1. You greet people by saying, “Have you eaten yet?”
A typical Chinese way to say hi is “Chi le mei?” which means, “Have you eaten yet?” Like “How are you?” in English, this is a question not really requiring a literal answer. So often you’ll tell someone you’ve already eaten over the roar of your growling, empty stomach.
2. You consider it a compliment when a Chinese person remarks that you’ve gained weight, and you catch yourself saying the same thing to others.
In traditional Chinese culture, the chubbier a person is, the more prosperous and healthy he or she is deemed to be. So a comment about your weight, especially coming from elderly Chinese, is not meant to tell you to lay off the fatty pork belly.
But in general, people in China can be pretty frank with comments about other people’s physical appearance. You know you’ve been in China too long when the first thing out of your mouth on seeing an old friend is an exclamation about his or her weight.
3. You break out your umbrella on sunny days to avoid getting tan.
People in China consider darker skin a sign of a peasant background, while lighter skin means high status in that you haven’t had to labor outside. As unfair as it is, women with darker skin are considered less attractive. Skin whitening products are a multi-billion-dollar industry in China. The latest trend to hit beachwear is the facekini, which is essentially a big sock you wear over your head with a few slits for your eyes, nose, and mouth.
4. You know how to gracefully drink tea with the leaves floating around in your cup.
For people in China, drinking tea made in teabag form is akin to drinking instant coffee in the US. It just doesn’t cut it once you’ve had the real thing. You’ve learned how to drink tea with loose leaves floating around without choking on them or being forced to chew them down. You know it’s all in the way you use your teeth as a strainer. And you know that yellowed teeth are an unfortunate byproduct of your tea snobbery.
5. You’re no longer color blind.
Red denotes good luck, fortune, and happiness in China. Traditional Chinese wedding outfits are red. Red envelopes are used to give out money during Chinese New Year. You know that people in China don’t shy away from wearing red during holidays or celebrations.
You also know white is the color of mourning and death, and you avoid wearing white in your hair as it means a relative has passed away. You know there are all kinds of exceptions (brides in China now wear Western-style white gowns), but you do your best to be color sensitive, especially when there are elderly Chinese in the mix.
6. You wince when your non-Chinese friends pour soy sauce over their rice.
That’s a lao wai (foreigner) rookie move, for sure. You know soy sauce is only used for cooking or as a dip, never as a condiment to pour over anything…especially anything in an expensive restaurant.
7. You find yourself serving others at meals, especially anyone older than you.
The most important rule in Chinese eating culture is to serve others before serving yourself. You know that if you want a piece of shrimp, you’ve got to serve the shrimp to the folks around you before you serve yourself. And if there is only one shrimp left, you’re out of luck unless somebody serves it to you. The elderly get first dibs on anything — that’s a sign of your respect. So naturally, you can’t wait to be the oldie at the table.
8. You would never think of visiting anyone without bringing a gift. And when someone brings you a gift, you would never think of opening it in front of them.
You know that when visiting someone’s home for the first time, you should bring a token of appreciation. You also know the receiver will make a big deal about the gift, thanking you profusely and fussing over it, but that it will be put away and not be opened in front of you. You know that to open a gift in front of the giver puts you both at risk of an embarrassing moment in the event the gift is lame or is a blatant re-gift.
9. You avoid unlucky numbers like 4, and will pay extra for addresses, phone numbers, and license plates with lucky numbers like 8.
The Chinese are crazy about lucky and unlucky numbers. They plan weddings, important meetings, and vacations around lucky dates. The word for “eight” sounds like the word “prosperous,” so people will pay extra for phone numbers and license plates with that number in it. The word for “four” sounds like “death,” so people will refuse to live on the fourth floor or have an address with that number included.
10. You always take your shoes off when entering someone’s house.
In China (as in many parts of Asia), people never wear their shoes inside their homes. Instead, you’ll notice a shoe rack just by the door. You know you’ve been in China too long if you think more about the look of your socks or stockings than your shoes. Or, if you can’t bear to take off your Manolo Blahniks, you bring your own shoe covers.
11. You find yourself speaking in cryptic, four-character Chinese phrases.
The Chinese language is filled with lots of clever plays on words that serve to frustrate the beginning language learner. Four-word phrases, or chengyu, are idioms that reference ancient literature but may not always be understandable in a literal sense.
For example, “jiǔ niú yì máo” literally means “nine cows and one strand of cow hair.” But what it really means is “an insignificant number.” These phrases roll off your tongue effortlessly now, and you begin to think English is just so…blah in comparison.
12. You’ve had a serious conversation with your doctor about the color, density, and shape of your poop.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the stool is analyzed as a way to holistically understand a person’s health. You may find your TCM doctor asking you how dry or moist your poop is, and whether or not it smells fishy. Your doctor may prescribe herbal treatments if you’re deemed to have too much “heat” or “dampness” in your body. So now you habitually take a good look before your flush.