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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I am from Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire and I can assure you that there is NO open sewage anywhere unless in the poorest of slums. So check the facts about AFRICA before writing uniformed and idiotic comments about places you know nothing about because the farthest you've traveled is Biloxi!
Oct 06, 2012 18:55 Report Abuse
what annoys me with the taxi drivers is, first of all unless you give intersection names they have not got a bloody clue where the place is. HELLO! this is your job to know the roads of your locale. Added to that is the fact that if you are a foreigner they are too dimwitted to even think, oh maybe this person does not know the area the way I do BECAUSE I LIVE HERE and therefore you would think that out of professionalism they would at least know the areas in which they are driving. Don't get me started on the ting bu dong element of it.
Apr 16, 2012 21:01 Report Abuse
Regarding clothing, I'm not sure if your somewhat snyde comment on what you're not. I think most American women could only dream about having the body of the average Chinese woman. I know us men do. I think American women are just lucky there aren't eskimoes with harpoons walking around the continental US.
Apr 16, 2012 02:33 Report Abuse
I've had so many arguments anbout split pants with my mother-in-law. Those pants are horrid!!!! I don't want some Chinese men to see my daughters private parts. When she holds her in her hands, she puts her hand under her bottom, and then touches handrails and doorknobs and then touches her bottom again. Is that healthy? Besides, when the child pees, the split pants are wet anyway. So give me a break. Innovation from the past, my arse. Damn peasants.
Apr 14, 2012 08:22 Report Abuse
Strange to find my comment about Squat toilets from way back above.
It is however apposite as today the issue came up yet again with my Chinese wife.
She assures me that where there are [ i call them civilised] toilets in China, Chinese women Squat on them to, breaking seats and she recounts the story of one lady who fell off a toilet and broke her leg and causing the authorities to replace it with a Squat.
The replies to my comment above raise the issue of my and others knowledge of men with strong streams plus the runs carrying away shoes full of many nasties to everywhere in China.
She now has a western toilet in her ensuite which I dont use as part of my educating her about toilets throughout the world and my sense of humour.
Apr 13, 2012 19:35 Report Abuse
Haha! Some funny comments here.
I was on a bus in Xi'an and there was a fat happy buddha of a baby sitting astride his mother's lap. I smiled at him, he smiled back then started to pee everywhere, so the mum held him up to the window and splashed all over a cyclist cycling next to the bus!! Funniest thing I've ever seen!
May 18, 2011 19:47 Report Abuse
Teaching on GAC Programmes?
Just need some advice. Has anyone worked for GAC Programme in Changshu? I have heard mixed reports about teaching on GAC Programmes in different Cities. Is this a teaching Franchise? Really could do with the some info on this. Thanx....
Feb 28, 2011 03:32 Report Abuse
My personal favorite split-pants moment happened during my first few days in China. A friend took me to Wal-Mart, and I witnessed the parents-holding-the-kid-over-the-open-trashcan technique, right in the middle of the women's clothing. And this was no regular trashcan, but one with a flip lid, so dad had the unlucky task of holding the lid open while trying to not be sprayed.
Feb 28, 2011 00:49 Report Abuse
Learn not to flinch. Almost all of these things have nothing to do with you personally. Just don't focus on it. I must admit when I am in a restaurant and someone hacks and spits on the floor it revolts me and sometimes i pay the bill and eat somewhere else -- if I have time. If you have a bad RMB paper money give it to a taxi driver -- at night. LOL When you exchange money at the bank keep the fapiao. If you get a bad note they will exchange it for a good one -- with fapiao. Never leave the house without a package of tissues. When in doubt smile or laugh or pretend you didn't hear it or see it. Being nice goes a long way. Also if you say something nasty to a chinese person 99 times out of 100 they will not understand you... so, say it with a smile. One moment of anger can loose you a friend in china. Smile and learn not to flinch. Lighten up and don't add your negativity to the flow of life. You will not change anyone or teach them not to spit or wash their hands or not sneeze in your face etc.... you can try. A fool wastes time trying to change what is impossible to change. Most Chinese people view foreigners as entertainment or sideshow something funny in their daily grind... They will laugh in your face simply because "YOU FACE FUNNY" get over it. Focus on what is important. Wear dark colors. LOL
Feb 26, 2011 18:00 Report Abuse
You are so right about all these nine moments.Since i came to china , these are the main things that have cut my eyes.With the baby split,the taxi driver and the counterfeit toping the list.I still don't get why the baby pants will be treated in this cold weather like that and also why every Chinese has to look at money over and over and over while you are standing there and feeling like a criminal.For the drivers,am tire spending triple of what i plan for transportation.I also think you forgot one:entering the food section of a supermarket.The whole body of big dry Porks,hens and duck looking you straight in the eye.sometimes when am looking at them,i hear then say 你好.But its all the fun of traveling.I love China.
Feb 24, 2011 15:53 Report Abuse
I've also suffered the wrath of clothes store owners telling me that i'm too fat fit into their clothes because of my African figure. One store owner told me to 'meitian san bu' to reduce my well-rounded behind. To add salt to my wounded ego, my shoe size is 42 (US). As you know, most shoe stores female sizes stop at size 38-40. The same store owner was selling shoes, so i asked her if the daily jogs will reduce my foot. I have also resorted to tailoring my clothes because I had to wear men's clothes during my first year in China.
Feb 21, 2011 18:06 Report Abuse
You know the other thing to look out for is being given fake money and having them tell you they won't accept it. When you come straight from a bank and they take the money away to "check" then tell you its fake. don't take it back - they just switched it. Yes its not common in five years though it has happened to me once. The bad people think that because they tell you its fake you won't suspect they pulled the old switcharoo. Point is watch ppl careful as they check your money, don't let them hold it down instead of up they might be conning you.
Feb 20, 2011 01:59 Report Abuse
I don't like... that they spit anywhere... I just feel disgusted especially if they do that in a restaurant. (i read something about needing to spit it out because they believe its not good)I just wish they do it appropriately. Right now I'm trying to teach my students some basic etiquette/manners.
Feb 17, 2011 02:14 Report Abuse
Oral hygiene is not well practiced. Rather than brush their teeth they just hack and spit. Also their meals often have oils and garlic so combine that with the phlegm from NOT brushing, flossing, and gargling... they hack and spit. It is extremely rude and disgusting to foreigners. Also the sidewalk is covered with fresh tiny gobs speckled everywhere. It is the reason why people must remove their shoes. Also whenever ANY Chinese person enters your home insist THEY remove their shoes or keep them in the hallway.
Apr 18, 2012 15:48 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