Chinese Lifestyle & Education

Even though I felt like China was strange, when you look at the world’s population as a whole, you can barely call a place like China “different” at all.  In fact, (according to the CIA World Fact Book), the average living human is a 28 year old Han (the most common ethnic group within China) Chinese man.  This means that for most of the world, Jingzhou China seems quite normal!  What does life there look like?

Instead of having wooden houses like we do, most of the buildings in China are made of concrete.  In the winters it can get very cold, but only the coldest parts of China in the North build heating systems into their buildings.  (This is one of many things that the government controls.)  Because of this, when we visited a classroom in China, the students all kept their coats on the entire lesson.   At home, they may have a small heater of some kind in a main room, but may still keep their winter coats on here as well.

While they may eat some home-cooked meals, there are markets everywhere full of food and many will simply eat their meals from the market.  These markets were always full of people.  Noodles, dumplings, and fried rolls filled with vegetables and meats can be found everywhere as well as fresh ingredients and raw meats for cooking.  Inside a restaurant, food is ordered then placed on a rotating table where it can be shared and passed to everyone.  Dishes may include fried eggplant, chicken with cashews, fish, fried cabbage, pork, and much more.  These dishes may sound like the food you find at a Chinese Restaurant in America, but it is actually quite different.  In America our Chinese food may have sweet sauces on top.  In China, the seasonings are simple and the dishes come without these sweet sauces.  The main dish may likely be a big pot of boiling water with some kind of meat inside such as duck or fish.  Everyone shares from this pot, reaching into it with their chopsticks.

There are lots of people in China.  Jingzhou had at least one million people, yet it was considered just an ordinary city.  This has worried the government, so they encourage families to have only one child.  They do this by raising taxes for having a second child and offering very few benefits for that child.  There are a few exceptions, however.  For instance, if a husband and wife were both the only child in their family, they may have a second child.

eating noodles at the market

In China it is not likely for a family to own a car.  Instead they may own a scooter, bicycle, or motorcycle.  We often saw motorcycles crammed with as many as four people!  There is also a kind of three-wheeled truck that is a popular vehicle in China.  Even though families often don’t drive cars, the pollution in china has gotten very bad, as well as litter.  The outdoors are seen as very dirty, and people will sometimes where breathing masks when they are outside.  This is also one of the reasons people take off their shoes before entering a house or building.


School is very different in China than in the U.S.  For instance, classes focus very much on memorization and test-results.  Whether a student is learning English or math, they do this by studying and memorizing facts for a test.  Many schools are newly experimenting with providing more interactive forms of learning, but this is still more uncommon than it is common.  The class we visited was taught by an American teacher who taught the students English using actual conversation, debates, plays, music videos, etc.  This was new for the students.  Their parents too are very concerned with their actual grades so there is a big push to get a good score rather than to have a good understanding of a subject.  Even a student’s eventual choice of college is determined by a test called the Gau Cau.  This test is taken when a student finishes what we would call high school.  The results of this test determine not only which colleges this student can attend, but also what subjects they should study.  I heard of one student who wanted to be an artist, but her Gau Cau results were strong in finances, so she studied that instead.  People in China give this test a great amount of authority.    If a parent pays extra money, they can try to get their child into a different school than the school suggested by the Gau Cau, but it is very difficult and very expensive to do this.

Another new education practice that schools are beginning to use is something called “English Corner.”  More and more people are realizing that language can be a very difficult thing to learn by simply memorizing facts, without having actual practice.  To improve this, they invite English speakers to meet at a specific public location each week to simply have conversation with English students.  Some schools do this over a meal, while others simply have students and English speakers gather outside of the school building to talk.  More and more schools are recognizing a need to do more than just memorize.  One student we met has a passion for changing China’s school system and adding more variety to the style of education.

In lesser-developed cities like Jingzhou, there is no garbage truck to collect the trash. Instead, people dig through the trash that’s collected on the streets to collect recyclable items in hopes that they can turn them in for money.

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China: Holidays and Religion

Christmas Time in China

The Christmas tree outside of the shopping mall in Shanghai

Our Chinese friends eat different foods than the foods we eat, live in different houses than we live in, and have different family traditions than we do as well.  For instance, my husband and I spent Christmas in China.  Because Christianity is a very small part of China, Christmas is not very widely celebrated.  (Though it was once dangerous to practice Christianity in China because of the government’s restrictions on certain religions, it is becoming less so.)  There are indeed Christians in China who do celebrate with traditions you may be familiar with, but otherwise the holiday does not receive much notice.  Shopping malls may decorate with pictures of Santa and presents under a tree, but families will likely instead look forward to their own central holiday: the Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. This holiday lasts fifteen days!  On the first day of this holiday or the night before, families get together to share many delicious, traditional foods and to share a few little gifts with the younger children.  Mandarin oranges are a special treat found at the table for this holiday as well as dumplings or “jiaozi.”  My husband and I were very fortunate to join a Chinese-Malaysian family in their celebration of this holiday.  The food was delicious, but strange too!  The Chinese eat fruits and vegetables that I had never heard of before like the lotus root and morning glory.

Many Chinese families are Buddhist but more common than this is for a family to practice a local religion, worshiping the local gods and heroes.  Some may describe this as a local kind of Buddhism while others think of it as a different religion entirely: a Chinese folk religion.  Each town is likely to have its own temple where locals may come to worship.  At the temple, there are fire pits where people can bring tokens to burn for their deceased relatives.  Fake money and little houses can be bought outside of the temple and burned at fire-pits inside.  It is believed that burning these tokens will provide money and shelter for the deceased.

Fire-places of sorts at the local temple

Chinese New Year: (a.k.a Lunar New Year or Spring Festival.)  This is a holiday  that celebrates the New year, but not the new year according to our calendar!  The Chinese have their own traditional calendar that follows the patterns of the sun and moon.  Usually the first day of the first month of this calendar falls somewhere around our month of February.

Jiaozi: These are little moon-shaped dumplings.  They are thought to bring good fortune because they are shaped like the “ingot,” ancient Chinese money.

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China Challenges: language


China is quite different from America in a lot of ways.
When I first got to the city of Jingzhou (Jing-Joe) China, I felt a little bit overwhelmed by everything!  It was very difficult to make sense of where I was or where I was trying to go when I couldn’t read any of the signs, couldn’t ask for directions, and couldn’t speak with taxi drivers.  Signs were in a language I didn’t know using characters that were nothing like our alphabet!  Because of this, Drew and I spent our entire first day in China very lost! On top of that, when I did finally learn a few words in Mandarin, (one of China’s two main languages,) all the words were likely to change as soon as I entered a new province of China!  While China has two main languages, (Mandarin and Cantonese), each local area has its own way of using that language.

This makes the language very hard to learn, but there is another reason I had a hard time learning any Mandarin: Chinese languages use something called “tones.”  Think of the sound you make when you ask a question.  It’s a little different than the sounds you make otherwise.  “What did you say?” sounds different than “That’s what you said.”  One sounds a bit like music notes going up.  The other just sounds flat.  Well, in China, the tone or sound of a word makes a big difference.  For instance, “four” in china is something like “Shi” pronounced in a flat sort of way while “ten” is also a bit like “shi” pronounced in a questioning sort of way.  In fact “Shi” can mean many other things too, depending on how you pronounce it.  “Shi shi” is how you say “Thank you.”   Once I made a few Chinese friends, it was a little bit easier to learn a few words.  Still, the only words I was able to learn were ones that don’t have very specific “tones,” or at least can be well understood even if the tone is done incorrectly.  Just as it was hard for me to learn Chinese, it is also very hard for Chinese people to learn English.

I was very grateful to make Chinese friends who knew English, and who were patient with me when Mandarin was hard to learn.  My friend Philip was very helpful.  He accompanied Drew and I to the bus station to help us purchase the right bus ticket.  Without him, I doubt we would have gotten far!  He is a house painter right now, but he admitted that he would enjoy being an English teacher.

Philip and I

Mandarin: The language, or group of dialects, most common in Northern and South Western China.

Cantonese: The language, or group of dialects, most common in Southern China and around Hong Kong.

Tones: The tune or pitch used in one’s voice when pronouncing a word in one of the Chinese languages.

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China Pictures!


Below are pictures to help you imagine what China might be like!

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