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9 Chinese Customs and Etiquette that Take Some Getting Used To
By Brycie Gold | On 20 Mar, 2014
The wonderful world of TEFL provides teachers with the opportunity to live and travel abroad to some pretty unusual places. Deciding where to move to is challenging enough, but adjusting to the customs and etiquette once you get there can prove to be an even greater challenge.
When I chose to move to China, I really didn’t know too much about the subtle cultural differences. I knew the blatant ones — the ones I read about in books — but the tiny things, like giving and receiving a business card with two hands, I had to learn through trial and error.
So, to help those who are thinking of moving abroad to China, I have come up with a list of 9 Chinese customs and etiquette that take some getting used to, which might help you avoid the common errors most new teachers make upon arrival.
1. Drinking Etiquette
Depending on whom you ask, “Ganbei!” can be loosely translated to mean “Cheers!” However, when we say, “Cheers!” in Western culture, it is perfectly acceptable to merely take a sip.
In China, you are expected to down your drink to show your respect. One major difference is people drink out of tiny shot glasses here. Some restaurants have larger cups available if you ask, but the standard is a small shot glass. If you don’t drink all the contents of your glass, it is basically the equivalent of saying, “I don’t like you or respect you.”
Additionally, when someone pours you a drink, it’s polite to tap your index finger and middle finger together on the table twice. It’s like saying, “Thank you,” but with your fingers.
2. Eating Etiquette
In China, it’s all about communal dining. People almost never order a dish just for themselves; it is for the entire table to share.
At a formal dinner, serving spoons will be provided so that you are not using your chopsticks in the communal dishes, however at your standard restaurant, you use your chopsticks. The proper way to do this is to grab what you’d like with your chopsticks, and then tap the food to your plate before you place it in your mouth. You cannot grab an item and lob it directly into your mouth, as that is considered rude and gross.
3. Service Etiquette
When calling for assistance, it is perfectly acceptable to yell loudly for the server or owner to come over. In fact, if you don’t yell, they won’t come over, as they are accustomed to yelling and not accustomed to subtle gestures like in the States. It is not considered rude here; it is simply how things are done.
Don’t hold back, don’t be shy. You might think you’re being rude, but you’re not.
4. Driving Customs
For your own safety, please remember that drivers have the right of way here. In China, even if the walk sign is lit up, you still need to look out for motorbikes and automobiles because they do not stop for pedestrians. They run red lights and make rights on red without pausing or glancing at the street crossing. They have the right of way here, and as frustrating as this may be sometimes, it’s something you just have to accept and become aware of or else risk serious injury to yourself.
Even when you’re on the sidewalk, you need to be wary of motorbikes who will honk incessantly at you until you get out of the way. They are not trying to be rude in doing this. It is the norm and they have the right of way because they are faster.
Keep in mind, the value placed on life in China is very different, so it’s important that you look out for yourself.
5. Bathroom Customs
The public toilets are very different from Western toilets; they are called squatters. They are simply a porcelain hole in the ground, like a toilet bowl built into the floor instead of above it. There is rarely toilet paper provided, so most Chinese people always carry tissue paper with them, and you should too. They also almost never have soap. Most Chinese don’t use soap anyway. They run water over their hands and believe this has cleaned them.
I recommend having hand sanitizer with you at all times. There are a lot of people here and germs spread quickly.
6. Age Etiquette
If you ask a Chinese person how old they are, they will tell you their Chinese age, and not what we Westerners would consider their actual age.
In China, they believe you are born one year old and, depending on when you were born in the year, you add one or two years to that age. I’ve had students who are really 4 years old by Western age standards tell me they are 6 or 7 because that’s their Chinese age.
Age isn’t that important here, like in the West; they don’t really have age limitations for many things. I’ve seen 5-year-olds buy beer (for their families). When I want to know someone’s real age, I now ask, “When’s your birthday?” and “What year were you born?”
Speaking of birthdays, if you invite your friends out to celebrate, unlike in the West, you’re expected to pay for everyone.
7. Foreigner Customs
China is still quite isolated from the rest of the world in a lot of smaller cities and rural areas. Some Chinese have never seen a foreigner, or it’s such a rare occasion that they cannot help but stare when they see one. As a foreigner, expect to get stared at, have your photo taken without your permission and occasionally be deceived by locals looking to earn extra money.
It’s not all negative though. You will often feel like a celebrity, and many people will give you free drinks and invite you to join them just to be associated with a foreigner. There is never a shortage of people in China, so you are bound to meet good and bad ones, but it’s more good than bad, in my experience. The majority are very kind, helpful, a little overly excited at times, but mostly just curious.
There is some racism in China, but it’s from the lack of education and exposure, as opposed to pure hatred or disgust. It’s really a fear of the unknown, so my approach is to give off the best impression possible by killing them with kindness and hoping to expand their stereotypes of foreigners just a little more in the process.
8. Queue Etiquette
Orderly lines here rarely exist. Everyone pushes and shoves and cuts to get in first. In order to get what you’re waiting for, you need to stand your ground. Save the manners and politeness for when you’re back home. This is China and you will wait forever if you don’t fight for what you want.
I’m not saying you should push someone or cut in front of others, but you should stand extremely close to the person in front of you and not leave room for someone to shove you out of the way. Don’t be rude, but be strong and firm. In more Westernized cities, such as Shanghai, you won’t find as much pushing, shoving and utter chaos. Just don’t be surprised or get overly angry if you are in a smaller city and someone cuts you in line or completely disregards you. It is improving, but progress takes time, so be patient but firm and know that anger will get you nowhere.
One of the first phrases I picked up in Mandarin was “We are in line” (Wo men pai dui). Say it nicely with a smile and not only will you shock the locals with your amazing Putonghua skills, they will actually let you go in front of them.
9. Teaching Etiquette
Men tend to be more highly respected as teachers, therefore they do not require as many rules to yield the same behavioral results as females. This will play into how you enforce rules in your classroom.
Generally, children are quite respectful of teachers, and very used to a call-and-response style of teaching, instead of critical or creative thinking. Giving them open-ended questions can confuse them. They might spend a while looking for one correct answer when there are in fact many possible answers.
Chinese students tend to be more sheltered and reserved than others and the biggest problem most Chinese students face is having too much homework. There are also certain topics that are forbidden; you cannot teach students about anything the government deems controversial, some schools may forbid you from deviating from the set curriculum, you could get in trouble for talking about sex, religion and political views, and you have to be very guarded about your personal biases and opinions. You are living in a censored country, so you have to censor some of the topics you teach, as well, so keep this in mind as you plan lessons.
Some helpful resources
These are just a mere sampling of customs, so if you are planning on moving to China I suggest you read the following books which are available on Amazon for purchase: China Survival Guide by Larry and Qin Herzberg, Decoding China by Matthew Christensen, and It’s All Chinese to Me by Pierre Ostrowski and Gwen Penner. My personal favorite is 101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People by Yi and Bryan Ellis.
I also recommend you speak with currently employed teachers in your city or town of interest so they can give you more localized tips. Just remember that China is overpopulated everywhere, so personal space does not exist. Don’t be offended when people bump into you without apologizing or get closer than you’re accustomed. I’ve ridden many a public bus packed like a sardine, having to claw my way towards the exit at a stop just to get out in time.
While there is a lot to adjust to, there are a lot more similarities between China and the West than I initially realized. I’m also amazed with how quickly I adjusted and how differently I view the world and Western culture now as a result. There are some things I still prefer about Western culture, but I find myself accepting and preferring Eastern culture more than I thought I would.
For example, I now order a glass of hot water in the States because that’s how it’s served in China, and I actually like it better warm than cold. Adjusting to a new culture is a process, so don’t get discouraged when you feel homesick. It’s completely natural and normal to feel that way.
Just try and go into a new culture with as open a mind as you can. You don’t have to like everything or adopt it into your future lifestyle forever, but you can learn to accept it as a different way of life and at least tolerate the differences, if not fully embrace them. You’ll never know until you try.
If you’re interested in teaching in China, don’t forget to check out Teaching House’s regularly updated TEFL Jobs Database, where we post new jobs each week. And if you have any questions about living and teaching in China, feel free to leave a comment below.
Brycie did her CELTA at Teaching House New York, looking for an adventure abroad. Just two weeks after completing the course, she flew to Fuzhou, Fujian, China to teach ESL to children at York English, where she has been teaching ever since. Not only did she discover a passion for teaching and travel, but she also found her future husband.
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