China is jam-packed full of diverse people, cultures and religions. This makes it an exciting country to explore but it is important to remember that, while working in China, you aren’t just a tourist anymore. So many of us travel with the idea of wanting to ‘eat where the locals eat’ or wanting to ‘do the things the locals do’ and this should also apply to the way we conduct ourselves and how we deal with others in that country. This article provides a brief set of tips and guidelines for behavior in various settings in China.
Greetings in China are not too dissimilar to those in South Africa. The eldest member of the group should be greeted first and one should say a person’s title before their name. For
example, “Hello Teacher John” or “Mr Long”. Handshakes are an acceptable way of greeting.
The Chinese pride themselves in being generous hosts. If you are invited to go eat with Chinese people, it is generally expected for you to ask where you should sit as seating positions often say a lot about status and social standing. You should only begin eating once the host has sat down and begun to eat. Chopsticks are normally used for everything except soups – if you are unsure of what utensil to use, just watch what others are doing. It is polite to leave a little bit of food on your plate and never finish the last bite on a sharing platter. If plates or platters are left empty, hosts may assume they did not provide enough food and feel embarrassed. The most important thing to remember, whether you are eating by yourself or with others, is never leave your chopsticks upright in a dish. This is reminiscent of a sacrificial ritual and considered bad luck and rude.
It is understandable that you, a new teacher, may want to provide a little gift or token of South Africa to your new employer or host. This would be fine, just make sure you abide by their gift-giving customs. Gifts are always given and received with both hands and are usually never opened in front of the gift giver. Avoid giving items in uneven numbers or wrapped in white or black – these are considered bad luck or morbid. Red is a safe bet in terms of gift colour or wrapping, however do not write their name or the message in red. Do not be offended if someone refuses to accept your gift once or twice before accepting. This is a common practice which is thought to be a modest and polite way of receiving a gift.
Be Mindful of The Region
As we mentioned, China is a beautifully diverse country. Each region and city is different. Before you go somewhere, be it to visit or to live, be sure to research the culture and dominant religion. There are 5 major religions in China. Some areas near the Silk Road are predominantly Muslim, while other areas in China may be predominantly Buddhist or Christian. These religions will greatly impact the social etiquette in the area.
Visiting Buddhist Temples
Speaking of religious etiquette, you will no doubt visit a number of temples and pagodas during your time in China. Buddhists generally are very welcoming of tourists and visitors to their temples and visitors’ donations often support the temple and monastery. Visitors should remove hats and shoes when entering the temples, especially in the inner sanctums. You will see obvious rows of shoes by doorways and that is a key indicator of when and where to take your shoes off. All people should whisper or remain silent and avoid using phones or cameras. One should never point but rather gesture with an open hand, palm up and fingers pressed together. Avoid touching monks and walking between a someone praying and the statue they are praying to.
Lastly, Don’t Be Offended!
Remember, you are the stranger in the scenario. It is likely that you will come across some things in China that may seem strange to you but it is perfectly standard to them. Try not look offended or grossed out, rather keep your thoughts to yourself or embrace the experience. Some things which are rude or uncomfortable to Westerners, like asking personal questions; spitting in public, or standing extremely close to one another, are all perfectly normal in China.
So, step out of your comfort zone and embrace the beauty of another country, only then will you learn about the people and their history. Hey, you may even learn a little something about yourself too.