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Customs to Know Before Visiting China

China Insider Guides
by C Noah Pelletier Feb 24, 2012
These notes will be useful for anyone looking to make friends and stay alive while visiting China.

WHAT WOULD BE an unruly crowd anyplace else, in China is probably a line. There are certain techniques for dealing with this. One is to wait until you are firmly wedged between two people (breathing should be difficult) and lift your feet off the ground, allowing yourself to be whisked away. This works especially well for exiting the subway.

The other technique is to push steadily on the person in front of you. Predictably, this will earn you points with the person behind you. Still, no matter how tight the line is or how close you get to the front, someone is going cut in front of you. Either they will slip right under your nose — which they do as you briefly lose consciousness. Or else they will come up from behind — which they do while elbowing your kidney when you finally get enough room to breathe.

Dining out

Most Chinese prefer to entertain in public rather than in their homes. Food varies from region to region, but typically dishes are set in the center of the table, family style, sometimes on a lazy susan. Westerners may be perplexed by the size of these dishes compared to the toy-sized plate they’re given to eat off of. Don’t worry, the Chinese are frustrated by this too, and that is why your host is chain smoking throughout the meal.


  • slurping noodles and belching at the table is common, but may be considered excessive if those around you must yell to be heard.
  • just as there are no boneless chickens in nature, there are no boneless chicken dishes in China. Like food, life must not be ingested too hastily.
  • don’t stick chopsticks straight up in your rice. This resembles incense sticks and is therefore associated with funerals and death.
Wet markets

Many neighborhoods have “wet” markets where you can buy fruits and veggies, or inspect the health of a chicken before the vendor breaks its neck. The term wet is not an exaggeration, as everything is sprayed with a hose, including you. Also, there are aquariums containing giant frogs, eels, hairy turtles, and other sea life. Wet markets are often situated in low-key buildings, so watch for people carrying plastic bags that quiver from within.

Organic vs. embalmed
Rather than forking over big bucks for an import, why not try “Unbelievable: This is NOT Butter!” or “Crust” toothpaste with extra whiting formula.

Much of the produce you buy will have a shelf life on par with a Twinkie. Remember that apple that rolled behind the toaster last Easter? It’s still fresh! Is it chemicals? Fake fruit? It’s anyone’s guess, but focus on something pleasant — like those nice women at the wet market who taught you how to count using Chinese hand signals.

Foreign markets are your best bet for buying organic. Thus, when you walk through the produce section and are suddenly confronted with a ¥100 apple, you know it’s safe to eat. Also, you will encounter knock-off versions of Western products. Rather than forking over big bucks for an import, why not try “Unbelievable: This is NOT Butter!” or “Crust” toothpaste with extra whiting formula.


You will have needs beyond what the wet market can offer, and hypermarkets like Auchan are distinguished by throngs of people wheeling shopping carts like bumper cars. To help cope with the crowd, drink heavily before arriving. When you hit someone with your cart, do not make eye contact. Don’t be surprised when a middle-aged woman in a quilted polyester outfit leans over your cart to look in. She is only curious to see what foreigners buy. This will be a surprise to you as well, as all the labels are in Chinese.


As a rule of thumb, red lights tend to be optional, while “One Way” signs usually mean “One Way unless my vehicle is bigger than yours.” In terms of transit, buses are king of the road. As they approach your stop, you must show interest in riding or the driver will keep going.

As a non-Asian foreigner, other passengers will avoid sitting next to you until every other seat is filled. Buses typically fill up quickly, and drivers are concerned with speed, which is to say coming through a 90-degree turn in full power-slide the moment you stand to offer that old woman your seat.

If your driver has zero or one star, you know you’re dead.

It’s important to understand that in China riding down the road can be a faith-testing experience. Always have a card with your address (in Chinese) so your driver will have something to look at while he’s speeding down the road. If you don’t have a card, your driver will occupy himself by smoking, talking on his phone, shifting gears, and drinking hot tea simultaneously. Buckle your seat belt. Here’s the fun part: there are no seat belts.

Many taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers. If your driver has five stars, he is a professional skilled in the art of multi-tasking. If your driver has zero or one star, you know you’re dead.


If you survive a collision, suck it up. It is customary to resolve an accident on the spot. The liable party pays cash money to the victim. So, who’s liable? That’s easy: Nobody, not even if their Volkswagen is parked on your windshield.

This will lead to theatrics, including, but not limited to, exuberant displays of indignation and grief. The other party will point to the damage on their car as if trying to bargain down the price of a chipped tea pot. Next they will demand financial compensation. Do the same.

Eventually, one side will relent and bargain the person down until an agreeable price is reached. If a person is very wealthy, he will typically pay off the other person despite whose fault it was in the interest of saving face.

The importance of “face”

Face is perhaps the most important concept in Chinese culture. Face is to the Chinese what “realness” or “street cred” is to hip-hop. Face is also a person’s reputation, or rep, as the case may be, and it must be constantly attended to. One must not “slip” or “be trippin” as this may lead to losing face.

There is a scene in Goodfellas where Tommy is sitting at the poker table giving Spider the drink boy a hard time, or, breaking his balls.

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself Tommy,” Spider says, limping back to the bar, attempting to save face.

By saying this, however, Spider has shredded Tommy’s face — Spider has insufficient street cred to make this comment. Tommy becomes quiet, seemingly offended, while his peers begin breaking his balls. “You gonna to let him get away with that?” they tease. In order to save his face, Tommy pulls a gun and shoots Spider dead.

Many Chinese gain face by learning English and befriending or dating foreigners. This may raise a person’s social status in the eyes of their peers. Conversely, many foreigners attempt to gain face by having “authentic” experiences such as attending imperial tea parties or eating E.coli-tainted street food. For the foreigner, face is gained by retelling these stories, in excruciating detail, hopefully to someone who hasn’t been to China.

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