Tag Archives: tourism

Making My Peace with Hongbao Culture in China

As of writing this article, the population of China is just over one and a quarter billion people. That makes it the most populous country in the world. It also makes it hard to get special attention or treatment for any problem you might have. 

dragon and boy

Chinese have developed a way to get that attention and its called the hongbao (red envelope stuffed with money).  This is both literal (yes sometimes you have to bribe people), as well as metaphorical (more often the case that your “hongbao” will look like a special gift or service). 

As a foreigner, I naturally stand out and therefore receive special treatment more easily than others. However, I also see the constant exchange of this both literal and figurative hongbaos as I mentioned above. 

They are given to people like doctors, teachers, policemen, and government officials in exchange for things like heightened attention on a loved one or the expedition of an important document.

For outsiders, and even for many Chinese themselves, this practice can be particularly hard to live with. It undermines the law and seems unfair. However anyone who stays here for a longer period of time must understand and adapt to this practice or else risk insanity.

For the time being, it is a part of life in China.

Hongbao Plus One

This past weekend my girlfriend received a red envelope in the form of an invitation to a resort in the north of the city: on the border of Beijing and Hebei. The parents of some students in her class wanted to solidify their relationship with their children’s caregivers and therefore offered the invitation to the student’s homeroom teachers. I went as the plus one.

The resort was the recently opened water town called Gu Bei Shui Zhen (古北水镇), which is basically a replica of a water town that you might find in the southern city of Suzhou.

For people not familiar with China, this is like saying that somebody built a replica Virginia tobacco farm in upstate New York. I don’t really like these kinds of places. They feel very fake, like the very soul of the place is missing.

Normally when I travel, I like to visit local places. I don’t stay in fancy hotels, and opt for budget accommodation like a hostel or cheap hotel. I like to focus my time and resources on visiting places, rather than staying in my room. To me this is what traveling is all about- talking and experiencing life as the locals would see it- rather than an airbrushed resort version. 

Chinese, and coincidentally enough my girlfriend, are the opposite. They don’t mind if something was made particularly for them. The most important thing is that it’s beautiful. If a place’s architecture doesn’t match the geography and history of an area, well, so what!

At least there is a nice pool. 

Moreover I found the entire situation slightly unnerving. The parents essentially decided the schedule and, even though they were very nice people, it felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells around them. It’s not that I don’t think it was very generous of them, it just felt a little odd to me.

The differences in our expectations of teacher-student relationships as well as travelling experiences tell us a lot about Chinese and American culture.

I would never choose to go to a place like Gu Bei Shui Zhen on my own. As I said above, something about its in-authenticity repels me.

I would also never invite my child’s teacher on vacation with me. Just like Gu Bei Shui Zhen, it feels slightly unauthentic and uncomfortable. 

How to Develop Cultural Literacy

The challenges posed by a clash of cultures here is a great metaphor for the challenges of living in another country. When confronted with these types of situations, the best thing you can do is to adapt- if only for the sake of preserving harmony- which is perhaps the most you can hope for when living abroad.

Even though I often feel like speaking out against these types of cultural practices in china (specifically the practice of giving envelopes and superficial relationships), doing so would accomplish nothing. In fact, it would make me more stressed out.

In the end I am not in China to change it. I am here as a visitor. I hope that my presence and interactions help to open them up a little bit to outside ideas; but ultimately I don’t plan on naturalizing.

The Result

As a result of practicing this cultural literacy I was able to lay back and relax with my girlfriend. Even though I did have the urge to criticize both the resort and circumstances under which I had come, I restrained myself and am very happy that I did. The most important thing was that she enjoyed herself and the parents felt like we were being reciprocative of their generosity.

This experience served as further proof that I rarely have all of the answers, and my own expectations are often wrong. I can’t change the way I feel about these types of places and relationships, but I can seek first to understand and not to be understood.

Yes, that is a Stephen Covey line. And while I am not promoting his whole system, I do think it is an important building block of living in another culture happily.

My Chinese New Year

春节 Chun Jie (Chinese New Year; CNY)

This Chinese New Year was good. Very low key. I stuck around Beijing for the week and enjoyed the quiet.

Of course you can’t only sit around during the holidays and on a couple of days my girlfriend and I went out to see some of the famous sites in Beijing. Even though I have been living here for almost three years now, I still enjoy visiting tourist spots.


Beijing is definitely not the most livable city in terms of modernity. It has high pollution, traffic is quite congested, and the weather is less than dry (it being located in a valley).

However, where Beijing loses in it’s fight for livability, it makes up for in rich history. Although it has not always been the capital of China, it has a number of remarkable sites that express Chinese culture. Some of the most famous are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, and so on.

During our Chinese New Year we first visited the Lama Temple. This is an incredibly beautiful temple that is both pleasant to walk through and convenient to get to. I suppose that is one of the main reasons it’s so frequently visited. I have been there three times myself.

We also visited the Bird’s Nest, up north of the Fourth Ring Road. Although this area, like the Lama Temple, was swamped with tourists, it was still very nice to go and see.

The Bird’s Nest, a modern metal stadium originally used for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 has become a symbol of Chinese modernity in the 21st century. While we didn’t go inside, it is very nice to visit and walk around.

We also tried to go to the Forbidden City, but like every other time that I have attempted such a feat, the lines were too long and we decided against it.

It is interesting that while the Forbidden City is Beijing’s, (and arguably China’s), most well known cultural site, it is also a pain in the neck to visit. While some people might scoff at me for not having ever successfully entered the palace throughout the entirety of my stay in Beijing, I also know many Beijingers who have never entered in their entire lives.

On the last night of the Lunar Calendar we attended a friend’s Jiaozi celebration close by the Summer Palace. We didn’t go inside the park but we did ride a moped through the Tsinghua University and my girlfriend freaked out about the fireworks. Then our moped died after midnight on the way home and I had to push it back. 🙂

All in all, it was a good CNY. It’s funny how that the longer you stay here the more normal the celebration begins to feel.

I remember in my first years that it felt quite odd and I didn’t understand it. Now, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of relaxation when it approaches. Probably it is because the longer I am in China the more and more I adjust and adopt its culture.