7 Things Foreigners in China Should Never Say to a Local

7 Things Foreigners in China Should Never Say to a Local
Apr 23, 2019 By Niklas Westerlund , eChinacities.com

If you’ve been living in China, even just for a short while, you probably already know that Chinese people can be terribly blunt. “Wow youre so fat”, “I’m on my period”, “Foreign people smell bad”. While there seems to be no filter at times, don’t be fooled into thinking you can say anything you like to a local. Here are seven things foreigners in China should never say to a Chinese person.

Wow, you have really nice freckles!

While many people in the West grow up with the notion that freckles are a sign of beauty, this is not the overreaching sentiment in China. As you may already be aware, freckles are less common here and not particularly welcomed.

You might have read about the recent controversy that arose following an advertising campaign for the Spanish fashion brand Zara that featured a Chinese model proudly displaying her freckles. Somewhat bewilderingly, this caused Weibo to blow up with Chinese netizens accusing the brand of insulting Chinese beauty standards.

So avoid mentioning freckles to a Chinese person who has them. You might find them absolutely lovely, but chances are the recipient of your comment does not.

Have you been on vacation? You look so tanned!

Here’s another big no-no that again illustrates a difference in beauty standards between Westerners and Chinese people. There’s a reason why umbrellas are just as common on sunny days as they are on rainy days here. Getting a tan is something most Chinese people, particularly young Chinese women, want to avoid.

Fair skin is generally seen as more attractive than darker skin here, mainly because Chinese people with darker skin are thought to have low paying jobs that require outside work. This is not something new or even unique to China. It’s been like this for quite some time. When was the last time you saw a solarium in China?

You must be good at maths, right?

Just like asking if a British person is funny (they just sound funny when they talk), or if a German person is organised (they could be, if they weren’t drunk all the time), asking a Chinese person if he or she is good at maths is perhaps not so much of a big no-no as it is just a silly stereotype.

In defense of stereotypes, a Chinese person who went to high school will be, on average, better than you at maths. But this has little to do with genetics and everything to do with the intensive Chinese education system. Even so, it’s completely unnecessary to assume it, let alone ask about it or assert it. The Chinese person on the receiving end of your comments will at best think you’re an idiot, at worst think you’re rude.

It’s not entirely uncommon for foreigners in China to talk in stereotypes, although it’s usually intended in a humorous and non-offensive way. But while assertions like this might seem like a laugh between foreigners, insulting your hosts when you’re living away from home is never a smart idea.

I absolutely love China, but

Don’t finish that sentence! Look, we understand that life in China can get to you, but never, ever, get between a country and its people. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently insult a Chinese person by insulting the mother land.

Just like slagging off your family, it’s perfectly fine if you say something rude about your own country. Just don’t do it about someone else’s. There are few things that can put otherwise open and tolerant people into a patriotic frenzy as when foreigners, who happily reap the benefits of life in their country, complain about said country. This doesn’t just happen in China, but it’s fair to say the Chinese are particularly patriotic people.

I think Chinese food is the best food in the world

What’s that? Why should you avoid complimenting Chinese cuisine? Because everyone in China should already know that Chinese food is the best food in the world, of course.

Saying that you love Chinese food is like saying that water is wet, or sugar is sweet. It’s a no-brainer, and while Chinese people won’t exactly be offended, there are so many different kinds of Chinese cuisine they will probably just think you’re ignorant. Instead, talk about the regional cuisine that you like the most.

Of course, the opposite is true if you’re directly asked, “What do you think of Chinese food?” In this case, the answer is “I love it!”, unless you want to immediately make one less friend in China.

Hey workmate, what’s your salary?

While talking about money is much more common in China than it is in the West, this does not apply to all situations. Asking a colleague about his or her salary is typically taboo; this kind of question should be reserved for prying relatives during Spring Festival, right after they’ve asked when the person in question is getting married.

The taboo is not as strong if you’re working in the public sector (everyone is making no money anyway), but tread lightly if you’re working in IT, for example. Salaries tend to be closely guarded secrets in order to avoid awkward or outright hostile situations in the workplace.

As a foreigner, it’s a particularly touchy question to approach your Chinese colleagues with because there’s a good chance you’re making a lot more than them for no other reason than your foreign face. Among Chinese friends outside of work this topic is more accepted, but it’s probably best to steer clear as a foreigner. That doesn’t mean you won’t get asked yourself, though.

Do you have a hukou?

If you live in Beijing, this is perhaps the biggest social faux pas you can commit. Although hukou, the Chinese household registration document, may sound innocuous enough for foreigners, it’s something that causes sleepless nights for millions-upon-millions of Chinese people.

If you live in a city without the local hukou there will be restrictions on a whole range of things, including when you’re allowed to buy an apartment and a car. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the children of parents without a local hukou do not have the same opportunities as those whose parents have it. These children, while allowed to attend school in the city, must take the university entrance exam (the Gaokao) in whichever province their parents are registered.

Obtaining a hukou in a third or second-tier city is a cakewalk compared to first-tier cities, with Beijing being the most difficult and sought after. Ironically, or perhaps by design, Beijing is also the city with the best universities in China; a higher ratio of students with a Beijing hukou will be given places at these revered establishments.

In short, a Chinese person’s relationship with their hukou might be something they would simply rather forget. Like your student loan debt!

Can you think of anything else foreigners in China should avoid saying to their hosts? Tell us in the comments below.

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Keywords: foreigners in China


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Jul 05, 2020 21:26 Report Abuse


Amazing article

Apr 14, 2020 02:52 Report Abuse


"Hey workmate, what’s your salary?" ... But EVERY Tom, Dick and Harry (or 'Ying, Yang, Yong') in China has asked me this question for the past 13 years! .... This says SO MUCH about Chinese people: What good for them, is not good for you... A very one-side race of people... And on that note, they will be the first to accuse you are being 'one-sided' or -basically- make you out to be 'culturally stupid'.... So glad to read the other comments here... Seems more and more are waking up to how things really are here: ethnocentric, xenophobic, privately elitist, arrogant, wanting to dominate at the first opportunity - the list goes on... Also, I should add, I've had three smart Chinese girlfriends in 13 years... ALL of them can echo my sentiments (but they can NEVER do it publicly)...

Jun 05, 2019 16:08 Report Abuse


Seems it's okay for Chinese people to say all sorts of ignorant shortsighted things about other countries, but if you say anything about China then OMG it's the end of the world.

Jun 03, 2019 19:42 Report Abuse


This is an eye-opener for me.

May 07, 2019 12:24 Report Abuse


It’s very good, especially if you want to travel to China’s Tibet, you can’t mention Tibet when you apply for a visa. Otherwise, your visa will be rejected.

May 06, 2019 13:19 Report Abuse


Thanks for sharing this information. Nice article.

Apr 27, 2019 17:47 Report Abuse


I'm only here for the money. The locals can do what they want as long as they leave me out of it.

Apr 24, 2019 15:50 Report Abuse


but its ok for them to tell me Im fat

Apr 24, 2019 07:41 Report Abuse


Have no Chinese friends except those required for family and work obligations, in most cases they are not worth the trouble anyway and will only cost your grief and aggravation.

Apr 24, 2019 07:39 Report Abuse


Except that Chinese people transfer their habits when emigrating to another country, disregarding that particular's behavior.

Apr 24, 2019 03:38 Report Abuse