After being in China for close to 2 years, my trip to Europe gave me some perspective. I spent 10 days in Paris, France and Munich, Germany and here’s what I noticed:

Style - In both France and Germany, everyone seemed to have a swagger about them. They were dressed nicely, things matched, swanky jackets were worn, and there were an abundance of scarves worn both in and outside. After my first trip to Spain in 2009, I’ve sworn that you can always pick a European out of a crowd based on how they dressed. I was also glad not to see anyone wearing black leggings with a black felt miniskirt (the latest in Beijing winter fashion)

Smoking - In France, a large number of people smoked but it seemed less dirty than those who smoke in Beijing. It reminded me of a movie; standing outside in the cold, in front of a cafe, smoking a cigarette with a cute French girl. I don’t know how to explain it. Go to Beijing and perhaps you’ll know what I mean

Language - My French isn’t great and I speak zero German, but being able to read and ‘somewhat’ pronounce words on signs, menus, and maps was so fulfilling. I can read some Chinese but 85% of the time, the “Chicken scribble” as a friend once put it, is foreign to me. In Beijing, there does seem to be an “ignorance is bliss” factor because I don’t feel so inundated with information & advertising. Then again, knowing how to read Chinese would make ordering at restaurants 100% less confusing.

Courtesy - Perhaps it’s part of the culture and the fact that 20 million people live in Beijing, but most Beijingers don’t have common courtesy. A French taxi driver talked with me in English, opened the trunk for my suitcase, and wished me a safe trip to Germany. That won’t happen in Beijing. A German guy bumped into me at the airport and apologized. That won’t happen in Beijing. People also didn’t stare at me in Europe. It was nice being part of the racial majority again. Going into restaurants, hostels or bars, both the French and German people seemed to have a genuine interest in serving me. Then again, perhaps it’s because they work in the hospitality industry. In Beijing, it’s not that they aren’t courteous, but it feels very cold. I go to a restaurant, with or without Chinese people, the waiter stands next to the table until we order, brings the food, and doesn’t come back until we yell at him to bring the check. Efficient? Sure. However, it feels very robotic. There’s no small talk, no smiling (to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chinese waiter smile), and no courteous responses of “no problem, you got it, right away, just a couple of minutes, sure thing”. In China, a simple “hao” is the only assurance you’ll get from a waiter. Then again, I suppose that’s all you really need.