China may be changing fast, but it’s still a highly traditional society. Showing respect for local customs will make your travels more pleasant for you and those around you. Here’s some tips to help you avoid a gaffe.
- remove your shoes when entering a Chinese home or temple
- greet the eldest person in a Chinese family first, as a sign of respect
- beckon someone by waving them over to you with your palm down. Don’t point or use your finger (this gesture is used for dogs).
- present things to people with both hands, to show that what you’re offering is the fullest extent of yourself
- be effusively thankful if someone gives you a gift, then set it aside to open later, to avoid appearing greedy
- be prepared for random people approaching to you and asking to practice their English
- keep calm when dealing with officials, especially if tense situations arise. Getting angry or raising your voice will create only an ugly, face-losing situation for all.
- eat what your host offers and orders, including alcohol; it’s rude to refuse
- touch your glass below that of the eldest person in the group when toasting – the eldest (aka wise one) holds his/her glass highest
- fill your companion’s tea cup when it’s empty, especially if your companion is older than you
- eat all of the rice in your bowl – some Chinese believe it’s bad luck to leave even a single grain behind
- say how much you love watching Yao Ming play in the NBA (when he’s healthy)
- prepare yourself to see animals treated very differently than you’re used to back home
- be punctual. Being on time shows respect for others.
- write anything in red ink unless you’re correcting an exam. Red ink is used for letters of protest.
- leave your chopsticks upright in your bowl or tap your bowl with them
- point the bottom of your shoes/feet at someone
- shake your feet, lest you shake away all of your luck.
- touch someone’s head (it’s sacred)
- give clocks or books as gifts. The phrase ‘to give a clock’ in Mandarin sounds too much like ‘attend a funeral’ and ‘giving a book’ sounds like ‘delivering defeat.’
- make political comments like ‘boy, didn’t Mao kill a lot of people’ unless your new pals take the lead. Many Chinese remain huge Mao fans, as proven daily by the lines at his mausoleum.
- make out with your beau – limit your PDAs, lovebirds.
- be offended when asked if you’re married – and if you’re over 30 and single, say yes, lest you be pitied
- give too much attention to an object someone else has; they may feel obligated to give it to you
- wear your Free Tibet t-shirt unless you want a LOT of attention
- Use those pretty gold/silver papers for western décor. It’s for spiritual/cultural Chinese rituals.
- freak out if you don’t know what to do. When in doubt, simply watch what the Chinese people do and follow suit.