Learning a little about Chinese customs gets you a long way in a country where tradition helps a billion-plus people navigate changing times. Chinese culture can be intimidating to many first-time visitors. And no wonder—China's 5,000-year old civilization has developed its own complex codes of etiquette and respect. But don't worry—with a little preparation, you can easily get a handle on the basic rules of the Chinese social code. And once you're in China, you'll find that people are generally more than happy to help you learn the ropes.
Greetings in China
Get used to enthusiastic calls of "hello!" from Chinese eager to practice their English with a bona-fide laowai (foreigner). If you can reply with a friendly ni hao! (hello) you'll likely be told immediately that your Chinese is outstanding. Of course, this compliment is likely to be delivered in Chinese, but it hardly matters—the point is that learning and using the most basic Chinese phrase of greeting is a simple way to win a friendly smile and get off on the right foot.
Shaking hands has become a somewhat common greeting among urban Chinese men, but the aggressive American alpha-male power shake remains a rarity to be avoided. Handshakes are a fairly recent cultural import, and many Chinese are somewhat uncertain about the timing, pressure and length of a handshake. Unless you're absolutely sure you're among China's small but growing internationally savvy fashion-forward set, avoid the Euro-style cheek kiss, and take it easy with American-style backslaps and hugs.
A more common greeting, appropriate with both men and women, is a simple, sharp nod of the head or very slight bow. Generally, outside of international business contexts, it's best for men to avoid touching women, even in greeting, until clear ground rules have been established over time.
It's a great idea to bring a supply of name cards with you, even if you're not traveling on business, as a friendly name card exchange is a frequent part of a first-time meeting. As with money and other items, politeness requires that you hand your name card to your new acquaintance face up, using both hands. When recieving a business card, also use both hands, and look over the business card.
The Concept of Face in China
The rules surrounding the giving, losing, saving and increasing of "face" may be the most anxiety-producing—and most poorly understood—aspect of Chinese culture. Without going into too much detail, "face" (most commonly called mianzi in Chinese) can translate roughly as "respect," with connotations of "honor" (in an old-world family sense) and "reputation." The best way to avoid causing a loss of face—or losing face yourself—is to avoid losing your temper in public. Control over one's emotions is considered a virtue, and to direct anger at another can easily cause a loss of face. If you find yourself in conflict with someone, keep a lid on your temper, don't get flustered, coolly stick to your guns and be prepared for the long haul—something as simple as an argument over RMB 10 cab fare can result in a bullheaded face off. Another aspect of face that may take some getting used to is the polite lie. Though "honesty is the best policy" in the West (at least we like to tell our kids so, hypocrites that we are), often, in China, one risks losing face with an admission of outright failure, and it's common for an excuse to be issued that is readily accepted to preserve face. Face management also arises in matters of acceptance and refusal. It's not polite, in many cases, to outright refuse something, resulting in what might be termed the "Chinese maybe," which isn't a direct yes or no, but is, rather, a chance for you to read into the situation and accept the face-saving option for yourself or grant it to someone else. Don't worry too much about face—you get a good deal of laowai leeway—but do be aware and willing to learn as you go without taking offense or leaping to judgment over cultural confusion.
Dining in China
Food and dining are at the center of Chinese cultural life, and as long as you keep a few simple rules in mind, you'll have an amazing time feasting on China's incredibly rich and diverse cuisine.
- Refusing and accepting. It's polite to do both, as long as you do it right. A good rule of thumb: Politely decline an offer, whether it's an invitation to dine or a proffered chicken foot (or other delicacy you're not sure you want to try). You can decline up to three times; after that, accept and make the best of it, sipping that baijiu (see "Drink!" below) or nibbling that chicken wing.
- Don't try to go Dutch or pay for your host. An invitation to dine is a big-time matter of "face." Hosts demonstrate their generosity by footing the bill; guests show appreciation by letting them.
- Don't stick your chopsticks in your food or lay them across your plate. Just don't, okay?
- Don't point your chopsticks at people while gesturing (try not to gesture too wildly in general, as a matter of fact).
- Drink! "Ganbei!" means "bottoms up!" more or less, and you'll hear it at some point if you go out to eat with Chinese (men, mainly). It might involve the corrosively strong liquor known as baijiu, which is generally an acquired taste. Don't feel obliged to drain your cup—ladies get off especially easy on this one—but do pay respect to your host by taking at least a little sip.
- Don't tip. Though tipping has taken root in some Western-oriented higher-end restaurants in big cities, it's generally unnecessary and even considered bad form.
Privacy and Personal Space in China
- The Mad Crush to squeeze one way through a turnstile or doorway while a stream of people tries to head in the other direction;
- The classic Stranger Stare. In big cities this isn't such an issue, but in parts of China where foreigners are few and far between, people will stare and hold it... and hold it... and hold it...
- The Curious Crowd. If you're doing anything slightly out of the ordinary or attention-getting, expect a crowd to gather. This could include bargaining, attempting to speak Chinese, tying your shoe, playing with a baby or reading a book. Don't be alarmed if the crowd draws quite close, because...
- Personal space? Forget it. Don't be surprised if there are three people in the elevator and they're all standing up against the door and one another. Likewise...
- Lines? Queues? Not likely! Though you will find lines in certain circumstances (often organized by a guy with a bullhorn), left to their own devices, most Chinese will simply crowd toward the object of their desire. And lines, when they form, can be a bit more free-form than in the West, so watch out for cutters and don't be afraid to stand very close to the person in front of you.
- Friendly—if uninvited—questions and conversation. It's not at all uncommon to be hailed with a hearty "hello!" in public by a stranger. Often, broken English conversation ensues. This is a great thing if you're trying to practice your Chinese—don't be afraid to turn the tables! (Be smart but not paranoid: sometimes the cute kid chatting you up is a scam artist, so avoid anything involving money).
- English cornered! "English corner" is a tradition in China's educational system, one that freely transfers to parks, malls and restaurants. Be ready to help strangers practice. The best revenge? Make 'em teach you a little Mandarin!