With cultures as different as Chinese and Western cultures are, it’s inevitable that traveling from one place to the other will result in a no-no of some kind. China is particularly difficult because the Chinese derive meaning from just about anything, from the pronunciation of a word to the color of a gift. The number eight, for instance, is very lucky since the word “eight” in Mandarin sounds similar to the word for “prosperity”. Oppositely, giving an umbrella is strictly taboo, since the Mandarin word for “umbrella” sounds like “separate”, indicating that a couple or family will soon be pulled apart. And white flowers or garments are similar to what is worn at funerals, always a subject to be avoided. With a few pointers, though, you can avoid committing the most heinous of faux-pas — especially important when trying to impress a potential employer (or an in-law!).
1. Don’t put your chopsticks point-down into your food so that the ends point up. This is considered very rude, as it appears similar to incense burned at a funeral, and death/dying should never be mentioned or suggested. Pointing your chopsticks at someone or banging them on the side of your bowl is also considered rude, or common.
2. Avoid doing things related to the number four – giving gifts related to four, making room reservations on the fourth floor, meeting at four o’clock, etc. The opposite is true for the number eight, which is good luck. There’s a reason why the Beijing Olympics began at 8:08 on 8/8/08.
3. When exchanging business cards or information with someone, don’t put their card/information in your back pocket. It’s impolite to sit on someone’s name or personal info, so put it in your front pocket — at least until they’re out of sight!
4. Take off your shoes when entering someone’s home, and don’t point your feet at someone.
5. Don’t point with your index finger or summon someone over using your index finger – use another finger or palm.
In general, Chinese people are subtle and don’t like large outbursts or drawing attention to themselves. If you make someone uncomfortable, they are more likely to smile than blush or make a comment about it. You’ll see two male or two female friends engaging in close physical contact, and it’s hard to avoid bumping into other people considering how busy and crowded many Beijing streets are. However, physical contact and eye contact with strangers can make people uncomfortable, so just be aware of your surroundings.
Also be prepared that there are many Chinese customs that you may be taken aback by. Although the government has managed to discourage it somewhat recently, spitting onto the street is considered perfectly normal for both men and women in many places. Watch out if you’re in line for something, too — many people will have no qualms with stepping in front of you without so much as a word or glance. And while eating, it’s not uncommon for someone to put an entire piece of something in their mouths, bones and all, and then spit out the bits they don’t want to eat onto their plate. So it goes both ways! As long as you keep your wits about you, though, and your eyes open, it’s not too hard to follow what the locals are doing and avoid committing too big of a faux-pas. And don’t feel obligated to spit in the street!
[photo courtesy of TheBusyBrain]