The cultural gap between China and the West is extremely wide and expats should be aware of the differences that exist between these two cultures.
At the table
When dining with local Chinese people, bear in mind that you will be part of a loud, festive, and environment. Although Chinese table manners have progressed and changed over the years, abiding by those manners represents adequacy and shows-off that you are well-rounded in Chinese culture.
1. Place food on your own plate first.
DO: Before helping yourself to any food, help place food on other’s plate first, especially for guests, hosts, or elders, as a sign of geniune politeness.
2. Play with or misuse your chopsticks (i.e. fling them around, tap them on the bowl, poke the food, etc).
DO: Use your chopsticks only for eating and place them vertically on the bowl (not stuck vertically into the rice) after meal.
3. Randomly choose a seat to sit in, especially not at formal banquets.
DO: Let the host lead you to your seat, for it is likely that the seats are arranged already by rank.
4. Order dishes and claim it is yours personally
DO: Order dishes for everyone to eat. Unlike in the West where individuals order their own plate of food, people here collectively share dishes with each other.
5. Stop eating during the middle of the meal.
DO: Eat slowly or place food on the guest, host, or elder’s plate as a distraction in case your stomach starts to bloat and you cannot intake another bite. In Chinese culture, the dinner does not end until the guest, host, or elder is finished with their meal so always observe the priority person or people carefully.
Understanding the social norms is a big part to getting used to the culture in China. If you are not careful of your actions in everyday life, you will end up catching the eyes of a lot of people, and not in a good way.
1. Greet a person straight up with hugs or kisses on the cheeks.
DO: Offer a handshake and a polite verbal greeting when meeting a person. The everyday Chinese is rather reserved and prefers limited to no physical contact.
2. Talk about topics regarding politics, sex, and humans rights.
DO: Casually converse about topics such as hobbies or funny stories (but do keep in mind that what might be funny to you as an expat may not be funny to a Chinese.) Expect many questions in return, especially regarding your personal life, such as “are you married?” or “where did you receive your education.”
3. Give a gift of the color green— a representation of cowardness— or white— a symbol of death—, nor should you give a clock— a sign of life coming to an end— or an umbrella— meaning your family is going to disperse— as gifts.
DO: Give gifts of colors with positive meanings attached, especially red and yellow, often affiliated with happiness and prosperity. In Chinese culture, it is of tradition to give expensive gifts or buy an even more expensive gift in return.
4. Say “no” directly.
DO: Direct confrontation in any situtatuion is greatly frowned upon. In situtations such as these, politely say “no” and apologize for any inconvenience. Show that your intentions are not meant to be rude, but just to tell the truth. The best thing thing to do is to show respect and honor for the person, otherwise your words might come out rather harshly.
5. Belittle the reputation of yourself or others.
DO: Reputation, or one’s “face” matters greatly in Chinese culture. Therefore, keep note of how your actions may affect not only your image, but other’s image too, for a Chinese will do anything to save their face.
Generally, the commercial cities in China, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Tianjing, have adopted a few Western societal norms but still, the Chinese norms are still in place. Knowing the proper ways of acting in China will be a huge benefit to your stay.