Planning your first trip to China? Good for you! Knowing a little about Chinese customs will get you a long way.
Chinese culture can be intimidating to many first-time visitors. It’s no wonder. Over its long history China has developed complex codes of etiquette and respect. But don’t worry—with a little preparation, you can easily manage. And once you’re in China, you’ll find that people are generally more than happy to help you learn the ropes.
You will often hear enthusiastic calls of “hello!” from Chinese eager to practice their English with a foreigner. If you can reply with a friendly ni (knee) hao (how)! – hello in Mandarin – you’ll likely be told immediately that your Chinese is outstanding. Learning and using the most basic Chinese phrase of greeting is a simple way to win a friendly smile and get off on the right foot.
Shaking hands has become a somewhat common greeting among urban Chinese men, but be aware, handshakes are a fairly recent cultural import, and many Chinese are somewhat uncertain about the timing, pressure and length of a handshake. It’s best to avoid the Euro-style cheek kiss, and take it easy with American-style backslaps and hugs. A more common greeting, is a simple, sharp nod of the head or very slight bow. Generally, outside of international business contexts, it’s best for men to avoid touching women, even in greeting, until clear ground rules have been established over time.
It’s a great idea to bring a supply of name cards (business cards) with you, even if you’re not traveling on business, as a friendly name card exchange is a frequent part of a first-time meeting. As with money and other items, Chinese etiquette requires that you hand your name card, face up, using both hands to your new acquaintance. When receiving a business card, also use both hands, and be sure to look at the business card as though you are giving it a quick read.
The Chinese have something called “mianzi” which translates to ‘face.’ These are rules surrounding the giving, losing, saving and increasing of respect, reputation or honor which are anxiety-producing and poorly understood by foreigners. The best way to avoid causing a loss of face—or losing face yourself—is to avoid losing your temper in public. Control over your emotions is considered a virtue. If you find yourself in conflict with someone, don’t get flustered. Stick to your guns and be prepared for the long haul. The Chinese are content to argue for a long time, as this usually wears down the other person and results in face-saving for them. Face management also arises in matters of acceptance and refusal. It’s not polite, in many cases, to outright refuse something. Do not start a bargaining session if you are not prepared to actually buy the item. This is considered poor form!
Food and dining are at the center of Chinese cultural life, and as long as you keep a few simple rules in mind, you’ll have an amazing time feasting on China’s incredibly rich and diverse cuisine.
When being offered something that you do not want, it it is OK to politely decline. You can decline up to three times; after that, accept and make the best of it (chou doufu and baijiu aren’t THAT bad). Don’t try to pay for your host. An invitation to dine is a big deal. Hosts demonstrate their generosity by paying the bill; guests show appreciation by letting them. Chopsticks – if you like to eat, learn how to use them before leaving home! Don’t stick your chopsticks in your food or lay them across your plate. Don’t point your chopsticks at people while gesturing. As for drinking – “Ganbei!” roughly means “bottoms up!” and you’ll hear it at some point if you go out to eat with Chinese men. It most certainly will involve the corrosively strong liquor known as baijiu, which is generally an acquired taste. Don’t feel you have to drain your cup but do pay respect to your host by at least taking a small sip. Finally, tipping is not necessary or expected, so don’t do it.
The most frightening experience I have ever had was taking my then 6 year old son and 9 year old daughter on an outing to People’s Square in Shanghai on a holiday. I have NEVER seen so many people in one place. I immediately grabbed both of their hands and told them not to let go.
The Chinese are generally comfortable thinking of themselves as just another member of the crowd. For us rugged individualists this can be frustrating at best. Be prepared to experience things like trying to squeeze through a doorway while a stream of people tries to head in the other direction or being stared at or pointed to or even talked about (although if you don’t speak the language you may not understand). Personal space? Forget it. I was at a picnic with some western friends and we had several Chinese sit down alongside our blanket and stare at what we were eating until we offered some for them to try!
Don’t expect lines to form for anything and even if there is plenty of space, say in an elevator, people will stand close to one another. Finally, the Chinese are generally curious about foreigners and are friendly. Expect uninvited questions and conversations in broken English. This is fantastic if you’re trying to practice your Chinese. However, be smart. Sometimes the kid or young adult chatting with you is a scam artist. Avoid anything involving money or where you are asked to move to a different location.
It’s a great idea to bring a few unique presents from home with you—local foods, candy, or souvenirs are great choices. A gift is often appreciated by a host, particularly when you are invited into their home.
Words for the Wise
Electricity – So you don’t blow the electric in the entire hotel – China uses 220v two-pin plugs, and sockets accept both the round and flat varieties. Hotels often have limited sockets, so bring an extension cord with multiple sockets.
Taxis – ALL should use meters. If they do not, get out. You should ONLY pay what is showing on the meter, there is no tipping in China and they always have change. Ask for a receipt if you are being asked to pay something different and CHECK that the receipt shows the correct total amount. Also, be aware that most drivers do not speak English. Make sure you have the destination of the hotel, restaurant, etc. in Chinese to show the driver or a map where you can indicate the destination.
Toilet Paper – ALWAYS carry tissues or toilet paper with you. It is generally not available unless you are in an upscale hotel. There are still many places where squat or trough toilets prevail. NEVER pass up a good bathroom!
Photography – Like anywhere else in the world, ask people if it’s all right to take their picture. Simply pointing at your camera and giving a thumbs up works for confirmation. Be careful when taking pictures of military or government buildings – the Chinese are very sensitive about this.
Name Calling – Depending on where you are in the country, locals may be unfamiliar with the sight of foreigners or “laowai (as in alLOW and Why).” You will be pointed at and called this term often. It is not an insult, it is simply them pointing out someone who is different. If you are a person of color you may hear what sounds like an extremely derogatory name “na ge” – it simply means ‘that one’ – again, a way of pointing out someone different with no hostile intent. It is also a ‘filler’ like um.
Mandarin is extremely difficult to learn and you won’t do so if you are in China for just a short time. However it will be helpful to know a few key phrases and characters. Stay tuned for my next blog introducing you to them. In the meantime, head to your nearest Chinese restaurant and start practicing your chopstick (kuaizi (筷子) use.
K-12 Teachers: There’s still time to apply for the US-China Educator Intercultural Exchange Program. Click here for details.