“Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news

Foreigners in China sometimes experience what’s called a “Bad China Day.” Bad China Days can come in any zillion varieties. These are the days when you especially feel the culture stress; you’re irritated and short-tempered, and everything is dirty and loud and inconvenient and irrational and obnoxious.

Now it’s important to note that Bad China Days aren’t necessarily China’s fault — whoever or whatever ‘China’ is. For example, there’s a big difference between:

  • “I’m having a bad day, and I just happen to be in China.”
  • “‘China’ is being bad to me today.”

And both of those are different still from “Living in a culture not your own inevitably causes stress and today I’m really feeling it. I should go take a nap, and definitely should not write a blog post about my host country.”

Not that it matters; Bad China Days are irrational. They’re when you’re tempted to exhibit your worst cross-cultural behaviour. Hopefully I’ll keep it together. But I can imagine, on a very Bad China Day, in the hotter corners of the culture stress crucible, on the lowest swing of a culture stress cycle, that an untimely encounter with one of several situations could cause me to do things that will end up on the Chinese evening news. Here are five, in no particular order…

1. Public-Surface-Area-Violating Biohazards

Observe closely this surreptitiously-taken and mercifully-angled cell phone photo from last weekend at the beach:

On the right: a nice public restroom. Directly opposite on the left: Grandma suspends Junior in mid-air so he can make something on the ground that looks a bit like but definitely is not a sandcastle. Grandpa prepares the newspapers.

I used to be pretty live-and-let-live when it comes to diapers vs. split-pants — at least in theory. After all, who cares what other people do, right, so long as it doesn’t impact your life? But now we have kids who play in crowded public spaces, and it turns out that letting kids pee and poo on the ground in the middle of parks and neighbourhood play areas (and on subway platforms, restaurant garbage cans, subway platform garbage cans inches from me sitting on a bench) does impact my life: “Don’t step in that puddle!” “I know he is, sweetie, but it’s not nice to watch.” “Oh for the love…”

It’s kind of like camping in a secluded forest and peeing on a tree. Except it’s over-populated and everything’s concrete. But bonus points to our district government for tackling this issue head-on with bilingual (though unintentionally profane) signage:

2. Public-Air-Space-Violating Biohazards

These are the notes of a culture-stressed foreign English teacher in a Chinese preschool:

No matter what country you’re in, preschools are essentially contagion exchange centres. Every morning Monday-Friday I teach over 200 2-to-6-yr-old Chinese kids English. I’m their only English teacher. I’m also their only cover-your-mouth-when-you-cough-and-sneeze teacher; none of the local teachers give attention to it. It’s flu season all year long in there. Literally every class (20-30 kids each) I remind kids to cover their mouths, because there are always a few coughers. I’ve worked covering your mouth into two different action songs. But when our daughter gets a cold: “That’s because you don’t make her wear enough clothing.” When you’re a sick and tired one-man public health crusader who’s been staring down hacking kids all morning and your daughter’s preschool teacher tells you her cold is due to your bad parenting, being able to speak Chinese is suddenly a liability.

3. Car-Horn-Honking Noise Polluters

There’s already been one time where I actually looked in the fridge for eggs to throw on my way out the door in the dead of night. Not that it mattered; other neighbours threw heavier objects.

In Canada honking your horn can only mean one of two things: “DANGER!” or “—- YOU!” In Chinese traffic honking means, “Here I come!” “Hey, I’m here!” “Excuse me, coming through!” or “Hurry up!” But in a Chinese neighbourhood — all of which have too few yet cruelly overpriced parking spaces — it means, “We’re waaaaaaaaaiiiting….!” or “Someone’s-in-my-parking-spot-and-I-don’t-have-their-phone-number!” The idea is that if you just sit there and lay on the horn for minutes on end, people will get so irritated that someone who knows the owner of the mis-parked car will be annoyed into action and contact the owner. I guess. (Pro Tip: They know guests have to park in other people’s empty spots. Just leave your phone number on the dash where they can see it so they can call you if they get back before you leave.)

How many times have I fantasized about neutralizing drunk honkers’ cars in creative ways… oh, sweet justice. If I can just get them to pop the hood, I already have a spot picked out to throw their car battery.

4. Jack-Hammering Noise Polluters

Hey here’s an idea. Let’s make it so every time someone moves into an apartment, they strip the walls and floor down to the concrete — with jack-freaking-hammers. Right on the other side of your ceiling. During your kids’ nap time. Let me explain how that works: Kids don’t nap. Mommy and Daddy don’t get a break. Kids are not only awake when they’re not supposed to be, they’re emotionally disturbed little mutants due to lack of sleep and being terrorized awake by jackhammers. That’s why we banged on the upstairs neighbours’ door so much the workers just started pretending no one was there. They knew it was safer to keep the door locked.

5. Early-Rising Noise Polluters

I don’t care if it’s grandmas rubbing their eyeballs in time to music that sounds like it was illegally downloaded from a kindergarten website or slapping their thighs in unison while counting out loud or migrant worker trucks unloading renovation materials at 5:45am. In my dreams none of them have been spared a merciless paintballing, and they’d be easy targets so close to our windows. You might think: How could a decent person harbour such horrible thoughts toward senior citizens leading active lives of musical healthiness? You might have never lived in China.

P.S. – Understanding Culture Stress

This post doesn’t just talk about culture stress; it conveys the negative, sarcastic feelings of culture stress in the way it’s written. Everything written is true, but it’s presented in a slanted, culture-stressed frame of mind. Culture stress skews your perception by magnifying annoyances while blinding you to positives. Living in China is usually not as bad as this post makes it sound, and there are still truly wonderful things about China that only those who really live here will ever get to experience. In the midst of culture stress, though, it’s easy to forget.

11 thoughts on ““Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news”

  1. My students at Tianda often complain about their early morning wartime rituals.

    Because the dorms overshadow the various lakes/ponds at the university, around 5 or 6 in the morning, many of the local residents decide the best way to start their day is to take a walk to the university lakes and scream at the top of their lungs, to get all of the bad air out of their systems and exercise their voice boxes.

    In front of a building that is 20 stories tall filled with 6,000 students who are crammed into tiny rooms where 6 sleep like sardines, with walls as thin as cardboard and very little ventilation.


    It’s like living on a farm where you feed the chickens speed.

    I have no problem, though (except for students who drink too much at the local noodle dives and decide to turn the local dog pooping park into their own personal wrestling pit at ten or eleven in the evening).

  2. This is so funny, Joel! I especially like #2. Matt and I have thought about including “Wash your hands” songs in our university curriculum, so I can only imagine how bad it must be for you teaching little kids :)

  3. I’m a teacher at an international school in northern China. I am home on my summer leave, but each one of these things rings so true! You have captured some of the triggers to Bad China Days perfectly, and yes, it is ok to want to shoot paint balls at senior citizens. I am single, no kids, but I often get angry with my neighbors when they start renovating at 6 or 7am. I told my Chinese teacher that in the States, there is an unspoken rule to not start loud projects- jack hammering the sidewalk, mowing the lawn, etc.- until 9am. She was shocked. I feel your pain.

  4. So perfectly summarised! The only thing I’d add to my list of bad-China-day triggers is long lines in post offices and banks, and the purposeless paperwork that often accompanies said visits.

  5. Aside from the “baby piles”, I also don’t like the idea of split pants clad bottoms on the slide where my kids play. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea.
    And one thing that really, really gets me on bad days is the spitting. After all these years I still just cannot get over it – not the noises that accompany it and not the gobs of slime in the stairwells, on the sidewalk, on the floor of the bus. Ah, China.

  6. After 9 years in Beijing I immigrated to Canada (I am originally Dutch) and can find myself in the article above. I agree that I have had many happy times but a bad China days do blind you from those positives. I am now settling in and appreciate my China days only because so many of those things do not exist here and makes me love Canada so much more. BJ has been good to me, but I was done.

  7. I’d like to try to defend “Bad China Days”. I don’t think they are irrational. Or at least, I don’t think they are necessarily any more rational or irrational than any other feeling one has about one’s environment. And, most importantly, I don’t think they should be discounted or invalidated merely because one is feeling “cultural stress”.

    But I want to be careful in my defence of “Bad China Days”. I don’t want to say that factual errors, unfair exaggerations, or instances of momentary grumpiness count as serious considerations. We all have them, to some extent or other, and it is not the end of the world if we have them. And of course we should try to minimise them.

    But what happens if our “Bad China Days” are:
    (1) longer term feelings,
    (2) based on fair and accurate descriptions of one’s environment, and
    (3) those facts about the environment conflict with one’s deeply held values, and
    (4) one’s deeply held values are in some sense justified, and
    (5) this is not just a single aspect of the environment, but cuts across several fairly independent, or significant parts, of one’s daily life.

    In this case, I think that “Bad China Days” have to be taken seriously. By this, I mean to say that it is okay to acknowledge that our grumpiness is rational and justified, and it is an appropriate response to a bad environment.

    In other words, I think it really is okay to blame China for “Bad China Days”. At least sometimes!

    (But I do appreciate Joel’s eloquent descriptions and humour. Because sometime this is exactly what we need to snap us out of our occasional unjustified “Bad China Days”.)

    1. I suspect if I’d bothered to fill in all the relevant nuance that we’d basically be saying the same things. I tried to cover my butt by saying “…Bad China Days aren’t *necessarily* China’s fault…”. And it can be serious — like if people get stuck in the low swing of the culture stress cycle, they just become constantly negative and maybe even depressed. It’s not having a negative reaction to something, but due to a handful of factors (in addition to ‘China’s’ provocation) I think very often expats’ crying about China reflects as much about us as it does about China. Yeah, pooing on the ground (or in the living room — happened to our classmates) is gross, but why is it bothering you so much more today than last month?

      We left Tianjin in very large part because of the air pollution — an objective factor that has nothing to do with my attitude. Making play areas double as a toilet to me isn’t just a neutral ‘cultural difference.’ But I think it’s helpful to realize that much of our feelings and response lies with us and factors we bring to the situation; it’s not 100% on our antagonists. We operate with extra stressors just by living cross-culturally, and that’s gotta be factored in to our reactions to things, imo.

  8. Been there, experienced it. Now I live in Pakistan and have this kind of days here, too. It is part of life living abroad. Here we have wedding parties going on through the night, with the music so loud that you think the muscians or the music boxes are in your apartment and not three houses down the road. Here we have the call for prayer at the moment starting at 3:50 pm with each mosque in our neigbhbourhood (we have six) starting one after the other with a half-minute delay in between and all singing different tunes over the loudspeakers. And the -sometimes so-called- security checks everywhere can be very trying. But yes,it depends on my state of mind if it gets to me or not. Maybe we patient and long-suffering! Jia you everyone!

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