If you are traveling from a Western country to China, there are a number of cultural differences that you should be prepared for to help you manage the culture shock and enjoy your visit. Here are our top tips.
1. Chinese People Just Speak Very Loudly
In a regular conversation Chinese people often sound extremely loud as if they are very angry, but that’s just how they communicate. Whether it’s early morning, late at night or even talking on a cell phone while sitting on a public toilet, they will talk loudly. Be tolerant and your ears will adjust over time.
2. Forget Personal Space in Public
On public transport and in public spaces, it’s normal to be close enough to smell the breath of the people around you. China is the most populated country in the world and in big cities the streets are always full of people. The area of personal space is much smaller than what you may be used to in a less populated country, so don’t be alarmed, just be prepared to adjust and really get up close and personal with the culture!
3. Laws Don’t Run the Roads
Always be careful crossing roads as Chinese drivers rarely follow road rules, and even running a red light is normal. When you are in a taxi, bus or car, make sure you hold on tight and don’t be surprised by constant horn honking, or sudden stops and swerves.
4. Learn to Squat Above a Toilet Pit
Other than 5-star hotels and places catering for Western tourists, most toilets are squat toilets, where you squat above a hole in the ground instead of sitting on a toilet bowl. Chinese consider the Western method of sitting on a toilet bowl unhygienic, so don’t be surprised if you find footprints on the toilet seat of a Western toilet.
Public toilets are generally much smellier and dirtier compared to Western standards and sewerage smells are more obvious as you get into smaller cities. Train toilets however don’t usually smell as bad because they empty directly onto the track underneath the train.
Toilets are marked with a familiar male or female image or sometimes the English letters “WC”, which stand for ‘wash closet’, meaning washroom or bathroom.
5. Smoking is Common in Most Places
Smoking is still a popular habit almost everywhere, including in toilets, hotels, taxis and other transport. Have your surgical mask handy in case you need it.
6. You’ll Attract Attention
China is a very homogenous society, so non-Asian travelers, particularly those who are tall or have very blonde hair, stand out and attract stares and even photo requests from locals. In more rural areas, it is not uncommon for locals to have never seen a non-Chinese person, so their expressions of surprise are not negative, just usually of curiosity and amazement. If you have a polaroid camera with you, take photos with the local and leave them a copy as a gift – they will love it.
7. You’ll Be Called Strange Names
The Chinese have common names for foreigners that may translate disrespectfully, but it’s not something take it personally. Lao wai (老外), meaning ‘old outsider’ is a more common form of saying ‘outsider’ and wai guo ren (外人), meaning ‘outsider person’ is considered more official formal.
Gwai lo [insert Chinese characters here] in Cantonese translates to ‘ghost guy’ and Hei Gui translates to ‘black ghosts’.
8. Prepared To Be Sold To Wherever You Travel
Vendors in China don’t hold back. It’s normal for them to follow you closely down the street trying to sell you anything from pirated DVDs to watches. Even if they speak some English words, they are unlikely to be able to have a conversation. Be firm and keep walking or learn the Chinese phrase for “I don’t want it”: Bu yao.
9. Buildings May Skip the Fourth Floor
Four is considered an unlucky number because in Chinese it sounds almost the same as the word “death“. Chinese people are very superstitious, particularly when it comes to numbers.