SDE International - Shenzhen

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When you move to China, there are plenty of huge cultural differences to adjust to. A collectivistic culture. A hierarchical society. The importance of saving face.

There are also countless tiny cultural difference between China and Western countries. Preparing for these changes will not only make your transition easier, it will also impress the Chinese people you cross paths with in your everyday life. When we travel, most arguments and tensions can be chalked up to cultural misunderstandings. If you know what you’re getting into, you’ll better understand your Chinese acquaintances.

1. Staring

Growing up in America, I was taught that it’s rude to stare at people.

In China, staring is socially acceptable. As a foreigner, locals ogle at you. A lot. People gawk at me when I do something as normal as walking down the street. They even sneak photos of me. (I say “sneak.” They’re not as sly as they think they are.) The times I’ve done things out of the ordinary, such as crying my eyes out in public or having my hair dyed pink, you can guarantee everyone was watching.

Don’t be freaked out when you’re getting unwanted attention. Although I know people are always watching me, I never feel in danger.

2. Taking off Shoes

In China, it’s respectful to take off your shoes before entering another person’s home. Usually, the person offers you a pair of house shoes to keep you comfortable.

People even remove their shoes before walking into their own apartments. While this ritual initially struck me as tedious and silly, eventually it hit me that the streets in China aren’t usually as clean as those in America. It’s actually much more sanitary to remove shoes before walking around one’s home. I would never even consider wearing my shoes, then propping my feet up on the sofa in China. Gross!

3. Drinking Water

First of all, it’s unsanitary to drink tap water in China. This isn’t too much of an inconvenience however, because bottled water is cheap and readily accessible. Also, you’ll probably discover that your office has its own water cooler.

Second, Chinese people don’t like drinking cold beverages, even when it’s hot outside. They always drink hot water or tea. If you’re at a restaurant and ask for water, they serve it to you hot. If you want a glass of ice water, order “yībēi bīng shuǐ,” and the server will accommodate you.

4. Drinking on Public Transportation

While buses are lenient about eating and drinking on board, the metro system is pretty strict. In Mainland China, bottled water is allowed, but you’d better not try to sneak some coffee or soda. I live in Shenzhen, and if a policeman catches you drinking on the metro, he can fine you up to 500 yuan.

In places like Taiwan, not even water is permissible. On a recent trip to Taipei, my husband had a cold, so he carried a bottle of water with him. Every time he took a swig on the metro, a citizen publicly scolded him.

On the plus side, metro cars are very clean as a result of this rule.

5. Hugging

Hugging is not common in China. I hug my female co-teachers under special circumstances, or if we’ve had a few drinks. However, co-ed hugs are almost unheard of. My husband and I both have several close female Chinese friends. If he tries to hug them, even in front of me, they reject the gesture because it’s viewed as improper.

This cultural difference may not seem like a big deal, but it’s been difficult for us. We are major huggers!

6. Talking Loudly

China has a loud culture. In America, we generally try to keep noise in public to a minimum. When our cell phone rings in the office or at a restaurant, we step out of the room or whisper, out of respect to others.

Talking loudly on the phone is not perceived as disrespectful in China. No one whispers. If anything, they yell into the phone to make sure they’re heard. Eventually, you learn to tune it out.


SDE International - Shenzhen

New teaching jobs in China interviewing now, apply today!

About the Author:

Laura Grace Tarpley
Laura Grace Tarpley is a freelance writer and English teacher in Shenzhen, China. She enjoys tinkering with crossword puzzles, reading Bill Bryson books, and taking naps on her huge couch. Follow her travels on her Instagram and Twitter. Or you can check out her blog, Let’s Go, Tarpley!
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