A few basic guidelines and tips can help you avoid faux pas in China.
- Tipping: is not necessary and not recommended. Tipping is not required for taxi drivers and most restaurants. If you leave a few coins in most restaurants, you are likely to be hounded by the staff to give you back the money you “forgot” to take. In some cases, a fee that is considered a tip in America is actually a fixed fee, such as a fee for a doorman to let you into a building at a late hour.
- Business cards: When handing over or receiving a business card or handing over an important paper, always use both hands and do it with a slight bow of the head, and never put it in your trouser pockets.
- Visits: A small gift brought to the host’s home is always welcome. Wine, fruit or a little something from your home country are common. If the hosts wear slippers at home, and especially if the floor is carpeted, take off your street shoes and ask for a pair of slippers before entering your host’s home, even if the host asks you not to do so.
- Hosting meals: Hosts tend to order more food than you can eat because it is considered shameful if they cannot fill their guests. If you try to eat it all, it means you are still hungry and may cause your hosts to order more food (i.e. you never quite finish your plate).
- Eating: Table manners vary from place to place among different people in different scenarios. Sometimes you may see Chinese people spitting on the floor of a restaurant, picking their teeth in front of you and shouting while eating, but this is not always welcome. Pay attention to what other people are doing. It depends a lot on what kind of company you are in. If you are eating in a family, don’t pick up your chopsticks until the oldest person at the table has started eating. If you are eating in a business environment, do not pick up your chopsticks until the oldest person at the table has started eating.
- Drinking: If you are offered a drink, you will be expected to accept it or your friends will push you further. Excuses like “I am allergic to alcohol” are usually better than “I don’t feel like drinking”. Sometimes you can also pretend to be drunk. Don’t panic, because usually foreigners are very tolerated in these customs.
- Tobacco: If you smoke, it is always considered polite to offer a cigarette to those you meet as long as they are of age. This rule applies almost exclusively to men, but in certain circumstances, such as in a club, it is okay to apply the rule to women as well. If someone offers you a cigarette and you do not smoke, you can refuse by waving your hand politely and gently.
- Saving face: The Chinese are very concerned about “saving face” and this concept extends not only to the individual but also to one’s family (including extended family) and even to the country. Pointing out faults directly can lead to embarrassment. If you have to, call the person aside and tell them in private, and try to do it in a polished way.
- Religion: The swastika has been widely used in Buddhist temples since the 5th century and represents dharma, universal harmony and the balance of opposites. Similar to India, it does not represent National Socialism.
- Politics: Many Chinese are ashamed that their country was forced into unequal treaties with Japan and the Western powers over the past two centuries, and proud of the recent progress their government has made in restoring China’s international standing. Many Chinese are also aware of alternative Western views, but you should exercise restraint if you wish to discuss them. Also avoid discussing the independence movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or Hong Kong, or the territorial disputes in which China is involved, as many Chinese have very strong feelings about these issues. If you are drawn into such discussions by Chinese friends, it is best to remain neutral and simply listen.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997 and removed from the state list of mental disorders in 2001. The Chinese tend to have mixed opinions when it comes to sexuality. Although there are no laws against homosexuality in China, films, websites and TV shows that focus on homosexuality are often censored or banned. Gay scenes and communities exist in major cities in China, but generally not everywhere else. Most Chinese are reluctant to talk about their sexuality in public, as it is generally considered a personal matter. Moreover, homosexual marriages and cohabitation are not recognised anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, gay and lesbian visitors are unlikely to encounter major problems if they openly display their sexual orientation in public, and unprovoked violence against homosexual couples is almost unheard of.