Cultural Differences: Living In China Vs. Living In The US

We read a blog post by 钟布 in Ifeng.com that narrates how the author’s parents came to visit in the United States and shows stark cultural differences between the American and Chinese lifestyle.

If you are Chinese-American or have similar experiences, please share your views below.

After settling in the United States for quite some time, I have unconsciously adapted the local customs (like how they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”). Cultural differences have started to blur, and I do not think much about them anymore. After all, having lived in China for many years and now walking along American streets, I still get to see my parents from China who visit me. But after staying for a certain period, my parents would get lonely; as they do not know how to speak in English. They especially wish to chat with fellow Chinese. When I speak to them, I get snippets of information that one can not find in the Internet. Their observations to the American lifestyle remind me that cultural differences between living in China and the United States are, in fact, everywhere.

Glass Doors

When Dad and Mom came to the United States, they did not lack in praises for the house. Everyone has their own bedrooms; the kitchen has a big refrigerator; there is a front yard, a backyard, and garage; and there are many bathrooms–all convenient and comfortable. However, they were not used to the glass doors at the first floor. My mom, who is from southern China, is worried what if someone breaks open the glass doors. I would explain to her: in the last decade, there has been no such thing happening in this small district. And if someone does break-in, what would they steal? Everything is insured so the loss will not be that great. (The only steal-able item is the laptop, but it is not as if the contents are very important.)

Anyway, breaking-in is a serious crime in the United States. So there is not a lot of these people who are so desperate that they would break-in homes, especially in small cities. No matter how I explained it to her, she can not seem to be satisfied with my answer.

Large-Size Beverages

When I brought Dad and Mom to eat in the fast food joints, whether it be in McDonald’s or KFC, they see that refilling drinks is always for free. They do not really go to fast food joints–this concept of free refill is so new to them. They could not understand why Americans would still order the large-size drinks if they could refill their cups for free. The prices of medium and large drinks do not vary that much. But for the small cups, there is a cost difference of 39 to 49 cents (USD). Or maybe is that Americans are too lazy that they find refilling to be too bothersome? This is not quite right though. Fast food drinks are easily obtained outside the counter. You can get as many as you want. I have not really thought about this as I always get the free water whenever I eat at fast foods. I also do not ask other people about this.

A Chinese friend told me a story which might help me understand how Americans think. He and his American girlfriend ate at a restaurant. Girlfriend wants to drink English tea (which my Chinese friend has never tried before). He was curious, so he tried it and found out that adding milk and sugar to his tea is not bad tasting at all. Adding more water to tea is free of course. So he drank cupfuls more. His girlfriend find it embarrassing to explain to him that what he is doing is not exactly fair. If he wants to drink more tea, he should buy another cup. My friend’s observation is that there are Americans who take advantage of the free refills, but there are only a few of them.

Holiday Gift-giving

Gift-giving during holidays is very common in the United States. But Dad and Mom found out that gift-giving is not the same in China and the United States. They said, the gift-giving tradition here is that you give gifts to the people with low incomes such as the school bus drivers, the janitors, the office staff, etc. They do not give gifts to the ones in higher position. And the gifts are not on the expensive side, mostly gift certificates worth USD15-20 or a box of chocolates. Neighbors also exchange gifts like homemade cakes and USD10-bottle of wines.

I explained to them that gift-giving in the United States is done mostly to express thanks. The Chinese also have this saying, 礼轻情意重, meaning little gifts could have profound meanings. Anyway, why would you give gifts to those with higher salaries or higher position than you are? It would be weird, and they will likewise feel it to be unnatural. If you give gifts due to self-interest, it would not really solve the problem. You can not really decide the fate of something though an action alone. In other words, the power of the American superior is actually very limited. Giving gifts to solve a problem might make your relationship complicated resulting in an awkward situation between the two of you. I also feel this explanation is not enough. But having no experience working in the United States makes it difficult to say how the American boss and employee relationship works.

Greeting Strangers

Dad has this habit of exercising on the lawn, doing his daily Tai Chi. People would stop by and say hi to him like old friends. He would ask, you just moved in recently yet how come a lot of people know you already? I would then answer that it is pretty normal for strangers to just greet each other here. After that, Dad no longer practices Tai Chi outside, exercising at the back instead.

Another time, Dad and I were driving along the highway when the car suddenly broke down. Many drivers stopped by to try to offer assistance. Dad thought that it was weird many would show concern. But I have already been accustomed to this attitude.

Adopting Children With Disabilities

Dad and Mom were most surprised with a family raising five kids with disabilities. This family lives at the end of our street. What shocked my parents was that how they can take care of that many kids and all of them with varying levels of disabilities at that (and lastly, all of them coming from Vietnam). It is difficult to raise one healthy child, what more with a child who has disabilities (and make that five of them)?

I did not ponder too deeply on this question anymore as I know a lot of American families living in the same situation. One of my work colleagues, together with his wife, adopted two “black” kids. One of them is five years old and before the adoption, they already knew beforehand that he is a special child. Another kid is 14 years old who is suffering from diabetes. That kid has been to several foster families thus collecting not a few bad habits along the way. By the way, my colleague and his wife are “white” and just in their 30s. Because they have adopted these two children, they have also thought about having their own child. Last week, my colleague told me his wife is pregnant. Dad and Mom are always skeptical when I tell them these stories. Maybe I should take them to my colleague.

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