10 Tips for Avoiding Cultural Mishaps in China

10 Tips for Avoiding Cultural Mishaps in China
Nov 15, 2014 By Trey Archer , eChinacities.com

For those who don’t know, China is different; and for the tourist with little knowledge of the world’s oldest culture, the simplest thing like ordering a Coke can easily become an unprecedented task leaving you with a severe migraine. But don’t worry too much. We’ve compiled a guide of ten tips to help you avoid cultural mishaps in China, so read carefully if you’re planning a trip to the Middle Kingdom or are a newbie starting a new life here.

Making friends in China
Photo: flickr.com

1) Going Dutch
If “going Dutch” is splitting the bill, then “going Chinese” is the antithesis. In China, usually only one person pays for everyone. Actually, when I’m with my foreign friends and we split the bill, the waitress always gives us a funny look, probably thinking, “crazy laowai!”If a Chinese person invites you to feast, it’s understood in their culture that he or she will pay. Don’t try to argue or insist on splitting, they’re happy to do so and are following their cultural norms. The best you can do is let them go, enjoy the meal and say, “I’ll treat you next time.”

2) Thanks, but no thanks…
After your Chinese pal pays the bill, you may want to say thank you a gazillion times to express your gratitude; as one probably does in the West. However, xiexie just doesn’t have the same weight here as thank you does back home. In reality, if someone does a nice deed or, in this case, pays for the meal, most Chinese won’t say anything. If you insist on being nice, say it once, but your Chinese friend will probably just brush it off and act like they didn’t hear anything.

3) Declining food or gifts
With dog meat festivals and donkey penis hot pots, there’s no wonder the Chinese are known to eat strange things. Even if the menu isn’t as extreme as the items mentioned, things like chicken feet or pig fat still may not agree with your pallet. If you’re offered some strange food and just can’t stomach it, it’s OK to turn it down. Simply say wo chi bu guan (I’m not accustomed to eating this) and your friendwill get the hint that you’re not up for trying chicken butt (a real Chinese dish). The Chinese are well aware that they have a different diet than the West, so you won’t upset them too much.

4) North, south, east, what???
This one drives me insane! Nine times out of ten, if you ask anyone on the street for directions, they will point you the wrong way. It doesn’t matter if you speak fluent Chinese, have the address written on a piece of paper, or are standing right outside your desired location, in some astonishing way, no one knows where anything is in this country. They’re not trying to be rude, quite on the contrary, they just legitimately don’t know and are trying to be helpful all while saving face just by taking a shot in the dark, so you can’t blame them too much. Before hitting the streets, make sure to have your smart phone with Google Maps loaded and ready to go.

5) Hey you!
Brace yourself now, because it will undoubtedly happen. A stranger will approach you at least once and either a) ask to have their picture taken with you, b) practice English, or c) ask if you want to buy something. For A, this is just wholehearted fun. Sure, it may get annoying after the thirtieth time, but just enjoy feeling like a celebrity for a few seconds and roll with the punches. For B, this one is a little tricky because quite often it can be a scam. Besides, foreigners get good money in this country to teach English, so I’d recommend telling them bu haoyisi, wo mei you shijian (I’m sorry, I don’t have time). For C, if you don’t want to buy anything, simply ignore them. Don’t make eye contact and don’t even say “no,” they’ll quickly forget about you and hawk the next innocent bystander.

6) Ganbei!
The drinking culture is extremely different here than it is in most countries. First, your hosts will pour beer (or God forbid baijiu) into a shot glass (yes, you heard me right, beer into a shot glass). Next, everyone will clink glasses and scream ganbei! (dry glass, or cheers in Mandarin). Last, chug the shot of beer just like a, well, normal shot, and repeat the process over and over again. Some Chinese are actually learning to enjoy sipping their beers, but the old beer in a shot glass trick isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so get used to it.

7) Smoking is permitted
According to reports, China ranks 21st out of 185 countries in the category of “number of cigarettes smoked per adult per year.” But apart from being one of the planet’s biggest smokers, the Chinese also have a custom of handing out cigarettes to people they’ve just met, people they’d like to meet and/or to complete strangers just for the hell of it. If you don’t smoke, say wo bu chou yan (I don’t smoke), and they’ll quickly retract their offer. Many non-Chinese people feel they have to accept it and smoke it even if they don’t want to because it’ll upset them if not, but this is simply not the case.

8) The Three T’s
An old saying states that you should never speak about religion, politics or football (soccer) with people you’ve just met, but this should refer to China more so than anywhere else. The only knowledge of football many Chinese have are the words Manchester, Beckham and Messi; but the more serious matter lies in politics, especially the Three T’s (Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square). These are extremely sensitive subjects in China and can lead to overheated arguments. If someone asks for your opinion on one of these subject— as someone did to me the other day on the train— simply say wo bu zhidao (I don’t know) and use the “dumb foreigner card.” Ignorance is bliss!

9) Say what?
“Are you married? Do you have children? How much money do you make?” These are all very common questions the Chinese like to ask each other and, even more so, a foreigner. While these interrogations may seem like an intrusion into your personal life, in China it’s small talk, almost how we in the West like to talk about the weather. It used to bother me, but now I have no problem telling them my salary, marital status and whatever else they want to know; it’s really not that big of a deal. However, if you don’t want to show all your cards, be straightforward right back with them and say wo bu xiang gaosu ni (I don’t want to tell you). You’ll more than likely get a laugh, and the subject will change.

10) Sexual relationships
According to a recent study, Chinese “people born in the seventies lost their virginity at 22.4 years old, people born in the eighties lost their virginity at 21.3, while those born in the nineties lost their virginity at 18.2 years of age;” all of which is older than the average age for most Western countries. That being said – especially for all the men out there wishing to find a Chinese partner – remember that the rules of engagement are very different here than in your home since Chinese people apparently tend to move at a slower pace. Despite the changing attitudes towards sex, traditional Chinese culture still views it as a serious matter that shouldn’t be taken lightly, so remember that the next time you use your favorite pick up line at ladies night.

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Keywords: find a Chinese partner Cultural Mishaps in China


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watch where you step...

Jun 25, 2015 06:31 Report Abuse




Dec 04, 2014 08:03 Report Abuse



This is really good - it is so important to understand a culture before you move somewhere. There is no point moving somewhere if you do not care about learning at least a little bit about the country.

Nov 19, 2014 10:30 Report Abuse



Good info for newcomers. I want to say something sarcastic, but I can't. Well done.

Nov 18, 2014 01:33 Report Abuse



Point number 4 is especially true. Chinese don't know where anything is. Even when you know they have no idea, they will never admit it.

Sep 04, 2013 20:09 Report Abuse



Respecting local customs is important, but not at the cost of being losing your own identity, or obsequiously accepting rudeness. Before just accepting that you should "do as the Romans do", remember that Romans drank water laced with lead from their plumbing, and also entertained themselves by making slaves hack at each other with swords... it's not too insensitive to say that some cultural practices are just wrong one way or the other.

Sep 04, 2013 11:20 Report Abuse



While acknowledging local customs is appropriate, it is difficult to change my own. at home we would accept variations of custom as long as good manners are adhered to, especially in cross-cultural situations.

Sep 04, 2013 07:30 Report Abuse