Before the beginning of any trip, or study abroad, it is a good idea to first learn about the culture and cultural differences that exist in that country. This was one of my biggest worries before heading abroad to China and I know that many of my friends and family share this fear.
Here are my top five tips to keep in mind when meeting and interacting with people for the first time in China:
1. Be polite and formal
During your time abroad, you will meet tons of new people. You may have an idea of what an introduction resembles in your culture, but not every introduction is the same. When first meeting someone in China, I learned you should always be formal and polite.
A formal greeting includes a verbal “nĭ hăo / 你好” (hello - informal) or “nín hăo / 您好” (hello - formal for older generation) and a slight bow of your head. I once made the mistake of initiating a hand shake, but the other person did not reciprocate.
If you do have a close relationship with someone, this initial interaction could vary, but when formally meeting someone new, you should go the route of a verbal greeting with a slight bow. It is best to not touch and to not hug others, unless the other person initiates it. It is also a very nice gesture to give someone a gift, especially if it is a pre-planned event like a party or meeting.
2. Bring a proper gift
Whether you are meeting someone for the first time in China, or someone you know, then you want to make sure you are giving the right gift. In China, you do not want to give a gift that may have a negative meaning in Chinese culture. Some examples of bad gifts would be clocks (signifying parting or death), umbrellas (signifying bad luck), and four of anything (four is a very bad number in China, as its pronunciation is similar to the pronunciation of the Chinese word for death).
When I was in China, my Chinese friend had asked me what gift I wanted from them. I said that I just needed a cheap pair of shoes, and to my surprise they said that they could not give me shoes as a gift. I asked why and they said that the Chinese word for shoes is very similar to the word for bad luck or evil. This was one of my first instances of learning about Chinese superstitions and what gifts you should avoid giving at all costs!
Some good gift ideas that I have given include something typical or symbolic of where you are from like a mug, pens, or postcards. Fruit, teas, and silk are also very common gifts within China.
3. Respect their homes
In China, virtually no one wheres shoes inside their home. When entering most homes or apartments, there will likely be a collection of slippers for you to put on as soon as you walk in the door.
Whenever I entered someone’s home, I always found it to be funny when none of the slippers would fit me, since my feet were too big! I would either look ridiculous walking in small slippers or just walk around in my socks, which is totally acceptable too, but you should never walk barefoot in someone’s home.
4. Be punctual
An important thing to remember in China is to always be on time. I once overslept in the morning while a friend was waiting for me outside to go to a meeting. She wasn’t upset, but I could tell that she was annoyed and my tardiness was not culturally acceptable. As someone who is frequently “fashionably late” in the United States, I quickly learned I needed to break this habit fast. Over my gap semester I became much more punctual. Delays still happen, and when they do, I also learned it is best to not give an excuse but rather humbly apologize to those you kept waiting.
5. Avoid certain taboo topics
Similar to many other cultures, there are certain topics that aren’t casually spoken about in daily conversation. One day I was curious if these topics were similar to taboo ones in the States so I asked one of my close friends. She explained to me that politics, religion, death, and any historical or political incidents of China’s past should not be talked about, especially with new friends or casual acquaintances.
You will find that people will be very interested in you and where you are from since you are a foreigner, and this a great conversation starter. Typical (and appropriate) conversations include talking about food, sociocultural topics, and your level of Chinese!
In short, these are just a handful of the many cultural differences I experienced during my time in China, and you are bound to encounter too. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake, either. As you’ve read, I’ve made a handful myself.
What is most important, I found, is that you enter with an open mind and willingness to learn, understand, respect and find beauty in these cultural differences. Whenever I wasn’t sure my friends, EdOdyssey, and really anyone I encountered in China was always enthusiastic to help and patient with me as I learned. I can’t wait to return to China and learn more.
Want to learn more about China? Check out my blog about How Chinese Food in China Changed Me Forever!