5 Customs You Should Know When in Public in China

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Once you are in China and adventure out into the public, there are certain cultural differences that you should keep in mind.  As you go out to restaurants, for example, there are tricky nuances that can be a little different from the states. However, the truth is that everything that you experience will  be new to you in one way or another and it’s important to your time abroad as a learning experience.

I found these eye-opening moments to be especially true during my trip to China.  After learning from my experiences and asking the right questions, I have a much better idea of what one should expect when being in public and traveling to China.

These are my five customs that you should know when you’re in public while you’re in China:

1. Tea Etiquette

You may find yourself having tea in a restaurant or in someone’s home, and you always want to follow proper tea etiquette.  If someone offers you tea, you do not want to reject it.

When you with others, if their tea cup is empty or running low on tea, you want to fill their cup all the way to the very top for them.  I learned this lesson when one of my friend’s after dinner told me that I should have filled our host’s cup of tea when it was empty, and from now on, I do this at any meal in China.  

It can be very impolite to not fill the cup all the way, as it is a sign of respect since you are a guest.  If your cup is running low but you would not like any more tea, it is acceptable to politely ask that you would not like any more tea if someone wants to refill your cup.

2. Do not tip

The practice of tipping varies from every country, and in China it does not exist.  It may seem normal to tip waiters and waitresses at restaurants or cab drivers in your culture, but you do not have to in China.  In fact, any type of service worker may be offended by your tip, as it perceived as pity and suggesting that they need extra money.  

I did not know this before arriving in China, and one time when the bill came, I was calculating the tip, and my friend said, “what tip?”.  This took some getting used to, but it is a part of the culture to adapt to.

I’m on a cable car going over a river in Chongqing!

I’m on a cable car going over a river in Chongqing!

3. Crowded spaces

Soon after you arrive in China and use the super-convenient subways in major cities, you will realize that there are a lot of crowded public spaces in China.  This is not something to worry about, since navigating and using public transportation is super easy in China.

While you should never touch others in China, the one exception is perhaps riding on the subway and waiting in huge lines.  You have to get used to people around you pushing and shoving a little. I experienced this in Shanghai, as the only way for me to get off at my subway stop was nudging my way through the crowd.

4. Do not point with one finger

This custom may seem random or strange, but it is true in Chinese culture.  You want to make sure that you are never pointing at anything or anyone with one finger.  

I learned my lesson first hand when I pointed to an item on a menu board, and my friend told me afterwards that I should not point, especially in public spaces.  It is seen as extremely rude, and you should rather gesture to something with the entire palm of your hand, with no fingers specifically pointed at something.

Enjoying breakfast at a friend’s house!

Enjoying breakfast at a friend’s house!

5. Accepting a host’s generosity

Whenever someone hosts in China, whether in their home or at a dinner, you should be very respectful of your host.  Part of this is accepting your host’s generosity. I would advise that you do not offer to pay if you are being hosted by someone.  This can be seen as rude, since if there is a clear host, they are expecting to pay the bill. Most people in China never split bills, as one person serves as the host.  I once found myself in Chengdu wanting to pay the restaurant bill, but I was refused countless times, and since then I have seen numerous fights over who will be ‘host’ and pay the bill.  These good-spirited fights are very common and pretty hard to avoid, but if you are being treated to a meal by a host, you should always express your gratitude and say thank you after a meal.

Whenever you find yourself in public in China, you want to always be mindful of your actions.  This self-awareness is especially key since you will stand out in the crowd as a foreigner. As long as you take these  different customs into account when you’re out in public in China, you should have no problem going out and exploring this beautiful country

As you learn from your mistakes, you should never be afraid to ask someone you know in China or EdOdyssey any questions you may have because it’s a beautiful part of the experience.  With these tips, you should have a better idea about life public and restaurant culture in China!

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