As a foreigner living in China, chances are you’re going to see some things that will surprise you, to say the least. As fascinating and bewildering as it is, if you can keep an open mind and are open to new experiences you’ll find the Chinese and their culture to be wonderfully warm and welcoming.
This guide will cover advice on cultural differences that you will encounter on a regular basis in your life outside of work. For my part, I’m an Englishman who lived in China for five years and got married there so I can assure you, I’ve seen just about everything!
Kàn, yīgè wàiguó rén – ‘Foreigner’
Wàiguó rén is the standard Chinese term for foreigner and this will quickly become a term that you are familiar with. There are other, technically more derogatory expressions that you will hear as well but their use is more out of naivety than any genuine malice. It can be pretty jarring at first as small children or old ladies stop in their tracks to stare, point and announce “look a foreigner!” to everyone within earshot when they see you on the street, but it is worth remembering that China is a nation where some people have rarely seen foreigners in person. If you are based in an internationalised first tier or second tier city where non-Chinese are a relatively common sight you probably won’t experience this often, but as you move further out into third tier cities or rural China, it will become more pronounced.
There are a couple of Chinese habits at play here which will shape many social interactions you find yourself a part of. Firstly, is their notorious bluntness. You will meet many younger Chinese people who dread going home to see their families during the holidays for fear of the inevitable judgement they will receive upon arrival. Be it comments on finances, appearance or marriage, the Chinese do not hold back! I’m British and in the UK we often go out of our way to not offend and skirt around potentially awkward subject matter. I personally find this frankness rather refreshing (most of the time) but it does take some adjusting to. Be prepared to have acquaintances you have just made make some very frank remarks about your affairs. As a side note, the discussion of money, your salary, and the cost of your new shoes is all fair game in China.
The other habit involved is that many Chinese will assume that you, as a foreigner, have no idea what they’re saying. It’s true that Chinese is a towering behemoth of a language but I cannot recommend strongly enough the value of at least learning its basic principles and getting some common phrases under your belt. Speaking even a few words and showing some comprehension will generally delight locals and they’ll warm up to you immediately. It’s all pretty patronising but if you work at it, learning the language will open a lot of doors and really change people’s perceptions of you. You’ll also find people are a lot more careful about what they say if they know you may be able to understand them. It is an unfortunate side-effect of learning the language that you may well hear some pretty ignorant stuff being casually said about you by passers-by. In the classroom however you’ll find it makes your students and Chinese colleagues much more respectful as it levels the information playing field. It is possible to get by in China with minimal knowledge of the language, but being able to speak just a little can really enhance a great experience in China!
Say “Qiézi” Cheese!
Probably the most common aspect of culture shock in China that expats bring up is complete strangers wanting to take a picture with you, or of you. This is because for many Chinese you as a foreigner are quite the exotic subject and they won’t think twice about asking for a picture, or just snapping one of you in profile without a hint of subtlety. The issue is that the latter method is often done without permission; you’ll hear plenty of stories about people who have been photographed at ‘inconvenient’ moments. At first it is amusing and you can play it up for laughs, but it quickly becomes tiresome for many. As stated before, if you find yourself in an area with a small foreign presence it will happen more often. If someone asks for a picture with you and you don’t consent, refuse. It is more difficult when people are taking pictures of you from a distance as according to Chinese law, consent is not required. Unless you’re confident in your language abilities it’s best ignored or if you’re feeling cheeky, you can pull your phone out and snap them right back! That generally puts a stop to it.
Dinners in China are immense fun and a key form of social interaction, with delicious cuisine and rice wine aplenty, 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. 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.
Cleanliness is next to godliness
A classic but worth covering briefly. The majority of toilets in China, and this will include on your school campus and possibly in your apartment, are squatting toilets. If the thought of this doesn’t thrill you then make sure that you, or the person responsible for finding you accommodation if it is provided by your school, look for apartments with a “westernized” bathroom.
Public toilets in China are grim, especially those in long distance bus stations and train stations. It’s recommended you carry tissues and hand sanitizer with you as you’ll be lucky if these bathrooms have running water. Health and safety standards in China are poorly enforced and the often deplorable state of public utilities is a grudgingly accepted norm. This topic also crosses over into food safety. You can’t do much but rely on your own best judgement when eating out, be it restaurant or street food. There is a food hygiene ranking system and restaurants will display their inspection results if you’re looking for some indication of quality. My advice though is to immerse yourself as Chinese cuisine is awesome in its variety and range of flavours, and should be explored as much as possible. Even if you do experience a couple of bumps along the road you can’t afford not to experience as much of China’s cuisine as you can, it is such an integral part of their culture.
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 par for the course 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.
Whether you are a pedestrian, a passenger, or sat behind the wheel, the roads are a challenging place. Observing the road, you will get the impression that if there are any rules, they’re certainly not being enforced. Unpredictable, even suicidal behaviour behind the wheel is common. Of course there are rules governing the chaos and people do generally avoid hitting each other. These rules however will be very different to those you’ve abided by in the past. A small but growing number of foreigners do drive in China and if you opt to join that intrepid band you need to be able to adapt to the Chinese style of driving.
The Chinese approach to queuing is very similar to their approach to driving. Everybody jostles to get ahead, but despite this road rage is relatively uncommon, it’s just accepted. The cardinal rule governing all of this is ‘first is right’. Any vehicle with a slight lead in position or access to a gap before another vehicle, no matter how small, has de-facto right of way. When merging or changing lanes drivers will not yield to traffic already underway and will often manoeuvre without visually checking their surroundings or signalling. If you don’t force the gap you will never get anywhere. Cutting people off, swerving into the oncoming lane, running red lights, driving on the shoulder, or in a fenced-off bicycle lane, or the wrong way down a divided highway are all fine as long as they keep you moving in the right general direction and do not cause an immediate accident!
Car-pedestrian relations in China are complex. If you take the shoelace express your main concern will be that painted cross walks are for display only and do not actually demarcate a ‘pedestrian protected’ area. You will often see cars pushing through busy crossings with those on foot expecting cars to try and force their way through. If you are standing at a crossing do not expect an oncoming car to yield for you. They will consider that they have the right of way and it’s you that needs to wait. It is not uncommon however to see pedestrians and cyclists move into traffic in seemingly oblivious fashion and it’s up to drivers to stop or manoeuvre to avoid a collision.
Many foreigners teaching in China purchase electric scooters because they are cheap, easy to maintain and crucially, in many cities, are licensed as bicycles and therefore do not require a full driving licence to ride, thus avoiding the hassle of acquiring a Chinese drivers licence. While great for their ability to use cycle lanes and pavements be careful as in some cities they are banned and will be confiscated by the police. From a pedestrian’s perspective their quietness can be both a blessing and a curse. They are often driven on the pavement but you won’t hear them coming. For other road users the main issue that arises is that people rarely use their headlights when driving at night in order to save battery life. If you do purchase one invest in good locks as they are a popular target for thieves, and store the battery at home when the bike’s not in use as these can also be stolen. The best option, if the management of the building you live in allows it, is to store your bike indoors overnight.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
China’s transport infrastructure is hugely impressive in its coverage and there is barely a corner of the country that you can’t reach by some combination of long distance bus, train and boat. Bus and train ticket prices are cheap compared to those in Europe allowing you to travel great distances at modest expense. For long journeys you can usually find a sleeper bus or train so you can travel overnight in relative comfort. Most Chinese rely on public transport to get around and provision reflects this with many travel options available that suit a range of budgets.
It is not without its challenges though. Delays are commonplace and can be lengthy, and the quality and cleanliness of older trains and buses can be alarming. In more remote and impoverished regions, the roads quickly deteriorate. Logic dictates that bus drivers would be some of the most careful drivers as they are carrying passengers, but in practice this is not the case. Other issues worth noting include the obviously vast distances and long travel times. If you are unable to get a ticket for a sleeper seat (which is very possible during the holidays!) a 16-hour bus journey can be quite draining. The sheer number of people who use public transport during the holidays means demand for tickets is huge and cabins quickly become jam packed with people and their detritus.
You could always fly. Its relatively affordable and domestic carriers fly to a huge range of destinations, but Chinese airlines are some of the worst offenders when it comes to delays and cancellations. Around 80% of China’s airspace is restricted to military use. In my experience, the best way to travel China and see it is on the ground. Flying robs you of the sense of adventure and accomplishment you might get otherwise. Travelling out of the cities rewards you with incredible varied scenery and while it might be hard going at times it’s an essential part of the Chinese experience, keeping you down in the thick of things, in touch with China at its most genuine.
It is a vast and endlessly fascinating land with such rich cultural and geographic variety that to not make every effort to experience it first hand is almost criminal. The negatives of long distance travel are easily outweighed by its cheapness, convenience and basically how much fun it is!
Read our Guide To Cultural Differences In The Workplace here.
Written by Dan Humphries, Teaching Manager
After completing his degree at the University of Southampton, Dan lived and worked in Guangzhou and Foshan for 5 years, teaching across a variety of schools.