≡ Menu

Cross-Cultural Impasse, Or A Barbarian In Civilized China

I try walking down the street in Xiamen with my kid when it was raining. This is against the protocols of this culture.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

I went to pick my daughter up from school as it started to rain. Shit. It wasn’t the rain that was the problem — Xiamen is hot, and a little shower from time to time is refreshing — but the fact that the people at her school would more than likely freak out if I dared take her outside during a weather event.

Urban Chinese tend to be extremely urbanized, meaning that they generally have a relatively strong phobia of anything that could be considered natural. Things such as rain, insects, heat, cold, wind, and, especially, the sun are to be avoided at all cost. These are people who apparently carry umbrellas 365 days a year in an effort to keep the natural world at bay. Heaven forbid rain or the rays from the sun touch their skin.

3,000 years of civilization has apparently created an underlying agoraphobic buzz in this culture.

But I’m a backcountry American. I grew up in the sticks where I was outside all day long, no matter if it was raining, scorching hot, glaringly sunny, windy, or if 5′ of snow covered the ground. I have no culturally injection reversions to nature or the things that are born out of it. I do not fear sunny or rainy days, I like them both. Umbrellas are for Nancys.

But my kid is being raised in between my boondocks ethics and the uber-urban phobias of China. I cringed when she started yelling and screaming a few weeks back about being out in the sun, wailing that she needed an umbrella.

“Chinese people carry umbrellas so they can have the shade wherever they go,” she spoke tritely.

That’s true, I had to admit, but they are also terrified of getting a tan.

Whatever the case, when in China there are two ways of doing things:

The Chinese way and the retard way.

Foreigners do things the retard way.

While all cultures think their ways of doing things are best (as they should, it would be pretty stupid if they did things in ways they felt were inferior), in China this seems to be taken to the extreme. There is little “foreign people do things differently” leeway here.

When you do something different you’re treated like a completely stupid, ignorant, uncultured — though potentially amusing — buffoon who has simply never been shown how to do something the right way. It’s like we grew up without mothers and were never taught how to clean ourselves. Getting all liberal and trying to explain that people do things differently in your country and diversity is good is like confirming a fact they already know: foreign people are idiots. Though they tend to be overtly generous, and will often jump to the fore and give you a lesson on how to do something the right way (i.e. the Chinese way).

So when I picked up my kid from school in the rain I knew what was coming. I got in, swooped her up, and tried to get out as fast as possible without anyone noticing that I was going to subject my kid to, HOLY SHIT!, weather.

I chuckled to myself as we walked a half block and I thought I’d gotten away. But then a voice came shouting from behind us:

“Hello! Hello! Come back! Come back! You need an umbrella!”

I was caught.

One of the other parents at my daughter’s school dug an umbrella out of somewhere and was pitter-pattering down the street after us. She was totally and completely concerned, as though the rain would make my kid’s skin melt or something.

I felt like a child abuser.

For a moment I tried to view the situation as endearing and convince myself that the lady was just being nice. She was just being nice, she was just doing what her culture trained her to do, but it was still annoying.

I couldn’t hold back a growl:

“We are Americans, we don’t fear rain!”

“I fear rain!” my daughter countered, “I want an umbrella!”

“No you don’t, you’re not a Nancy, you’re an American” I scolded her as we slithered away.

The woman running after us with the umbrella admitted defeat. What an idiot, I imagined her thinking.

Chinese people watch out for each other. They show affection by helping their family and friends do the most benign and simple things imaginable. Walk down the street with a Chinese friend and they will almost invariably warn you about every little thing:

“Watch your step, there’s a curb.”

“Be careful, there’s a car.”

They generally treat you as a small child. In my culture we find this sort of offensive, as though were being insulted by someone who thinks we can’t take care of ourselves. But here, it’s endearing: it’s what friends do to show affection.

They don’t just jump to the fore and help out foreigners with the simplest of task either, but this is just the standard protocol for expressing friendship. It’s a way of showing they care.

But as a foreign idiot who does things the retard way as a standard operating procedure, you’re a walking target for this kind of pampering, and it can feel belittling and more than a touch overwhelming.

I’ve been in China off and on since 2005, and though I understand and appreciate this aspect of the culture, I still can’t help but to find it f’ing annoying.

I’d rather get wet out in the rain.


The only way I can continue my travels and publishing this blog is by generous contributions from readers. If you can, please subscribe for just $5 per month:


If you like what you just read, please sign up for our newsletter!
* indicates required
Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Weather

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

12 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Jack August 28, 2013, 7:45 am

    It’s not that they fear the rain. In hotter areas, people avoid the rain because you get sick from it. It sounded like perfect BS until it started happening to me in Thailand. I’d get sick a day or two after getting out in the rain on a hot day. I think it was because the wet clothes would act like ablanket and push my core temp higher and that stress opened me up to virus exploitation. It went away when I did two things: take vitamins and stay out of the rain on hot humid days.

    About umbrellas: its cooler under an umbrella on a hot day. Sometimes it’s good to enjoy being out of the soon when it’s too friggin hot. I hate the heat, I really really really do. Just wish there were more 3rd world countries that are ice cold.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 31, 2013, 10:40 pm

      That’s interesting. Will keep a lookout for this happening. I can’t say I agree, but I’m open to making further observations.

      Link Reply
  • Chaya Shepard August 28, 2013, 8:06 am

    Thanks, Jack. I used to think that it was an old wives tale getting sick from being out in the rain but it’s happened too often to me to be a coincidence, and now I’m a firm believer in it. Wade still needs some convincing.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 28, 2013, 8:43 am


      At least the Chinese say that it’s the rain that causes an imbalance (damp heat/cold/wind) in the body which opens the way for sickness. You’re just nuts.

      Link Reply
      • Bob L September 2, 2013, 8:18 pm

        I think what the Chinese say is way more intelligent than the current debate in the US. Some people say you “Catch” a cold from the rain/cold. Others say you cannot so don’t worry about it. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. No, you don’t “catch” a cold from the rain, but there is always a lot more going on than most people realize. Most “old” old wives tales are based on some observations of events. There is often more correlation than one would think. The causation may be different than the OWT suggests, but that does not mean the warnings are wrong. Overblown or outdated maybe, but not wrong.

        Hannah, you want to be driven crazy, try raising your child here. A good example are my GF’s nephews. One is 9. He goes to school, and they have rules as to what you can send with their lunch. Flavored water is NOT OK. Plain water is. Sugar water, I mean juice boxes are fine, recommended even. Fake sugar like nutrasweet is fine. God forbid you try to swap your lunch with another kid. No snacks with nuts, just in case someone has an allergy in the room. But Pizza in the cafeteria every day is fine, but the pasta is whole wheat only. The US public school system has completely flipped. I really cannot understand why anyone would send their kids to public school if there was any way to send them to private.

        Of course, other areas of the US society are just as nutty, but I don’t want to write a book….. Maybe someone should……. Wade, are you busy? I suppose something like this could be said about every society everywhere in the world. Whether it is someone from the outside looking in, or someone from the inside that can’t take it anymore.

        One good one for the US is: http://www.freerangekids.com/

        Link Reply
        • Wade Shepard September 3, 2013, 10:00 pm

          Yeah, there is a lot that goes into this. I’ve only seen the get sick from the rain thing happen once when I was playing with my daughter in the rain in Colombia. My wife kept yelling at me that she was going to get sick, and I told her that she was nuts, but she really did get sick the following day. Of course, it could have been from stomping around in the mud and getting dirty as much as the rain, but I guess the two went hand in hand 🙂

          Link Reply
  • Félix August 29, 2013, 6:36 am

    I get it sometimes. And I shrug. “Meh… sure… I’m uncivilized. But there are no kids shitting in public where I grew up.”

    Oh wait……. there are, now: http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2013/08/meanwhile-in-richmond/

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 31, 2013, 10:55 pm

      Haha, for sure. Barbarians everywhere.

      Link Reply
  • Larry August 30, 2013, 1:32 am

    Damn, are you just taking the piss or are you and your wife having a comment fight?

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 30, 2013, 11:16 am

      Comment fight haha.

      Link Reply
  • Russ September 16, 2013, 7:02 pm

    People in Southern California are also afraid of the rain. Having grown up in CT, I find it hilarious. When it rains here people hibernate and the news forecasts the apocolypse, but I put on my running clothes and go for a nice run, splashing in the puddles. (Haven’t gotten sick yet either … though it only rains a few days a year, so my sample size isn’t that big)

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 16, 2013, 9:36 pm

      Yes, I think there’s a big difference between how people who grew up with harsh winters view weather and those that didn’t. Rain and wind are pretty much the only types of harsh weather that the people here on Xiamen know — though they do occasionally get hit with typhoons. There is something about growing up in a place where feet of snow and ice everywhere is common that sort of makes you weather-proof.

      Link Reply