Wandering the Streets of China: An Introspection. Is This Culture Shock?

I don’t even know where I am anymore. Sometimes my location on this great planet of ours doesn’t fully register until that Google Maps pin drops on my precise whereabouts. “Wow,” I think. I used to be there, and now I’m here.

Less than two weeks ago I stepped foot on the Asian continent for the first time. I have been to four continents now. This one, though, I am perplexed by. I spend most of my days lost, wandering through cities and my thoughts. I cannot read the signs. I do not know where to go. I cannot communicate with the locals. I speak to them in English, hoping they will understand. They speak to me in Mandarin, hoping I will understand. Even my body language and hand movements don’t seem to register.

I carry a book with me. The English text coddles me in a strange land. I am reading Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman, an incredibly inspiring nomad and author whom I interviewed earlier this year. I don’t read much, but I devour her words, stupefied by the parallels in our lives. Her thoughts, feelings and experiences are remarkably similar to mine. Her positivity and strong will exhorts me.

As I wander the streets, I am confused, but I take in all that I can. I don’t know which restaurants to eat in, or what to eat, for that matter. People bustle within street markets. I purchase street food for the equivalent of 25 cents. It is a spicy, over-flavored spiral on a stick, covered in sesame seeds. I am assured it’s not meat, but when I bite into it, it tastes chewy and, frankly, a lot like meat. The fact that so many locals purchased the same thing makes me nervous. I decide not to Google it. The freshly squeezed pomegranate juice that I bought from three men smoking cigarettes helps everything go down sweetly.

People are spitting in all directions. The person beside me doesn’t cover his mouth when he sneezes. There is a man throwing up on the sidewalk. I can see the residual sweat from when somebody leaned against this same piece of glass. I am overly-aware of what I touch with my hands. The smells are rarely pleasant, often times putrid. Alleyways are lined with dirt and trash. So are the streets.

This is not the civilized world. That’s not to say it is an uncivilized world, it’s just a world I’m not familiar with. I don’t want to be a tourist, but I have no choice. I am white. People stare. It’s usually something I love (narcissistic me), but I feel uncomfortable. Their eyes are questioning what I’m doing here.

I’m not even sure what I’m experiencing yet. I have no frame of reference. But, later on, some time from now, I will understand. Traveling to new places is not a linear experience. It changes you like the tide, waves crashing down upon each other, intermingling with the past, transcribing the future.

I wonder what the future holds for me.

READ NEXT: Why Learning Foreign Languages is so Important: My Epiphany in Southwestern China

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
    1. It really feels like it! Now that I’ve spent more time here, I’ve gotten used to it. Communication is still very difficult, but it’s getting easier. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before!

  1. Whenever anyone asks me “What was China like?”, I can usually only reply with one word: “Overwhelming.” It sounds like perhaps you’re experiencing the same thing!

    As with all things in life, though, you’ll adjust to it.

    1. That’s definitely one way to put it. Coming here required a huge adjustment. After a few weeks, though, I’m in the swing of things. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks!

  2. I’ve been there myself buddy. I feel for you. China is most definitely a place for culture shock for a Westerner. Give it time and you’ll be surprised how much Mandarin you’ll understand. Also, after visiting a city like Beijing, I realised the small towns where you can’t understand anything are in fact more friendly in other ways. Ni Hao Ma? 🙂

    1. Somebody said to me the other day, “You couldn’t be any place more different, amigo.” They were right. I’m giving China an open-minded chance and I really want to love it. It’s just taking a little time. Once I can learn some Mandarin, and begin communicating, things will get easier. But life isn’t easy, is it!? This is what it’s all about.

  3. China is quite the country to travel through. We have been here for over 6 weeks and at this point I just have to laugh when I see a child peeing in the middle of a city street. The sound of the spitting (that deep from the depths of the throat sound) still makes my skin crawl though. And the blowing of the nose right onto the street (no tissue or anything) really is unpleasant to see all the time! Beautiful nature and scenery though! Hope you were able to get out of the cities – the country side and national parks were our favorite!

    1. I know what you mean all too well! I’ve been able to get out of the cities a little, and I hope to do so more. Spending so much time in dirty cities can certainly wear on a person! The countryside that I’ve seen, though, has been remarkable. There’s lot’s to discover here!

  4. Now this is what I’m talking about!! Yes, Jeremy, finally you’ve been truly taken out of your element! It’s so very different from Oz or Canada. I love Asia, definitely my favorite region in the world yet one that can be very inexpensive to backpack — if done correctly. Or you can do it incorrectly like me and get a flat in the heart of Tokyo mid-2008, as the economy was first beginning its avalanche. I didn’t know a word of Japanese at the time either so I can totally relate to your sentiments. The big thing is just to speak slow and use hand gestures. Of course knowing a few key words cannot hurt either 😉

    BTW, the smells will grow on you. Trust me. And once you’ve left you will actually become quite fond of those smells, thanks primarily to the memories they trigger. I’ll put money on it.

    1. For the past month, I’ve been thinking of your words every time I smell something horrible, and I wonder if, when I am home, I will miss those lovely fragrances! It’s such an interesting experience, traveling through China. I haven’t seen much else of Asia, but it’s on my list for 2013.

      I’ve never traveled anywhere else that can bend one’s mind to such a drastic extent!

  5. I live in Guangzhou. It’s amazing how over whelming and busy it can get, but more amazing how quickly you get used to it.

    1. That’s truth! I’m not sure I’ll ever get fully used to this country, but I’ve certainly grown accustomed. And, like you said, that happened pretty quickly!

  6. Dude, Being black in China is another experience completely. I loved traveling there and the people were as fascinated with me and my hair as I was with their lifestyle and culture. Would go back in a heartbeat!

    1. I can only imagine! What a funny anecdote. As I’m temporarily living here, I’ve made friends with a few guys from Africa, and they totally love it in China! It’s a fascinating dynamic.

  7. So I’m late finding your page, therefore late responding to this article. I was just in Beijing in October and OH GOD do I KNOW what you’re talking about! All of it. Except eating was no problem, because thank GOD all the menus everywhere are picture menus. I stayed in a suburb too, meaning I was DEFINITELY the only white person. Isn’t it strange when the Chinese stare at you? It was for me only because you know, stateside, you don’t look twice when you see someone Chinese. Because there are people from all over all over the US. It was difficult for me to understand that it isn’t that way everywhere, and that if you get outside of the tourist areas, they DO seem to wonder what the hell you’re doing there. The spitting was what unhinged me. I couldn’t take it. That & the ordeal that was the subway. It’s a nightmare that never ends, even after you leave.

    1. It’s SUCH a strange experience, isn’t it? It’s entirely disorienting on every level, and all of your senses are so highly stimulated that the entire experience is overwhelming.

      I got used to the spitting after a while, though I never enjoyed it. Because of the pollution, though, I even had to partake from time to time. Not ideal, but the air is very, very bad in some places!

      And the subway is a whole other story entirely…

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