As an expat, it is usual to experience culture shock in China since the customs vary considerably. You may put yourself into an embarrassing situation since you do not know the Chinese etiquette and mistake incorrect intentions. Although you are not required to behave entirely like locals, it’s better to know some customs in order to avoid problems. As with almost everything in the giant country of China this does not apply to all Chinese people.

1. They tend to decline compliments

“Your English is very good!” “No, no, my English is so-so.” Is not a rare case that foreigners will come across during their stay in China. Even what you say is the truth but not flattering or polite, typically Chinese refuse to admit it. In fact, it’s a polite behavior for Chinese to avoid boasting and being self-congratulatory. Instead, being humble and tactful is the usual way of Chinese dealing with relationships.

2. They do not like losing face

For Chinese, “face” is probably the most important thing in their social life. Unlike Western countries, they prefer not to say things in a straight way in case it will hurt the feeling of others and make them lose face. If they invite you, they do not like to be declined by an excuse sounds “not-a-big-deal” to them even this is the fact. Awkward silence is another thing Chinese do not want to see as it may show that they are not willing and hospitable. To help them gain face, you could try compliment or accept the offer graciously.

3. Host nearly always pays the bill

This is not surprising to encounter a situation that everyone is rushing and pushing each other in order to pay the bill in China. It is just another way of gaining face for Chinese since if the guest pays the bill, the host will feel embarrassed and ashamed and may be the one to be blamed for not being hospitable Although sometimes hosts are probably “fighting” to pay, the behavior of eager and willing of doing this is always appreciated.

4. Gifts are important

Bringing gifts is seen as an important and polite thing when visiting others. Traditionally, the value of the gift depends on the relationship, meaning choosing a right gift is of great significance. Dry goods, fruit baskets and snacks are the kind of the gifts everyone is glad to accept. However, you do not have to take it extremely seriously as it is mostly for significant visits, not for every day visit.

5. “No” doesn’t mean no

As a guest, Chinese usually refuse drinks or foods a few times when visiting others. But if the host insists on making the offer, then they are glad to accept. In fact, the refusal doesn’t mean the guests do not feel hungry or thirsty. It is because in traditional Chinese etiquette, without several refusals, you appear to be greedy to accept them.

6. Avoid complaining

Usually it is not a good idea to complain during a visit to Chinese unless you are very close to each other. For example, even if the food is very terrible, you should try your best to avoid saying anything bad about it. On occasion you are required to tell the truth (if they know your thoughts), or you really want to and feel the need to complain, then try to say it as politely as possible.

7. Meal and chopsticks

In China, it is common for the food to be served via large communal dishes, which is different from the tradition of western countries. Typically, it is only allowed to move your chopsticks until everyone is seated and the respected person should have the food first (the tradition may differ in different places). It is a good idea to observe how others serve the food since sometimes there are communal chopsticks you may not notice, and you must use them instead of your own ones. Occasionally an eager host may try to place food on your plate to show his/her hospitality. 

8. Tea culture

Tea culture has a very long history in China. So serving tea is always seen as a polite way to entertain guests. Usually every time you drink the tea, they will add more tea instantly. Don’t feel it is impolite to stop drinking. If you feel enough, just so do. Moreover, finger tapping, which is using your three fingers to tap on the table when your cup is filled, is very popular in South China. This is a polite way to appreciate the tea serving and the origin is back to Qing dynasty. 

9. Red envelopes (Hongbao)

Without any doubt, red envelope is a must when there is Chinese celebration such as wedding, huge birthday party and hundred days feast. Red envelopes usually contain money and the amount of money mostly depends on your relationship with the host (sometimes due to the wealth). Typically Chinese will put from 100RMB to 500RMB to the envelope. On occasion you are required to write your name on the envelope if your red envelopes have a certain amount of money, say, 500RMB or more.

10. Superstition

“What is your star sign?” As western astrology is gaining popularity in China these years, we cannot deny the fact that Chinese are fond of superstition, no matter it is fengshui, reading palms, western astrology or any other similar things. Here, I won’t talk about this complicated subject in detail and instead, only mention some of the typical customs. As for numbers, 4 is deemed a very unlucky number in the mind of Chinese because it sounds like “death” in Chinese. On the contrary, 8 is a favorite number as 8’s Chinese pronunciation is alike to “wealth”. In terms of color, traditionally Chinese prefer red colors which means boom and luck, while a green hat is un-welcomed by men because wearing green hat suggests their girls have been stolen by others. There are many other taboos in China, for instance, do not break things in Chinese wedding (if this happens they would try to say something good) and do not give clock as a gift (it may mean you wish that person to die!).

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