A LESSON IN CHINESE ETIQUETTE – THE DON’TS

Another piece in the Chinese etiquette series and a rather important one at that. The Don’ts.


TEMPLES, SHRINES AND DEATH –

Tradition and religion still play an important part in the modern Chinese household and it vital that you do not, under any circumstances, disrespect temples.

Do not walk into a temple with your shoes on or point the sole/bottom of your feet towards the alter/shrine/people. Simply avoid this by crossing your legs when you sit (crisscross apple sauce) or pulling your knees up so they are facing the floor. Don’t be loud, obnoxious or disrespectful towards any of the people, statues or religious objects and refrain from any other way in which you could possibly come across as a douche.

Do not engage in casual speech about death (or deceased) unless you have a very good reason to. The Chinese avoid this subject like the plague and DO NOT like to be reminded of the topic in any way. Because of this, avoid giving white coloured items as they represent death such as white flowers, gift wrapping or ribbons, do not gift clocks as they are a reminder of time and do not give anything that reminds of the number 4 (Si 四) as it carries the same sound as the word for death (Si死).

THE POLITICS OF TALKING POLITICS –

Just like most people in countries with challenging political situations (think America) the Chinese do not want to be associated with the choices their leaders make as they may not necessarily represent their own views. Moreover, the Chinese do not like uncomfortable topics that could result in them “losing face” (read more about this peculiar topic HERE) or topics that are simply awkward. On top of that, they might not be comfortable discussing such political minefields they may simply have been taught differently. For example, the discussion of Hong Kong or Taiwan. According to Western views, Taiwan is a separate country, however, to them, it is most definitely not and the mere thought it would not be a part of greater China is simply an insult.

YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS –

Amazingly, for a people that can be so pushy and seem to have different definitions of personal space, they do not like to be touched. The Chinese are less affectionate, at least out in the open and they do not engage in smooching in public. They also do not touch when first introduced, let alone kiss or hug. When you meet a stranger simply greet them by saying “NiHao” (你好) or “NinHao”( 您好)to be extra polite. Also, don’t bow, it’s not Japan. Finally, avoid touching people’s heads (or hair), as this part of the body is considered to be sacred and is not to be touched by some stranger.

THE GIFT THAT MOST DEFINITELY DOES NOT KEEP GIVING –

The Chinese can be quite peculiar in general, but when it comes to gifts, they are undoubtedly even more so.

Avoid gifting cut flowers or flowers that have an unpleasant smell, dark coloured items or gift wrapping as these are considered bad luck, and even when it’s pouring, do not gift someone an umbrella as the Chinese word for umbrella (San 伞) carries the same sound as “to split up”. Do not gift (or wear for that matter) a green hat as this reminds of the phrase “to wear a green hat” (Dai Lu Maozi戴绿帽子) which translates to something along the lines of “to be betrayed by a cheating wife”.
Lastly, unlike here in the West, the Chinses do not open gifts straight after receiving them, they wait until they are at home to unpack them, and so should you.

THE DON’T-MAKE-A-FOOL-OUT-OF-YOURSELF DINNER PROTOCOL –

When invited to dinner by a Chinese, it is the custom that the host both decides and orders for the whole table and picks up the bill at the end of the meal. If you are a picky eater, ever so politely let the host know what things you are really not comfortable eating so he can order accordingly. Additionally, don’t start eating as soon as the food comes out, take the last piece of food on the tray or do not get offended when, not if, people burp or slurp (read more about these practices HERE).

An extra pair of chopsticks will be provided on the table. Use these to take food from the communal plate and transfer it to your own. Do not eat using these and make sure to place them back after using them. Do not play with your chopsticks, use them to point to people or things, put them behind your ear, pretend to be a walrus by jabbing them in your mouth, or stick them in a bowl of food as this reminds of incense at a funeral and refers to death.
China does not have a tipping culture, in fact, tipping is considered an offence as they believe it is the establishment’s responsibility to ensure your enjoyment after all.

DO LIKE THE ESKIMOS –

In certain areas in China, usually containing a Tibetan population, pointing is considered rude. Best is to use your full hand, palm facing upwards and fingers flat to gesture to something. Alternatively, do as my grandmother imposed on my mother when she was young, and do like the Eskimos do, point using your bottom lip….

THERE IS A RIGHT WAY TO ACCEPT A COMPLIMENT, AND IT IS NOT THE WAY WE DO IT –

According to the Chinese, compliments should not ever be accepted graciously. Instead, one is supposed to be super humble and simply disagree with the praise.

DO NOT EXPECT TO BE NUNCHUCKED IN THE FACE-

I know this may come as a surprise, but China is not a country full of Jacky Chans or Bruce Li’s. Although, when I arrived in Beijing to study there, the Hutong school (read more about my experiences studying in Beijing HERE) did send for me to be picked up at the airport and to my delighted amazement, I got picked up by Bruce Li himself, 1.71 m, black hair, died 41 years ago… Believe it or not, the building next to my apartment was owned by Jacky Chan! Imagine my disappointment when it all went downhill from there as I did, not even once, get karate chopped by ANYONE.

TO QUEUE OR NOT TO QUEUE?

Let me save you about three days in waiting time. In contrast to the guidelines of personal space, rules of touching and general politeness, there are times where you really should, most definitely, not be polite and wait patiently in the queue. I promise you, you will be waiting FOREVER as everybody else cuts in in front of you. Here you really do have to be pushy!

THE COLOUR CONFUSION –

To make things just a little more complicated, although red is considered to be an auspicious colour, you should never write a Chinese person’s name in red. According to tradition, names of deceased are written in red on gravestones.

DO NOT TAKE OFFENCE –

Finally, please, do not take offence to the sometimes “Western interpretation” of lack of manners such as spitting (try living in a country with that much air pollution for a little while and you will find yourself doing the same), burping (a sing of a meal enjoyed), chewing with mouth open, slurping (just like wine, adds oxygen to food/tea and improves taste), walking into you in crowded places, it’s a crowded country and they really do mean well.

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