by Catherine Lamb for Viewzone


While many Americans and Europeans have visited Chnia, most have never lived for any time in the culture. Some questions are very common from curious friends and schoolchildren and usually can be answered in what I like to call "the eleven questions."

1. What are the people like?

Like us. All different personalities and shapes and sizes. The idea of women being reserved is old fashioned. They are a little reserved in public (the older ones). The younger ones are more "Westernized". As a general rule, they are very easy-going. They don't ruffle easily. They are a very curious people! Whenever we go to town we draw stares and crowds anxious to see the "foreigners." They do everything the hard way - don't use a lot of modern machinery when a wheelbarrow and a few men can do the same job. I've read they have a better pain threshold - but don't know how anyone would prove that for sure. It would explain how they can live the harsh life they life. We live in the country so we mostly see the country folk - they spent hours everyday in their fields under very harsh conditions (mostly heat). They routinely carry heavy loads over their shoulders in baskets balanced with a bamboo pole.

2. What kind of food do you eat? Is real chinese food a lot different from our Chinese restaurants?

Every region in China has their own version of Chinese food. In our area, Chinese food is NOTHING like our Chinese restaurants. I was really disappointed to learn that. I knew I could survive on sweet and sour chicken!

Sadly, they don't even have that. Here, in South China, they eat lots of rice (sometimes three times a day) and veggies. Also, they create steam dumplings in every shape and fashion! In Beijing I noticed the staple food was noodles.

The vegetables aren't even what we are used to. I don't know the name for some of them. But we are learning that many of them are delicious. We've learned to love bamboo shoots. They have several varieties from which to choose. They also eat lots of squash. We've only just discovered a few of the many delicious varieties and we can't wait to try them all. They don't do as much with potatoes and carrots as we do. They dry a type of cabbage and call it "preserved vegetable". They just lay it around anywhere to dry it. (road, fence, ground) I even saw a cat laying in the middle of a bunch once. Yuck! It is black and shredded by the time they are done with it. They love it. So far I haven't brave enough to sample any. They also have Kentucky Fried Chicken here. In the bigger cities, they have McDonalds! In the REALLY big cities they have Hard Rock Cafe and Tony Romas and Pizza Hut.

We have a Chinese girl living with us. She started out cooking Chinese for us every night. But the more sources we found for Western ingredients (mostly big stores in Shanghai - four hours from here) the less Chinese we ate. Those meals were typically squash stir fried with some pork - or -a type of bean (whatever was in season) stir fried with some pork. Occasionally there was chopped up chicken stir fried in a sauce. When I say "chopped" I mean they chop up the bone and all! Then they eat far more of it than Americans would! The cartilage soft bones are edible - did you know that? Yuck. We told our helper - "WE DON'T EAT that part!" They have seafood. shrimp, fish, and eel. The shrimps I had to get used to. They are stir fried with the legs and eyes on still - the Chinese just pop the whole thing into their mouth and spit the legs and eyes and shell out. We, however, spend laborious minutes cleaning them up before we'll pop them into our mouths. Are we missing something?

Editor's note: If you would like to see recipes for traditional Chinese food, using Western (U.S. and European) ingredients, please see our Chinese Cooking feature.

For special occasions they get the fancier foods - turtle, jelly fish, crab, and special eels. Peking Duck is famous. They take a duck and use every part of it to make three different dishes. My husband likes the dish where you put some fried duck skin on a small "tortilla" and add bean paste and eat it like a burrito. Another dish is duck pieces with vegetables. Yes, it is quite delicious. The third dish I recall was just all the leftover duck deep fried - head and all. They don't waste food. They aren't as concerned about having a drink with their meal as we Americans - "leaves more room for food." The MAJORITY of them are all very skinny - I've been shocked to see an occasional fat person - mostly in the cities where there is more money and abundance. The rumor that they eat cats or rats is untrue, and shocking to them that we would think such a thing. But, on the other hand they do eat dog. That's right - dog and mostly big ones like German Shepherd size. It is not an everyday meal. I hear it is quite delcious, but again...!

3. Do they still use rickshas?

The rickshas now are three-wheeled tricycles with a seat that comfortably fits two adults. The owner pedals the customer around town for as little as 50 cents a miles! I get the feeling tricycle drivers are poor. There are more "trikes" than customers. They drivers spend most of their time sitting around just waiting for fares. They like it when we foreigners want to "take a tricycle" because our group fills up three, and I always give them more than they ask for- I think the work is too hard for such a pittance of a fee. But then again, that is China. Labor costs are ridiculously low. People just aren't uniquely valued here like in the U.S. There are too many of them. There will always be a line of people ready to do any job.

4. What is the exchange rate? Do they use paper money?

Right now the exchange rate is 8 yuan to 1 dollar. They use paper money and coins. They have paper money that equals the coin amount! For example, we have a "dimes" and "pennies" in paper. They don't take their money out of circulation like we do. At least not as often because some of it sure gets ratty!

5. Is it true that the Chinese can only have one child?

There is a "Family Planning" law that requires Chinese to only have one child. This was how they stabilized their enormous population. The Chinese don't seem to have a problem with this law. They realize their country is over-crowded. (China is slightly bigger than the U.S. with FOUR times the people) Birth control is common. Abortions are also common. Part of the law also dictates the legal age for having the child. The combined age of the parents must equal 50. For ex.ample if HE is 26 then SHE has to be 24. The total equals 50. If you can afford the fines and fees, you can have a second child. We know a family with three children, but only because the second birth was twins. Most of the cruel stories we hear about China and children are from Ancient China, not today!

6. What are your living quarters like?

We are spoiled Americans and pay for the privilege. Our company pays for our rent which here is 5000 US dollars a month. In Shanghai our friends are paying 10,000 US dollars a month for a big, very nice apartment. We live in a villa that is run by a big hotel here. We actually live on the hotel grounds. We have friends who live like the Chinese. - a tiny apt in a big gray apt building. When we go to Shanghai on weekends we also stay in such an apartment and we find that it's adequate, but far from comfortable. But then again - they never expected anyone with four children to live in it.

There is modern plumbing in most of the places in the city. In the country, very few places have hot water. But most everywhere has running water of some sort (outside faucets, or cold water inside). Some places in the country still use chamber pots instead of toilets.

7. Can your children play outside safely? with other Chinese children?

Yes. The only problems we've had are that the Chinese people are so curious about us, mostly the children, and they want to touch them in disbelief. They especially want to touch their hair. They want to take their picture. They gather around in groups to stare. It was funny at first. Some days, however, it gets annoying. But I don't fear for their safety. The Chinese are very friendly as a general rule.

8. Are there Christian churches available for people to attend?

I've seen Christian churches - run by the government. There are Christians here - I guess "left-overs" from years ago when it was taught here. I met one woman who eagerly showed me her bible. She is my age - so I guess someone is still converting them. No OUTSIDE churches can proselyte though. We respect that and just have our own private meetings and keep to ourselves.

9. What's it like to be a woman with four children in China?

They are amused I have four children. I think, even if they could have more than one, many of them wouldn't. They don't understand WHY I would want FOUR. And like I said before they are fascinated with my children. They wonder how I can have four children and each of them with a different color hair. (EVERYONE here has black hair)

10. What do the Chinese children do for fun? Watch TV? play computer games? play with action figures?

TV, Nintendo - action figures - all of the above. That is the city kids. The country kids play outside with frogs and crabs and whatever games they can make up. The country folk also have TV. I Don't know if they can afford Nintendo. And they all seem to enjoy playing ball.

11. Do the Chinese people really wear those straw sun hats all the time?

The peasants do when they work in their fields. They also have "normal" hats too. In fact, I've started a hat collection here because they have so many pretty ones. I bought the straw pointed ones too - just for fun. They were only about 50 cents.

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