You’re visiting China, which is a great opportunity to experience another culture. But are you ready for every facet of that culture?
If not, don’t panic. There’s still time to pick up a few pointers before you have to grab your passport and hop on the plane.
Above all else, remember that you’re a visitor, and you should treat the people you run across with respect. People in other countries have an often complicated view of Americans, describing them as both arrogant and friendly.
Try your best to be kind. Keep an open mind whenever possible.
An open mind isn’t all you’ll need, though, as Chinese etiquette contains several unique quirks. Read on to find out more tips for traveling to China.
Chinese Etiquette: Greeting People
When you’re greeting American friends, you probably greet them based on whoever you see first, right? That’s not the case in China.
In China, you’ll be expected to greet people based on age and seniority. So if you’re meeting a three-generation family, greet the grandparents first. It’s considered the most respectful way to do things.
Do not bow to a Chinese person. That’s a thing in Japan, not China, and you do not want to be seen as an ignorant American who gets the two countries confused.
A handshake is acceptable, but remember to keep a light touch. You’re meeting someone, not attempting to intimidate them. Squeezing someone’s hand can come across as aggressive.
Speaking of aggressive: It’s typical for Americans to interrupt each other, especially if they’re surrounded by friends whom they feel especially at ease around.
In China, it’s especially uncouth to interrupt an older person and try to change the subject since older people are given a lot of leeways to control the flow of conversation.
You should know that Chinese manners see nothing wrong with asking questions like “Are you married?” or “Why don’t you have children?” Dodge the question if you feel it’s inappropriate, but know it’s not on the same level as your American great-aunt asking why your boyfriend hasn’t proposed yet.
Personal space looks much different in China than it does in America. Except for major cities like New York, Americans can get by without having to be in extreme proximity to another person.
When we Americans are in close quarters, we tend to feel mildly uncomfortable at best and downright claustrophobic at worst. Space is at a premium in China, especially personal space. The concept of a “private bubble” doesn’t exist there like it does in the States.
If you feel like you’re in the middle of a human sandwich, there’s not much you can do except try to breathe and remember it’s not personal. In America, people who are standing in line will often be diligent about not getting too close to other people. That boundary doesn’t exist in China.
Incident physical contact is one thing, but casual touch is another matter entirely. If you’re tempted to high-five someone or slap on the back in a congratulatory manner, resist the urge.
Going Out in China
Chinese social customs require guests to take off their shoes when entering someone’s home. Some American homes do this, but it’s considered the exception rather than the rule in all but the fanciest homes.
Don’t be startled if there’s a lot of burping among diners during a meal. A loud burp at an American table might prompt either laughter or an apology, but neither of those things are likely in China.
Bodily functions are considered a natural part of life. That includes things like spitting and passing gas.
Don’t seat yourself in China. Wait for the host to tell you where to go.
Try to have a little bit of every dish that’s in front of you. Compliment the food, but don’t leave an empty plate.
Your mother may have told you it was rude not to eat all your food, but Chinese people view things differently. You should find a happy medium between leaving a lot of leftovers and leaving an empty plate since the latter is seen as a suggestion that the host wasn’t prepared enough.
If someone at your table is making a toast, raise your glass and join in.
This may sound bizarre, but if you’re eating with chopsticks, don’t place the chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It’s seen as too similar to a ritual that’s designed to honor the dead.
At the end of a meal, there’s no need to pull out your calculator to try and figure out how much to tip. Tipping isn’t necessary.
Giving and Accepting Gifts
If your mother gives you a gift, do you decline it? At most, Americans might say something like “You shouldn’t have” even as they immediately unwrap the present.
When traveling in China, you may meet someone and feel it’s appropriate to give them a small gift. If you do, you should expect them to refuse it initially because they don’t want to come across as greedy.
Don’t assume that they don’t really want it. Offering it one or two more times should be enough to get them to accept it.
When they do accept, don’t stare at them and wait for them to open it in front of you. Similarly, if someone gives you a gift, it’s appropriate to be thankful even as you set the gift aside to open later.
Be wary of giving certain gifts, though. For instance, clocks are commonly connected with death, and green hats are associated with infidelity.
Additional Travel Tips
Some Chinese social customs will seem more random and confusing than others but remember that you’re the visitor in this situation, and it’s up to you to try to adjust to local customs.
That’s part of the deal travelers accept when they go somewhere new. The longer you stay, the more natural Chinese etiquette will seem.
Once you return from China, we’d love to help you plan your next trip. Check out our site when you’re ready to get another stamp on your passport.