As many of you may know, I was in China over the New Year to attend my grandfather’s funeral. Every time I travel, I always try to learn some of the benefits of a particular culture and try to bring them into my life, so I can appreciate the culture of the place where I have just been and perhaps my friends and students here in US can benefit as well. This time, I realized that many Chinese daily life habits could really benefit us in the western world.
How do people’s lives in China differ from those of Americans? Here is a daily routine schedule that compares a typical Chinese and American daily routine. (Of course, this schedule may differ from individual to individual, but I think it is a fair example.)
Get up at 7:00, woken by alarm clock
Get up at 6:00, naturally
Take shower. Eat cereal or quick breakfast and take the train or drive to work, or stop for a fast breakfast on the way (maybe Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks). Drink lots of coffee.
Quickly wash face with warm water. Do Tai Chi or other exercises in the public park. Cook breakfast or buy street food. Go to work. Drink tea.
Eat a quick lunch, maybe take-out or fast food, perhaps sitting at desk (one-hour lunch break)
Go home to eat with family and take a nap (two-hour lunch break)
Back to work right away. Work until 6:00 or 7:00.
Back to work after nap. Work until 5:00 or 6:00.
Go to the gym after work
Cook at home or go to a restaurant. Dinner around 6:00
Cook at home or go to a restaurant. Dinner around 8:00
Engage in relaxing activities such as watching TV or having tea.
Engage in relaxing activities such as watching TV. Go to bed around 11:00.
Take shower and go to bed around 9:30.
If we compare these two schedules, we see some major differences in lifestyle. Even though many American habits have become part of some Chinese people’s lives, especially in big cities where people tend to be more Americanized, most Chinese still adhere to the five major habits below.
1. Time habit: Get up early, go to bed early
“Hear the rooster, it’s time to dance!” This traditional Chinese idiom that almost every Chinese person knows originated from the Western Jin dynasty. Five thousand years of history have taught Chinese people to get up early. The Chinese believe that after an entire night of breathing indoors, the oxygen level in the bedroom becomes very low. It’s essential to get out of the house as soon as possible to breathe some natural air. The air quality is considered to be the best in the early morning since there is less traffic and human activity at night, and less dust in the air. It’s healthier to walk outside, exercise and breathe fresh air in the early morning. Once the city starts moving, dust, and the noise level, will go up, making it hard to concentrate and do exercise.
Depression and high stress levels can shorten one’s lifespan. Many studies have been done on the people of Okinawa, Japan, who are known to enjoy both the world's longest life expectancy and the world's longest health expectancy. They found that the people of Okinawa have surprisingly low depression and stress levels, as a result of their relaxing lifestyle that includes low-impact exercise, such as Tai Chi, and supportive bonds within the community. Most Chinese people live close to their workplaces. When they get up early, they have enough time to enjoy their morning and get to work without feeling rushed. They don’t start their days off with stress. As I often mention to my Tai Chi students, a good starting stance leads to a good form. Similarly, a relaxed morning can lead to a positive day.
Before Edison invented the first electric light bulb, people tended to go to bed early because candles were costly; thus it was natural for people to go to bed early. The Chinese are very good at following this natural way. Most (perhaps not all) Chinese avoid socializing or drinking too much late at night to avoid a headache in the morning. An early bedtime will result in a natural rise in the morning without an alarm clock.
2. Exercise habit: Do exercises such as Tai Chi in the morning
As I mentioned, the people of Okinawa regularly practice Tai Chi as a healthy habit in order to live longer. Tai Chi is a traditional exercise that originates in China and people usually do it in the early morning. If you go to bed early, you have a long, relaxed night to rest your body. Morning is the best time to exercise. Plenty of oxygen and clean, low-dust air are very beneficial for an exercise that involves slower breathing. Some Americans like to go to gym in the evening, before or after dinner. Recent studies have shown that exercising while your body is low on food may be a good way to trim excess fat. Working out in the morning is therefore a better choice, even for vigorous, fat-burning exercises.
3. Rest habit: Take a nap
As we can see, most Chinese take a nap in the middle of the day. Recently, I read a Chinese news article that stated that many Chinese who recently moved to the US and started work can’t stand the habit of not having a noon nap. To remedy their situation, many try to go to bathroom and take a nap while sitting on the toilet. Napping on the toilet may sound very extreme, but I have to say, napping is one of the best Chinese habits. Ever since ancient times, the Chinese have had this habit of napping at noontime. It is built into the Chinese schedule, which is why the Chinese have a two-hour lunch break, compared to Americans’ one-hour lunch time. Sarah Medneck, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, mentions that taking a nap “… increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills, and accuracy, enhances your sex life, helps you make better decisions, keeps you looking younger, aids in weight loss, reduces the risk of heart attack, elevates your mood, and strengthens memory…” So I ask my fellow Americans, why are we not napping?
4. Eating habits: The importance of food
In China, people think breakfast is very important, so they try to eat plenty, enough to fill their stomachs. It also considered important to eat breakfast slowly by getting up early, so you have enough time to eat and then go to work. Eating quickly makes it difficult for your stomach to absorb food. The Chinese usually meet with family at noontime, and they want make sure this is the best meal of the day. For dinner, the Chinese try to eat less because they don’t want put too much pressure on the stomach before going to sleep. They want the stomach to rest at night. In the US, we usually eat in hurry in the morning, we eat a smaller, faster lunch, and our meal with our family is usually dinner, which is often too large, and we often eat it too close to bedtime.
5. Shower habit: Shower at night
I once read a funny article about how to determine whether you are a “real” Chinese or an “Americanized” Chinese based on some of your habits. One habit is whether you take a shower in the morning or at night. Showering before bed is another good habit that the Chinese have. Night showers save you time in the morning to have a leisurely breakfast and get to work without feeling rushed. They also relax your body and permit a better night’s sleep. After a warm shower, the body’s temperature drops, which signals your body that it’s time to rest, and slows down essential metabolic functions including heart rate, breathing, and digestion. Perhaps that’s why we give babies a bath at bedtime to calm them and help induce sleep.
Will adopting these habits make you a Chinesized American? I don’t know, but try them out and see if you enjoy the benefits!
If you like this article, you may also want to read Lao Tzu's Secret to Extend your Life
Copyright Huan's Tai Chi 2013