-in-law, the standard American approach was not an option when my children were born.
Wanting to respect her long-held ideas, I negotiated to do the things deemed most important when the in-laws were around, and break tradition when they returned to their home each evening. This meant that emailing photos of my new baby to family 8,000 miles away in the USA, reading, and sneaking out for walks to stretch my legs had to occur late at night.
Admittedly it was nice to be able to hand the baby off to someone else while my husband was at work so I could nap to make up for all the late night feedings. And, as a result of my mother-in-law's nutritious home cooked meals, I lost all of my “baby weight” (and then some!) within a month of giving birth.
Letting my kids wear 开裆裤 (kāi dāng kù) - split pants
I thought the idea of potty training early was great, but I couldn't accept how some families handled it.
It's not unusual to see babies wearing Chinese split pants (开裆裤, kāi dāng kù) being held over garbage cans, sitting bare-bottomed on the ground, or just squatting and relieving themselves wherever they happen to be.
There was no way I'd let my child make unsanitary messes out in public!
The diaper-free practice in China stems from years gone by when there was little money or fabric available for cloth diapers. Old clothes can be used as makeshift diapers until the baby has learned to control their bladder. Disposables are available, but are quite expensive and thought to be unhygienic and wasteful.
When my mother-in-law showed me the stash of clothes she'd sewn for my son, split pants were something that he'd have to wear whether I liked it or not. Slowly I transitioned to letting him be diaper-less at home (with plenty of precautionary measures taken).
There's a learning curve, to be sure, but it was a success (using my modified approach) and he was potty trained well before his first birthday.
Soaking my feet in hot water
Giving myself a foot bath is a relatively new practice for me, but it's so relaxing that I'll stick with it for a long time.
Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine say that a nightly foot bath can improve circulation and sleep, increase longevity, as well as reduce symptoms of colds, the flu, and menstrual pain. I really like adding fresh ginger slices which gives off a fragrant smell and is supposed to help prevent colds.
Even if I never see the benefits claimed by TCM, it's nice to have an excuse for a little nightly pampering after a long day.
Wearing the same outfits three days in a row (weather and hygiene permitting)
At first I thought it was strange, if not unhygienic, to wear the same outfit for up to a week at a time, but now I’m a fan of wearing at least one piece of outerwear several times without washing.
As far as I know this practice is also a remnant of poor times in China. When you own three shirts, no washer or dryer, and the sun hasn’t shined in days, you don’t have the luxury of doing a load of laundry every day.
I've always been one to wear my jeans or skirts a couple of times between washes, but shirts? No, those were washed after each wear.
I've since adapted to wearing things more than a few times as long as they're still clean and it's not summertime. Not only do clothes last longer without the repeated washings, it makes getting dressed simple if you just plan to wear yesterday’s outfit again.
As a bonus, this has helped me become more of a minimalist and keeps my wardrobe from taking up too much space in our tiny house.
The Habits I Haven't Picked Up
It's been wonderful getting exposure to new habits and ideas as an expat in China, and equally great to pick and choose which ones I want to adopt. However there are a few Chinese habits that I still have not taken on:
- Letting my hair dry completely before going to bed
- Filling my kids' weekends with extracurricular classes after a long week of Chinese school
- Wearing layer and layers of long underwear
- And spitting
Maybe I'll heed my husband's warnings of the dangers of sleeping with wet hair soon, but I'm quite certain my practice of Chinese manners won’t include spitting in public anytime soon.
What are some new or unusual Chinese habits that you've adopted after living in China or with a Chinese partner?