1. No shoes in the house.
Outside, the world can be ugly, especially the ground. Gum, dirt, garbage, excrement — unspeakable things are on the streets that we walk on. Why would you invite that into your house? The thought of wearing shoes in the house make Chinese people cringe. Even guests are expected to remove their shoes and don a pair of disposable slippers, which are so cheap at the markets that many Chinese homes have an entire cabinet for their storage.
2. Take an after-dinner walk.
When I started dating a Chinese man, I often dined with his parents in their home. Whereas my own family turned on the TV to relax after dinner, my boyfriend’s family went straight to the closet to fish out their exercise clothes. His mother would quote old Chinese saying: “Fan hou bai bu zou, huo dao jiu shi jiu,” which means, “A hundred steps after you dine, live to ninety-nine.” So, whenever I visited them, the four of us would walk to the nearby park to join dozens of other post-dinner walkers. Of course, not everyone likes walking — some people play badminton, others gather in a circle for hacky sack, and middle-aged women line up to dance to techno music.
3. Drink hot water.
As winter descended on the northeast of China, I found myself curled up with a hot cup of . . . plain hot water. Bai kai shui, literally “white boiled water,” is the year-round default drink in most restaurants — even in summer. In China, it’s generally believed that cold temperatures are poisonous to the body, and so cold foods and beverages should be consumed sparingly. At first, the concept of drinking hot water seemed pointless. But I have to admit, I did start feeling warmer, and my digestion improved as well. Still unconvinced? Try sipping on tea throughout the day. Green tea is a popular choice in China, as are caffeine-free alternatives such as jasmine or chrysanthemum.
4. The “80 Fen Bao” Rule
At the English school where I worked, my Chinese coworkers each ate a compact, balanced lunch of protein, vegetables, and carbs, followed by an apple or a pear. They were following the “80 Fen Bao” rule: Eat until you’re 80% full, and then finish the meal with water or something light, healthy and a little bit sweet to keep you satisfied — like fruit. In China, food is a source of pleasure, but overeating is a big no-no.
5. Bring fruit when visiting someone’s house.
In many cultures, it’s common to bring a small gift when visiting someone’s home. Whereas North Americans typically bring wine or dessert, Chinese people will bring fruit. “Fruit is sweet, healthy, and colorful,” a Chinese friend once explained to me. While I’ll never refuse a bottle of wine, I’ll take a bag of red and pink apples over store-bought cookies any day.
6. Ask for what you want.
Unless you want to pay an extra 200 RMB for a pair of socks, bargaining is the rule — and like anything, practice makes perfect. Pretty soon I could strap on my poker face and volley prices with ease. And although there usually isn’t much need to bargain in North America, I will say it does teach you to be assertive and to name your own price for what you want. The worst that will happen is hearing “No.”
7. Don’t take “no” for an answer.
Things move slowly in China, and underpaid employees typically pass the buck. If you accept “no” at face value, prepare to lose your time, money, and sanity. For example, when I checked into my hotel in Tianjin, the bored front desk clerk couldn’t be bothered to type in my English name and find my reservation. It was 3 AM, I’d just gotten off a 13-hour plane ride, and the manager wouldn’t be in for another few hours. I kept asking her to find my reservation, and she kept refusing — until, finally, she relented. If I hadn’t pushed past the “no,” I would have had to waste hours waiting around the lobby.
8. No zuo no die!
The multifaceted word zuo, generally meaning “to do” or “to make,” is used in this Chinglish slang as a warning: “Do something stupid, and it will bite you in the end.” In other words, don’t take uncalculated risks. I see it as a friendly reminder not to show off, or else you will incite the gods’ sense of irony. And although it’s meant as a joke, it does encourage people to think before speaking.
9. Shower at night.
Although this is not true of all Chinese people, many believe that it is better to shower at night than in the morning. The simple reason is to keep your sheets clean; otherwise, you will bring all the accumulated dirt and sweat from the day into your bed. However, some Chinese people believe that being wet for too long invites the cold into your body, and sleeping, which lowers the body temperature, can trap the cold and make you sick. So, is an evening or morning shower better? I sleep more soundly with the stress of the day washed off.
10. “Wo song ni” (“Let me see you out.”)
As you leave a shop or someone’s home, your host will walk you to the door and bid you a long farewell, ending with “man zou“, or “Walk slowly,” meaning “Take your time leaving.” Chinese hospitality dictates that one sees a guest out )) all the way out. I was charmed, and now I enthusiastically extend that same gesture to all guests leaving my house.