What can the Chinese and Estonians learn from each other

One a country of over one billion and the other a country of over one million, China and Estonia seem to be worlds apart. Even though, there are quite a few similar lines of thought and ways of doing things in these two completely different countries, writes Katrin Winter, our author living in Xi’an, China.


What can the Chinese learn from Estonians

1. How to keep warm in the winter

Winter has now reached the city of Xi’an, bringing dry air, desert sand and tons of pollution. Surgical masks have taken their usual place on people’s faces and nobody seems to think twice about wearing one. It’s also meant to protect one from the cold, which makes perfect sense. The temperature is currently about five degrees Celsius, so people are wrapped up in their winter coats, fur hats and boots. However, the idea of a warm room in winter – be it a school, a shop or a restaurant – seems completely foreign and impossible to achieve even though all things to make it happen are there.


Closing the doors is not an option in public places. This may be to make customers feel more welcome. So in order to keep things warm and to keep the dust out, the Chinese install thick heavy curtains where the door should be. Some of these curtains are made of plastic, so you can see who is on the other side. Some are made of dark cloth and so make you bump into people as you cannot see them. A recently opened shopping centre decided that these curtains were not warm enough, so they installed another doorframe outside in order to double the curtains. Surely closing the door would be easier? For customers, closing and opening a door is much easier than getting through these heavy curtains.

Another curiosity is Chinese schools in winter. All the classrooms have heaters, yet the windows and doors are open. So the students wear thick coats, scarves and sometimes gloves in the classroom, because it’s too cold. When I teach at a public school I always close the windows as soon as I enter the room and later on see the same windows being opened by a wrapped up Chinese teacher.

The cozy feeling of sipping hot chocolate in front of a fireplace with a book in my hand while it’s -10°C outside is perhaps what I miss most about the Estonian winter. Chinese seem to be a bit more practical with their ways, so coziness is not something considered to make one happy.

2. How to keep clean

Whenever I mention to any Chinese friend that I will soon be travelling to India, they tell me that India is a very dirty, disease-ridden country, which I am sure is true to an extent. What they almost always fail to notice, though, is the dirt around themselves. Having recently been to Beijing, I can say that not all of China is like this; however, Xi’an is most certainly not a clean place. Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing people were encouraged to stop spitting, littering and answering the calls of nature on the street and it seemed it really worked. Xi’an is much more “traditional” when it comes to manners. Spitting is a sound I have now grown used to, but every time I see a little children relieving themselves in the middle of the streets through their split pants it makes me cringe. Their poor little butts must be frozen for one, and they will learn that it is OK to do this anywhere whenever they feel the need. The micturating will stop at some point as they get older, but then they start spitting everywhere all the time. This includes beautiful young women making hacking sounds and then planting a large blob of phlegm onto the pavement.

In Estonia you sometimes see old men doing this and they are frowned upon. Here it’s considered unhealthy not to get rid of your phlegm immediately. Sadly all these bodily fluids make for one slippery pavement.

Estonia is famous for its Teeme Ära (Let’s Do It) campaign, where groups of people band together, get assigned a plot of land and clean it of all litter. While Estonians do litter, it’s endemic in Xi’an. The people seem to have no pride in their city or surroundings, they simply do not care as long as they and their house look fine. This makes me sad as Xi’an is a nice city and it could be made a lot nicer if it were kept cleaner by its citizens.

3. How to be nicer to each other

We say in Estonia that an Estonian’s favourite food is another Estonian, meaning we are supposedly mean and inconsiderate towards each other. This may be true in some occasions, but I certainly feel like it is not the norm. Chinese hospitality is world famous and it is very much true – they love to welcome you in their house and impress you, but this kindness doesn’t often penetrate outside one’s home. However, this is changing with the younger generation leading the way. There was recently a story in Xi’an about an old lady who had taken a fall. A group of youngsters went to help her up, but when the ambulance arrived she accused them of pushing her so they would be liable for paying her hospital bills.


It is quite rare for someone to help a person they don’t know. There is a general fear of not knowing who the person needing help is, whether or not they are pretending or might steal something from the helper. Having seen numbers of news stories about strange things that happen all over China, this fear is not unfounded. However, the lack of decency towards each other also surfaces at the workplace. China is a very hierarchical society, meaning the average worker does not have much say in their well-being or rights. Should one complain, they will be told that if they don’t like it, they can leave as there are a billion others waiting to grab their job.  Little effort is put into making long-lasting professional relationships at lower levels.

There is almost no sign of the community spirit and communal good that the Communist doctrine dictates. Unfortunately Xi’an is a very individualistic place, where little time is given to anyone but oneself. This can be perfectly illustrated by the advent of technology and how it is taking over peoples’ social life, a problem not foreign to most countries in the world, but extreme in China. When you sit at a Starbucks, you can see various groups of friends who have all come out for coffee together. Most of them are looking at their phones, one of the few occasions where they look up is when someone needs to take a photo to show what a great time they are having and post it on the local social networking site. While there is nothing rude about this behaviour, it is still very individualistic and hedonistic. It’s normal to see families come out for dinner each playing on their own electronic device, exchanging little to none words.


What can Estonians learn from the Chinese?

1. How to honour and respect your parents

The Chinese are very close to their parents, especially girls. They speak to their mothers more than four times a day at times, their mothers check whether they have eaten and what they have eaten, whether they are appropriately dressed and so on. While this may seem a little overwhelming and controlling to Estonians, it is perfectly normal with the Chinese.

As we all know it is difficult for a Chinese person to go abroad unless they are very wealthy or have connections. Even if they do get the opportunity, they would almost always return to take care of their parents. I believe this has a lot to do with China’s one child policy and often the parents simply have nobody to take care of them. However, the children don’t feel this as a burden, but a duty that they will happily accept. Sending one’s parents to a nursing home would be the last resort and would render one’s position in society into nothingness. They say it is a natural course of things – your parents take care of you your whole life and you repay them by taking care of them in their old age. The family is very important and it will not be broken.

Parents are trusted with important decisions like choosing one’s life partner, naming one’s child and choosing a place to live (sometimes also because they are paying for it).

2. How to make a living for yourself

The Estonian media has recently been full of articles about youngsters leaving the country due to lack of employment and opportunities. Imagine a scenario where you cannot leave your country, you cannot blame the government for not babysitting you and you cannot find a job because you have little skills required for the job market. China is a prime example of entrepreneurship at a grassroots level. If all else fails, find something you can do and if you do it well you will soon create positive word of mouth. As you exit the metro station at Bell Tower in the centre of Xi’an you see groups of ladies standing in a row and calling at you. They all carry bags full of thread and needles. They are there to mend your clothes. They are not only providing a useful service for a very small price, but they are indirectly also promoting recycling.


Then there are the hundreds and hundreds of food vendors. The most popular seem to be the spring onion pancake makers in the morning. They all have a tricycle equipped with a makeshift gas cooker and big barrels of pancake mix. There certainly is no lack of clients. In the evening the streets are full of weird and wonderful snacks dreamed up by the various vendors. They usually use cheap ingredients, lots of oil and spices and that makes for a nice, albeit unhealthy, snack.

Apart from these there are self-proclaimed food polishers, parking attendants, tour guides and photographers, all working for themselves and choosing not to wait for government handouts.

3. How to use natural remedies

Chinese medicine may be slow working and its methods questionable at times, but it is an aspect of the Chinese culture that is held in high esteem. Academic institutions have been formed around the subject; one can choose whether to be cured in a Chinese medicine or a western medicine wing at hospitals and pharmacies; and doctor’s surgeries specialising in Chinese medicine are popping up all over the town. Estonians do use a lot more natural remedies than the British, for instance, but instead of increasing the use of traditional methods in decreasing. Not a winter went by for me without vodka socks and mustard plaster. It may be because western medicine is more readily available nowadays or it may be because the knowledge of traditional medicine is diminishing. Not in China. If you think of traditional Chinese medicine you think of acupuncture, cupping and scraping, which are all widely used. However, they have thousands of books written about the benefit of thousands of plants found in China. You may imagine an old Chinese lady standing over a cauldron and cooking up a batch of herbal tea, but this is no longer the case. Traditional medicine is a science in its own right in China and whole pharmaceutical companies are formed around it. You can get traditional remedies in the form of pills, lotions and syrups.

There is also the yin and yang, which pertains to every part of one’s life. So there are different things one should eat or drink depending on the illness. Yin is cold and yang is hot. If these two are out of balance you may have to bring them back to balance by drinking hot water or cold water accordingly. Health is perceived as a harmony between various organs in one’s body and curing any illness is essentially restoring harmony.

Christmas in China

As a final note I would like to share some ways people in Xi’an celebrate Christmas. My students widely believed that Christmas is a celebration of Santa’s birthday until I told them the real story. It seems like a bit of a Santa cult at the moment – these cardboard Santas have taken their place next to traditional Chinese slogans of good wishes. It seems like the factories only produced one type of Santa this year: this very skinny, young Santa holding a sax.


There is also a German Christmas market in town, where you can buy mulled wine made by adding salt to the wine (this may have been a mistake they made on the day I decided to try some), robot vacuum cleaners, towels and ice tea. Needless to say, the atmosphere is lacking and the market is not even comparable to the lovely markets we have all over Estonian towns in the winter. I did come across a group of Chinese schoolkids singing dīng dīng dāng, meaning ‘jingle bells’. They sang like little angels, but were met with no applause or words of approval.

So when I would normally be tucking into a plate of roast pork, blood sausage and sauerkraut, it will be business as usual in Xi’an.

Christmas in Xi’an feels like Halloween in Estonia. Some people know about it, some people even put up decorations and have parties, but officially it means nothing.

I’d like to wish you all a very merry Christmas back home and hope you will find plenty of reasons to be thankful for the little things. I, for one, will never take blue winter skies, a plate of blood sausage or a visit from a päkapikk (Christmas dwarf bringing gifts in children’s folklore) for granted.


Cover photo: Chinese schoolkids singing dīng dīng dāng.

Photos by Katrin Winter.

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