Congratulation! You have made it to China. The adventure is far from over. Here are some tips to help you with your everyday life in China – some not completely serious do’s and don’ts for your stay!
Names and Greetings
Do not bow. If you were planning to do that, you have caught the wrong plane. – Japan is just around the corner. Here in China, a handshake is regarded as a normal greeting. With older people you can also lower your eyes, in order to show reverence. Don’t hug and kiss others in public. As a foreigner, sometimes you will appear odd enough anyway, so you don’t need to enforce that perception. Don’t touch other people’s heads, avoid staring at people and greet the oldest person first. And don’t point your finger at people – this gesture is only appropriate towards dogs.
It is a good idea to have business cards with you. Use both hands to give and receive. Don’t put the card straight away, but instead give it a courteous glance. You don’t have to understand what is on it – sometimes just the title is printed, because this is important.
Don’t forget the family name is always mentioned first. 90% of Chinese have one of the 100 most common family names. Married women do not adopt the family name of the husband. The current discussion about choice of names, as in Europe, is thus elegantly avoided here. Most Chinese are also not actually called ‘lao’ and ‘xiao’. These are honourable expressions for older (lao) and younger (xiao) people and are put before the family name.
If you were invited by a Chinese person to a meal, then you should first politely decline. Only if you are invited for a second or third time then the invitation is genuine. Do not embarrass your host by accepting the first invitation. That could just have been a sign of politeness – you will soon notice if it is genuine. However, after the third invitation you should accept. To do otherwise would also be impolite.
The first rule in a Chinese home is: take off your shoes. This applies to the Queen and therefore also to you. When sitting, don’t point your feet towards other people. If you bring a present you can leave the price tag attached. In rural parts it is still sometimes done as a show of respect. Offer the gift with both hands. Don’t buy flowers – a nicely wrapped basket of fruit is a better idea. On the subject of wrapping: pay attention to the colour. Red means luck, pink and yellow mean happiness and growth. Leave all white, gray and black at home unless you are attending a funeral. A nice lighter, a special postal stamp (a popular hobby in China), or even a t-shirt are appreciated as gifts. Strange reactions may be observed to the following: yellow and white flowers (funerals only), red ink on a card or letter (this means the end of a relationship) or clocks and watches in any form, which can mean the end of life. Don’t be surprised if your present is just put aside – your host does not want to appear greedy.
When you are finished with the greeting, now you will have to endure the host’s excuses for the very simple food. This normally happens at the point when you are wondering how many more plates and bowls the poor table has to take before it collapses. Try everything that is offered and spare your host the embarrassment about a food that might not be to your taste. However, if you really cannot stomach that tasty starfish then don’t eat it.- a seafood allergy is more common than you think!
Restaurants and Eating
A half full restaurant might be enticing, but not in China. Only eat where there is a queue in front of the establishment. You can trust the Chinese because they know where it is good to eat. Also at this point forget all about the dishes from your favourite Chinese restaurant at home – here is where Chinese food is cooked. Every Chinese person who has eaten Chinese food outside China also knows a thing or two about this.
Food is culture – and nowhere more so than in China. If somebody is talking about ‘eating bitterness’, then it means he is having a hard time. ‘Eating vinegar’ means being jealous. ‘Eating people’ means to screw somebody very badly. And no matter how stressed or pressed you are for time, never suggest to a Chinese person to skip a meal.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then really enjoy it. To eat noisily is not perceived everywhere to be a sign of a bad upbringing. Slurping your soup will send most nannies around the world into a rage, but not the person sitting next to you in China. As long as you don’t talk about politics, put the chopsticks vertically into the rice bowl, hit the bowls with the chopsticks, leave some rice in the bowl or point the spout of the teapot at somebody, virtually everything else goes. In case the dish advertised as ‘mildly spiced’ makes you cry for joy (or in pain), then don’t blow your nose at the table. Either leave the table or turn around. Talking about leaving: You eat and you leave. The food is the main act – apparently there is no reason to stay in a Chinese restaurant once you have finished eating. Also, for a man there is absolutely no reason not to drink alcohol, unless you have a genuine allergy. Otherwise merrily raise your glass of Shaoxing wine with a loud ‘ganbei’ (literally: dry the cup). It gets much easier after the 5th glass. Just don’t raise your glass higher than the oldest person at the table.
At the end of the meal, only one person pays. Paying for everybody is an honour. And you are expected to fight for it! Even if you think that you really don’t want to win the fight and already paid last time: get your wallet out. An understanding member of your party will sometimes let you lose.
Out and About
It could well happen that people will approach you out of curiosity, to practice their English language skills. Be courteous, you also did not learn Chinese overnight. Equally, it could be that a ‘student’ might strike up a conversation, offering a guided tour of the town including a tea ceremony – for a very reasonable fee, of course. Now is the time to bring the conversation swiftly to a close, unless you want to find out what the real cost is.
Otherwise it is recommended always to be polite, smile and behave yourself. Aggressive behaviour is not appreciated – especially by officials. So keep calm and a stiff upper lip, this is the only way for you and the other person to keep face. But do talk to others – it is the easiest way to learn about the country and people.
When you are out and about, please don’t interrupt pedestrians watching videos on their smart phones. Although Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere have plenty of sights, the Chinese prefer to catch up on home produced or imported soap operas. There are so many of them, and you are not allowed to miss a single one. So every free minute is utilised to catch up on every single series, whether on the way to work, in the metro or on the way home.
If you are feeling peckish, go to a hawker stall on the street. It is best to go to the one with the most customers in front (see Restaurants above). Should you crave Western fast food, go to KFC rather than McDonald’s, for the simple reason that the Chinese know more about preparing chicken than beef. There are some hawker stall owners who are famous and rich. What is the most beautiful temple compared to the famous noodle soup of Mrs Wang? In the countryside when asking for the local sights, you may well also be told where to get the best spring rolls – you just can’t eat a monument! And did you know that Chop Suey (Za Sui in Mandarin), one of the most famous Chinese dishes in the West, can be translated as hodge-podge? It is a concoction of last week’s leftovers and is NEVER served to guests.
The widely held view that people in Shanghai walk around outside in their pyjamas cannot be totally refuted. Since the Olympic Games in 2008, and a corresponding governmental campaign, the spectacle is less common. Please do not copy, even if your pyjamas are supposedly from Gucci or Prada, and were bought from a nice shop around the corner for approximately 5 Euros.
When taking a taxi, be sure to make it absolutely clear to the driver where you want to go. Your stomach and your wallet will be thank you for it. Without clear directions, you will often go around in circles until it costs three to four times more than it should, as the worldwide tax-mafia is well connected. Whether in Athens, Shanghai or Detroit, everybody thinks they really should be a Formula 1 driver. And even if you normally complain about traffic jams, sitting in one is more comfortable than when your driver thinks the Shanghai ring road is actually the Le Mans circuit.
Don’t be surprised if your driver picks up another passenger at the next corner. In some Chinese cities, it is common to share rides. Instead of paying what is on the meter, you pay for the distance you have travelled. Your driver will calculate it in a split second (much faster than Carol Vorderman).
Apart from that, life here is quite simple – just do everyone else is doing. That way, you will reach your destination and you won’t attract attention. On the subject of attracting attention: don’t take any drugs, even if you are homesick as hell. If you are caught, your embassy has better things to do than getting you out of jail.
What’s in a word?
You will soon learn that the Chinese language has some unfamiliar phrases. For example, you want to invite your Chinese colleague for a karaoke evening and, for whatever reason, he is not in the mood (usually highly unlikely), he will answer something like: ‘I would like to come, but I don’t know if I will have time.’ The important thing here is not what he says, but what he means. These things can be worlds apart. Another example: a Chinese colleague wants to visit you. You live a bit outside the centre and the way from the metro station to your place is not so easy to find. So you offer to pick him up from the station. His answer will probably be: ‘It is nice of you to offer but I don’t think it is necessary. It won’t be a problem to find the way myself.’ Chinese know what is meant here and, come the time, will be waiting at the station. You never articulate your wishes directly. As a foreigner you will be given some leeway. Chinese understand that you will not have mastered the art of hinting.
Courtesy is only given to a relative small group of people, mainly friends, family and business partners. Strangers are not that important. A gentleman will not bat an eyelid and will just watch another person heaving a heavy suitcase onto a train. He does not know the person and so it is not his problem. This is not done out of spite, just simple indifference. If you were the person with the suitcase, then you have at least given the gentleman some entertainment. The impartial spectators call that ‘kan re?nao’. Watching a lively (literally hot and loud) scene. As you can imagine, by default there are lots of impartial spectators in the PRC. As a foreigner you have an advantage here. Chinese will be curious about you and therefore more willing to help. Some Chinese develop a protective instinct towards foreigners, who are standing helplessly in the Chinese countryside and just don’t know what is happening around them. Just enjoy living up to the stereotype of the clumsy foreigner. Nothing more is expected of you.
Child: ‘Mum, is that a man or a woman?’
Mother: ‘Neither. It is a foreigner.’
Getting to know Chinese
As a foreigner it is relatively easy to get to know Chinese people. Don’t be surprised if, after a short while, you are asked about your income. Questions about your marital status are also quite common, and you should not take offence. If you are over 30 then the only right answer is ‘yes’. Otherwise you will be pitied. Don’t be insulted if the Chinese poke fun at your big nose, or make comments in broken English that you should lose weight, or about any other obvious physical attributes you might have. They are just giving their honest opinion.
Stand in Line, Enter and Exit
Westerners value discretion and personal space. The Chinese avoid queuing like the Devil avoids holy water. No matter where, in the metro, at the bus stop, in front of ticket offices, the Chinese don’t like to stand in line. Don’t be spooked and be forgiving if you are buying a train ticket and a Chinese person interrupts because he wants to ask the counter staff when the next train is leaving.
When you are standing in line, make sure never to leave too big a gap between you and the person in front. The Chinese will regard this as free space, thinking you are ‘standing’ but not ‘standing in line’. Keep very close to the person in front so there definitely won’t be a misunderstanding.
In the metro and in the bus there is constant war about the biggest prize: a seat. The Chinese have honed rapid entry to a fine art like no other nation on Earth. Speedy Gonzales is a snail in comparison. If people are not trying to get on and off the metro or bus at the same time, you are definitely not in China.
What is there more than enough of in China? Chinese people. That is not meant unkindly. The Chinese constitute a fifth of the world’s population but only have 6% of the usable agricultural land at their disposal. In that light, the one child policy was a prudent measure, if not quite successful. In 2010, the Chinese population was 1.35 billion. By the middle of this century, it is expected to reach 1.5 billion. In big cities, privacy in public spaces is hard to come by. Many foreigners think of it as quaint when people sit outside, playing cards, sleeping or eating. With 40sqm public space and 6sqm living space per person in the city centre of Shanghai, it is more than understandable.
Leisure and Sport
Leisure means ‘time after work (yeyu shijian)’. There is no strict separation between work and leisure. Preferably you spend this time ‘renao’, bustling about. This could be considered equivalent to the European desire for peace and quiet, only with a different effect. For the renao on the street no planning is needed and in any case it is never boring. As foreigner you might perceive renao as a constant fun fair. Thus it becomes an everyday thing. At the weekend, many people go to the local park. The child, often the only one, has to be entertained. If you have no children, you might head to a karaoke bar instead.
In China, sport does not have a prominent role. The Chinese claim to have invented football but today that does not mean you have to partake. Table tennis and badminton, on the other hand, are quite popular. Maybe it is Confucius’s fault when he said: ‘The common person moves the hand, the noble only the mouth’. Chinese are very sporty in the water. Considering that many Chinese cannot swim, their athletes are hard to beat in numerous watersports disciplines at the Olympic Games.
A much loved sporting pastime is shopping, especially for women. For a more therapeutic approach there is shadow boxing, or Tai Chi (taiji quan),. Watching the seniors doing their lithesome movements in the morning in the park, you could start to question your own constitution.
Health: If you are male and a smoker, then China will be Paradise for you. Only about 2% of Chinese women smoke, but men are keeping the state tobacco monopoly in business with their habit . It was reported as late as 2009 that an official decree in Hubei certified that smoking increased thinking capacity and work efficiency. Even now, apparently nobody connects smoking with increased lung disease. You don’t have to be afraid that you will be an outcast if you are a non-smoker. More and more restaurants and bars have non-smoking sections.
This may be one of the reasons why you have come to China. We recommend to practice at every given opportunity. If you address a Chinese in your best Mandarin, at first he may not understand you. He expects you to speak English. You will soon realise it is appreciated if you are able to speak Chinese. Chinese people are very proud of all things Chinese.
Be modest when your knowledge of Mandarin is complimented. Even if you can only say ‘Ni Hao’ (Hello), the Chinese will appreciate it and will compliment you on your on your Chinese abilities. Just reply ‘Nali, nali’, which can be translated as: ‘I’m not that good, and have so much to learn.’ Understatement will get you further. Nobody will take it seriously, only Chinese with no experience with foreigners.
Spoken irony is unknown. British humour is foreign to the Chinese. They prefer comically exaggerated humour.
Even if you speak the language: don’t intervene when two Chinese have an argument. You certainly won’t find out what it is about, and an intervention is seen as impolite.
The best way to make something known is to pass it on ‘confidentially’. The Chinese have amazing network-like communication structures. Most of the time, everybody speaks with anybody about everybody else. Only the internet is quicker in general.
WeChat and QQ
Before you come to China you should install WeChat or QQ on your smartphone. Without WeChat or QQ, you are only half a person in China and just socially unacceptable. About 80% of Chinese use these apps to communicate with each other. To make a date with friends; to profess your love; to propose marriage; to revoke the proposal; or simply, as the Chinese say, to ‘liao liao’, which means to chat about everything and nothing. The Chinese are world champion in multitasking. Working and chatting at the same time takes some practice.
Patience is needed when you go to the bank. It takes time for the 20 people waiting in front of you to be served. However, the waiting does not have to be boring. Discretion is only slowly creeping into the Chinese vocabulary. The speaker systems at the counters are sometimes turned so loud that half deaf people without no hearing aid could follow the instructions of the bank clerk without problem. For the person waiting, it is easy to find out who is in the bank, what their business is and how much money is on their account.
Cars and Pedestrians
Driving a car yourself can be pretty exciting, even if you have to pass the theoretical test first. Honking your horn is done to get attention that ‘I’ am coming. Merging in turn is unknown in China and is not taught in driving school. On the other hand, it is taught that you should use your horn when approaching a pedestrian crossing to politely let your presence be known. Wait on the side-walk / pavement for the green light to cross the road. But don’t feel safe just because it is green. As important as colours are in daily life, they are mere suggestions on the traffic light. You can cross the road on a red light. No car driver will take offence – quite the opposite. He will steer calmly and skilfully around you. Always look right when crossing the road. Cars will turn right on a red light and claim the right of way, although the highway code states the pedestrian has always has the right of way.
Now you know what to look out for, you will adapt quickly. Don’t worry, it is not that complicated. Here are some indications that you have almost become Chinese yourself:
- Speak louder than necessary
- Standing at the zoo in front of a zebra and ponder how it might taste?’
- Q: Shall we go to the park? A: Can I go shopping there?
- Always remove shoes before entering house
- Jump the queue
- Reading in the paper that there was smog and asking: what smog?
- Going in the morning to the bakery in your pyjamas
- Needing to send your business card collection home by sea freight
- Claiming a seat in every bus or metro
- Being amused by the big noses of foreigners
Along these lines: Welcome to China