Culture Shock in China || 10 Things That WILL Shock You

Culture Shock in China || Prepare Yourself for a Trip You’ll Never Forget

Culture shock can happen to anyone at any time, and it affects everyone differently.

Simplified Chinese vs Traditional Chinese
Discovering the alphabet can be quite the culture shock for many of us!

China, however, is in a whole different league.

Sure, it has some aspects of Asian culture that you’ll find throughout the East, but there are certainly some unique aspects to Chinese culture that can take a while to grasp.

Depending on how you choose to immerse yourself into Chinese culture, culture shock is bound to hit you at some point.

It can be as soon as you land and you are first introduced to crowds of people like you’ve never before seen.

It could be when you step foot into your first Chinese taxi!

Or, it can hit you when you’re least expecting it and you see something that you just… Can’t understand.

Lex the Lion

For me, culture shock isn’t something I experience easily, despite the fact that I try to immerse myself into the culture as much as possible.

However, China is a whole different ball game – and there are still some things after over a year living here that I just… Can’t question anymore.

To prepare yourself for such culture shocks for a move to China, we’ve prepared a list of the top 10 things that are likely to cause culture shock in China. Or, at least a list of things that may or may not cause you to question reality.

I add the small disclaimer that these are a mixture of personal experiences, as well as pet peeves and annoyances collected from a bunch of expats who have experienced the same ‘why China’ feels. They are generalisations and stereotypes a lot of the time, but just like the Brits love their tea – stereotypes are often true.

So whilst this may not be the same for every expat in China or every foreigner travelling here, this is a collection of the things that just might make you go ‘hmmmmmm….’ 

Culture Shock in China #1 || Drinking Together

Culture Shock in China #2 || Paying the Bill

Culture Shock in China #3 || Hot Water

Culture Shock in China #4 || Music Taste

Culture Shock in China #5 || Dating and Relationships

Culture Shock in China #6 || Mobile Phone Usage

Culture Shock in China #7 || Chinese Toilets

Culture Shock in China #8 || Public Displays

Culture Shock in China #9 || Escalators in China

Culture Shock in China #10 || Queuing

Culture Shock in China || FAQ’s

Get to know some of the most used Chinese slang words

Culture Shock in China #1 || Drinking Together

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Why open 20 bottles at once if you’re going to drink one at a time?!

Whether you’re in a bar looking over at a table of Chinese buddies enjoying a beer or several, or you’re partaking in it yourself, you’re bound to notice a few differences between Chinese culture here and your own.

One thing you’ll notice is that Chinese people can be a little forceful when it comes to drinking.

This is all in good spirit (scuse the pun) – but you may have to exert extra caution when drinking with your Chinese buddies or colleagues.

Alcohol in Chinese – How to Order Your Favourite Drinks in Mandarin - LTL  Beihai
Beware Baijiu

Especially if they’re on the Baijiu.

You may also be subject to the ‘Gan bei’ culture.

In Chinese, this literally means ’ empty glasses’. And emptying that glass is what they expect from you.

Down that cup to impress your colleagues and superiors – or else be subject to somewhat taunting or just generally being made to down it until you do.

Don’t worry, you don’t really have to. But that’s what’s done…

But, the biggest ‘why’ for me has got to be the culture of ordering all of your drinks at once.

It is common in Chinese culture to order, for example, 20 bottles of beer between a group of people at once.

They then all come at the same time and sit on the table to stew. If you’re lucky, you may get an ice bucket to keep them relatively fresh and cool in.

But, in reality, they’d have been better in the fridge, right?

May as well learn those all important words whilst you are here

Culture Shock in China #2 || Paying the Bill

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Is it really worth the actual fight?!

So, in British culture, as I’m sure in many cultures, it is polite to offer to pay the bill.

Of course, this depends on the circumstance and different people’s opinions.

  • Should the guy pay on the first date?
  • Should you split the bill?

These are all different questions that can be grey areas in a lot of cultures, especially in the Western world.

When it comes to men and women going on dates or eating out at a restaurant, China usually still holds firm to the belief that men should provide for their women.

With that being said, don’t feel too bad letting the guy pay for you on a date with a Chinese guy (see ‘dating Chinese people’ further below for more info).

However, this also depends on many things such as how much Western culture the Chinese guy may understand, and it is also generally polite to offer to pay for a bill anyway sometimes, am I right ladies?!

When it comes to dates, things are a bit more chilled out as, as a general rule, the guy will pay.

But also ladies are welcome to invite their man out for dinner – especially younger couples and those more Westernized.

However, when Chinese people go out as friends you’re bound to see quite the spectacle when it comes to paying the bill.

In Chinese culture, there is almost always the obligatory argument at the end of it that can literally get pretty nasty.

It stems far past the ‘no… I’ll pay…!’ but only half mean. This is serious business and has to do with Chinese people showing face – and also the importance of status and money.

Chinese Dating 💔 The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Thumbnail

Chinese Dating 💔 The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Dating in China, you are bound to find some differences and experience culture shock. Follow our guide to dating in China and learn about key cultural points.

Culture Shock in China #3 || Hot Water

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || But… It’s hot outside?!

Oh, re shui. (热水 – hot water).

You have been the topic of conversation for many an expat staying in China for a long time.

Your existence has been the topic of many amusing videos and continues to baffle even the most advanced of expats.

Drinking Hot Water

It’s the peak of summer, you get yourself inside a restaurant to escape the heat and enjoy the air-conditioning inside whilst munching on some spicy noodles or plate of kung pao chicken.

It’s a little spicy, so you reach for your cup and take a gulp, and … What’s this? 

How long has this cup been sitting here, out in the sun..?

Dear Laowai friend. That cup is a fresh cup of water, made especially for you.

Hot and in a stupidly small cup, just how you like it.

To Chinese people, re shui solves all problems. This doesn’t stop at period pain, either. Yes, ladies, you heard it. Drink a cup of hot water and you’ll be bedridden no longer.

Ok, that may be a bit of an over exaggeration (but do try it nevertheless) but what you definitely SHOULDN’T do on your period is to, God forbid – drink cold water.

If you ever head for a coffee or a juice with your Chinese girlfriends, this is something that will probably come up in conversation at least a couple of times.

Matcha Latte in Chinese

The first time you hear it, the conversation usually goes something like…

Laowai (foreigner): “Let me go get you a coffee. You want hot or iced?”

Chinese person: “Hot, I can’t drink cold right now. I’m on my period.”

Laowai (foreigner): ” … * tries to piece two pieces of information together* …. * can’t quite…. *..no it’s not….. *……*  *Oh that’s right, it’s China. Let’s not question things we don’t understand”.

This is also a common topic of conversation between couples. If you get it wrong – fear the wrath of your Chinese girlfriend!

There’s some (minimal) science behind this. I strictly stand by the fact that, if it’s hot outside, I want to drink something cold. No matter what’s going on with my body or not.

However, during the winter/autumn months in Beijing, I do enjoy coming home to a hot cup of re shui or having a cup of the everything-curing drink with my meal at the local Chinese restaurant hang-out.

Even been massaged with a KNIFE before?! See what it’s like as Hannah and Rushi take to the camera

Culture Shock in China #4 || Music Taste

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || …Am I back in the 90s?

This is also a culture shock that may affect you when going back to your home country. Or rather, reverse culture shock.

You may even be surprised at how much this culture affects you personally and how you see it appear in your own life.

Music is one of those things that we can’t escape.

There are very few people I know who don’t listen to music on a regular basis, or at least have it on in the background at certain intervals in their day at least once – whether it be at work or home.

A big suggestion of mine if you really want to get to understand Chinese culture, and want a great way to fast-track your way through the language, is to get into Chinese music.

Listening to Chinese music not only means you are constantly listening to the Chinese language, but it gets you into what is popular in the culture at the moment.

This makes it easier to make Chinese friends and be able to relate to Chinese people.

It does mean, however, that your music taste may change somewhat. 

Exhibit A…

The general theme is going from something cool and alternative to something very… Chinese.

You only know once you try it…!

As a frequent listener of rock and metal, a year of living in China has done strange things to me.

Look through my Spotify now and it could be considered as extremely embarrassing.

But, whatever. You can listen to whatever you want and if I want to listen to awful Chinese pop or something that sounds like it’s from the 90s then I’m going to do just that.

Will I be judged by my Western friends? Yes. Do I care? Only partially 😂

You can download the great Chinese app QQ music for just 2$ a month you can have unlimited music streaming, no adds, and have the lyrics pop up in karaoke style for you to sing along– *ahem*.

I mean, of course, for you to practice your reading and listening Chinese skills.

BONUS | We’ve made you life even easier and created a playlist on Spotify – check it out.

Culture Shock in China #5 || Dating & Relationships

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Stop telling me you love me!

Ok, this is a big topic and one that I can, unfortunately, admit I am too knowledgeable about.

There’s a lot to cover on the cultural differences and culture shock you may experience when dating in China, but for now, I’ll go over the biggies.

  • There is no middle ground. Dating in Western cultures is, well, dating. You meet each other, whether it’s on an app or the less conventional way – outdoors. Then you date, maybe go for a few drinks, dinner dates…  Then if things go well, you’re officially boyfriend and girlfriend and you can change that Facebook status. In China, this is simply not a part of the culture. There is no middle ground.
  • Everything is pretty quick. Don’t be surprised if you get an ‘I love you’ after the first couple of dates, and the talk of marriage and children on the first date is not uncommon. Things that those with commitment issues, such as the talk of ‘I’ll protect you forever’ and ’ how many kids do you want’, will scare people off straight away. But don’t fear. Yes, Chinese people do love to have children and get married and make their parents proud. There is definitely a certain aspect of urgency and rush to this one, but, if you’re clear about your personal opinions, needs, and wants, then there is nothing to stop you dating in China.

But, it’s not just dating Chinese people in China.

Come to a big city like Beijing and you’ll end up dating people from all over the globe.

In fact life in the big cities of China is so diverse!

I can’t remember the last time I dated another Brit! The idea of it is kinda boring now.

Well, thanks China for ruining that one for me.. 

Culture Shock in China #6 || Mobile Phone Usage

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Do you just not want to be in my presence or..?

So mobile phone usage is becoming an issue all over the world, but it is particularly apparent in East Asian countries, including China.

FUN FACT | There is actually a term used to coin smart phone addicts in China, 低头族 (di tou zu), this literally translates to head bowing clan!

Lex the Lion

It is not uncommon to see people gathered together around a table simply on their mobile phones.

In fact, there was recently a case where a woman used her phone so much her hand got stuck in a phone-holding position.

Phones will almost always be on the table next to the owner and constantly checked.

Social media in China is big too, and many will be on their phones addicted to the latest apps.

The main one that I find hard to comprehend is using your mobile phone when on a date.

So many times I’ll see a couple on a date in a restaurant or a cafe simply on their phones not chatting to each other but clearly in a different world where they’d rather be? Who knows.

Maybe it’s nice to spend time with each other but also doing your own thing.

I can comprehend that… But going out of your way to go for a nice meal, then not spending any of that time together?

I also have seen this frequently with a couple of friends out together – often female – who are more concerned with Instagram accounts than anything else.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on this one because it is seen all over the world – but still, be prepared to see a lot of phone action. It seems to happen in China more than most.

Chinese + English = Chinglish 😲 You Must See To Believe Thumbnail

Chinese + English = Chinglish 😲 You Must See To Believe

Chinglish – Sometimes you have to see it to believe it. You will be amazed at some of these language mishaps that are made when translating to Chinese.

Culture Shock in China #7 || Chinese Toilets

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Which way round are you supposed to go?!

It’s often said that a picture paints a thousand words. How’s this one then…?

Chinese Culture Shock - Squat? You what?

Chinese toilets come in all shapes and sizes, but traditionally they are squat toilets that are long and narrow, that, as the name suggests, you squat over.

This sounds easy, but just when you think you have got the hang of the squat toilet you’ll find one that’s a bit different and you’ll stop for a second to consider which way round you’re supposed to face.

Do I face the door or do I turn my back and have the toilet flush in my face?

Do I aim for the hole in the toilet or do I go for where the ‘splash-back protector thing’ (yes, that is the scientific name) is even if it’s not near the hole..???

And then in some toilets I do all this right next to other people – apparently doors don’t exist in some toilets?!

The above is true even for the ladies in some toilets (we’re looking at those hutong toilets in Beijing)!

That’s right girls – drop those pants and let’s squat together. Either that run to the nearest mall 😫

Culture Shock in China #8 || Public Displays

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Do we really also need to be involved?

From arguing in the road to children going for a number 2 in the middle of a busy shopping street – you’re bound to see a lot in China.

In fact, you’ll almost certainly see too much.

Chinese people don’t seem to have the same sense of shame as Western/British people do, and don’t mind being much more open.

You’ll rarely see a couple arguing in the street in broad daylight in England (unless you’re walking past a pub) and seeing a child do a number 1, let alone a number 2 would be generally unheard of.

But seeing Chinese people fight is not uncommon, and can be entertaining.

This is one aspect of Chinese culture that yes, is shocking, but I really respect a lot of the time.

If Chinese people have a problem, they say it there and then. They fight, then it gets resolved.

Why does something need to be dragged on for so long like it so often is in the West? Or even never said and never resolved…

…going to the toilet on the street thing, however, is something I’d rather not see.

Culture Shock in China #9 || Escalators in China

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || Why not stand on the other side…

Chinese people always seem to be in a hurry when it’s not necessary.

In a hurry to get off and on the subway and therefore causing them to be delayed even more (see below) or going sightseeing and breezing through everything worth seeing after a few quick snapshots.

But when I’m in a hurry and want to walk down or up the escalator, saving those few precious seconds – or if I simply fancy the exercise – I find myself blocked behind one stubborn Chinese person who decided to stand on the other side. For apparently no reason whatsoever other than hey, why not.

Chinese Culture Shock - I'm not moving!

To be fair to Chinese people usually, if you signify you’d like to pass by, then they will move for you.

This means that you have to stop being so polite and just tell people to move out of the way.

But sometimes you do come across a stubborn ayi (old Chinese lady) who refuses to acknowledge your existence and stands firm.

The only solution – wait. You don’t want to mess with a Chinese ayi!

The Unnecessarily Complicated Chinese Family Tree 👨‍👩‍👧‍👧 Explained & Answered Thumbnail

The Unnecessarily Complicated Chinese Family Tree 👨‍👩‍👧‍👧 Explained & Answered

Mandarin Chinese has a large number of words for family members. So here we help you decode the entire Chinese Family Tree in an easy to understand guide.

Culture Shock in China #9 || Queuing

Culture Shock Mind F*ck || It’s quicker if you queue though…

Brits are well known for their admirable queueing etiquette.

Perhaps we take it a bit too seriously sometimes, but to me, it just makes sense. Queueing usually makes things go faster, which is the goal of anybody who is pushing during a queue.

So… Why not just wait a moment?

This is something you can experience in daily life as an expat in China, and something I experience every day on the Beijing metro commute home.

Many will rush to the doors to exit the train but since everyone does this at the same time, you just get stuck at the doors as the long crowd of Chinese people try and fit through at once.

If you just waited to get off and let 2 people through at one time, it would be fine.

To add to this chaos, Chinese people like to make sure they get on the subway in good time. Without letting people exit first.

I guess you can begin to imagine how this chaos unfolds as 20 Chinese people try to exit the subway whilst 20 try to get on. At the same time.

However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the chaos that surrounds the no-queue policy.

It’s good fun pushing your way through the crowds to make sure you get onto your subway and brings out an almost primeval ‘survival of the fittest’ feeling.

Discover the Beijing metro

Ready to Attack the Culture Shock?

There are many things that make me question life and reality in China and induce a thorough dose of culture shock.

But, that’s all part of the fun and living, working, or studying abroad.

China and Chinese people have opened my eyes to a whole different culture and way of living.

Although they may do things differently, culture shock doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Think of it as learning something new. But whilst you may do your best to understand a new culture, there may be some things that just leave you…. speechless. And that’s fine.

Ready to come to China? Why not follow in the footsteps of Tobias and Mikkel and come study Chinese in China?


BONUS | If this sort of topic interests you then why not check out our guide of things NOT to do in Japan. You’ll be fascinated at the some of the rules and superstitions!

Culture Shock in China || FAQ’s

Will I experience culture shock in China?

Most likely yes, things are very different in China compared to the west but ultimately it depends on where you are from and your expectations.

The best advise is to come to China as open-minded as possible.

What are the toilets in China like?

Varied!!

Chinese toilets come in all shapes and sizes, but traditionally they are squat toilets that are long and narrow, that, as the name suggests, you squat over.

This sounds easy, but just when you think you have got the hang of the squat toilet you’ll find one that’s a bit different and you’ll stop for a second to consider which way round you’re supposed to face.

Do I face the door or do I turn my back and have the toilet flush in my face?

Do I aim for the hole in the toilet or do I go for where the ‘splash-back protector thing’ (yes, that is the scientific name) is even if it’s not near the hole..???

And then in some toilets I do all this right next to other people – apparently doors don’t exist in some toilets?!

The above is true even for the ladies in some toilets (we’re looking at those hutong toilets in Beijing)!

That’s right girls – drop those pants and let’s squat together. Either that run to the nearest mall 😫

Can I overcome the culture shock in China?

Absolutely, most people embrace it, and if it takes time, most people have no problems adapting to China given time.

Is it true Chinese people always drink hot water?

Yes, Chinese people (even in the hot summer months) much prefer hot water to cold, and this is due to their physical health and the benefits it apparently gives.

Do Chinese people drink beer?

Yes they do but the drink of choice in China (especially in big dinners or business dinners) is Baijiu.

This is a spirit which packs a punch so be prepared if you are given a glass!

What is it like dating in China?

There is rarely a middle ground. 

Dating in Western cultures is, well, dating. You meet each other, whether it’s on an app or the less conventional way – outdoors. Then you date, maybe go for a few drinks, dinner dates…  

Then if things go well, you’re officially boyfriend and girlfriend and you can change that Facebook status. 

In China, this is simply not a part of the culture. There is no middle ground.

Everything is pretty quick. Don’t be surprised if you get an ‘I love you’ after the first couple of dates, and the talk of marriage and children on the first date is not uncommon.

Things that those with commitment issues, such as the talk of ‘I’ll protect you forever’ and ’ how many kids do you want’, will scare people off straight away. But don’t fear.

Yes, Chinese people do love to have children and get married and make their parents proud. There is definitely a certain aspect of urgency and rush to this one, but, if you’re clear about your personal opinions, needs, and wants, then there is nothing to stop you dating in China.

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    Alexander Krasnov , Student Advisor

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