The second instalment of Dan’s Cultural Differences Guide considers the important topics of meal time etiquette, and queuing!!
Dinners in China are immense fun and a key form of social interaction, with delicious cuisine and rice wine aplenty, so accept as many invites as you can! But there are a few cultural nuances to be aware of.
Firstly, and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. It resembles Chinese funerary incense (Shāoxiāng). If you struggle with chopsticks and are looking for somewhere to put them down the temptation is there to stick them into your rice, but resist it. Try to avoid pointing at people with your chopsticks as this is also considered rather rude. If you are drinking a toast with someone you should stand when you raise your glass.
Often on special occasions a meal will be opened with a whole table toast so don’t jump the gun and start eating until this has been done. If someone offers you their glass in a toast and they hold it with both hands it is a mark of respect. Generally offering something with both hands is a mark of respect or subservience. For example, you’ll likely see it in shops when a cashier hands you your change.
Tipping is not a custom in China and if you try to do it you’ll most likely get a confused reaction from the waiter or waitress serving you and they’ll refuse to take your money. At the end of a meal the Chinese do not hang around for a coffee, a cigarette and a chat as we might in the UK. That’s all done over the course of dinner. Once the bill is paid the guests will rapidly depart en-masse.
The concept of a non-smoking section is almost entirely alien to China. Outside of the major cities smoking is considered socially acceptable anywhere, at any time (smoking in the hospital? You bet!). Those who are smoking will be very generous with offering their cigarettes to others as it is a sign of respect and friendliness. About two thirds of Chinese males smoke, though it is much less common amongst women. There is an interesting Chinese custom related to the giving of gifts which is also worth noting here. The Chinese will not open a gift after receiving it immediately, rather they will thank you and then wait till they are at home before actually opening it. Do not be offended if you give someone a gift and they don’t tear into it straight away.
Also re-gifting is quite a common practice with things such as expensive cigarettes and rice wine often held onto so that they may be passed on in future. The giving of such gifts is an important part of guanxi: the personal connections between people in which one is able to count upon another to perform a favour or service, or be counted upon themselves. Giving gifts helps maintain good relations and ensures the obligation of others to repay such generosity in the future. I will discuss the fascinating concept of guanxi in greater depth in the second part of this guide.
As an Englishman I respect the concept of queuing with an almost religious fervour. It can therefore be agonising to see the Chinese approach to queuing. The logic goes that as there are so many people, if you wait and don’t fight to make ground, you will never get anywhere. It’s most apparent and most maddening when waiting in line at a ticket office or when trying to board transport. Whereas most people do wait in line, albeit with a great deal of shoving and jostling, you frequently see selfish individuals attempt to cut straight to the front of the line.
The staff at a ticket office will be extremely hard pressed as it is and will generally serve these villains just to get them out of the way. This in turn forces other people to follow suit for fear they will never get anywhere and thus you have a vicious cycle which often ends with a teeming mass of humanity pressed against the side of a train car. Arguing that the train isn’t going anywhere until its departure time and that there’s no rush will have no effect.
Getting on and off of underground carriages is another prime example most expats will experience. Many large Chinese cities boast an underground rail network which are wonderful due to their large coverage and cheap cost. Issues do arise however when one makes their way down to the platform. Unless there is a guard standing 3 feet away the people on the platform will not wait for those on the train to disembark first when it stops which inevitably results in a pointless jam in the carriage doorway that serves only to waste everyone’s time!
What is remarkable about all of this is that as it is considered fair game, and you don’t see people get upset by it as often as you might expect, although arguments and violence do sometimes occur. The government tries to encourage more civilised behaviour with posters, public service broadcasts and by hiring more guards at train and bus stations but their pleas have so far fallen on largely deaf ears.
The best advice is if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Stick out your elbows, plant your feet and push back with everybody else. Have a suitcase? Umbrella? Small child? Makes for a handy battering ram. You won’t be the only one in the melee so don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings.
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