If you've never been to China before, get ready for some culture shock! China possesses a culture that can be disconcerting and jarring. There is a rich blend of tradition and modernity in the Middle Kingdom. It takes time to familiarize yourself with the culture and not feel confounded by its contradictions. In the meantime, do your best not to get ripped off for thousands of dollars on a haircut—I'll share this story with you later.
To ease the transition, I've created a list of things to watch for. Whether you're here temporarily or for the long haul, there are some aspects of Chinese culture that you need to be aware of. Being culturally savvy and perceptive can only help your experience.
A bit about myself: I was born in Taiwan and raised in Canada. Traveling to mainland China for work was an eye-opening experience for me. Quite frankly, I did not know what to expect. Like many, I had heard things about Chinese culture—Confucianism, morality, values—but the passed-down stories were anecdotal. Over time, I adapted to the faster pace of life and removed my pre-conceived notions of what the PRC was like. All in all, it took me several months to feel comfortable.
I'd like to get YOU up to speed more quickly than that. So read on, dear traveler, for my list. Whether you're a tourist, Sinophile, business man, cultural connoisseur or somewhere in-between, I'm going to share with you some tips that will make the transition less culturally shocking.
Staring: Putting the "Foreign" in Foreigner
No, your hair's not on fire. If you look the part of a Westerner, it is quite likely that folks will stare, point and take photos of you without your consent. The Chinese love to comment on anything out of the ordinary. They stare at beggars with impunity. They frown disapprovingly at the Chinese student with the bleached-blond hair. They openly turn their heads to stare at people who are tall. They WILL stare at you if you're a laowai (a not-quite-endearing term for a foreigner). This happens less frequently in bigger cities, although I wouldn't rule it out.
As a foreigner, it can be challenging to fully integrate yourself into Chinese society. Even if that is not your goal, you'll constantly be reminded of both obvious and subtle differences. In culturally diverse countries like Canada or the United States, it's possible to assimilate yourself into society over time. Not the case in China. China is a non-inclusive country, and if you are a Westerner you will never fully fit in. Try to embrace it, accept it and work around it.
If you're an American Born Chinese (ABC), it's not so bad. The stares happen only after you open your mouth, revealing to the world that you speak fluent English. People will act like they just saw something exotic. That's okay. They quickly move on with their lives, as should you.
There's not much you can do, really. Try telling off every person that does this. If I had a penny every time this happened, I'd be able to buy a nice overpriced penthouse in the nation's capital!
Without question, staring is the number one item on the culture shock list. Curiosity is a part of every culture, but the Chinese are not going to hide this. Just play it cool, get with the local customs and you'll be fine.
Use Foreign-ness to Your Advantage
It's not all doom and gloom. If you are a foreigner, the following things will become apparent, especially in larger Chinese cities:
People will want to practice their English with you. They'll bust out lame phrases that they heard in the latest movie or TV sitcom. Need to report a crime or incident to the police? Chances are, you'll be treated seriously. The authorities do not want to start any international incidents and may bend over backwards to help. If you can understand Chinese, work this to your advantage, whether it's in a business transaction or merely haggling. "Were you talking about me… behind my back?"
If they know you don't speak Chinese, they might give you an easier time at customs, at a lineup, or security checkpoint. People get lazy in China when it comes to administrative jobs.
There are incidents that leave indelible traces in your mind. My incident happened one morning at the local Starbucks. The customer in front of me looked Western; naturally, the barista girl started chatting him up. She was friendly in the way that a Starbucks barista should be—understandable, given that customers pay a premium for coffee. When it was my turn? Her face turned back to the sour expression she perpetually held. Curt "yes" and "no" replies, not even a fake smile. Gotta love double standards.
"I am a foreigner!" cried the voice inside my head. "Be friendly to me, too!"
Alas, I got my latte and moved on.
If you look Chinese, you're from China.
Here's the thing about China—the world revolves around it. If you exhibit Chinese characteristics, the Chinese will categorize you as actually being from China. The idea of a Chinese person born and raised in the West is outside many people's realm of comprehension. Many folks, especially the older generation, have no concept of the world outside China, having been beaten down by communism, CCTV propaganda and years of closed living. Therefore, they must associate you as being from a particular Chinese province. Even if it's the renegade province of Taiwan.
I once tried to chat with a taxi driver who very directly asked where I was from, as my dialect betrayed my un-Chinese-ness. After telling him I was from Canada, he grew incredulous and a little bug-eyed.
"No!" he retorted. "Where are you really from?"
"I'm from Canada," I repeated. After a minute, I exhibited my rarely seen dual identity.
"…alright. I'm from Taiwan."
"Ah!" he leaned back in his seat, content. "Taiwan! Yes, I can tell you're from Taiwan!" He then started talking about the Communists and the Nationalists, but I digress.
The old adage is true for ABCs here—in America, you feel more Chinese. In China, you feel more American. It's pretty spot on. The only challenge is getting others to see it. The advice I'd give here, again, is to go with the flow. Use your duality to your advantage. Blend in with the Chinese. Blend out as needed. Rinse, repeat.
While the Chinese are very formal and respectful to their families in private, public interactions are a different story. Many Chinese will not use words like "please" or "thank you" until they get to know you. In fact, some people may be shocked if you use those words with them! It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that all Chinese people are cold and unforgiving, but this is far from the truth.
Give the Chinese people a chance and you'll find that they can be incredibly generous. I've had some great conversations with taxi drivers and have learned a lot about random acts of kindness that way. While there isn't a great system for volunteering or charitable work in China, there are individuals who step up to the challenge. Some people take care of stray animals. Others collect bottle caps for the needy so that the needy can turn in the recyclables for cash.
So don't be misguided by the impersonal attitudes of some folks. I tend to think of big cities like Beijing or Shanghai as being similar to New York—interactions tend to be terse, but that doesn't mean people aren't nice if you give them a chance.
I started out in the big city trying to "fit in" and dropping words of gratitude from my vocabulary. After a little while, though, I felt that I was losing a little of myself in this new attitude. Since then, I've eased back into saying "thank you" to taxi drivers and opening doors for people behind me. You'll have to find the right balance.
If the wrong locals even smell tourist or foreigner, they'll take you for a ride.
- Taxi driver replacing your bill with a fake one? Check.
- Getting charged 10x the rate for that fake North Face jacket? Check.
- Being scammed with a RMB 10,000 (USD 1,640) haircut? Check.
The last incident actually happened to a friend. She took pity on a young boy advertising a new hair salon, who took her by the hand to a newly-opened, apparently-reputable-because-it's-in-a-mall joint. Before she knew it, she was getting her hair cut and being asked to fork over RMB 10,000 for a membership.
She had the sense to reject the membership, so RMB 4,000 mini-membership it is! Thank you, come again!
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Remember what I said about foreigners possessing certain advantages? My friend and her boyfriend went back, confronted the shady operators and called the police when the operators wouldn't budge. They told the police over the phone that they were two Canadians getting scammed. Instead of laughing and hanging up, the police actually showed up to help out the two Canadians. In the end they received a full refund, and things ended on a happy note.
So what's the moral of the story? Stay vigilant, stay alert, and if you can't spot the sucker in the room, you ARE the sucker. That, and the police will treat you seriously if you are a foreigner, so use that card if you have to.
Haggling in China
Haggling, or bartering, can be difficult to ease into if you're not familiar with the practice. For many types of services and goods in China, prices are not written down. The expectation is that you'll have to negotiate your way to success.
Some basic strategies go a long way. Establish your price point and always be prepared to walk away. You'll have to literally walk away in many cases to land the deal you're looking for. They may call after you or feign disgust at your offer—it's all part of the song and dance.
I learned this from experience. There was one time when I didn't even want to buy the item, but I wanted to see what it was like to walk away from a negotiation. The seller started with a price, I counter-offered at half price. She laughed. I began to walk away….
"Wait!" She offered 70% of the starting price.
"No thanks," I said and took five more steps in the other direction.
"Wait! How about…." This time, it was 30% of starting. A few more steps later, it was at 10%! I suppressed the urge to buy it and walked away.
More than anything, I felt insulted that I could have bought the item at a tenth of the opening price. Mind you, it was in an area known for making deals and bargaining. After this experience, I no longer blamed the price-conscious laowai for yelling at the sellers, spending hours trying to land the best deal. What are you going to do? Be an idiot and get ripped off?
What's important to realize is that how you look is only the starting point. It's all about how you finish. I have a Caucasian coworker who dominates all aspects of haggling in China. He became the designated go-to guy for helping our team secure great deals, as he mastered the negative body language—the sighs, the shaking of the head, the disapproving tone of voice—that punctuates a successful bargaining session. He was very good at this—it certainly made the Chinese half of me bow down in reverence to his abilities. Apparently he honed his skills while traveling in Europe, where language was also a barrier. It didn't matter, though—he told me that bargaining could be done without knowing any aspect of language. Even in the most extreme case, it's possible to start writing prices down and use numbers, not words! So let this be a tale of optimism for aspiring bargain hunters everywhere.
Having said that, your mileage may vary. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. There's no shame in capitulating at a higher price point if you just don't feel like exerting the energy. More than a few times, I was in a rush and just didn't want to save the RMB 20 on shoe shine or some small object.
What's key in these situations is to understand your own comfort level and desire for the good or service you are about to buy. If you find negotiations interesting, then the back-and-forth interactions can be great fun.
If, however, you feel uncomfortable with quoted prices (knowing that they start on the high end), it may be better to stick to restaurants and shops that are in more established areas. You may pay a higher price but with the benefit of peace of mind.
So... buyer beware.
Lack of Personal Space
Whether it's taking public transit, walking on the street or waiting in line, there's a definite lack of personal space between you and others. What can happen in these situations is some incidental and accidental contact. Just don't be offended if others invade your private space.
In some cases when they bump into you, they don't apologize. It's critical here to focus on keeping your composure and wits about you, rather than over-react to established cultural norms.
Admittedly, I still get annoyed when someone bumps me on the street, looks at me, then walks away. I have broad shoulders and so I'm an easy target. More importantly, I check my belongings to make sure there aren't any swift pickpockets.
The technique that works for me: I imagine what would happen if my home city of Vancouver suddenly exploded 10x in population size. What would happen to lineups, transportation systems, hospitals, car lanes and the flow of traffic? This imagined scenario keeps me going on the worst of days. I'll still hold murderous thoughts in my head, but it helps a tiny bit.
If you're like me and come from one of the most spacious countries in the world, the crowds in major cities can be eye-opening. Try to go with the flow of the crowd and establish your space. Nudge, bump and navigate your way to success. It's going to be okay.
Drinking and Smoking
While drinking and smoking are commonplace everywhere, they truly take the cake in China. You WILL be offered a drink or smoke. I've been offered cigarettes during breaks in pickup basketball. I've also been offered a smoke just standing next to smokers in an outdoors area. And if you're in any type of business or personal social setting, expect to be offered a drink. Sometimes the alcohol is nasty beyond belief—it's like a badge of honor to drink something vile.
If you like to drink and smoke, no problem! You'll be saluting people non-stop with each drink and get to know them very quickly.
If you're not the drinking/smoking type and get offered to do so, there are some tactful strategies to follow. Assess the person who is asking—do they possess some seniority in terms of family relation or work? If so, you may have to bite the bullet and indulge in a drink or two. If it's a peer or equal, a harmless excuse could serve to diffuse the situation. "I have to work early tomorrow." "I have to drive home."
There will be some folks who really press the situation, especially if you're male, so it's possible to bring out the "I'm allergic to alcohol" card once in awhile. Given my low tolerance, I've had to hit the panic button a few times. Even if you're red in the face and possess terrible tolerance, they may not let up. Be careful, though, lest you wake up somewhere unexpected the next day.
Women are less likely to be offered a drink or smoke, though China breaks the record for women smokers. Perhaps I live a sheltered life, but I don't recall seeing that many women smoking in Taiwan or Canada. Then again, there are a LOT more people here, and I like to go to places with loud/live music, so there's probably a good explanation for that. The bottom line is that everybody busts out a pack now and then; chain smoking is one of the social norms.
If you're female and you want to drink, just pour a glass for yourself and others will get the hint. Holding it down with the boys is not an issue—you won't be offending anybody at the table.
The interesting part of Chinese culture is that it's a mixture of direct and indirect behavior. Remember what I said about staring? Staring is fine as long as you're not making eye contact with strangers.
It's not uncommon to interact with people in public arenas, at work or in the service industry who generally avoid eye contact. In Western societies there is generally no issue with making eye contact, even with acquaintances or strangers. In China, however, directness (both physical and verbal) is not welcome as people tend to avoid confrontations.
Tangential point about confrontations—my theory is that Asian societies have done a good job of repressing anger. As a result, you see less fighting in the streets, road rage or acts of violence. But push somebody over the edge and…watch out. What comes out can be mind-boggling. I experienced some of the craziest shouting-on-the-phone interactions of my life while sitting in Chinese restaurants. Unbelievable vitriol. End tangent.
After coming to China, I FINALLY realized why the servers in the Vancouver Dim Sum restaurants never looked at me when I gave them my order. They kept looking away. Hey I'm here! What are you looking at? Are the police coming? Why aren't you looking at me… oh forget it.
Eye contact just isn't common in the Chinese service industry. There's more of an impersonal vibe when you sit down and order your food. That's in part because they don't expect tips (pro tip: don't give tips in China—it just confuses them if you leave money on the table).
Once you get to know a colleague or friend, however, the situation changes. You'll find that many Chinese people are warm, humorous, awesome people after you've gotten to know them. But like any interpersonal relationship, it takes time.
You'll find that your attempt to establish eye contact may not always be reciprocated. When that happens, it's probably not because the other person is dishonest or shady. Look for other physical and verbal cues to assess the interaction.
Now, if you're like my Asian coworker back home, who was all shifty eyed and avoided eye contact, that could be another story. I think he did have something to hide, although I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
Remember what I said about building relationships and breaking the ice? If you are here for a considerable amount of time and want to really get to know people, you'll need to sit down and break bread with them. And share a drink or two.
A lot of business deals, small talk and general socialization happens in the context of a meal. Even if it's with coworkers, you'll find that they start to open up after you've gone for drinks or dinner a few times. This isn't Japan with the if-I-go-home-to-my-wife-right-after-work-I'm-a-loser mentality, but social activities are still encouraged now and then. You'll have to suck it up a bit if you're an introvert, because work and personal life is blurred.
I've worked for a number of companies in North America where it's goodbye, see ya after 5pm—the coworkers leave, get in their cars and drive home to their kids. In China, it can vary based on industry or company culture. The best advice I can provide here is be open and flexible to the idea of some after hours socializing. It does pay dividends.
Service in Restaurants
It follows that if you want to observe the proper table/meal culture in China, you'll have to eat out. Two things to keep in mind:
1. In most restaurants you'll have to yell, sometimes repeatedly, for service.
Drill the following word into your head: fúwùyuán (server). You'll be yelling this a lot, sometimes in escalating crescendo.
"Fúwùyuán." No response."Fúwùyuán!" No response again.
"Fuuuuuuwuuuuuuuyuannnnnnnn!!!" *server actually turns around*
Don't be shy about turning up the volume.
2. There is no tipping or gratuity.
If you leave money on the table, the servers will be confused and they'll want to return the money to you. I can count on one hand the number of times I've received awesome service, so it's probably not that big a deal. Now, if you could subtract from the total for poor service, that would be a runaway hit in my book. But nobody's latched on to that idea yet (it's a free business idea, feel free to take it—and then invite me to your restaurant).
Dignity, self-respect and lack of humiliation—the world would be SO MUCH BETTER if we didn't have to consider these things!
Just kidding. Well, these things do get in the way if you're a sociopath. Assuming you're not the next American Psycho, you'll want to be considerate and not let others lose face—that is, challenge their pride or self-dignity.
Always allow others to save face in testy situations. While nobody likes to lose face in any part of the world, in China this is represented in even the smallest of interactions. This is magnified given the amount of haggling opportunities that exist.
For example, even if you know you are getting the short end of the stick in a negotiation, resist the urge to call the other person names. Resist the urge to counteroffer an amount that is so low as to imply that the initial ask was outrageous; work your way down incrementally and give the other party an opportunity to come back. The key here is to be extra cautious and respectful. Think of it as good karma.
This can be tricky because Chinese culture is so complex and multi-faceted. Maybe you think the joke is harmless. Maybe you don't think he deserves any respect because he tried to rip you off. Admittedly, it's not possible to behave perfectly in every situation. Just err on the side of caution, smile and act humble even if you're pissed off. Gotta swallow that pride sometimes.
It's not always about pride, either—it's also about saving time and making progress. One time, I witnessed an elderly couple sitting in the coffee shop with the manager of a nearby retail store. They were complaining about being slighted by the staff while shopping in-store and demanded an apology from the manager. Neither store manager nor elderly couple would budge. So they sat there. For the whole frickin' day. How did I know this? I overheard them shout the phrase "sitting here arguing for five hours," and NOT as a figure of speech.
The fact that the coffee shop was a public place, full of prying eyes and ears, only made things worse. Both sides knew they were being watched, and so neither side wanted to lose face and admit defeat. Had I been in their shoes, I would have tried to swallow my pride and offer an apology. Your mileage may vary, of course. The next time you do business with a Chinese associate, however, think about how you can give an inch to gain an inch. You may find some situations untenable if you insist on doing things a certain way.
Your coworkers want to know how much you make. The neighbor next door wants to know if you're having a romantic relationship with your friend. Your taxi driver wants to know the size of your apartment. And so it goes.
There is no shortage of personal questions in China. The golden rule is to remember that you are never under any obligation to provide any information. A handy solution is to answer indirectly with some humor added in. For example, replying "I don't make enough!" when confronted with the salary question is enough to elicit a chuckle. Generally, people don't dig into details if you are vague and good-humored about it. More importantly, handle the situation with friends and colleagues with grace.
After you've been here awhile, you'll realize that most of the questions are not ill-natured even if they initially appear offensive. I've lost track of how many times my friends and I have been asked, "Have you lost weight?" Or even better, "You got fat!" There was a guy I played basketball with who remarked that I was fat after he saw me take my shirt off. Well, first I wanted to question his sexuality, being that I come from a land where that was off-limits. Then I wanted to challenge and beat him in a game of 1-on-1 basketball. Instead, I shrugged it off.
My friend has a theory. She says that when they say things about you, it's because they want you to improve. Now, I don't know if being called fat is going to get me on that treadmill, but maybe there's some twisted Chinese quest-for-self-improvement thing going on. Regardless, expect the line for PC-ness to be… different.
But to the two naked guys in the changing room looking at the mirror, together, and talking about their dietary habits while flexing their biceps? Get a room, fellas.
Generalizations and Stereotypes
In my naiveté, I assumed before coming to China that it was a completely homogeneous country. And for the most part, it's true. The major ethnic group in China are the Han Chinese—over 9 out of 10 people belong to this group.
That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't generalizations based on region: northerners vs. southerners, Beijingers vs. Shanghainese or provincial distinctions. Different regions possess different dialects and the standard language, Mandarin, actually isn't spoken fluently by a lot of people. In casual conversations, you'll often hear sweeping generalizations about the trustworthiness of people from a particular region or the arrogance of people from province X. Much like horoscopes and astrology signs, it's fun to assume people are of a specific personality based on their home province or to express surprise that a person is NOT what the stereotype suggests. "You're from the north-east? I could not have imagined it!"
While you're not the one being stereotyped, it's important to see this as a dynamic between coworkers or groups of people. Most folks will have no issue making generalizations in jest, so don't be surprised when this happens in table talk. And if you're in metropolitan cities like Beijing or Shanghai, realize that people you interact with can come from literally anywhere in China. Over time, you'll pick up subtleties and differences in people's backgrounds.
Thankfully, spitting is not one of those activities you have to indulge in. Just be alert and don't walk into the line of fire. People are generally skilled enough to not create any friendly fire. Generally.
There was this one time, though, when I came home to find a trail of spittle on my messenger bag. Can't win every battle.
Have I scared you enough? Are you ready to cancel your flight to China? Just kidding.
At the end of the day, it's about having an appreciation and understanding for different cultures. No article is going to prepare you for every single interaction; life just doesn't work that way. Everyone overcomes culture shock at their own pace, but it's certainly not rocket science.
My main purpose was to provide a few pointers so that you can get acclimated more quickly. There are a lot of fun things to do here and I want you to enjoy everything that China has to offer. It's a country that has undergone a tremendous amount of change in a short period of time and continues to evolve. Remember to have fun, stay safe and show respect for the Chinese way of life. As a visitor, think about how you want to best represent your culture—be an ambassador and pay it forward.
And please, don't fall into the trap. What do I mean by this? It's easy for people to think that just because they're in a foreign country, it gives them the license to act like real douchebags. Don't do it! Don't change who you are as a person if you are here. Change your habits and your way of coping, but don't change who you are.
At the end of the day, that's the best advice I can give you. Good luck!