Top 10 Chinese Cultural Quirks

By: Jiawei

Top 10 Chinese Cultural Quirks

I won't be surprised if the first sound you hear in China is the guttural rumbling, gut wrenching sound of spitting. Following the sound effect, you will see people, specially the elderly and men, spitting on the street in public, entirely unapologetically. The Chinese are firm believers in hocking up all the phlegm wads in their throat and letting it out anywhere and everywhere. It is considered a rather hygienic thing to do, a natural way to cleanse the body and get the unhealthy bits out of it.

This is only one of the curious cultural habits an expat encounters, one of the most unpleasant ones for sure. There are plenty of other peculiarities waiting to be discovered. Knowing a few of these cultural quirks will save a lot of frustration and make the transition of living in China a lot easier. Not only that, it can also give you a little taste what kind of society you are moving to.

I have come up with a list of what I personally believe to be the most common peculiarities of the Chinese society, all of which our family has seen or experienced in Shanghai. None of these, however, are intended to insult or generalize the entire group of the Chinese population.

  1. Don't take a compliment graciously
    Forget about what your mother taught you! In China, you don't have to take a compliment graciously, because the locals don't want to hear it.

    When you go to someone's house for a dinner party, you thank the host for a wonderful time. Instead of saying “thank you”, the way you are used to hearing, this is what your Chinese host would say, “Oh no, the party was awful, the food was horrible, so was the wine.” When you compliment a female colleague that her new haircut looks good on her, she's likely to say, “No, I look rather ugly.”

    The party host and your female colleague are not being nasty or disagreeable, they are being humble and polite, a quality greatly valued in China. On the other hand, boasting and self-promoting remarks are largely condemned.

    So next time when the locals compliment on how intelligent your children are, say, “Oh no, they are really stupid.” You'll be applauded for your modesty.

  2. Dress according to the calendar
    Chinese people wear their winter clothing a lot longer than their western counterparts. The real temperature outside doesn’t matter much. 70 or 80 degrees outside? Who cares? You'll still see people wear winter coats with layers of sweaters, pants, leg warmers and boots. Young kids go to school in so many layers that you see them walk on the street with sweat dripping down their faces. Isn't it easy just to take some clothes off to cool off! No way! Right after the kids are the panting perspiring parents and grandparents trying to keep up, echoing each other unanimously though, “Keep your clothes on. It's not spring yet!”

    Don't be surprised by well meaning comments from strangers how you should dress your kids.

  3. Girls holding hand
    Holding hands with friends is very popular in China. This applies to both sexes but is more frequently practiced by girls.

    In Shanghai, as in other parts of China, holding hands, walking arm in arm with happy giggles, touching each other on the arm, or shoulder rubbing in public is no indication of a person’s sexual orientation. Instead, it is only a sign of close friendship. Walking together without holding hands, on the other hand, is an indication the two people are not close. In this sense, the interpersonal space is an accurate measurement (literally) of how close a person feels towards the one next to her.

  4. Beer, Maotai, bring it on!
    My non-drinking husband once downed several industrial strength Maotai at a business dinner with the customer. The result of that? He was under the table in no time, and the deals were sealed!

    Drinking is an important social bonding. Even though you don't drink like my husband, saying no to a toast will make the person lose face, projecting an image you are not one of them, bad for business, work, and friendship.

  5. Hang your laundry out
    Almost nobody in China owns a dryer. Everybody hangs their laundry out, mostly on the balcony, even on the street. Even if it's underwear. Even if in an upscale neighborhood.

    One of the frequent comments I hear from my expat friends about their home is: “I like my apartment. It's great inside, but the outside is really messy. Everyone in the building hangs their laundry out.” They are embarrassed to tell friends back home they live in a building like that.

    I was face to face with our next door neighbor's housekeeper who was putting her family's laundry out while I was cleaning our barely used balcony. She asked me why she never sees our laundry there. I told her in the U.S. we always dry our clothes in a dryer instead of putting it out on a clothes line. Astonished, she said, “How can your clothes be clean? You need the sun's ultra-violet rays to get the bacteria off the undergarments.” To her and many other like-minded people, the dryer is totally not enough!

  6. No cold drinks
    While ice-water is served in American restaurants, in China expect hot tea. If you ask for water, don’t be surprised if the waiter comes back with a cup of brown liquid. Yes, it's tea, not dirty water. If you insist on water, then most likely it will come out hot. Hot water is served in restaurants and homes because it is considered healthier. Warm drinks are believed to help aid the digestion of food. If you drink cold water, your body will need to use extra energy to warm it up. A lot of people actually believe drinking cold beverages causes stomach aches.

    This reminds me of a similar belief. There is a Chinese logic that goes like this: if you’re warm, you don't catch a cold or get sick. If it's warm outside, you are not likely to be sick, either. When someone is coughing and has a runny nose, a very likely comment will be, “How can you be sick? It’s warm outside”.

  7. Don't give a clock as a gift
    Under normal circumstances, a beautifully wrapped box presented to a friend is usually a very thoughtful gesture, something likely to be appreciated. But make sure what's inside is not a clock, otherwise, it will be an insult, no matter how nicely wrapped.

    A clock being a taboo gift idea comes from a silly superstition. The word clock which is zhong in Chinese sounds like the word for funeral. And song zhong, which means “give someone a clock” can also mean “attending someone's funeral”. Because of this sheer coincidence, a Chinese person will never give another a clock as a gift.

  8. Fighting for checks in restaurants
    It is very common to see people gesturing, talking excitedly, rushing to the cashier or fighting for the black notebook at the end a meal. They tackle, run and block the other from getting to the cashier first, or grab the notebook with a savage determination, all in the name of generosity. They are so loud and animated that a person new to town will easily mistake the scene as a dispute over something serious. But all they are doing is fighting to pay the bill.

    To a Westerner, the closeness of sharing a meal with friends may be ruined by this unpleasantry. Quite the contrary to the Chinese. It is considered rude or an act of a miser not to offer to pay. If you are dining with your best friend, you would fight to the very end until she surrenders and you end up paying. The depth of the friendship is often tested in the level of vigor of the fight!

    Whenever we visit my in-laws in Chicago, they like to take us out to eat. Almost every time before we leave the house, my father-in-law would spell out loud and clear it is his treat, because he knows his Chinese daughter-in-law has the tendency of grabbing the bill out of impulse or maybe more out of a cultural instinct. Whenever that happened, he was always astonished first then let me. I hope my in-laws consider me more generous than downright crazy. My thoughts of the moments were, “Wow! Can't believe they let me pay. Only if this happened in China! They'll fight a little at least!”

    There are two scenarios that can actually break up a friendship. The first one is, you never offer to pay, a sure sign of a miser and who wants to be friends with you? The second one is you suggest each pays her own share of the cost, or go Dutch. The message from the second scenario is, you don't owe me anything and I don't owe you anything, so we don't have to see each other again.

    So in China, don't go Dutch!

  9. Walking backwards
    You've probably seen Chinese seniors practice Tai-chi in a park. That's old news. Now they've come up with something new. Walking backwards. Even young people have joined this workout routine.

    I nearly had a collision accident with a young woman walking backwards the other day. Embarrassingly, I was the one not paying attention. She was walking, only backwards. Right after that, I saw a young couple walking backwards, too. It's like all the young backwards walkers came out at the same time that day.

    Over the years I have asked some people to explain the benefits of backwards shuffling. Their explanations are not exactly the same, but all point to the same direction – it's a good workout. Some say it balances the qi or life energy, or increases vision and hearing powers. The logic behind? Since you don't have eyes behind you, the two senses pick up the needs. Some say it burns a lot more calories, or improves coordination, or good for the heart and lungs. Some even say it boosts metabolism.

    But does it, really?

  10. “You are fat!”
    If you are weight conscious, China is a wrong country for you to be in. Sooner or later, you are going to hear “you’re fat” if you've packed pounds over the holiday. The Chinese are straightforward, plainspoken about how someone looks, often to the point of bluntness. It is the norm to hear comments like you’re fat, or you are beautiful, ugly, or you have a big nose or a big butt, no one gets offended by it.

    You can make some parents very happy if you walk up to their child and say, “What a chubby boy (or girl)!” The cultural hint? You are complimenting the way they take care of the child.

As you can see, every culture has its quirks. Just as a Westerner finds the Chinese spitting disgusting, a Chinese person may find it equally unsettling when he sees a foreigner blow his nose loudly into a handkerchief and then stuff the dirty rag into his pocket. Living in a foreign country is all about learning and discovering the new culture and ways of life. So when you hear your inner voice say, "That's not how things are back home," it's time to remind yourself you are not back home. Learn to enjoy the quirks!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingJiawei is an American expat living in China. Blog description: Homeschooling mom blogging about expat life and raising kids in Shanghai (by Jiawei)
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Contest Comments » There are 15 comments

Aixa wrote 10 years ago:

This post was fun to read. It's great to know before visiting China! If you do a longer list, you can add high heels at the park or when riding a scooter and heavy use of umbrellas to prevent sun exposure.

Heather Rose-Chase wrote 10 years ago:

Oh Jiawei, there is so much truth in all of this! I love quirky places, and China certainly fits the bill! Thanks for sharing!

Cordelia wrote 10 years ago:

Aha! Thais share the very straightforward - wow, look at how much weight you have put on!. Not so good as this drives me to the chocolate chip cookies. Great post. Good luck winning China category!

Min Li Yin wrote 10 years ago:

If you want to be prepared for culture shocks before you visit China, read Jiawei's insightful deconstruction of Chinese quirks; if you do not want to commit any social faux pas, commit this list to your memory and do as the locals do. Remember imitation is the best form of flattery. (-;

Diana wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for the helpful explanations of the sometimes confusing behaviour! My son is happy to finally know why people in China walk backwards.

TER wrote 10 years ago:

Rarely does a week go by when I don't see a group of people walking backwards in Shanghai. No matter how many times I see such sights, it never fails to shock and amuse. Had I read this article earlier, I would have been prepared for such an oddity.

Judy Ribaudo wrote 10 years ago:

What an interesting post. In America we see many different people on a daily basis but this makes me realize how little I know of their cultures. This post makes my dream of a trip to China even more compelling. Thanks for the information.

Sanjay wrote 10 years ago:

Jiawei hit it on the mark! Having been an expat in Shanghai, I personally related to her observations on the Idiosyncrasies of the Chinese culture, and differences with the west. I would highly recommend this for reading to any westerner preparing to live/ or work in China

Tammy wrote 10 years ago:

As someone who teaches values this is very insightful and useful to illustrate how values shape behaviours. Nice comparisons without being critical.

Mae wrote 10 years ago:

I was just going to buy a friend a clock as a Christmas present. Thanks for sharing Jiawei, now I won't accidentally tell them I'm going to their funeral!

MP Lee wrote 10 years ago:

Funny! And so true! Many of these I encountered first-hand on my trips to China although there are a few I didn't experience. Maybe I need to revisit China to keep exploring. :-)

Laurie wrote 10 years ago:

Such fun and interesting reading! This post is a must read for anyone planning on visiting China. Having traveled to China, I can say that I witnessed more than one of these scenarios myself. In my opinion, understanding these quirks make them more fun when you see them. Also, I would never want to offend. Thanks for the great info and good luck!

Dustin wrote 10 years ago:

Well, I love this post. I found myself taking mental notes and chuckling to myself, because I've encountered most of these already. I look forward to her next post! Dustin

Andrew Trigg wrote 10 years ago:

What a fascinating and original article. All of the points are new to me - such an interesting insight into how other cultures can be genuinely different. It's funny and yet culturally sensitive; a good lesson for us all, reminding us that our own culture may be amusing to people from other cultures. I'm most curious as to whether Jiawei will respond to this comment with 'No, my article is rubbish!" or a gracious "Thank you" given she's a Chinese American!

Andy Johnson wrote 10 years ago:

Jiawei, Very good writing, great for general understanding. Unfortunately I don't believe I am traveling to China soon, but it was still useful to me. We had a Chinese businessman here in Ohio hawking his wares. And I told him, "Your English is very good." And he minimized it, and disagreed with me. I only realize now after reading your article this is the response he thought polite. Good article (please be gracious about it), and thanks Andy

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