China, although simply a different country, can often feel like a different planet if you don’t know what to expect. The culture and customs here are often vastly different from those outside (or even inside!) Asia. For the uninitiated, here are nine potentially embarrassing or exasperating moments to avoid while in China. But don’t worry too much about trying to sidestep these quandries. Try as you might, you’re bound to find yourself in some of these situations at one point or another!
1) Going to the bathroom but finding no toilet paper inside
This is a classic (but rarely repeated) mistake. While it’s possible to find bathrooms that provide toilet paper (either a communal roll next to the sink as you walk in or inside the actual stalls), especially in Western restaurants, the vast majority of the time you’ll need to bring your own. This means investing in those mini packs of tissues you see for sale just about everywhere. Ladies, keep them in your purse at all times. Men, stick them in your coat or pants pocket (these little tissues tend to pull triple duty here in China as toilet paper, napkins, and yes, occasionally even as tissues). There’s nothing worse than getting into a stall and realizing you’re going to have to improvise the toilet paper situation. I’ve heard nightmare stories of this happening to expats, and all I’ll say is that socks were involved. Always have a pack or two of tissues on you, and this is one embarrassing situation that’s fairly easy to avoid.
2) Being asked overly personal questions
Depending on your country of origin and your age, who you share private matters with can vary from no one, to family, to Facebook friends. Very rare indeed is the culture in which “How much money do you make?” or “Why are you not married yet?” are perfectly acceptable first-time introduction questions. Well, welcome to that very rare country. These questions and so much more are open game for the Chinese, and you’re bound to be asked them by at least a few strangers. I’ve personally loosened up a bit since first moving here and now answer things I feel comfortable sharing. But for many people, the shock of being asked their reproductive timetable is just too much, in which case it’s better to just smile, nod, and change the subject. When in doubt, remember – deflect, deflect, deflect.
3) Seeing a baby’s split pants being put to use
This is perhaps one of the biggest cultural shocks that expats must learn to accept (or at least overlook). Those split bottom pants babies wear here are adorable when all you see are their cute little bottoms sticking out. When you suddenly realize that the reason for those splits is to render diapers useless, the cuteness of it all quickly dissipates. I’ve seen cases of children peeing in trash cans on a moving bus – when the trash bag has a hole in it. I’ve even seen it happen in the aisle of a plane during an international flight. The point is, you’ll see it happen, even in the big cities – a lot. So the best thing to do is avert your eyes and realize that this is just the way it’s done around here. And when you see an adult doing it? Well, I still haven’t quite gotten used to that.
4) Being told by a clothing store clerk that you're too fat/big to fit in any of their clothes
As an American woman with a bust and hips I’ve encountered this one a lot, but I’ve also had male friends told the same thing. For people, especially women, who are considered average-sized or thin at home – say, American size 4 or 6 - to come to a country where the mannequins in the store windows are often bigger than the actual people walking around, it can be a traumatic event. Add to that, Chinese people’s tendency to never censor themselves in the presence of foreigners (“Why are you so fat?”) and you get a recipe for a good old fashioned self-esteem crusher. You’re in luck if you’re completely flat-chested or have minimal hips, but anything more than that and you’ll run into major trouble finding anything that fits (or getting a store clerk to even help you). So be sure to pack your favourite clothes from home, and when a shopping urge strikes, head to the nearest fabric market to get items custom made.
5) Getting into a taxi and finding that the driver can't understand your pronunciation of the street names
This usually only applies to expats who have minimal (if any) Chinese language skills, but fluent speakers beware – it too can happen to you (some cab drivers will claim to not understand even the most perfect pronunciation, simply because you’re a foreigner). There’s nothing more embarrassing than realizing how terrible your pronunciation is when the taxi driver can’t even understand where you want to go. The situation only gets worse when a) alcohol is involved, or b) your street name has more than three syllables in it. That’s why it’s helpful to always have, at the very least, your home address written in Chinese characters. If you’re travelling somewhere new, however, and the taxi driver doesn’t understand you, there is no shame in hopping out and catching a different taxi. Try, try again and you’re bound to find someone who can understand your butchered pronunciation. And perhaps consider investing in Chinese lessons.
6) Being told that the money you're trying to use to pay for something is fake
Warning: Fake money runs rampant in China, especially in the big cities. It’s important that you always check the authenticity of any bill you get, not only to prevent yourself from getting ripped off but also to prevent this realization occurring while you’re trying to (unknowingly) pass this fake money off to someone else. Shop owners, waiters, and the like all know how to spot fake money and will not hesitate to hand it back to you. Meanwhile, you’re left feeling like a chump with a useless piece of paper. Avoid this embarrassing situation by educating yourself on the ins and outs of fake bills. Click here for an article on how to spot fake money (among other things).
7) Realizing you don’t have your passport on you after waiting in long lines for the train, hotel, etc.
While not necessarily an embarrassing predicament, this can certainly be an exasperating one. While most hotels require your physical passport upon arrival, some places that “require photo ID” (such as the train ticketing window, hospitals, etc.) will simply have you write down your passport number if you don’t physically have it on you. Don’t know your passport number? Never fear – I’ve had many Chinese people tell me to “just make it up.” And what do you know – no one really cares! While you should officially be carrying around your passport at all times, a photocopy is usually quite sufficient if you’re worried about it getting lost or stolen. It’s important to find out ahead of time, though, which venues require a passport (aka: hotels) and which ones don’t (aka: most train ticket windows). When in doubt, it’s always best to bring it with you anyway.
8) Being told your passport is valid for less than six months while trying to renew your Chinese visa in China
Again, this is more of an example of an exasperating situation – but one that could wreak major havoc on your travel plans. The minimum length of validity you need on your passport to get a Chinese visa renewal or change is six months. Period. If you have five months and twenty-nine days left, it will be refused. So put a reminder on your phone, calendar, Blackberry, or whatever mode of organization you use to renew your passport if its expiration date starts creeping up. The good news is that it’s often much quicker to get a new passport at your respective country’s consulate here in China than it is to get it from your actual home country. The stated turnaround time for a U.S. passport is about ten working days, but I’ve personally gotten mine in four, and had friends who experienced the same. Just pay attention to your passport (and visa!) and you won’t have any last minute interruptions to your travel plans.
9) Having no idea how to eat or handle certain Chinese foods during a group dinner
This can be extremely embarrassing especially if you’re at a business dinner or trying to impress someone’s family. The dishes served at restaurants can often be confusing, so don’t think you’re alone in this. For example, you may come across a bowl of coloured water accompanying a seafood dish. This is for washing your hands – not to eat! I still have not figured out how to peel shrimp inside my mouth the way that Chinese people do, so I’ve finally just given up and peel it with my hands. The famous hairy crab dish also proves problematic for foreigners, as many people haven’t encountered a full crab from which they’re expected to suck the meat. The best approach to these new foods is to sit back and watch what everyone else does. Take cues from your Chinese counterparts and if you slip up, don’t worry about it – laughing at the laowei is part of the fun!
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Keywords: exasperating moments to avoid China Embarrassing China moments embarrassing moments to avoid China
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47 Comments Add your comment
Diapers, especially disposable diapers, is a waste of money and is big money earner for Procter and Gamble, and the likes. Split pants is great innovation from the past that is still being put to good use. Another alternative is cloth diapers, which are reusable after it is being washed.
Feb 14, 2011 11:56 Report Abuse
Creativity. Dude, that's so wrong bro. Ok, so we should do away with toilet paper and tampons too? Let's all start taking dumps on public walkways! Oh, better yet, let's just get rid of bathrooms altogether and let the sewage flow freely down the streets like it used to in the middle ages in Europe and still does in Africa. Let's welcome back the dark ages again, where people made their house walls out of "waddle and dab," a.k.a. Sh*t, and threw their feces out the window. Look out below! Haha. Yeah, great invention, those split pants.
Feb 15, 2011 03:23 Report Abuse
There's a good reason why we don't allow our children to poop in the streets in the West. It is called, disease. Not only does human waste carry multiple health risks, but it also attracts rats, which also carry disease. I've seen a lot of rats in China.
Feb 15, 2011 08:11 Report Abuse
Most of SE Asia uses water to clean themselves. It is not just an Islamic thing as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, etc. all have a bucket of water or a hose. I personally think that the hose is probably the most sanitary. In the West, only the rich have bidets (I think that is spelled right) while in SE Asia every home that has plumbing has a metal or rubber hoses next to the toilet.
Feb 19, 2011 03:01 Report Abuse
Really? I don't know anyone who owns a bidet in the USA and I know some pretty wealthy people. I think bidets are not very common, even amoung the wealthy. T.P. still seems to be the dominating trend. I think we are getting off point though. Is squatting on the street sidewalk sanitary? This is the question. Using your hand as toilet paper, is this sanitary? Not using T.P. or water, is this sanitary?
Feb 21, 2011 07:03 Report Abuse
Not lazy culture. But "Cleanliness" is not an integral part of it. That is why there are spits and litter every where, garbage in plastic bags thrown out of the apartment windows and stuck on the trees, etc,etc,etc.
China's economy grew so fast, but these cultural matters did not grow hand in hand with economy. It gets another 30 yeas before the social behaviors will be like the basic Western behavior of today.
Feb 27, 2011 09:58 Report Abuse
The toilet one is normal, but no mention of the squat toilet, my particular " difficulty". However in 8 weeks in China I managed never to use one [ went close some times].
Advice " do all you possibly can" before you leave your hotel, and never go out if you have the runs. I have a jocular phrase " China, great culture, pity about the toilets"
Feb 14, 2011 17:00 Report Abuse
So many foreigners complain about the squat toilets but I must say I can't see why. If it's a public toilet I even prefer squat toilets because I can squat low down which is a lot more comfortable position than hovering my ass over a western style toilet not wanting to touch it ha ha ha.
Mar 23, 2017 14:10 Report Abuse
I find that the taxi thing is quite easily overcome if you simply say 'Ni Hao' first. Sometimes the taxi driver sees a white face and decides that he's never going to understand you, but hearing the simplest expression in Chinese first switches them on and then it's a little easier. I wouldn't claim 100% success on this but it seems to help.
Feb 16, 2011 00:22 Report Abuse
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