READER’S CORNER: The pitfalls of being an American in China

Colgan Chan

By Colgan Chan
For Northwest Asian Weekly

Editor’s note: Being fans of his blog, “The ABCs of China,” which details the adventures and cultural differences he experiences in Asia, we asked Colgan Chan if he’d write something special for the newspaper. Chan is an American student studying in China.

When I was asked to write an article, I started recollecting the myriad experiences I’ve had thus far in China and my life as a whole.

I poured back over all of the life lessons I’ve gained during my time on this earth. I set out to write something that would challenge every belief people held and force them to rethink the very foundation of their being.

And moments after I arrived at this though, something sparked inside of me.

Lowered expectations (we’ve now got 81 words under our belt).

Screen cap of Colgan Chan’s blog, “The ABCs of China”


As time went on, my goal for this article was slowly, but ever so surely, lowered. OK, I’ll just write something that will cause people to think. Never mind … I’ll just write something that will make people laugh. I’ll write something … that’s at least 700 words (127 words).

Now, before you start judging and criticizing me (I’m very sensitive), please keep in mind that it is very difficult to find time to write newspaper articles while keeping up the façade of being a diligent full-time student. When I’m not spending three to four hours in class every morning studying Mandarin (I sleep in, sometimes), I’m constantly fielding questions like:

“What do you study here?”

“Mandarin? Where are you from?”

“What! America?”

“But you have squinty eyes!”

Though to be fair, no one has actually said the last one, they just helpfully pulled on the sides of their eyes to recreate the squinty eyes they find to be so characteristic of Asian people.

For whatever reason, some people find it incomprehensible that people can actually be born outside of their ancestral home. I expected to run into similar problems explaining my unique condition to the locals, but they accepted my explanation readily.

Note: words in ( ) are said in Mandarin.

Random Chinese Person: (Can you jads;lfiead time ja;siefjkaslifujp;sao9843?)

Addendum: I’m not very good at Mandarin … yet.

Me: (English?)

Random Chinese Person: Where are you from?

Me: America.

Random Chinese Person: Oh! ABC!

I am, however, curious as to why the term ABC is so well known amongst Chinese people. Maybe it’s a part of the vocabulary in English textbooks. I wonder if the terms banana and Twinkie are included as well.

Confusion over my supernatural ability to be born outside of the confines of China aside (call me Immigration Man), I find studying in China to be a uniquely fascinating experience. Seeing people from all walks of life and cultures bonding together over their mutual confusion about Chinese culture is a wonderful thing.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, ‘That’s just culture shock.’ But no, China is different. What I experienced when I lived in Japan was culture shock, what I’m experiencing in China is something else entirely. In Japan, I was worried about offending people with my American mannerisms and having people talk to me in the bathroom.

In China, I’m worried about stepping in pee puddles left by little kids. Stepping in puddles after it rains is like Russian roulette.

Yes, yes I know public urination happens in every country, but in how many countries will parents give their kids crotch-less pants, so they can relieve themselves in the middle of a sidewalk or inside of a crowded subway train?

Another daunting aspect of Chinese culture is the selfish attitude that is prevalent throughout China, or at least in the major cities.

Whether it’s cutting in line, cutting into traffic, or cutting a deal, everyone is only looking out for themselves.

Good or bad, the culture breeds a natural distrust towards strangers. You have to be constantly wary of being taken advantage of. While not everyone in China succumbs to this mentality, it’s difficult to separate sincere people from tricksters. Luckily, my dad bestowed some advice upon me before leaving me to fend for myself in China.

“Son, in China, everyone is looking to take advantage of you. It’s the culture. They think that if you’re not smart enough to see through their lies, then it’s your own fault. So if you ever run into trouble in China, just remember this, call one of your friends who’s good at that kind of stuff.”

Hmm … I kind of remembered that moment being a lot more touching (694 words).

And that’s 700 words. (end)

Read Colgan Chan’s blog, “The ABCs of China” at

He can be reached at

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2 Responses to “READER’S CORNER: The pitfalls of being an American in China”

  1. David says:

    That is very insightful of the current Chinese culture or at least the
    way of life now.


  1. […] READER’S CORNER: The pitfalls of being an American in China […]

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