By James Tan
China can feel overwhelming to first time travelers, but not just because of its huge crowds and congested streets. Cultural differences, too, can be a huge surprise to tourists. These differences can lead foreign visitors to come off as rude — even when they don’t intend to be.
The following 10 tips will help you avoid any cultural misunderstandings during your adventures.
- Don’t tip — some think it’s rude!
Despite being nearly ubiquitous in much of the western world, tipping is considered inappropriate or even rude in China. Servers in restaurants and taxi drivers do not expect a tip and might even consider it offensive — to them it implies you consider them to be undervalued by their employer.
- Don’t “feed the dead” by leaving your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice.
Sticking chopsticks into your bowl of rice is considered extremely rude, due to its resemblance to incense-burning rituals meant to honor the dead.
- Being asked about your age and your income is normal.
In sharp contrast to the west, asking personal questions about someone’s age or income is perfectly acceptable in China. So don’t be offended if you’re asked! The person asking is merely making conversation.
- Don’t drink by yourself.
At meals, locals enjoy drinking beer out of small glasses — downing the glass each time. It is customary and even respectful to tell a friend to ganbei (bottoms up), and then drink together. By contrast, taking sips of beer by yourself can be seen as disrespectful and exclusive.
- Bring some gifts…
Gift giving is a very common practice when making new friends in China. Small items such as sweets, cigarettes or perfumes are very well received. It is advisable to bring a few small gifts with you before you go.
- … but make sure none of those gifts are clocks.
Saying “give a clock as a gift” and “pay one’s last respects to the dead” are phonetically identical in Mandarin (songzhong).
- It’s alright if you don’t finish all the food.
Going out to dinner for the first time with a local friend in China can seem like a crazy experience — particularly because of the excessive amount of food that will be brought to the table. But don’t worry, you don’t have to finish all the food. Ordering too much is seen as a sign of prosperity.
- Calling out to a waiter or waitress is normal.
In contrast to the west, waiters and waitresses will not come to your table in a restaurant unless they are called for. Loudly calling out “fuwuyuan!” (waiter/waitress) is a perfectly acceptable — and even necessary — practice in crowded Chinese restaurants.
- Pay attention to numbers.
The number four is phonetically similar to the word for death in Mandarin (si). You’ll notice that many buildings don’t have a fourth floor listed. The number eight (ba), however, is seen as lucky, due to its resemblance to the word fa, meaning to become rich.
- Refusing is polite.
When being offered something like another dish of food or a seat on the subway, it is common to refuse at least twice before eventually accepting what’s offered. If you really intend to refuse something, you’ll have to refuse three times or more.
James Tan is co-founder and COO of Jetbay, a venture-backed, Silicon Valley company that is the world’s largest travel research and booking platform for China, and managing partner of QuestVC, China’s leading venture fund for technology companies. Prior to this, James was the co-founder and COO of 55tuan.com (NASDAQ: WOWO), one of China’s largest e-commerce companies with an annual transaction volume near $1 billion. http://jetbay.com/