What NOT to do in China!
China is famous for its ancient culture and traditions, however modern day China is not without its own set of rules and in many cases these are more important to note than the older traditions which have become less important during the recent economic boom and communist rule. You’ll find many articles on the internet telling you what not to do in China and they’ll include tips such as not leaving your chopsticks standing up in your rice bowl. While these things are important, most Chinese will not necessarily expect a foreigner to be aware of them and not following them will in most not get you into too much trouble.
In China there is the idea of ‘face’. For those of you that don’t know this, it is difficult to explain in a couple of sentences but basically put, ‘face’ is a little like the western concept of dignity and social poise. It is explained in much more detail here.
It is extremely important in Chinese culture and staying calm and composed is a very large part of this. In many situations, becoming angry will mean that you lose ‘face’ and could cause the other person to lose ‘face’. If you don’t appear in control you will lose the respect of others and many people will not want to work with you again. If you upset somebody with your anger, you will likely ruin your relationship (be it professional or personal) and that will be almost impossible to repair.
Don’t directly say ‘no’
This relates to the point above of saving face. It is very rude in China to say no to somebody. You need to find another way of saying what you mean whilst politely implying no. It may sound like a difficult thing to do but after a while it is something you will get used to. Watch your Chinese friends and colleagues in order to see how this is done.
No jokes about family names
People in China can find this very offensive. Many foreigners find surnames (family names) such as Wong and Chin amusing and I’ve heard many jokes be made. Whilst laughing about names might be fine in the west, here in China people are very proud of the heritage and their family name is a big part of that so please, no jokes.
It’s true that you should give and receive gifts with two hands and that many people will refuse a gift once or twice before accepting it. Often gifts are opened after the person has left and not opened in their presence. However, the most important thing to remember about gifts is that if somebody gives you a gift, feel obliged to give one in return when you can.
The same thing is true of invites to dinners and general favours. If somebody does you a favour, be quick to offer to do one in return. In China, to not do this is seen as ungrateful, even if you do say ‘thank you’.
If you have invited Chinese people out to lunch or to dinner, then you will be expected to pay. In China, if somebody invites you, they will pay for you. In other occasions when sharing lunch and dinner, if you can afford to pay for the meal, it is a very nice gestures to do so. You don’t split bills with people you don’t know! Often the other person will refuse to let you pay but if you insist, they should back down. The same goes the other way, you can politely refuse the offer but if they insist hard, you should let them pay.
Don’t wear your shoes into peoples homes, it’s that simple! It’s not so much a case of ancient tradition, it’s more just for hygiene and something that resounds across the whole of China.
In China, they see it as being very unhygienic to wear shoes indoors and in some cases, you will even be given house shoes or slippers to wear by your host. In most cases, you’ll be in socks or bare feet. You’ll notice in many houses shoes, slippers, flip flops etc in a large pile near the front door!
Food and dining
It’s a great honour to be invited to somebody’s home for dinner. The last thing you’d want to do is offend them. The worst thing you could do would be to not eat or even try the food.
If you can, try and taste as many dishes as you can and make sure you praise the food highly! If you are not that hungry, eat slowly so that the other people round the table eat more than you. Also, don’t eat the last piece of food on a plate. It may come across greedy and also give the impression that you are still hungry which will often lead to even more food being brought out or made.
Remember, praise the wonderful food!
When addressing people who are much older than you, you can never go wrong with “ayi” (woman) and “shushu” (men). You must never address your elders (especially relatives of friends/partners) by their first name, as this shows disrespect and lack of understanding of one’s place.
If they tell you how to call them, do so. If they don’t, you can also call them by their position in the family, such as “yeye” (grandfather) or “nainai” (grandmother), or otherwise by their surname and position, such as “Wang yeye” (grandfather Wang) or “Sun nainai” (grandmother Sun). Other people that are not close to you, to whom you wish to show respect, can be called by their family name + laoshi (teacher), such as “Wang laoshi” if they come from a more academic background, or by their family name + shifu (master), such as “Li shifu” if they come from a more technical background.
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