A Starter Kit for Behaving Yourself in the Middle Kingdom

September 3, 2015 Pam Mandel

Mind your manners

Hoo boy, is there a complicated system of manners in China. We have the Chinese to thank for the concept of “saving face,” an idea that ties your behaviour and the way others treat you to your personal dignity. And in spite of Communism, there’s a long history of honouring your elders. As great travellers, we want to make our hosts feel like we respect their traditions, even while we may not understand them.

The Forbidden City in Beijing.

Here are some basic tips that will keep you from alienating your hosts and acting the fool. But also, visitors are a welcome sight in China, so if you do make a blunder, consider it an opportunity to ask about what you were supposed to do. There’s a lot to learn. For starters…

• Your hosts may be downright nosey about your marital status, your income and your age — the kinds of things we westerners don’t discuss with strangers. Try to roll with it; it’s an icebreaker in China and a way to find similarities.

• Show up on time. Being late is considered disrespectful to your hosts.

• Yes, there are great crowds of people and you’ll be crunched. But the Chinese aren’t a touchy people, so avoid uninvited physical contact. There’s even a whole hierarchy of handshaking,; let your hosts initiate the process. And please, no public displays of affection.

• If you’re giving a gift (or receiving one) use both hands. That applies to business cards, too.

• Stay cool at all times. There are so many frustrating situations in travel that can cause even the most seasoned globetrotter to boil, but a shouting match is one in which both parties lose face and that’s never good.

• Use formal titles — Mrs., Doctor, Professor — unless you’ve been instructed to be more casual.

• Accept the generosity of your hosts. If you’ve been invited to dine, your host is going to want to pick up the tab. Don’t even try to pay, not even your share. The invitation is a gift, accept it graciously.

Great service, now what?

It can be daunting to unravel who to tip — and who not to tip — while travelling in China. It’s not part of the culture by default, but it has become more common with the influx of western travellers. Furthermore, local guides and drivers may depend on tips for their income because their base pay is so low. But on the whole, there’s no need to tip unless you’re in a high-end hotel or an establishment that specifically caters to Western travellers. Taxi drivers, waiters, even massage therapists, do not expect tipping, though if you’re on a tour with a private guide and driver, offer to pay for meals and drinks.

On the whole, there’s no need to tip unless you’re in a high-end hotel.

On the whole, there’s no need to tip unless you’re in a high-end hotel.

Shopping as participatory theatre

Market shopping is such an adventure worldwide and markets in China are no exception. Haggling over prices is expected. It’s a game you should be ready to play it when you plunge into the crowded market stalls.

• Don’t be in a hurry. You may have to walk away multiple times to get to a price that you think is fair. You may quibble for half an hour and still be the best sale of the day at a quarter the starting price. The point is that making a deal takes time.

• Don’t be that guy who caves at the first price quoted. Shop around a little to see what kind of prices those knock-off Gucci bags or weathered-to-look-antique carvings are getting at first blush. You’ll be surprised by the range.

• Consider what the item is worth to you. That’s a better metric than local pricing, which is going to be hard for you to get a handle on. And keep what you’re haggling about in perspective. Are you arguing with a vendor about a difference of 30 cents? Is it worth it?

Treat haggling at the market as a game.

Treat haggling at the market as a game.

Which way to the ladies’ room?

Chairman Mao famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” and created an egalitarian culture where women could perform (almost) any role. Chinese culture continues to embrace this idea and you’ll find a society where success is not limited by gender. This doesn’t mean women travellers are free from the hassles of travellers worldwide. Dress modestly and follow your gut when it comes to safety, of course.

But challenges come in other ways. Toilets in China can lack privacy, so you might want to wear that drape-y skirt, especially on travel days. Women travellers have stories of being stared at mercilessly while on the can; there’s no good way to prepare for that. Some travellers carry a collapsible umbrella to create their own privacy screens, though expect your umbrella to be stared at, too. Speaking of toilets, carry toilet paper with you and stock up on tampons or pads, as shopping for that stuff can be challenging in rural areas.

Dress for the region

China has become increasingly fashion forward in the last decade or so, and in major cities you’ll see hip young Chinese wearing the latest brands. You won’t need to give much thought to your day-to-day attire. But if you’re planning to attend a more formal banquet or cultural event, you’ll need to dress for it — coat and tie for the guys, a somewhat modest dress for the ladies. The Chinese like bright colours for festive days — red, especially. While white clothing isn’t quite the faux pas it once was — it’s culturally associated with death — you might avoid dressing head to toe in white.

There are a few Muslim communities in China, particularly along the Silk Road. Modest shorts are okay in some regions, but bare shoulders are not acceptable, for women or men. Women may be asked to cover their heads; it’s nice to have a scarf handy if the need comes up.

You won’t get it all right, and that’s OK.

You’ll dip your dumplings in your tea, greet a stranger too enthusiastically, or find you’ve got your head uncovered when you should cover up. Or, maybe it’s the reverse — why are you wearing your hat when you should have removed it? Take it graciously if you’re corrected and try to learn from your mistakes. Understanding the etiquette of our neighbours is just one more opportunity to learn about the world.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures in China encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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