Are you thinking about choosing an expat life in China and want to embrace the local customs? China is country full of history and rich culture with plenty for you to learn, but it isn't necessarily the easiest to assimilate into. Many expats talk of the difficulties of integrating into life in China – not only is the language vastly different, but so is the culture.
That being said, there are a number of things you can do to ease into your life there and to fit better into the cultural norms. Avoid being labelled simply as a Laowai (foreigner) by following these simple tips:
1. Learn the language
This is easily the most important step. Learning Mandarin will allow you to communicate with the locals, and to understand the world around you. This is even more important considering that not only is Chinese a rather complicated language (for Indo-European language speakers) but it also uses a different system of characters instead of the Latin alphabet you might be used to. Start learning before you go, and then keep it up!
See how good your Chinese is by taking a Mandarin level test.
2. Greet people with “Have you eaten?”
Instead about being asked how you are, you’ll notice that Chinese people will instead ask you, “Have you eaten?” It’s not an invitation to eat but a way to show that they are concerned with your wellbeing. Think of it as an equivalent of “How are you?”
3. Avoid PDA
PDA (public displays of affection) in China are frowned upon. Chinese people tend to be restrained when it comes to showing affection, reserving their hugs and kisses for those very close to them. So don’t go hugging the new Chinese friend you’ve just met – chances are, you’ll make him or her uncomfortable.
4. Accept invitations
Whether someone invites you into their home, or your boss invites you to dinner, you should always accept (unless there is a really good reason you can’t go). It is considered rude to reject an invitation. Especially in the case of a work invite; being invited is considered an honour.
5. Keep Face
In China the concept of ‘face’ or reputation, is very important. Never embarrass a Chinese person or make them ‘lose face’ as this is seen as a bad social faux pas, and will damage your relationship.
6. Toast to good health
Chinese are very conscious about health and it is common to ask after your health (often by asking, 'How is your body?'). One of the most common toasts you will hear is to good health. Get off on the right foot with your new friends or colleagues by enquiring about and toasting to their health.
7. Drink only when you toast
Toasting is very important in Chinese culture. During a dinner, particularly in a business situation, a number of toasts are made throughout the evening and you are expected to drink each time. Instead of drinking at your own pace during the evening, drink only when there is a toast.
8. Don’t split the cheque
The general rule in China is that if you invite someone else to a restaurant, it is on you to pay the bill. Some people will get very offended if you insist on splitting the bill when the cheque arrives.
9. Respect your elders
Respect for one’s elders is incredibly important in Chinese culture, and you should likewise show respect to those who are older than you. Use the polite form of ‘you’ in Mandarin, nin, when talking to an older person. This extends to family relations, too. People don’t refer to their elder family members by given name but by their title. Even older siblings will be referred to as “Big Sister” or “Big Brother.”
10. Change your ideas of what is ‘rude’
This is a big one. You need to accept that Chinese culture is different to your own, and just because you consider something rude at home, doesn’t mean it is here. One prime example is slurping during a meal. It is considered good manners in China as it shows appreciation for the food. Another thing you’ll need to get used to is spitting on the sidewalk, which is considered acceptable. Bargaining is also a big part of the culture. Feel free to argue about the price, whether it’s for a haircut or a handbag.
Being an expat in China is an amazing opportunity to experience Chinese culture, history and cuisine. While it may be difficult at times, you’ll have a much more rewarding stay if you learn the local customs, and importantly, the language. Need to get started with your Chinese? Contact us to find lessons near you!