Top Ten List of Small, but Interesting, Differences Between China and U.S.

Here are some things that are noticeably different in China compared to the U.S., trivial variations, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

​10. Bicycles and scooters do not have to stop at stoplights, only autos. So, when crossing the street, pedestrians must continually look both ways to avoid being run down while they’re in the crosswalk. And oh, by the way, the scooter drivers honk like hell at you as they drive by. So pay attention!

​9. The Chinese usually don’t have clothes dryers in their homes, although they do have washing machines.  They simply hang the clothes up to dry, usually outside their apartment windows. On most days, you can see rows and rows of clothes hanging 1-5 feet out from the windows over the street on all floors.

Clothes drying from apartments in Xintiandi neighborhood.

Clothes drying from apartment in Xintiandi neighborhood.

The washing machine in my apartment.

The washing machine in my apartment.

​8. Many meals are served in what I’ll refer to as “Chinese family-style” with the dishes sitting on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Each person spins the food around taking small bites at a time, with their chopsticks that they have been using to put food in their mouths!

My TA Chouyen Chen, Celia, enjoying lunch

My TA Chouyen Chen, Celia, enjoying lunch “family style” on our trip to Xitang Ancient Water Town.

​7. Honking is a national pastime! It’s unclear as to whether the Chinese want you out of their way, or it’s simply a Chinese version of Descartes’ philosophy, i.e., “I honk therefore I am!”

​6. Toilets are often holes in the ground. There is usually a very nice porcelain fixture over the hole, but it’s unclear whether it’s for sitting on, or just for decorative purposes. I never tried it to find out. And by the way, in many public building bathrooms there is only one dispenser of toilet paper and so you must grab what you think will be a sufficient amount before you head into a stall to do your business.

Typical toilet stall in my academic building.

Typical toilet stall in my academic building.

​5. If you think Americans are addicted to their smart phones and other mobile devices, you haven’t seen anything. The Chinese are, almost universally, constantly looking at their mobile devices, even while riding their bikes and scooters. I saw several instances when walkers collided with each other as a result of this and even then some still did not look up from the screen.

​4. Umbrellas are not just for the rain. They are used daily, often as constantly moving shade trees.

​3. Speaking of rain, the Chinese are quite adaptive. Many scooters and some bikes have plastic or nylon covers that pop up during a shower. It’s quite delightful to see actually.

​2. In many Chinese food dishes, the small pieces of meat are not boneless. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but once burned, twice shy, is a good summary of my experience. All you can do is use your fingers as a guide. Otherwise, you’ll risk breaking a tooth or getting a bone stuck in your throat.

​1. Buying a whole chicken in China means buying a whole chicken. I don’t mean a live one; I mean a plucked-clean dead one for cooking. There are heads (and beaks) and feet (with claws) on chickens, you know!

Whole chickens for sale at Walmart (yes, Walmart)!

Whole chickens for sale at Walmart (yes, Walmart)!


Mao’s Revenge in Xintiandi

​     Ok, so this was my third time to Shanghai. I’ve also traveled quite a bit in other less-developed countries, e.g., several Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Tahiti, and Hungary, where it’s not wise to drink tap water, so I don’t. I have never gotten sick . . . until this time. Did I mention it’s my third time to Shanghai? Must be the charm! Here’s the story. It starts with a wonderful sunny day, the second Friday of my stint. I did some work in the morning, and then decided to explore a section of the city known as Xintiandi. It’s located in the center of Shanghai, right off Metro Line 10, which is the line I could access easily close to Fudan University (close being a 30-minute walk from my apt).    
       Upon arrival, I hopped off the metro, got my bearings (meaning making sure I knew how to get back to the metro station) and starting exploring. Spotting a nice coffee shop, I ordered an iced latte and sat down to map out a plan. Xintiandi is a unique area that has seen incredible gentrification in the last 20 years, and is where many of the very wealthy locals and foreigners now reside (saw several high-end luxury cars driving slowly around the area when I was there, for example). Its old buildings are in what’s called the Shikumen style and were built in the 1800s as housing for locals. The site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1921 is the most famous landmark in the area. In 1997 the old buildings began to be totally remodeled and updated with ultra-modern interiors, and they now house upscale restaurants, coffee houses, retail spaces, and boutique hotels. A number of world-famous chefs have also opened restaurants there; Wolfgang Puck just happened to be showcasing a grand opening of one of his places during my visit. I primarily wanted to explore the remodeled Shikumen area, and as I finished by latte, I eyeballed roughly where its boundaries were.

       Setting out through the designated target area, I was amazed by the obvious difference between this part of Shanghai, and the many others I had seen. Even the famous shopping district on Nanjing Road is not as upscale as this neighborhood. Streets are clean. Garbage is invisible. Not as many bicycles and scooters swerving around me (though there were still many), and plenty of people bustling about dressed to the nines. After taking some photos of several examples of the architecture, I happened upon a Cadillac-sponsored art exhibit of Van Gogh’s paintings, which seemed totally appropriate in that setting. Having seen many of Van Gogh’s paintings in museums around the world, I skipped paying the 200 yuan (roughly $32), and kept walking. The area was filled with people from all over the world. Lots of westerners, for sure, indeed many more than I had yet seen. But, there was representation from the Indian subcontinent, Eastern Europe, and Africa, too. I even heard Australian accents at one point, and turned to see two young women staring at a map.   

Typical style buildings in Xintiandi.


Grand opening of this restaurant.

       ​Later in the afternoon, I discovered an upscale massage salon and decided to treat myself to a legendary Chinese massage. Upon entering, I was given a lengthy menu of all kinds of options, as well as some considerable pressure to purchase as many of them as possible. I stood my ground pretty well and insisted only on a regular full-body massage. In a last-ditch sales effort, though, the proprietor suggested I consider adding a “very good for relax” ear massage. I looked at the price, considered it reasonable, and thought it would be nice to add that treatment to my order, so I agreed.  

       Once we had an understanding, I was led into a low-lighted therapy room that had soft music playing in the background, given some hot tea to sip, and asked to slip off my clothes down to my underwear. Presently, a technician quietly knocked and crept into the room carrying what looked like a fishing tackle box. In broken English, she said “ready for ear clean, sir?” I assumed she meant ear massage, and so I replied in my best Chinese “Shi de” (yes).  

       She motioned for me to lie on the table face up, and she quickly got down to the business . . . of cleaning my frickin’ ears! At first, this was indeed relaxing as she gently rubbed and cleaned all around my ears’ external surfaces. Yet, when she started moving down the ear canals with some sort of utensil my pulse quickened as I began to think of the potential for a slip-up with whatever it was she was pushing toward my ear drums. As this continued, however, it seemed as if she was fairly skilled so I relaxed as best I could, and began to enjoy the experience. After about 10 minutes, just as I was getting used to a stranger cleaning my ears, she switched utensils and promptly began shooting water bursts into both ear canals. The surprising wetness of this caused me to flinch, so she put her hand on my shoulder and said “it ok sir; will help with clean.” So, once again I tried to focus on relaxing, and honestly started to enjoy this treatment variation, too. In another 10 minutes, she stopped her work, put a slip of paper in front of my face and pointed to where I should sign for the service. Then she indicated the masseur would be in next and promptly left.  

      ​As I sat there wondering what the heck had just happened, admitting that my ears did feel cleaner, yet thinking they definitely should rename the treatment on their menu, in marched a well-muscled young man who motioned for me to lie face down on the table. I reflexively put a hand over one ear, and then climbed onto the table. Immediately, the masseur slapped my upper back and jiggled my muscles fairly rigorously, then proceeded to pull my underwear down so that my butt cheeks were exposed. Now, I was aware this was often part of Chinese massage practices, but even still, it was a slight shock when it occurred. I was determined to relax, though, and enjoy what I had primarily come to experience, so I ignored my slight sense of embarrassment and focused on the floor below me. He then rubbed, pounded, slapped, and massaged my body so hard for 60 minutes that at one point I grunted quite audibly from the pressure he was putting on my lower back. He feigned concern by asking if I was ok, and I lied a little by saying yes.  

       ​When he finished, he indicated, by pinching me in two places where muscle knots still persisted and shook his head in frustration. I sat up to indicate I knew what he meant by rubbing my upper back, but he misunderstood and demanded that I sit down facing away from him with my arms above my head. Before I knew what was happening, he had grabbed my arms, kneed me in the lower back, and expertly cracked my back bones. Still trying to recover from that little surprise, I was handed his pay slip to sign and he motioned that I should get dressed.  

       ​As I paid my bill and walked away from the parlor, I tried hard to convince myself that what I had just experienced was wonderful. That my 55-year old body needed the type of treatments I had received, and that I was lucky to have stumbled across such an upscale salon. It was a tough sell, though, and I’m still asking what the hell happened to me in Xintiandi? And this is where I believe Mao got his revenge, because later that evening my stomach started cramping and I became quite intimate with my toilet for about 24 hours. Was it the ear massage, I mean ear cleaning? Perhaps. She did use water from an unknown source, didn’t she? Hmmm. Ironically then, maybe the ear cleaning ended up cleaning out more than my ears.  Or maybe it was the iced latte.    (A few more pics).


The Van Gogh exhibit.


Another upscale restaurant.


More examples of the architecture.



Getting the “Scents” of the Streets in Shanghai

​As any intrepid traveler will attest, urban areas have a surfeit of sights, sounds, and scents. While the sights and sounds of Shanghai’s busy streets constantly kept my mind whirring and entertained, the scents occasionally overtook me, often when I least expected it.  Many of the olfactory delights wafted from the street vendors cooking their offerings of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, rice, noodles, and god knows what else. These generally yummy smells frequently got mixed with exhaust fumes from buses and cars, cigarette smoke, faint whiffs of urine and the intermittent stench of raw sewerage, and the periodic putrid fragrance of piles of garbage stewing in the smoggy heat. Added to all this was the distinct aroma of the mass of humanity scurrying along in Shanghai’s constant humidity. Can you get the scents of it? Not to put too fine a point on this, but one day I empathized with an unfortunate soul who hurried to the gutter in front of me and promptly threw up. He then moved along as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. My empathy was almost made reflexively tangible to those around me, but luckily, I held it together and continued my exploration. Whew!   See some typical street scenes below.


This guy is quite resourceful with his “chair cycle”!


My apt was on this street, Wudong Road.


Lots of street bike repair places .



The Facade of Freedom

While the Chinese seem to be enjoying more liberty and choices in their everyday lives, and continue to pursue their individual versions of the Chinese Dream, an almost invisible (but chillingly palpable), ever-looming facade hangs over their daily activities making it seem like they’re actors in a Chinese version of The Truman Show. There is no denying the incredible advances China has made over the last several years in opening up opportunities for its citizens in many areas. Travel has opened up considerably, for example, and it’s fairly easy for average citizens to move about the country, including on newly-constructed high-speed rail systems, or an enhanced airline infrastructure. In urban areas, especially, cell phones and the internet are ubiquitous, perhaps rightly so since it’s the Chinese who assemble an enormous number of the world’s mobile communications devices, particularly Apple products. And the modern mass transit systems gleam and sparkle as they rapidly move throngs of urbanites across enormous distances that make up the huge metropolitan areas of the world’s second-most populous nation.

Riders on Shanghai's Line 10 Metro Train (which I took often)

Riders on Shanghai’s Line 10 Metro Train (which I took often)

The Bullet Train We took to Nanjing

The Bullet Train We took to Nanjing

This seeming openness and freedom is set against a backdrop of censorship and periodic shows of symbolic and actual force on the part of the government in Beijing. While much of this apparently washes over most Chinese like a gentle wave, to the Western foreigner it can seem repressive, isolating, and a bit unnerving. Some of this was known to me prior to arriving including China’s internet firewall blocking social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the search engine Google, and websites such as The New York Times. Aware though I was, however, I still was not totally prepared for the twinge of isolation I felt brought on by not being able to freely surf the internet and search for information that I needed for my professional or personal needs.

Adding to this ongoing low-level sense of intellectual deprivation were some overt displays of power on the part of the government including the frequent sounds of low-flying military jets doing maneuvers, and the fact that my arrival coincided with an annual period of compulsory military training for youth producing groups of students walking around in fatigue uniforms all over campus.

Fudan Students in Compulsory Military Training

Fudan Students in Compulsory Military Training

The most unsettling reminder that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, however, was when my blog site stopped loading two days into my month-long stint. Knowing that Facebook would be blocked, I thought I was being smart by setting up a blog site for writing about my experiences and posting pictures. The first night I arrived I easily posted a blog, and went to bed. The next evening, after exploring my surroundings, taking some interesting pictures, and considering what I wanted to write, I eagerly sat down to compose a second post only to find that the computer just kept grinding away trying to load my blog site. I also noticed that the site would partially load, but would not allow me to get to the login page.

Then it dawned on me! My site’s domain name——had probably gotten swept up by the internet firewall and blocked by the government censors! Whoa, was that an unnerving realization! At first, I was quite discomforted, then irritated, and then I was simply disgusted with myself for not thinking more carefully what to use for the domain name. (Full disclosure: my wife was irritated with me for the same reason, but not because she thought the domain would be blocked in China, I must honestly admit. As you’ve noticed, I’ve given better thought to the domain name and it is now “” in a nod to the Constitutional Convention’s promise of democracy).

Finally, thank god for the NPR app on my iPad! For some reason, it worked during my entire stay in Shanghai (maybe because it was an app and not a website) and I listened to “all things NPR” religiously, even more so than when I’m in the States. Note to self: I need to send another check to my local NPR station—WYSO in Yellow Springs!


Home in Shanghai (finally)!

After a 2.5-hour delay at the Chicago airport yesterday, we finally got airborne for the 14-hour flight to Shanghai.   Arrived at Pu Dong airport at 4:00 p.m. local time (4:00 a.m. on my body clock).  There had been so many flights canceled the previous day due to typhoon Chan-Hom that we were given a remote gate park on the tarmac requiring a several-minute bus ride to the terminal for customs and baggage.

plane pic

Clearing customs was pretty fast, even though several planes had landed at about the same time and I was then met by my teaching assistant Celia.


After about an hour commute into the city from the airport, we arrived at Fudan University and my 11th floor apartment located in the International Faculty and Student Housing Complex on Wudong Road across from campus.

apt addressBelow are views of campus and Shanghai from my apartment windows.

view of campus from apt

window view of shanghai

Then it was off to campus to complete some classroom setup issues before a nice dinner.   Exhausted, I fell into bed and zonked out immediately.


Democratic and Republican Parties: Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Not Really.

​     Many Americans view the Democratic and Republican parties as mirror images of each other. This kind of Tweedledee and Tweedledum symmetrical perspective serves to mask important differences between them, differences which may help explain why the number of GOP candidates for president in 2016 is three times the number of Democratic candidates. There are always more candidates with no incumbent running, and Hillary Clinton is viewed as having the inside track to the Democratic nomination thereby blunting the emergence of additional challengers to her. But these two factors alone do not fully account for the lopsided number of candidates. Something else is going on here and new research points to the asymmetry of the two parties themselves as an additional explanation.


Historically, those studying American party politics viewed the two parties as being controlled mostly by their respective elected politicians who used the organizations as vehicles for their own ambitions and goals. Within the last decade this view has given way to a more nuanced one of parties as extended networks of interests, with elected officials being only one part of those networks, and not necessarily the most powerful component. The significant factors contributing to this evolution are the enlarged role of campaign finance, the Tea Party movement, and a public that favors liberal positions on policy issues but conservative ideas of smaller government. As a result, the parties have become much more asymmetrical. While the Democratic Party has largely remained a loose constellation of social groups seeking concrete government action, the Republican Party has morphed into a vehicle for a movement whose followers primarily cherish ideological purity.

​Supporting this newer interpretation, scholars Matt Grossman and David Hopkins report national survey data showing Republican respondents conceptualize political parties in ideological ways whereas Democrat respondents tend to articulate party politics in terms of group benefits. When strength of partisanship is measured, strong Republicans are 40% more likely than strong Democrats to express an ideological conception, as opposed to a group-benefits view, of their party. Finally, about 60% of Republican respondents claim to prefer politicians “who stick to their principles” compared to only 40% of Democrat respondents.

​     How might this evolution of the parties help explain the large difference between them in numbers of presidential candidates? Democratic candidates for president face the task of appealing to as many groups as possible without the need to demonstrate significant ideological purity. Democratic voters are content with candidates who seem willing to compromise in an effort to meet the needs of many groups. On the other hand, a Republican candidate must demonstrate he or she is the only true conservative in order to gain traction among the base, and since purity is an exclusive characteristic, it allows, even requires, more candidates to step forward to make that claim. This insistence on purity makes it difficult for new-age Republicans to negotiate within their own ranks, and when elected, it constrains their ability to govern since bargaining and compromise are at the heart of our democratic process.