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Section II: Living in China continued

Social Etiquette and Customs

There are a myriad of excellent books out there about business and social etiquette in China, one of which is Chinese Business Etiquette by Scott D. Seligman, and those particularly interested in this topic should consult books devoted exclusively to the subject. Consequently, this unit doesn't intend to cover every aspect of Chinese social etiquette, but only a few that foreign teachers are likely to encounter during their first six months in China. Readers are strongly advised to read unit on Mianzi and Guanxi, before commencing this unit as much what is written about face and relationships heavily informs the discussion that follows.

Have You Eaten?

Traditional Chinese Table Setting

A dinner invitation has a special and different meaning in the Middle Kingdom than it does in the West, as it is the most common form of gift-giving that exists and, therefore, it is rarely thought of or treated as just a social pleasantry as we might naturally assume. In China, two people are expected to maintain something of an unspoken yet, nevertheless, rigid "balance sheet" (referred to as bào or recompense) over time in regard to reciprocity: this ensures an harmonious long-term relationship.

Aside from being invited to a banquet dinner in your honor by your employer shortly after you first arrive—and this is not a face-giving gesture or favor (rén qíng) that is bestowed upon most—acceptance of a dinner invitation indicates that you are both prepared and willing to return the favor by responding favorably to some forthcoming request. On occasion, you will know why you have been invited out to dinner, as you would have already provided something of value—but, more often than not, you will be initially showered with a very elaborate dinner as a way of obligating you for what will soon follow.

If you are not certain of what will be expected of you in exchange for that dinner, you should not accept the invitation (gift) until you have first ascertained what that expectation will be. Instead, politely defer your decision, e.g., "That is so nice of you, but I'm wondering if we couldn't first sit down to a nice cup of tea so we can talk without distraction," invite the potential host for a cup of tea or coffee, and then encourage him to share with you what he has in mind. If you are willing and able to respond favorably to the request, allow him to pick up the tab, and indicate you accept his dinner invitation. If you don't feel a dinner is fair payment for what is being asked of you, then suggest a fee for the services that are being requested of you, and be sure to pick up the tab.

Aside from its gift-giving function, Chinese coworkers may invite you out to dinner as a way of simply befriending you or forging a beginning relationship (with the same expectation of reciprocity). In China, it is not customary at all to "go Dutch," and the one who makes the invitation is responsible for paying the entire check. In turn, you should extend an invitation at a later date, during which time you will pay the bill. Try to make certain that the dinner you buy is not significantly less or more in cost than the one you were invited to, and, related, it is considered a significant faux pas to place the Chinese in a position of obligation in which they might be unable or unwilling to return the favor at a later time (and rarely will they allow this to happen).

Gan Bei! and Table Manners

During a formal banquet or dinner, alcoholic beverages are served far more for toasting than they are for quenching thirst. You should never drink that beverage until after the first toast has been made, which is usually extended by the highest ranking official or person at the dinner. After the toast is made, it is customary to drink the entire serving (gān bēi) and then extend your arm a little forward while tilting the glass slightly downward to show that you have in fact emptied your glass.

Illustration of the proper way to toast in China

Among the more sophisticated and traditional Chinese, it is a significant social courtesy for the lower ranking member of the two parties to toast his glass below that of the person's he is toasting: The greater the disparity in social status, the more distance in height there should be between the lips of both glasses when they meet. You will make a very favorable impression, as well as give your Chinese colleague or host considerable face, by ceremoniously lowering your glass below his before the two glasses meet.

It is polite to try to sample every dish you are offered. Of course, the Chinese serve all meals "family style" and various dishes will be brought to the table and placed on a lazy susan. The lazy susan will be rotated in order to position the latest dish in front of the guest of honor, so it is customary to wait your turn until he or she has first sampled the dish. The first time around, only take a minimal amount of food from each serving plate. After everyone has had the opportunity to sample all the dishes, it is perfectly alright for you to take a second or even third helping, just as long as you are not the one to finish off the dish. In addition, it is best to leave a little bit of food remaining in your plate, as to "clean your plate" in China means that you are still hungry and that you have not been served enough food.

In China, it is not considered impolite to pick your teeth at the table with a toothpick after finishing a meal just as long as you cover your mouth with the other hand (there will always be an ample supply of toothpicks at the table). If you need to blow your nose, you should turn your head away from the table, or, better yet, just step a few feet away from the table before doing so.

Finally, when taking a break during the meal, be certain to lay your chopsticks down flat on top of your plate or rest the tapered ends on top of the small caddy positioned just to the right of your plate, if one has been provided. Under no circumstances you should ever stand the chopsticks upright inside a bowl of rice as this is reminiscent of the joss sticks that are used to mourn the dead, and doing so is considered quite insulting (it suggests you are wishing death upon the host or other guests).

Privacy and Personal Space

With more than 1.3 billion people in a land mass just smaller than that of the continental United States, privacy and personal space in China are at a premium. Consequently, the Chinese have a very different perspective on what constitutes appropriate social distance between two people than we do, and, in fact, there is no precise translation in Chinese for the English word privacy. This concept simply doesn't exist in the same way for most Chinese as it does for us.

Throughout your stay in China, you will often be asked numerous questions that we, as Westerners, consider to be very personal and even privileged information, e.g., "What is your salary?", "How much did you earn in your hometown?", and "How old is your girlfriend?" Related, you will commonly hear unsolicited and often unflattering assessments about yourself such as "You are a little too fat," "You look a little too old: you should shave off your beard" and "You should dress more warmly: it's getting colder now." These types of ad hominem commentaries are actually not intended to be insulting or patronizing, but, rather, are proffered to indicate an interest in you as a person and in your well-being.

Remember from our discussion in Mianzi and Guanxi, that the Chinese place an enormous amount of emphasis on protecting and nurturing those they are in close personal relationships with, namely family members and intimate friends. However, the polar opposite is true in regard to anyone outside the guanxi network, which partially explains why there is an absence of meaningful social welfare and charity organizations in China (and, in this particular regard, the Chinese are quite perplexed by Westerners as, from their perspective, we appear to treat complete strangers and those who are in desperate need far better than we do our own family and friends). Related, there is very little to no concern for public property and that which can be stolen will be. There is an expression in China that states you are not a real Chinese unless you have had four bicycles stolen from you. Scott Seligman, cited above, offers the following observation of Arthur Henderson Smith who worked as a missionary in China for 54 years, from 1872 to 1926, and wrote prolifically about his experiences:

Dr. Arthur H. Smith saw this trend equally clearly in the imperial China of 1894. "Not only do the Chinese feel no interest in that which belongs to the public," he wrote in Chinese Characteristics, "but all such property, if unprotected and available, is a mark for theft. Paving-stones are carried off for private use, and square rods of the brick facing to city walls gradually disappear… . It is a common observation among the Chinese that… there is no one so imposed upon and cheated as the Emperor," he added (p. 73).

Despite their relative disregard for public property, the Chinese nevertheless value social harmony above all else, and believe that individual expression and personal freedom should be subjugated to the needs of the group as a whole. In public, they tend to exercise Quaker-like restraint in regard to emotional expression, and do not see much merit in being direct or confrontational. Consequently, they will avoid getting involved in anything that isn't clearly their personal or family business. Related, while personal space and property are highly valued and cared for, community space or public areas—including the streets and even the inside of apartment buildings, especially the stairwells—are often filthy and typically strewn with debris.

One rainy, dreary, and cold spring afternoon, I had just taken a new foreign teacher to open up a mobile phone account. All of a sudden, we heard the screeching sound of breaks and turned our heads towards the street to witness a very close near-miss between a car and an oncoming truck. Apparently, a manhole cover had worked its way loose and, as each car had previously rolled over it in succession, it eventually dislodged itself completely uncovering a large hole in the middle of the street that was not easily discernable until the drivers were almost too close to do anything about it. Over the next few minutes, we observed several more such near-misses until this young colleague and I decided to take matters into our own hands. We left the building we had been watching this from, entered the street, stopped traffic, lifted up the manhole cover and returned it to its proper place. We returned to China Mobile to a round of applause, with an explicit observation from one of the store managers that no Chinese would have ever taken it upon himself to correct this problem as we two foreigners had just done.

Business Cards

Business cards have a far more important social meaning in China than they do in the West and anyone of significance is expected to not only have them but to carry them on their person for introductions and greetings. If your school doesn't automatically provide you with name cards, ask if you can purchase them from the school or have someone take you to a stationer's to have them made. They are relatively inexpensive here.

In China, it is considered polite to both receive and offer business cards with both hands (gently grasp each end of the card laterally between your thumbs and index fingers and extend both arms), especially when receiving them from and offering them to anyone who is of a higher social rank. When receiving a business card, take a few moments to examine it before putting it in your pocket—this denotes both interest and respect. This practice of using both hands to receive or pass anything is quite common, and you will notice that waitresses, for example, will often receive your money and provide your change with both hands.

Lucky Thirteen?

Elevator Floor Numbering in China
The number 14 is considered so unlucky in China, that floor number is replaced by 13A inside a new Guangzhou apartment building.

Although modern and well-educated Chinese reject superstition on an intellectual level, on a purely emotional basis, China is still very much a country that subscribes to the importance of luck and fate.

The Chinese believe that the numbers eight (especially) and also six are very lucky numbers. One mobile phone number with a string of eights, i.e., 138-8888-8888 was selling in one city for 50,000 yuan (USD $7,000). The numbers four and especially 14 are considered very unlucky in China as the spoken words for "to die" (shi si3) and the number 14 (shi si4) are separated by only one tone.

Related, one will commonly see an array of fortune tellers positioned alongside the city's main streets selling their insights into your future for 20 yuan. And although most Chinese of the younger generation dismiss the significance of astrology in their day-to-day lives, the majority of college students we surveyed indicated that they will most definitely consult an astrologer before getting married for the purpose of selecting a "lucky day."

Given the heavy influence of guanxi in their lives, most Chinese believe that success is as much (or more) the result of good fortune than it is self-efficacy and hard work. Restated, most Chinese operate in their day-to-day lives from the perspective of an external locus of control while most Western people function from an internal locus of control, i.e., we believe that hard work, talent, and determination account primarily for success in life: As a rule, the Chinese do not.

Gift Giving

Related to the above discussion regarding lucky numbers, there are certain cultural norms you should bear in mind when selecting a gift for any occasion, and those occasions are the same in China as they are in the West.

The most common items used as gifts in China are baskets of fruit, boxes of candy and cookies, pastries, expensive tea, cartons of cigarettes, and bottles of decent wine or high-grade bái jiǔ (the country's national alcoholic drink distilled from sorghum). However, unlike in the West (lucky seven), odd numbers are generally considered to be unlucky in China as the Chinese have an old saying that "blessings come in pairs." Consequently, gifts should be presented in pairs or in a group of even numbers, e.g., a dozen roses would be fine but a single red rose would not be.

Gifts should be wrapped in bright festive colors such as red, pink and yellow. Avoid black and white paper (or decorative bags) as these colors are associated with funerals. Similarly, clocks (as well as all time pieces) are considered to be very inappropriate gifts in China as the sounds for the characters used for "clock" and "attending a funeral" (or death) are very close.

During the Spring Festival, it is considered good social form to present a red envelope (hóng bāo) with money to the child of close friends, important acquaintances, and business associates. The amount of money will vary depending on the status of the person and the closeness of the relationship. Related, if invited to a wedding reception—usually held several weeks or even months after the marriage is registered—a red envelope containing a minimum of 200 yuan per person or couple is considered appropriate (or more depending on the nature of the relationship). Particularly close friends may opt to present what is usually an expensive gift (presented in an even number of items) in lieu of cash.

Chinese still make house calls

One custom you should brace yourself for is that if you are particularly valued at your place of employment, and you must call in sick one day, you can expect a visit from a small delegation of school personnel varying in status depending on what your perceived importance is to the school. This delegation will typically come bearing fruit or some other food items, and they will only stay for about 20 to 30 minutes or so. For most Westerners, about the last thing they want to do when they are sick with fever, or some other ailment, is to have to get out of bed to receive guests, but this is the norm in China. The visit is intended to demonstrate both respect and concern, and you should be gracious about it no matter how miserable you may be feeling at the time.

Public Displays of Affection

Four Girlfriends
Caught a shot of these four friends huddled together just as they were leaving the store. Typical sight in China.

Although this is slowly changing in China, particularly among college students in major cities, it is still generally considered inappropriate to display physical affection towards a member of the opposite sex in public. Elderly Chinese couples may be seen holding hands as they embark on their evening stroll together, but, typically, middle-aged and younger couples will not engage in the same practice.

Conversely—and paradoxically so perhaps—it is not unusual to see two members of the same sex expressing fraternal physical affection towards each other. Occasionally, one will notice two close male friends (usually teenagers) with their arms around each other's shoulders or waists and, quite often, you will observe two girls or women (within and across all age groups) holding hands or interlocking arms while walking in public as two very young Western sisters typically might when crossing the street together. For many Westerners this sight does take some getting used to, because it is one typically associated with homosexuality in our culture—but it has absolutely no such meaning in China. From our perspective, it is one of the more delightfully innocent aspects of Chinese culture that we as foreigners find to be utterly endearing.

Did you have a nice nap?

As is customary throughout the Mediterranean countries, the Chinese, particularly those in the southern and southeastern regions, take what could be called an afternoon siesta that lasts from approximately 12 noon to 2:30 p.m. every day (in other words, a two-and-a-half hour lunch). This practice will be adhered to at any private or public school you work for, in that classes will never be scheduled during this time frame, nor will your FAO be anywhere to be found during siesta. Many foreigners who have lived in China for awhile tend to follow suit. Irrespective of whether you too decide to nap in the afternoon or not, you will need to keep in mind that many Chinese do, so if you have something that needs to be attended to, it is highly advisable that you do so before 11:30 in the morning or after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Although public offices and facilities (post offices, police stations, hospitals, banks, etc.) are technically open during siesta, they will often be grossly understaffed. Local, family-owned stores and businesses will also be open, but the owners will most likely be sound asleep in the back room (or on a cot right inside the store front). On the other hand, showing up at the Bank of China or post office between 2:00 and 2:30 is a great way to beat the crowds.

Going My Way?

About 65 to 70 percent of China is still rural and agricultural and, as such, many Chinese who move to the cities have never ridden inside an elevator before. A few will push the wrong button (typically they will press the "up" button in order to summon the elevator "up" when they want to go down) and, as such, the elevator will often stop at floors that have absolutely no one waiting. When the elevator eventually does make it to the first floor, it is not unheard of for those who have been waiting to hurriedly push their way into the elevator without first allowing the people inside to exit. It's one of those small yet common annoyances that gets overlooked by foreigners who have been here for awhile.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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