The Netherlands through Chinese Eyes: Ten Surprises

This article was originally published on ChinaTalk in Dutch.

In April 2013, at the age of thirty, I moved from China to the Netherlands. It was a new page in my life, and a completely different environment. From the food to the various cultural differences, they were all challenges for me. After two months in the country, I wrote the article below about strange things that struck me in the Netherlands. I would like to share the ten biggest differences with China with you that stood out to me in my first months.

1 – A journalist confronts the Prime Minister

There was a TV programme, Gesprek met de Minister-President (Conversation with the Prime Minister), in which a journalist asked the Prime Minister tough questions about political policies. I didn’t understand the content of the questions very well, because my Dutch was still limited at the time, but I had the idea that they were tough questions. From the perspective of Chinese culture, I wondered how it was possible that an “insignificant” journalist could do such a thing. If the Prime Minister didn’t answer the questions properly it would be a huge humiliation on TV.

If there were such a TV program in China, I think all questions would be pre-determined and perhaps the Prime Minister’s secretary would have written the answers to the questions before the broadcast. If the journalist would openly disagree with the answers, he would be in for serious trouble. Many journalists in China have to deal with threats. A journalist who wrote a piece about gutter oil – used oil scooped out of sewers and resold to restaurants – was stabbed to death. A journalist investigating the background of the high-speed train accident near Wenzhou disappeared without a trace for some time. Another journalist was beaten to death while visiting an illegal coal mine for an interview. A well-known opinion leader on Weibo, China’s Twitter, was detained for three months for saying something “inappropriate” on the microblog. But in the Netherlands in 2013 there was even a press conference in which the Prime Minister spoke to a group of children!

I envy the freedom of speech and equality among the Dutch people that the Chinese should also have under the Constitution of the People’s Republic.

2 – Children judge their parents

I saw another TV show, Rapport voor mijn Ouders (Report for my Parents), in which the host visited children at home and asked them what they thought of their parents. The children then gave their parents ratings for their cooking skills, the time they spent with them, etc. A little girl with changing teeth said that her mother was always behind the computer and only made soup because it was nice and easy…

In Chinese culture, parents have absolute authority within the family. Confucius said, “Respect for parents is the most important of all virtues.” Respect for parents is called xiao shun in Chinese, where xiao means “respect” and “care for” and shun means “to obey.” You should obey your parents, even if they are wrong. What these kids did in the TV show would not be xiao shun in China and extremely inappropriate.

Having said that, if I would be a mother, I would be curious about the room for improvement according to my children. In the end it would be better for all of us.

3 – Nobody checks if you pay everything in the supermarket

When we went shopping in a nearby supermarket, it proved to be using a scanning system to pay for groceries. Customers could self-scan everything and then show the total amount to the cashier and pay. It is very handy because you can already arrange everything in your shopping crate and no longer have to unload and repack everything at the checkout. When you pay, the cashier only asks: “Have you been able to scan everything?”. After paying we just walked out of the store! In China it will probably take a long time before this is possible because the retailer will never trust the customer sufficiently and there will always be customers who justify his mistrust.

[Note: of course, the cash register instructs the cashier to do random checks of 10 items at this supermarket, which should discourage people from stealing. Also, in the second half of the past decade self-scanning and checkout has become common is some supermarkets and convenience stores in China too.]

I cherish the trust between people. The fact that I am being trusted puts me at ease among other people.

4 – Open conversations about sex

On my Dutch husband’s birthday, the family came to visit. We had a drink, ate snacks and had a nice conversation. When my in-laws left, I said, “Good night! We will sleep well tonight for we have had some wine.” And then suddenly my father-in-law joked: “The best way to sleep well is to have sex first”. I was shocked and it took me a while to figure out how to respond. I told my husband that I was embarrassed because in China it is very inappropriate to talk about sex in public, especially by your father-in-law. My husband told me that this is not so sensitive in the Netherlands and that people tell a lot of jokes about sex. 

Later I saw a TV show, Spuiten en Slikken (an ambiguous name that would translate as Squirt and Swallow), which was all about sex. The presenter spoke to the guests about the size of genitals and what they preferred. It seemed like the audience thought it was all very funny.

In China, when we talk about reproduction at all in biology class, teachers usually leave it to students’ self-study. A TV program like this would be labelled as pornography in China. At the same time, every year 23 million abortions are performed in China. And that’s not even counting abortions in illegal clinics, where girls go because they’re afraid of running into relatives in an official hospital. 50% of the abortions are girls under the age of twenty-five and over 54% of them did not use contraceptives.

I hope that Chinese society will also loosen up a bit and make it easier for young teenagers to find the necessary information. I also hope that education will improve in order to prevent unnecessary damage to the health of these young people.

5 – A world for giants

The average height of Dutch men and women is 185 and 172 centimetres respectively, while those in China are 170 and 160 centimetres. With an average height for a Chinese, I’m really just a dwarf in The Netherlands. At home I have to use a step to reach the top shelf of the kitchen cabinets. When I’m using the toilet at a friend’s house my feet often don’t even touch the floor. At counters I often have to stand on my toes to talk to the employee and in some bathrooms, I can’t see myself in the mirror. In shops I often have to look in the children’s department for something that fits me…

6 – No security at the bank

When we went to the bank to open an account for me, I noticed that there were no guards around and there was no thick safety glass between the customer and the bank employee. When it was our turn, we simply spoke to the employee at a round table while enjoying a cup of tea. Such a pleasant experience. 

In China you first have to draw a number and there will be dozens of people waiting before you. You wait for your number to be called through a loudspeaker and go to the right counter. You use an intercom to communicate with the employee behind thick glass in which there is only a small opening for exchanging documents. The employee works with substantial amounts of money. 

Until recently, Chinese often carried around with vast amounts of cash because some companies only accepted payment in cash and some ‘business’ is easier with cash. But that has consequences. I once withdrew 1,000 RMB from the bank and later found out at a market just 200 meters from the bank that it had been stolen. 

I realized that in the Netherlands you can pay with your bank card everywhere and even for a ‘small amount, pin is allowed’. There is not much money in the till, so thick safety glass is not necessary. Pinning is easy and safe. The enormous boom that mobile payment has taken in China is therefore a good development. 

7 – When you have time to go shopping, all shops are closed!

When my husband came home from work at 6:30 PM I suggested we go shopping but was told that all stores (except supermarkets) were closed. In the Netherlands, working hours of most shops end after the afternoon. I told him it was not convenient for people who wanted to shop, but he explained to me that this way everyone had a free evening. In China, supermarkets close around 10:30 PM and most shopping centres close at 10:00 AM because people go shopping after work. The Dutch culture has a Christian background, so Sunday is normally also a day off for the shops. During national holidays in China, the store staff has to work even harder because everyone comes to shop.

On Queen’s Day in 2013, I didn’t see any open shops at all; during a national holiday everyone enjoys a day off. In China, ‘working hours’ is a vague term; in principle you have to work when it suits someone else. I worked as a student counsellor in a high school in China helping students to choose a study abroad program. After office hours I kept getting phone calls, even late at night. 

When students went abroad for their studies, I would even get phone calls in the middle of the night because of the time difference. My contract said I had a 40-hour work week, but my employer demanded that I answered my (private!) phone until 10 o’clock in the evening even during weekends and holidays. This is quite common in China and was very tiring for me since parents usually called after office hours when it suited them. 

Once a student called me from the UK for a 50-minute conversation while we were having dinner. My husband was not amused …

From that perspective, I think it’s good that everyone has a free evening.

8 – No one is looking for old paper and bottles on the street

In China you see people with big bags collecting plastic bottles and old paper on the streets. They are nowhere to be seen in the Netherlands. There are special days when the Dutch put out their recycled paper and the government comes to collect it. When you go to the supermarket you take your empty plastic bottles and beer bottles with you to recycle, and you get a little ‘deposit’ money you previously paid back. 

In China, poor people collect as much recyclable material as possible on the streets. They grab plastic bottles from trash cans and collect everything from paper to metal and nobody knows who they’re actually selling it to. Maybe it will be sold to an illegal company that turns it into unhealthy toilet paper and dumps the wastewater into a river…

I think ‘deposit money’ and collecting old paper and now also plastic are nice recycling systems. It is well organized and controlled by the government.

9 – Dutch are not afraid to talk to strangers

When I’m taking a walk, people say hello and smile. Sometimes they spontaneously start a conversation and in my early days in The Netherlands I would only understand 10% of what they were saying. One day when I was standing outside a school yard a little girl came up to me. She told me she was 5 years old, and her name was Sofie. In China, we are raised to believe that we should absolutely not talk to strangers because crimes related to trafficking of women and children are committed every day.

There is no need to always be on your guard and a smile from a stranger is always nice!

Local duck checking out my visiting parents.

10 – Animals are respected

In the Netherlands you often see birds and other animals that do not flee when people approach. Ducks swim in the ponds and sometimes sunbathe on the shore; pigeons roam the squares in search of food; birds fly into gardens to explore the neighbourhood. In China, chickens are given drugs to grow faster. Dead pigs are dumped in the rivers for unknown reasons. Cows are injected with water to appear heavier. I grew up in China for 30 years, but for most of the meat I have no idea what it looked like before it arrived at the supermarket.

I appreciate the respect for animals of the Dutch and here I see more of the harmony with nature that is much talked about in China but never achieved.