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Etiquette in China

Visitors to China never fail to be blown away by the culture, sites, and people of this incredible country. Because China is such an ancient country, and for so many years closed to the West, China has developed a culture unlike any other on Earth. In virtually every way, China’s culture differs from Western culture and few Chinese know anything other than their own culture, and they expect visitors to act the same as they do. Due to the cultural differences, visitors sometimes miss out on experiences they could have if they knew a bit more about Chinese etiquette. It is important to keep in mind that although the culture is different from your own, it does not mean it is wrong. Being flexible and open to new things will make any China tour so much better.

Saving Face:

The concept of ‘saving face’, in China is incredibly important for every single Chinese person! To cause a person to lose face is inexcusable and can lead to many problems, and sometimes even violence. It is very important to never yell at, shame, embarrass, or belittle a Chinese person. Even if you become angry at a Chinese person, it is best to keep your cool, because you will NEVER get what you want if you yell.

Personal Boundaries:

In the West, personal boundaries are very important, but in China, they simply do not exist. It is not considered unusual, or uncomfortable to stand right next to a person or talk to them with very little space between bodies. If a person comes right up to you and talks in your face, it is not a sign of aggression, but instead it means that they feel comfortable enough to be near you. It is considered a good thing in China.

Physical Contact:

How people touch each other in China is very different from the West. Generally, public displays of affection are greatly frowned upon. This has changed in recent years, but in most of China, people simply to not kiss, or hold hands with their partners in public. In many parts of China, people of the opposite sex do not hold hands. It is much more common to see two males or females holding hands. This is a sign of friendship and does not imply anything else.

Modesty:

Chinese people are generally very shy and modest. Very rarely do people show their feelings and emotions in public, and can feel quite comfortable to people who do. Sometimes they laugh at people who are having an issue, or doing something considered improper in China. They are not laughing at the person, but instead are laughing to hide their own discomfort, or to lighten the mood for someone. Many visitors to China, if they have an issue, or are doing something Chinese people consider out of line, get very angry to find a Chinese person laughing at them, when in reality, the person is trying to make the situation better. It is just another example of the cultural differences between China and the West.

Being Stared At:

In large portions of China, Westerners are very rare and many people may have never seen a Western person outside of movies and television. When they do see one in real-life, they tend to stare at them. Although being stared at can be unnerving, or frustrating, to a Chinese person, it is little more than curiosity and in Chinese culture is not rude in any way.

Touching:

Since virtually every person in China has black hair and brown eyes, and since they generally tend to be thinner and shorter than Westerners, when they encounter a person who is different, they are incredibly curious about it. Many times they will want to touch the hair or rub the belly of a Westerner. In Western culture, this is incredibly rude, but in China it is acceptable, so please keep this in mind when visiting China. In Chinese culture, children are revered and Western children particularly so, so most Chinese people will want to get up close and personal with Western children. It is important to keep this in mind if traveling with children.

Humor:

Chinese people love to laugh and have wonderful senses of humor. It is important to remember that sexual or political humor is considered very improper in China and should be avoided.

Dining:

Chinese cuisine is world famous, and for very good reason. Each city, town, and village has its own unique dishes and very few visitors to China fail to love the culinary experiences that they discover. China has a very unique dining etiquette that should be kept in mind by visitors. Generally those on China tours will eat with those in their tour groups, or with their guide, and will not eat with Chinese people, so the dining etiquette is not that important, but if you get a chance to dine with Chinese people, which is a wonderful experience, they need to be observed. Seating is importantly observed, and the place of honor is facing the door, with the less important people sitting with their back to the door. This is an ancient tradition, which dates back to feudal times, when it was safest to not keep your back to the door. Unlike the West, where each person orders their own dishes, in China, all dishes are communal and placed in the center of the table. This way each person is ensured there are dishes they like, and it allows each person to try many different dishes, instead of just one. Many times a lazy-susan is located in the center of the table, so the dishes can be moved around. It is not considered rude to reach across the table, or across someone else’s plate. Generally soup is the first dish brought to the table and usually someone will take their bowl and the bowls of those near them and fill them with soup. Sometimes they will fill all the bowls with soup, so do not be alarmed if someone takes your bowl away from you. There are certain pieces of meat which are considered the best, and many times, as a sign of respect, Chinese people will take the pieces out and put them on other people’s plate. This is an honor, so accept it with graciousness, even if it is something you do not want to eat. You can always set it aside. Most restaurants do not have forks and knives, so it is recommended that you learn to use chopsticks if you do not know how to use them, or bring a fork with you. Virtually all meat will contain bones. Chinese people prefer it this way. When eating meat with bones, there are several options for disposing your bones in China. It is best to observe what those around you are doing and copy it. Bones can be removed with chopsticks, directly from the mouth, and placed on an extra plate, directly on the table, or on the floor. People also sometimes spit the bones out onto the plate, table, or floor. Although distasteful in the West, it is the accepted norm in China. NEVER stick your chopsticks in your rice vertically! It is considered a very bad omen. It represents the incense stuck in an incense burner at a funeral. Dishes in China do not come out all at once, but one at a time. They simply leave the kitchen when they are finished, so they will arrive staggered. Because of this, do not fill yourself up on the first dishes that come out, because when more come out, you will be too full to eat them and will miss out. Many Westerners are scared of eating dog or cat by mistake. In many parts of China dog and cat are considered a delicacy and are quite expensive, generally more expensive than any other meats, so you will not be slipped dog or cat meat. It is just too expensive to give away. If you are concerned with what the dishes are, feel free to ask your guide and he/she will inform you of what it is you are eating. Many Chinese people are very vocal when eating, especially if they play drinking games. For many Westerners this can be quite unappreciated, but it is part of the culture. If it bothers you too much, you can ask your guide to teach you the games. Some of them are quite fun.

Dining in China is a lot of fun. It is important to remember that the culture is different from your own, and not wrong. Chinese people will realize that your cultures are different and will not be too bothered if you do make little etiquette mistakes, as long as you are trying. If you do try, they will be incredibly happy and will share much more of their lives with you. A good idea, if you do not know what to do, is to either ask, or just observe what those around you are doing. If you do find something distasteful, such as spitting your bones on the table, you may feel free to put them in a napkin, or do what suites you best.

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