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Cultural learnings

As I enter my third year of working for a Chinese company and living in China, it felt apt to reflect on and summarise a few takeaways from a cultural perspective.


Gift giving is almost always a norm (and expected) when visiting someone. When in doubt on what to buy, more expensive equals more sincerity. Face apparently is still a big thing.

You can leave home without bringing a wallet. Everything you need is stored in your phone - from money to your national ID. You can even buy meat from the market and pay via Wechat or Alipay.

This is the power of putting a smartphone in the hands of one billion people and having an incredibly decent mobile broadband network.

Buying stuff online is often cheaper than buying it offline or over the counter. The Internet has completely eradicated the need for any human interaction. Why bother negotiating for an extra shot with the counter-top casual banter when you can get discounted deals through an online menu? The catch here is whether you can navigate the complex menu sequence...

Patriotism is in their blood. While some of the Chinese people may not agree entirely with the ideologies and methods of their government, they remain very proud of their own achievements and feel a strong sense of loyalty to their country. People all around the world aren't very different.

A girl wolfs down seafood on Douyin

Nearly everyone watches douyin (抖音). Contrary to being an unhealthy social addiction, I find douyin quite intriguing, and an excellent source of entertainment and general knowledge, not only about China but also the state of world affairs. Needless to say, the Chinese media is skewed. But who is to say that Western media and media all over the world is not?. Watch, rinse and filter accordingly.

You can live your life without stepping out of the house - getting food, groceries, plumbing, courier, train tickets, etc. This is even more evident after 2020 when every one was forced to stay indoors during the pandemic outbreak. You can also hire anyone to do almost anything from queuing up to valet driving you home when you've had too much to drink. Because everything is transacted online, merchants take consumer ratings very seriously. Any negative comment in the forums can easily go viral and equivalent to being served a death penalty. The guiding principle being: The opinions of one billion people can’t go wrong.

The stark income differential between the developing and urbanised areas is probably what keeps quality and service standards high and input costs low.

Take for instance the food delivery sector. There are many videos online that showcase how riders - many of whom are in the low income bracket - risk life and limb just to make sure food gets to people’s doorstep on time. They earn only a fraction of a white collar income, but that huge population and wide domestic income gap is what keeps the gig industry going and the domestic economy resilient. The main reason why stuff in China appears so relatively cheap is simply because of its vast population. We know this but still choose to believe that cheap equals “lousy”. You just need to have a discerning eye when shopping for stuff online (especially on Taobao 淘宝).

If you can ignore how some of these brands are named, you will realise that there are many places which are reputed for wholesaling high quality white label products for many global upmarket brands e.g. electronics in Dongguan, Guangzhou; furniture in Foshan; industrial parts from Wuxi; textiles from Jiangsu and Shandong region, etc. Everything is “made in China”. The trillion dollar luxury goods market thrives on the fact that consumers like variety and perhaps more importantly, ultimately fall prey to effective advertising.

University entrance exams are incredibly cutthroat. Being based in a certain province or city could pigeonhole you into a certain career or an industry for life. As a result, parents often go all lengths to ensure that their kids receive the best education the system can offer. Only the rich can afford sending their kids overseas. Beijing (北大) and Tsinghua (清华) are regarded as the "OxBridge" equivalent, and considered the crème de la crème, at least within the country. There is also a vast difference between a local and a foreigner gaining admission into either of these universities, the former considered more prestigious as the attrition rates for locals are incredibly high. As a matter of fact, the locals don't really care if a foreigner gains admission to 清华 or 北大.

Ownership of real estate is still considered a status symbol for many Chinese. As a result, many will do whatever it takes to hold on to their property even if the prices are falling. This trend however seems to be changing with the demographics as younger Chinese are increasingly being more knowledgeable about investing their savings into wealth management products.

Happy third work anniversary.


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