Chinese culture varies so much from western culture that misunderstandings are easily experienced. You can't expect people you meet in China to understand your culture; you're the visitor. You should understand and respect their culture if you want smooth dealings with the people you meet in China. Like language, take time to study some basic Chinese culture. You will be rewarded many times over.
Foreigners planning to visit China would do well to learn about Chinese culture. Understanding a foreign culture makes a trip much more pleasant. It will prevent misunderstandings and save you and your Chinese friends from embarrassment.
Remember that differences in Chinese culture are not a sign of arrogance or selfishness. It's just a way of life that is different from that of other countries. Studying Chinese culture will make you aware of the general difference in Chinese culture as well as some specific differences. This makes it easy for you to understand and accept behavior that may be different from what's customary in your country. Remember, however, that people with whom you come into contact in China may not have studied foreign culture and, therefore, may be offended by your actions. Since you are the visitor, it's your responsibility to behave in a responsible, respectful, and acceptable way in order not to be offensive and so as not to be misunderstood.
The first time I traveled to China, I had studied a little bit about Chinese culture. When I finally arrived in China, I was absolutely fascinated to see it in action. I can't imagine what I might have thought if I hadn't prepared myself for it. Trying some of these behaviors for myself was an amazing experience. I was able to say and do things that would have been met with great surprise in my home country, and nobody even looked twice.
Although Chinese culture is a vast and complex topic, let's just have a brief look at some of the basics.
Chinese people are generally very social. They spend a lot of time talking and interacting with family, friends, and neighbors, and this time is seen as valuable and important rather than frivolous and unnecessary. You will find Chinese people engaged in long and seemingly repetitive conversations about relatively unimportant topics. To them, it's not the topic that's important, it's the conversation itself.
The Chinese are also normally group-oriented rather than individual-oriented. They don't necessarily value or admire independence or self-sufficiency and may regard lone activities as strange or unusual. But group achievements are a great source of pride in oneself as well as in the group or the community.
Saving face is an important and interesting concept in China. It is a strong tendency to preserve one's dignity. Chinese people are reluctant to openly admit to mistakes or wrongdoing. If you ask a Chinese people if they did something they feel they should not have done, you may not get an answer to your question. You're putting them in an awkward position and the easiest way out is not to answer directly. Once you understand this, you will learn not to ask questions or make statements that can cause someone to lose face. What may seem like a trivial issue to you may, in fact, be quite serious to your Chinese acquaintance. When dealing with what you might suspect is a sensitive issue, don't be blunt. Tread carefully and be observant of the reaction you get, and don't pursue the topic if embarrassment could follow.
On the topic of embarrassment, if a Chinese does something or is in a situation where they feel you could be angry or unhappy about something for which they may be responsible, they may not necessarily offer an apology, as this could cause a loss of face. The reaction you get is often a smile. Do not take this reaction to mean that they are glad that you aren't happy. It's just a normal Chinese reaction. You should just smile back sincerely, remain calm, and move on.
Remaining calm is another aspect of saving face. Chinese people just don't get openly angry or upset as easily as some people from other countries might. Try to be the same way while you're in China. Your Chinese friends might be very surprised to see you express negative emotions so openly. You, too, need to try to save face in China to make situations more comfortable for everyone.
You can expect to be asked questions by people you meet. Where you are from, how many people are in your family, and so forth, are popular topics and you will enjoy discussing these things with your new friends. But don't be surprised if Chinese people you don't know very well ask you personal questions that you would rarely if ever ask people. This includes questions like how much you paid for certain things, how much money you earn, your age, who you voted for, and the like. To them, these are just normal questions that have interesting answers. Don't hesitate to answer honestly. Many Chinese are very curious about foreigners and any information you can share with them will go far in developing friendships. If you aren't willing to discuss these topics, they will probably wonder why you're being so secretive.
On the other hand, be careful not to broach topics that are sensitive to the Chinese. These include subjects like government, politics, religion, and the like. These topics can be embarrassing because the Chinese do not want to or are not accustomed to discussing them freely.
You may find the Chinese more superstitious than you are. For example, they consider certain numbers lucky and other numbers unlucky because they sound like certain other words. Fortune tellers are highly valued and respected. Feng shui—the auspicious orientation of buildings and furnishings with respect to nature—is of great importance to many Chinese.
A neat appearance is important to many Chinese. Try to wear neat, clean clothes. They don't have to be fancy or expensive, but they should be presentable. Facial hair is offensive to many Chinese. A neatly-trimmed moustache is a possible exception.
Eating is a social activity in China. Try to use inoffensive table manners. Show appreciation for the food you're eating. If it's tasty, say so! Use chopsticks only for eating; place them horizontally on table or rim of bowl when not in use. The safest thing to do is to observe what others do and don't do, and try to follow their lead. You will notice that eating is a group activity in China. People avoid eating alone. Dishes are shared rather than assigned to individuals.
Along with eating, drinking is an important social activity. Try to accept invitations to drink and you will help to strengthen the bond between yourself and your Chinese friends.
Point at items and summon people with your hand whole hand, not with a single finger. This gesture will be misunderstood by, and offensive to, many people. Handshaking is appreciated in China; do it earnestly but don't use too much strength.
Chinese people sometimes don't make eye contact easily. Do not take this as a sign of dishonesty or insecurity; it's just not as common to make eye contact in China as it is in other places. However, staring is not considered rude. Especially since you are a foreigner you should not be surprised or uncomfortable if you notice people watching you or staring at you. You may even notice young people following you in order to observe as much as possible. Just smile at them and go on about your business. I remember one evening in Chengdu, Sichuan, I turned around to notice about half a dozen kids following me. They laughed when they saw me turn around and look at them. About 20 minutes later, after I had been in and out of a couple of stores, they were still following me. I got a small taste of what it must be like to be famous.
Several cultural tendencies in China are the result of large population and crowding. Chinese people generally have less respect for personal space than you may be accustomed to. You will really come to appreciate this fact when you ride on a busy subway or bus. Chinese don't necessarily value quietness. They are likely to make loud noises late at night in hotels, for example. Smoking is rarely restricted and Chinese think nothing of sitting down right next to you and lighting a cigarette, and if you are offended by this, they may be genuinely puzzled. Queuing is another interesting activity. Many Chinese think nothing of breaking into a line, if there even is one. Often you will find crowds pushing their way from all directions to reach, for example, a ticket booth at a tourist attraction or a gate in a bus station.
Perseverance is an important character to develop. Preparing for and executing a trip to the Great Wall is not a simple task. You will encounter obstacles during both. Use your will power to overlook difficulties and press on regardless. Your goal is worth the effort. Perseverance will serve you well not only for your travel to China but throughout your life.
Along with perseverance, you will need to possess patience. Dealing with people who have a different culture and different priorities than you can be trying. Losing patience is losing face. If things don't seem to be going your way, take a deep breath, relax, and remind yourself that soon the problem will be in the past and it's not really that important anyway.