It is the bane of the business traveler in an unfamiliar culture: making a comment or gesture that is meant to be friendly but instead offends or embarrasses the hosts. Happily, such cross-cultural faux pas are no longer deal killers. Globalization has narrowed the cultural divide, and these days the Chinese are experienced enough in dealing with foreigners to shrug off such indiscretions. Even stabbing chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leaving them there (an act of hostility among Chinese because it signifies death) would be laughed off (albeit nervously) by locals. What truly matters is a friendly attitude and a patient manner. Below is a list of 9 things to avoid.
9) Discussing the 3 T’s (and no, we don’t mean Michael Jackson’s brothers). Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen are must-avoid conversation topics. While many foreigners enjoy discussing these topics amongst themselves, broaching any of the T-Topics with mainlanders is a definite no-no. Not only may bringing them up as discussion topics lead to uncomfortable conversations with your host, volunteering your opinion on these issues too often is a sure way to have immigration officials knocking on your door.
8) Using unlucky numbers. Much like we have Friday the 13th where every innocuous item suddenly morphs into a death trap lying in wait, China has its fair share of unlucky numbers as well and you should avoid them at all costs. Four is a homonym for death in Chinese and in northern China, the numbers 2 and 250 are used to refer to someone who is dimwitted, while 2b is short for “stupid woman”. The Chinese language is filled with embarrassing puns and deceptive homonyms and it is impossible for foreigners to avoid every pitfall. However, the Chinese will be very appreciative of any you manage to avoid on your road to cultural fluency.
7) The lazy, 1 handed hand off. When giving (and receiving) things always use both hands. It may seem like a trivial thing to you, but this small gesture goes a long way toward demonstrating politeness as well as cultural sensitivity and awareness. Using both hands shows that you’re interested in the person you’re dealing with and that you’re committed to or serious about what you’re discussing and doing. When presenting a gift to someone, always use both hands to show that it comes from the heart. And if you’re the lucky recipient of a gift, upon receiving it, put it aside and open it later to avoid looking greedy.
6) Practicing your drum solo … with your chopsticks. This is not the same as our pots and pans setup on the kitchen floor we all had in our youth. While a glorious reminder of greener pastures and brighter days to us, it’s actually quite offensive to Chinese people so go ahead and exercise (see #5) a little self-control.
5) Crying when someone calls you fat. Chin(s) up! It wasn’t meant the same way it would be intended back home. The intention behind it wasn’t to be mean, people are simply very blunt here – your nose is big, your hair looks bad, your acne is tragic. So dry your eyes, buy your gym membership and begin exacting your revenge (just in case it was a jab).
4) Throwing a tantrum in public. We’ve all been there and we’ve all wanted to. However, those of us who have will tell you that it gets you absolutely nowhere. Unless you consider the now viral video of your hysterics blazing around the Chinese internet an accomplishment. China can be frustrating, but whatever you are out to accomplish will only potentially be accomplished if you chill out and deep breathe. (And maybe not even then, so best to increase your odds of success in every which way possible.)
3) Stepping out in your favorite green hat. St. Patty’s day is not a thing here, so you truly have no excuse. But just in case you’re still tempted, let me help convince you not to. In China “wearing a green hat” is an expression Chinese use when a woman is cheating on her husband or boyfriend because the phrase sounds similar to the Chinese word for cuckold. Wearing, and giving, green hats are a definite no-no unless you want to get craned in yo face.
2) Acknowledging that you are in fact awesome. Humility goes a long way here, so when someone falls over themselves to point out the obvious – be it your good looks, unrelenting charm or your to die for kitchen skills – pretend that you had no idea. I know, I know. Trust me, as someone who possesses all of the above and then some, I know. But no one likes an egotistical laowai, so reel it in and get to work polishing your subtle humblebrag skills.
1) Bringing your beer into a Muslim noodle shop. Let us pause for a moment of seriousness. This is decently easy to overlook, but a word of wisdom – not cool. You see, your innocent roadie is actually a huge problem once it crosses the sacred threshold of our beloved noodle shops. As drinking is traditionally not done in the culture, merely bringing it inside is a massive offense and incredibly disrespectful. Down that stuff outside, dispose of it respectfully and then proceed to stumble on in.
By Ana, Resident Princess at Teaching Nomad
About our company: Teaching Nomad is an American owned and operated education recruitment company based in Shanghai, China. Our goal and purpose is to help great teachers find great teaching jobs. Year round, we have hundreds of teaching job vacancies. Whether your goal is to be an ESL teacher or teach in an international school, we have a teaching job for you. You can browse jobs online at www.teachingnomad.com/job-search for the latest job openings. Teaching Nomad is here to make teaching in China easier, so please feel free to reach out and contact us with any questions or inquiries!