Imported Habits

Last week I stumbled across this post written by a foreigner in China about the habits she has picked up in China that she will take with her upon leaving.

A summary of her list:

1. Saying “bye bye.”

2. Drinking hot water

3. Bargaining “out of principle.”

4. Adding Chinese words into English sentences

5. Inspecting plates and cutlery in restaurants to make sure they are clean.

6. Checking out big bank notes to make sure they are not fake.

7. Playing games on my phone.

8. Doing shots of beer.

9. Taking my shoes off before entering the house.

10. Being “one of the gang.”

Having recently returned to the States, I can say that I have definitely brought with me habits # 4 and 9. And I remember doing #5 at my parents’ home when I returned after my first year in China, and wilting under my mother’s glare! The others not so much.

I am still not a fan of hot water, or any other hot drinks, for that matter. I don’t enjoy bargaining (although I can do it), nor playing games on my phone. I don’t check my big bank notes to see if they are fake, but I have noticed that the clerks also don’t check, which seems strange to me. As for # 8 and 10, I like neither beer nor crowds!

The post got me to thinking, though, about the habits that I have picked up and brought back to the States with me. Here are five:

1. Offering to pick up the tab when eating out with friends. In China it’s considered rude to split the tab up among the diners. One person pays, presuming that someone else will pick up the tab the next time. In fact, there is usually a fight to see who can have the honor of paying.

2. Untucking sheets and blankets. In China I converted to the local way of sleeping, with a quilt on top of me, not sheets and blankets tucked under the mattress. It’s all about rolling yourself up in a quilt, like a pig in a blanket.  Not only did I bring this habit back to the States with me; I brought back several Chinese cotton quilts. And when I stay in a hotel here, the first thing I do is untuck the sheets and blankets. Like this:

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the embedded video, click here.)

3. Stomping my feet to turn on a hall light. Most apartment building hallways and stairways have motion censor lights that come on when you clap or stomp your feet. As a result, whenever you step from an apartment into a dark hall, you just start stomping your feet. Last week while leaving a friend’s house, I stepped out onto a dark front porch and found myself stomping my feet without thinking. Of course the person with me thought I had gone stark raving mad.

4. Taking the stairs in a 2 or 3 story building. Older buildings in China that are less than 7 stories typically don’t have elevators, so there is a lot of walking up and down stairs. Now, if I’m going to the 2nd or 3rd floors of a building here, I will naturally head for the stairs.

5. Telling my 86-year old mom to wear more clothes. This annoys her to no end!

What are some habits that you took home with you after a sojourn in China?

Catholic or Christian?

When I first went to China, I was bombarded with many questions that seemed rather odd: can you use chopsticks? How much money do you make? Why do American parents kick their children out of the house at age 18? On and on they went.

But the oddest question I encountered was, “what’s the difference between Catholic and Christian?”

The question itself made no sense to me; it was like asking, “what is the difference between a Volkswagen and a car?”

Back in the 1980’s the confusion was perhaps understandable. Many Chinese at that time had almost no knowledge of religion, let alone western religions. Truth be told, they had no idea what either of those terms (Catholic and Christian) meant.

It wasn’t until I studied Chinese that I came to realize that the oddness of the question was rooted in linguistics. Catholicism is Christianity, but in the Chinese language it has a completely different name.

In English, we distinguish between different strands of Christianity: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. But in the Chinese language only one of those strands gets translated as “religion of Christ,” Christianity.

The Chinese word for Catholicism is Tian Zhu Jiao (天主教), “Religion of the Lord of Heaven.” Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China wrote a book called “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” trying to link the God of the Bible with the traditional religious notion of a supreme being, which was referred to as Heaven. It thus became known as the Religion of the Lord of Heaven, Tianzhu Jiao.

To distinguish Protestant Christianity from Catholicism, it was translated as Jidu Jiao (基督教), “Religion of Christ.” This then gets translated back into English as “Christianity.” Sometimes it includes the word xin (新),” which means “new” to try to distinguish it, but most of the time this is left off.

Hence the odd question about the difference between Catholicism and Christianity.

Earlier this month I attended a conference on the Catholic Church in China. This topic came up during one of the seminars. One of the participants, a researcher and scholar on China, suggested that one way of clearing up some of the confusion would be to refer to Catholicism as Tianzhu Jiao (天主教), Protestantism as Jidu Xinjiao (基督新教), and Christianity (which encompasses both) as Jidu Zongjiao (基督宗教). Zongjiao is a more scholarly term for ‘religion,’ whereas jiao can be understood simply as ‘teaching.’ Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, is Dongzheng Jiao (东正教), Religion of the Eastern Truth.

Here are some photos of Catholic Churches in Beijing, Tianjin, Harbin, and Shanghai.

Church of the Savior, Beijing -- also known as Beitang or Xishiku Catholic Church

Church of the Savior, Beijing — also known as Beitang or Xishiku Catholic Church

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — known locally as Xuanwumen Catholic Church

Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Beijing -- known locally as Xizhimen Catholic Church

Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Beijing — known locally as Xizhimen Catholic Church


St. Therese of Lisieux Church, Beijing, known locally as Nangangzi Catholic Church

St. Therese of Lisieux Church, Beijing, known locally as Nangangzi Catholic Church

St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Beijing - known locally as Wangfujing Catholic Church

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Beijing – known locally as Wangfujing Catholic Church

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Tianjin -- known locally as Xikai Catholic Church

St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Tianjin — known locally as Xikai Catholic Church


St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai -- known locally as Xujiahai Catholic Church

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai — known locally as Xujiahai Catholic Church

Gexin Jie Catholic Church, Harbin (originally a Russian Orthodox Church)

Gexin Jie Catholic Church, Harbin (originally a Russian Orthodox Church)

This post was originally published on the ChinaSource Blog.

(all photos by Joann Pittman)

The Great Wall — Fact or Fantasy?

Whenever I take visitors to one of the Great Wall tourist sites outside of Beijing, I have to break the news to them that the Wall is not visible from space, nor is it one complete wall stretching from west to east. The disappointment is usually palpable.

It turns out that there are quite a few ‘facts’ that we think we know about the Great Wall, that are actually ‘fantasy.’ Watch this funny video clip from the folks at Off the Great Wall to see how one poor fellow handles his encounter with reality.

And hey, you’ll learn stuff in the process.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the video player, please click here to watch the clip)


And if you’d like to read up on the history of the wall, I recommend the following books and articles:

The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – 2000 AD, by Julia Lovell

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler

David Spindler’s Great Wall (Danwei)


Related Posts:

A Tale of Two Hikes

Where Did the Wall Go? 

Port-a-potties at the Wall

Wham! Bam! Beijing!

Wham! Bam! Beijing! (2)

Outside the Wall 

Winter Wall

Fall Wall

A Great Wall Graduation

Don’t Sleep in the Shade









Minnesota Ten Commandments

Spotted on a wooden plaque in a friend’s home:


1. Der’s only one God ya know.

2. Don’t make the fish on yer mantle an idol.

3. Cussin’ ain’t Minnesota nice.

4. Go to church, even when yer up nort.

5. Honor yer folks.

6. Don’t kill — catch & release.

7. Der’s only one Lena for every Ole. No cheatin’.

8. If it ain’t yer lutefisk, don’t take it.

9. Don’t be braggin’ ’bout how much snow you shoveled.

10. Keep your mind off yer neighbor’s hot dish.


Wish I knew the original source to give credit where credit is due.

Teeny Tiny Beijing

I love this video of Beijing. It’s time-lapse photography using a type of editing called tilt-shift, which gives the subject a miniature feel to it. The title of the video is “Beautiful Beijing.”

Makes me homesick!

Click here if you cannot view the embedded video player.


My Favorite China History Books

xichang city gate

To wrap up my week of posts on Chinese history, here are TEN of my favorite Chinese history books:

The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900, by Diana Preston.

This is a riveting account of the madness that engulfed northern China at the turn of the century. 

City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China, by Jasper Becker

A great overview of the history of Beijing. I found it particularly interesting to read about the city in the early days of the People’s Republic of China. 

 God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong XuQuan, by Jonathan Spence

This book tells the story of Hong Xuquan, a mid-19th century drifter who becomes convinced he is Jesus’ younger brother. Convinced that God has called him to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, he launches the Taiping Rebellion, which kills 20 million people. 

The Great Wall: China Against the World, by Julia Lovell

What we know as The Great Wall is actually a series of defensive structures that were built over thousands of years. This book helps set the record straight on many mythical stories about the Great Wall. 

 Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, by Jasper Becker

In the late 1950’s Chairman Mao The Great Leap Forward, a collectivization campaign designed to speed up industrialization. It led to a famine that killed 30 million people. This book is the story of that famine. 

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter HesslerThunder Out of China, by Thoodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby

Hessler uses the ancient oracle bones used for divination as a platform to explore the connections between ancient and modern China. 

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Canadian-born Jan Wong went to China as a committed Communist in the 1970’s. This is her story of her journey from euphoria at participating in the revolution to disillusionment as she watched the assault on Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence

A good old-fashioned history book. Modern China, here, refers to the period from the 1600’s onward.

The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History, by Joanna Waley-Cohen

This is a fascinating look at the history of China’s interaction with the outside world over the centuries. Hint — it began much earlier and was more extensive than most people think. 

Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, by Barbara Tuchman

This is a fascinating look at the American involvement in China in the first half of the 20th century. 

For a great list of NOVELS set within Chinese history, check out this list by my friend Amy, over at The Messy Middle.

What are YOUR favorite Chinese history books?

The Henan Famine

During my first year in China (1984), I lived in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. Before getting my assignment to teach there, I don’t think I had ever heard of the place and pre-internet, it wasn’t easy finding out information. I remember, though, stumbling across a book about the city that had been produced in the 1970’s by the Provincial Tourist Office. It featured pictures of broad (and empty) streets, squeaky clean parks, smiling people. Doctors, students, factory workers, peasants — all smiling! A true worker’s paradise!

Once there, I was able to learn a fair amount about the history of Henan. The city of Zhengzhou had been a dynastic capital 5000 years ago. The nearby city of Kaifeng had been a capital  during the Song Dynasty, 1000 years ago. A temple in the mountains to the southwest of the city was the birthplace of martial arts.

But it was hard to come by good information on Henan’s more recent history.

When I returned to the US for the summer, I set about trying to learn more. One of the key books I discovered was “Thunder Out of China,” by Theodore White. It was based on his reporting of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. One particular event that he also chronicled was the 1942 Famine that ravaged the province. I was horrified to read that the city I now called home had once been the center of a famine that killed 40 million people, and that during the famine, the streets were littered with dead bodies. The Zhengzhou that I lived in was by no means prosperous, but what he was chronicling was unimaginable.

I recently came across a website that cataloged 30 dramatic images of the famine in Henan. (warning: many of the photos are graphic and disturbing)


In a China that now has an abundance of food, it is good to remember that just 70 years ago this was not the case.