5 Chinese Culture Basics From a Laowai (Chinese word for foreigner)

Sep 7, 2011

China being an ancient culture with 3,000+ years of history brings with it many customs, traditions, and ways of doing things. This isn’t meant to be a complete list of all of them, but just some day to day things that I’ve learned and may benefit you on your adventure to teach abroad in China.

  1. We’ll start with food; the idea here is that if you eat everything on your plate, then you must not have gotten enough food. As an American this takes some getting used to. If you’re eating out with locals or especially at their home they will probably keep bringing out food until you stop eating, not the other way around. You will also notice that the portions are much smaller than in western countries. This is how the Chinese maintain their slim physique. In my experience, most Chinese don’t have a gym membership but simply by not “super-sizing” their meals they maintain a healthy weight. Slurping is not only common but from what I’ve heard it’s a sign of respect for the chef, indicating that you like the food. 
  2. Always take your shoes off when entering someone’s home. This one is pretty self-explanatory, you can be sure that any locals visiting your home will show you the same respect. 
  3. Shaking hands is not customary. This is another one that has taken some getting used to for me. When you meet a new person a simple hello, nice to meet you is enough. In respect for you as a westerner they may want to shake hands, but I do not expect this. Hugging also doesn’t appear to be as common as in America, at least not with people you’ve recently met. 
  4. When handing your business card to someone, it is customary to hold the card on the corners and present it with 2 hands, as if you were handing someone a gift. Don’t worry about this custom when giving your card to other foreigners; it’s a little unnecessary in my opinion. When receiving someone’s business card it is polite to take a moment to read the information on the card before putting it in your pocket. Also, don’t put their card in your back pocket, I’ve read that when you sit down you may be symbolizing sitting on the person. 
  5. I’m no expert on this one, but religion is not popular in China, statistics show that the number of people in China that consider themselves religious is among the lowest in the world. Traditionally, Buddhism was popular and is still in practice with older generations as well as within active temples and monasteries throughout the country. That being said, the Chinese word for religion actually means superstition and most people do not find a use for it. 

As I said, this in no way an exhaustive list, especially if you are planning on doing business with Chinese companies, there is much more to learn. This list does include what has been the most common things coming up in my day to day life…I hope you find it helpful.

If you have some additional items you’d like to add…please leave a comment!

Brett Isis
Founder & Director of Teaching Nomad Shanghai, China

P.S. Many people choose teaching abroad as a way to travel, see the world and save money for more travel. Not many people share their travel adventures as well as Robert @ http://leaveyourdailyhell.com . Robert has also done a year teaching abroad in China and is now embarking on a new trip in Europe. Check out his blog for all kinds of informative and entertaining posts from all over the world.


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