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3 Chinese customs westerners don’t get

Throughout history, China has been shrouded in an aura of mystery and exoticism. Even now with many cities like Beijing and Shanghai becoming more accessible and welcoming to foreign visitors, traditional customs are alive and strong. In fact, some of these traditional customs mean the norms of life and respectful behaviour in China can seem to be the exact opposite of those in the west. So to avoid some serious shock factor, we’ve put together a few cultural pointers that you should know before travelling to China to avoid giving or taking offense unnecessarily!

1. A good meal is a loud one

If a local invites you to dinner, expect a noisy, bustling restaurant rife with chatter and, of course, an abundance of food. In fact, such an atmosphere is called rè nao (热闹), which strangely enough translates to ‘hot and noisy’, and means a lively vibe that guarantees a good time. The Chinese also tend eat with (comparatively) noisy gusto, with occasional slurps and other sounds. They just don’t seem as particular about eating and chewing noises (though you shouldn’t go to the other extreme, either!)

It’s also worth remembering that mealtimes are communal. Everyone eats from the same dishes at the centre of their table, often with their own chopsticks. Every now and again, hospitable hosts may even drop special morsels in your bowl. If you’re not comfortable with this, try asking for an extra set of ‘public’ cutlery for sharing the food.

Other tips for a successful meal:

  • Never finish off your plate or empty your glass as it shows you’re still hungry or thirsty (even if in reality you’re totally content), and prompts your host to fill it up!
  • Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl. It’s extremely bad luck because it resembles a tombstone offering.
  • Thank your host for refilling your glass by tapping the table with your index and middle finger.
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2. Your love life is everybody’s business

Get ready to be asked some personal questions, like “how old are you?” or “are you dating?” or “when will you get married?” Marriage and family are extremely important to the Chinese and when you throw a strong sense of community into the mix, you can see why asking these sorts of questions can be considered as innocuous as asking “what do you do?” Think of it as a friendly, if somewhat blunt, curiosity.

While not many appreciate being on the receiving end (even locals!), you can see where it may come from. Elders are held in high esteem and hold a lot of authority in families. Likewise, parents have traditionally been responsible for finding a spouse for their children. To this day, it’s common for anxious parents to play matchmaker. So it makes sense that finding a partner is very rarely a private or individual concern.

Speaking of nosy questions, other topics like salary and cost of living aren’t taboo either. Anyone can ask you these questions ­- from taxi drivers to shop keepers. So consider yourself warned!

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3. Shield yourself from the sun at all costs

When you see the Chinese out and about on a sunny day, you’ll see many umbrellas out, along with other (sometimes more elaborate) ways of protecting themselves from the sun. It may seem strange to think that complementing someone on a sunny glow could be offensive, but the Chinese are definitely an exception. Interestingly, within the western world, tanned skin was not considered beautiful until as recently as the last eighty years.

In China and many other Asian countries, pale skin is considered appealing, as it’s a sign of prosperity and wealth. Throughout history, fair skin has been revered as one of the classical signs of beauty simply because those that could afford to stay indoors stayed fair, instead of working on the fields. This deeply ingrained idea continues in modern society. You can find all varieties of sun protection from hats and full sleeves, to whitening creams, lotions and gels.

Other tips for what to expect:

  • Squat toilets are still the norm in many areas. It’s the healthier way to use the bathroom, but you will want to bring your own toilet paper, as it’s not always supplied.
  • Don’t drink tap water – have it boiled or purchase bottled water for around 2-5RMB.
  • When crossing the road, don’t assume cars or motorbikes will stop for you, and check both directions. Pay careful attention to how locals cross and stick to large groups of people.
  • It’s not uncommon for large families to all live under the same roof, and we’re talking 3 or 4 generations worth! Familial ties are extremely important in China.
  • If you have blonde or red hair, expect to receive a lot of attention when in public. People will openly stare are you and sometimes even point you out to friends and family by sticking their finger in your direction. Don’t be offended, the Chinese are just curious!
  • Spitting and mucus clearing are common in China. Just go with the flow. Although interestingly, the government is trying to encourage citizens to abandon this habit as it’s quite unhygienic. You’ll find the younger and more urbanised Chinese people won’t engage in this habit!

But most importantly ...

… remember to have relax and soak it all in! Don’t be too preoccupied with not committing a faux pas. Just remember to keep an open mind and enjoy the experience! One of the joys of travelling is the eye-opening encounter with another civilization. The Chinese are forgiving with foreigners, and will be delighted if you make the effort to speak a few words and even try to use chopsticks. So good luck, and have fun!

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