What I Have Learned from the Chinese*
I come from a Colombian-German family and I grew up in Colombia in the end of the 80’s and 90’s. I went to university in France and after finishing my bachelors in 2009, I decided to move to Shanghai to study Mandarin Chinese. In the meantime, I went back to France for two years but for the rest of the these 8 years I have been living in Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Hsinchu.
As you might guess, this experience living in such different places from South America, has shaped who I am and has taught me a lot about the wisdom of this millenarian culture.
When I think about what I have learned during these 8 years there are a lot of things that come to mind, but most importantly there are 4 big wisdoms: Health, Money, Life and Beauty Wisdom (a.k.a. life hacks). I have organized this article around these 4 topics so if you are interested in a specific theme, you can skip the other sections and go directly to read what interests you the most.
First of all, living in Mainland China and Taiwan I have gotten acquainted with a lot of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts. For this you do not need to have friends who are doctors, make appointments with Chinese medicine practitioners or read complicated books, as you will constantly hear these concepts in daily conversations. For example, I often hear people recommending remedies to each other and use basic notions from TCM in their day to day lives. I have been curious about how this wisdom has been transmitted to so many people and when I have asked my colleagues about the origins of these concepts they have simply told me that this is “common knowledge”.
Throughout these 8 years the notion that I have heard the most and the one which has changed my body the most is that one should drink hot water instead of cold water. The reason for this is that TCM believes that drinking hot water can facilitate digestion and aid blood flow, which is very important for staying healthy according to TCM. Contrarily, it is believed that drinking cold water will slow down organ function and digestion.
So how did I got acquitted with this concept? As soon as I went to a Chinese restaurant to have my first meal in Shanghai (from a menu which I couldn’t read) I asked for water in English and I was given a glass of boiled hot water. I was very confused and when I tried to explain that I simply wanted cold water to accompany the meal, the waiter got even more confused than I was.
Later, I got introduced to the idea that drinking hot water was healthier than drinking cold water, but I was quite skeptic as I had been drinking cold water for my entire life without any issues. Nevertheless, after having to drink hot water in restaurants around China, I started having a better digestion and I never suffered from digestive issues again.
Another key idea to TCM is that the body has both Yin and Yang energies and that one should keep them in balance by eating foods that are considered to have cold (Yin) and hot properties (Yang). In the same line of thoughts, it is believed that you should try to eat more cold-property foods in summer and more hot-property foods in winter. Some examples of cold-property foods are soy, soy products, raw vegetables, crab and duck, and examples of hot-property foods are cooked vegetables such as cabbage, brussels sprouts, celery and also ginger, cinnamon and ginseng.
I think this concept makes a lot of sense and even though I do not follow it strictly, I do try to drink ginger and ginseng teas during fall and winter and I feel that I am less sensitive to cold now. You can also try to eat in a more balanced Yin-Yang way and see if this works for you.
Money is a big topic in Chinese culture. Coming from a catholic culture where people never want to discuss money in public, it was a new thing for me to discover that in Chinese culture it is totally acceptable to talk openly about how much things cost and to decorate houses, cars and offices with prosperity symbols. This culture of attracting prosperity is very present during Chinese festivals as for example during the Chinese New Year, where people constantly wish each other to become rich and where they wear red and golden colors to symbolize prosperity!
As we’ve seen, the first thing about the Chinese and money is that they are comfortable with the concept of money, but contrarily to the image we might have of Chinese tourists spending money everywhere they go, Chinese people love to save and invest.
For example, most of the 30–50 year old Chinese people I have meet throughout these 8 years have told me that they save a total of 30%-60% of their yearly salaries (an unheard thing in the west!)
To be totally honest, I only started saving after dating my Taiwanese husband who preached at me about the importance of saving just after I told him that I hadn’t saved any money during my university years…
Why do Chinese save so much?
When I have asked people around me about why they save so much, they always tell me that in the past China used to be very poor and that people always remind themselves that times can get tough anytime. Some people have also said that it would be unthinkable to only rely on the government pensions as these are very low (approx. 6%~ 35% of a person’s salary) and that it would be irresponsible not to manage their own finances.
But how can Chinese people save so much?
In the west no matter how much people make, it would seem like people cannot save that much. From what I have seen, in China, no matter if people make a small or a big salary, they adapt to a lower living standard as to be able to save. For example, when I started living in Hsinchu, a city 1.5 hours away from Taipei, I was surprised to see how top level managers from top Companies who lived there from Monday to Friday, would choose the cheapest rentals. I think that in other countries people making a lot of money will not try to save by living in smaller and simpler apartments because comfort is too important for them. Contrarily, Chinese are very pragmatic and can find great ways of saving money.
And what do Chinese people do with so much savings?
Here comes a very important point. Most of the people I have met have told me that they buy life insurance and invest in stocks and bonds. Back in Colombia, a lot of people invest in real state, but because real state is so expensive in Greater China, this makes people invest in other paper assets.
For me it is truly impressive to see that most of the people in China have taken ownership of their own finances and take saving and investing very seriously. In my opinion this is in part, what has made every Chinese generation richer than the previous one.
To conclude on the money wisdom that I have learned while living in Asia, these simple ideas have truly changed the way I think about money and the way I manage my own money. I feel very lucky and inspired to live in such a culture and contrarily to when I didn’t save anything, now I feel relieved to have an emergency fund and some savings to accomplish some of my future plans and dreams. Finally, I would encourage you to start saving and investing even if it is a little bit every month. The main point is to start as soon as possible and to make it a habit, just as it is for the Chinese.
The biggest life wisdom that I have learned from the Chinese and which might make some people in the West frown, is the importance of working hard and always grasping the opportunities as they come.
Some westerners might say that Chinese people work without rest and that this creates an unbalanced work-life culture or that some Chinese people use every opportunity to cheat others just for short time returns and therefore that the idea of grasping every opportunity is not a good thing. But needless to say, I am not talking about taking these ideas to extreme or about these exceptions which do happen in every country. Here, I am talking about most of the people that I have met throughout these 8 years; people who work really hard and who are truly eager to take every opportunity to learn new things and improve themselves.
From young people in big cities to young people in rural areas, I have been surprised by people who have self-taught English even if they did not have any support from whomsoever, or people who have become millionaires or even billionaires by starting really small businesses and working very hard. All these stories have inspired me to commit myself to learn something new everyday and to try to be my best self.
Another great lesson that I learned from the Chinese is the importance of being open to changes. This point is directly related to the previous one about grasping every opportunity and trying to improve ourselves as much as we can.
Regarding this lesson about being open to changes, people might say that China has a particularly dynamic environment where competition is more fierce compared to other countries and that this notion to be open to changes might not apply as much to other people who live in more monotonous environments.
Nevertheless, globalization and new technologies (for example AI) are changing the world at a unprecedented speed and change will happen everywhere and not just in China. In my opinion, seeing how most of Chinese live their lives and stay open to changes as they come, inspires me to be more open to changes in my own life. I think it is not about becoming paranoid or pessimistic about the future, but rather about trying to acknowledge that things could change any minute and preparing the best we can for these changes.
We all have seen Chinese people who are in their 40s or 50s but who look like they are in their 20s or 30s and we might think that this is only due to genetics and that this would be unachievable for other ethnicities. Actually, I am not sure how much this has to do with genetics as I am not a geneticist, but I do know that there is a lot of wisdom in Chinese culture about how to stay young and healthy.
The first general concept that I learned from the Chinese is that food is like medicine and that everything we put into our bodies contributes or prevents us from being healthy and staying young. In this line of ideas, Chinese people will constantly tell you that the thing you are eating is good for looking young or they will tell you to avoid eating some kinds of foods which are believed to be bad for you. For example, Chinese people will tell you to eat chicken feet, pork trotters, sea cucumber and white fungus (an edible fungus that grows in Asia) as they have lots of collagen. They will also tell you to drink green tea and drink red dates and goji berries infusions for their antioxidants.
Even though some of these ingredients might not be found in the West, I think the concept of being mindful of what we eat and choosing ingredients that contribute to our health, can be applied anywhere in the world.
Another very simple trick which Chinese women apply and which I learned from my friend Sue, who is a model in China, is that you should remove your makeup as soon as you arrive home. Seven years ago when visiting Sue in Wuhan, I noticed that Sue would take her makeup off and moisturize her skin as soon as we entered to her home and no matter if it was morning, afternoon or night time. You might think that doing this one time will not make any difference, but if you do this for years, it will reduce the amount of time your skin is being dried up by makeup and contrarily, increase the amount of time your skin is clean and moisturized.
Additionally, not only Chinese women emphasize on the importance of removing their makeup early in the day, but they also emphasize on the importance of spending more time taking makeup off compared to the amount of time they spent putting it on. As one of my Chinese friends says, “if you take 30 minutes to put makeup on, you should not spend 5 minutes removing it.” The idea is that you should spend more time removing makeup deeply and nourishing the skin, instead of spending more time covering your skin with products which will dry it up.
Finally, the last beauty trick which I have learned from the Chinese, might not a surprise anyone who has visited a Chinese, Japanse or Korean drugstore.
Chinese women (and men are starting little by little) use face masks once, twice or even trice a week. Even though some westerners might also use face masks from time to time, for the Chinese using them is more like a task in their daily or weekly routine as it is brushing their teeth or washing their hair. The reason for this might be that they start using masks and doing facials in their teens and they have made it a habit. When discussing this topic with Chinese friends, most of them said that their mothers started taking them to do facials and buy face masks since they were 13–15 years old!
So the fact Chinese have very nice skins might have to do with the fact that they have accumulated more years of good eating habits added to more years of disciplined skincare.
In conclusion, this article has covered a myriad of lessons about health, money, life and beauty which I have learned from the Chinese in these 8 years living in the East. The key takeaway of this article is that these life lessons do not need people to move across the globe to benefit from them and that anyone can start applying these lessons starting from today. As the Chinese proverb says:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”
… so just get started with improving your life with these hacks.
*By the term “Chinese” I am referring to 華人 which encompasses people from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the overseas Chinese.
WRITTEN BY Lassia