Just another Chinese pagoda

Ten Things I’ve Learned about China

by Heather on 13 December, 2012

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten weeks since I landed in China. It feels like only last week that I was waiting in the visa office and packing up my life in America. Over the past two months, I’ve learned a lot about Chinese culture and customs. Here are ten things I’ve learned about China:

1. Eating a meal is a communal event.
If you go out for a group dinner in an American restaurants, each person probably orders their own dish and everyone’s meal comes out at the same time. If you go out to dinner in China, it is not common to order individual meals. But if you decide to order individual meals, your dishes will probably not come out at the same time because dishes are served as they finish cooking. This is because most Chinese people share their dishes with each other.

A typical banquet-style Chinese meal

A typical banquet-style Chinese meal

2. People may be addressed by their job titles.
If I were a teacher in America, I would be addressed as “Ms. Heather”. In China, I’m referred to as “Teacher Heather”. This extends beyond the field of teaching. Lawyers and doctors may be addressed in the same manner. Addressing a person by his or her job title is a way to show respect to that person and a way to emphasize the importance of that person.

3. There are no road rules in China.
I can’t attest to whether or not this is actually true, but I do know that I have never seen a person being pulled over by a police officer or police officer patrolling the streets of China. I’ve also never noticed a speed limit sign or any other road signs. It makes crossing the street in China that much more scary.

One way highways? Think again!

One way highways? Think again!

4. Boy to boy and girl to girl skin contact is normal in children and teenagers.
If two boys or two girls are close friends, they may call themselves “skin friends”. This means that they will hold hands in class or walk with their arms linked. They may also rest their arms on each other while sitting in class. It is more common to see boys walking with their arms linked; whereas, girls will walk holding hands.

5. Chinese babies wear pants with slits.
Infants wear  pants with slits with a diaper underneath, but toddlers wear pants with slits near the crotch with no underwear. This is common practice because toddlers can go to the bathroom more easily by squatting on the street. No, I’m not lying. Chinese children actually go to the bathroom on the sidewalk and in the street.

I was relieved this baby was wearing a diaper when her father asked me to take a picture with her to bring the baby good luck. I've encountered several babies peeing on the streets, but I can't bring myself to take a picture.

I was relieved this baby was wearing a diaper when her father asked me to take a picture with her to bring the baby good luck. I’ve encountered several babies peeing on the streets, but I can’t bring myself to take a picture (not even for my blog readers).

6. Chinese people drink everything warm.
They drink warm water and warm milk. They drink juice and soda at room temperature. This isn’t just a winter habit either. It happens all year long. For this reason “cold water” was one of the first things I learned how to say in Chinese. The fact that you know how to say “cold water” in Chinese will not stop them for looking at you strangely when you ask for cold water though.

7. Leave your shoes at the door.
It is common to take off your shoes before entering your home. You should also take off your shoes before entering another person’s home. It is a sign of respect. (And I can understand why: the Chinese spit everywhere and the sewage system isn’t up to par with an American sewage system.) It’s also uncommon to have carpet in China, so that makes it even more dirty to walk on non-carpeted floors with those dirty soles. And yes, this is a practice that I observe in my Chinese apartment.

Welcome to my apartment. Please take off your shoes before entering!

Welcome to my apartment. Please take off your shoes before entering!

8. Eight is a lucky number.
I don’t know why, but eight is a lucky number in China. When purchasing my Chinese phone, I explained to the Chinese man who helped me purchase the phone that I wouldn’t be in China long enough to have a two year cell phone contract. He said to take a phone number that ended in the number eight because a Chinese person would buy that number from me because it’s good luck.

9. The “Chinese food” Americans eat does not taste anything like authentic Chinese food.
One of my friends from Maryland recently asked if I was enjoying orange chicken and eggs rolls. First, I think egg rolls are something that Americans invented and branded as being “Chinese” because I’ve never encountered an egg roll in China. Second, the chicken in China does not taste like American chicken. They give you pieces of chicken with random parts of the chicken that are not edible. Chinese people also eat chicken feet with the claws as snack. No, I’m not joking.

Just another failed attempt at ordering Chinese food

Just another failed attempt at ordering Chinese food

10. Tipping is not customary (or accepted).
It is inappropriate to tip a waiter, a hair dresser, a tour guide, or any other Chinese person providing you with a service. Not only is it not customary, but it will not be accepted. More than once I’ve had a really nice waiter or waitress and I’ve wanted to tip that person, but I know they would not accept the tip.


What are your thoughts?
What do you think about my list of things I’ve learned about China? If you’ve lived in or visited China, do you agree with my list of things I’ve learned about China?

Leif December 13, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I totally feel you on #9. I only just learned this after visiting KL and Penang and eating some incredible wonton street soup. Now that I’m back in NY I can’t even eat this crap called chinese food. It tastes like a combination of carboard msg and rubber. Eat some wonton soup for me please :)

Heather December 14, 2012 at 1:09 am

Haha! I actually miss American Chinese food sometimes. I think it’s mostly because I love egg rolls and orange chicken. I am fond of authentic Chinese jaotzi and wonton soup though.

Leif December 14, 2012 at 2:40 am

Yeah, orange chicken is good but everything else gives me the big D for a few days. I will eat some orange chicken for you.

Heather December 14, 2012 at 10:54 am

Lucky, lucky! Enjoy an egg roll for me too :)

Lawrence December 22, 2012 at 3:34 am

Like you I have recently arrived in China. I agree with No.7, taking your shoes off at the door, I think it is a good practice. It is actually required when visiting one of the locals. However something I have noticed is that the locals don’t extend the same courtesy to me, instead, without exception, they walk into my apartment, keeping their shoes on, leave muddy footprints all over the floor and promptly light up cigarettes. I am not a smoker. I have even come home to find cigarette ash in the handbasin. One of them obviously has a key to my apartment and pays a visit when I am not there from time to time! My observation is as foreigners we are expected to respect the local customs, but the locals pay scant regard to their own customs when it comes to dealing with an outsider. In my culture this would be considered extremely rude, and if I was to behave in the manner the locals act when visiting their home I would be deemed offensive. Funny place China!

Heather December 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

That’s an interesting observation. I don’t have a problem with locals barging into my apartment with shoes or cigarettes. I’ve stopped my non-Chinese friends from entering my apartment with shoes though. (I leave my shoes in the hallway. It’s kind of obvious that you should take yours off too.) And luckily, none of my friends who enter my apartment are smokers; although, I would stop them if they tried smoking in my apartment. I do find that the locals are either incredibly helpful or overly useless. I think it’s either based on their level of English or their interest in “making friends” with foreigners (which may be based on some type of bias). It can be frustrating because I’m always trying to help foreigners in America. I want people to like America and Americans. Don’t they feel the same way about China? I’m curious to know what part of China you are living in and where you are from.

Andy January 9, 2013 at 4:07 am

Great list of tips Heather. I think that many of the cultural tips that you suggested are very indicative of things that people forget about traveling. All to often, we say that culture is a language or religion, but it goes so much deeper. It is these subtle things that you listed that really make a culture. I have to admit though, I slightly laughed when I read #3. I remember the ‘two week traffic jam’ a few years back. That is insane!! Anyway, thanks for sharing these thoughts on Chinese culture. I will certainly keep them in mind when I get the chance to venture to the East.

Heather January 11, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Thank you for reading! I agree that culture is much deeper than language and religion. Traveling has made it easier for me to understand culture because I can compare my own culture to other cultures. Interestingly, I still find it hard to tell my students about American culture because it’s so inbred into me that I don’t even realize they don’t know those things.

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