10 Insider tips to help you adapt to Chinese culture

10 Insider tips to help you adapt to Chinese culture

Living in a culture that is different from your own can be both an exciting adventure and a challenging process. Regardless of what country you are from, you will go through a period of cultural adjustment once you move to China.

The first thing to remember is that the values, social norms, and traditions in China may be very different from beliefs about “how things should be” in the country where you grew up. I know that when we move to another culture, we naturally carry our own background and life experiences with us and these shape how we perceive and adjust to our new environment. Thus each of us will find adjusting to China different, but culture-shock is a common thing experienced by most people entering the unfamiliar Chinese culture. 

I found that it took some time to settle in to China and to adjust to this new culture. Here follows some tips to help you adapt to Chinese culture and maybe lesson the initial culture-shock a bit.

1. Learn a little about Chinese culture and history before you even arrive

I seriously don’t think you have to go about cram-studying China’s entire cultural history before you arrive. After all, this is the longest-living culture in the world! Yet, I think you should at-least get a general overview of how the country has evolved over the last few centuries. Knowing how China got to where it’s at now meant I could better understand the country’s sensitive subjects, which helped me behave in a more culturally appropriate way.  I had an idea of which topics to avoid, which subjects were taboo and which  local beliefs or customs I should avoid criticizing. Even if I don’t agree, I can ask questions and learn why the locals think this way which, in turn helps me understand why they behave the way they do. Another reason is that learning about China beforehand will help lessen the initial culture-shock.

2. Be open-minded and leave your preconceived notions about China at home.

There has been so much negative news about China the past few years, but you shouldn’t let what you see and hear about China and its people in the news influence your judgment. I have learned that the way a country is depicted in the news is not always a true representation of that country and its people. China is rich in history and culture, but remember, it is still a developing country. Try to approach things with an open mind and I am sure you’ll find that there’s a lot to learn. I believe that things about this beautiful country and its immensely hospitable people has been rightly depicted abroad. This is something I learned by living here in China and experiencing things first hand.

3. Give yourself (and others) permission to make mistakes

Be honest with yourself, we all make mistakes as we explore a new culture. But I have found that if you can find the humor in these situations and laugh about it, others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. If even I laugh at how bad my Chinese is the locals usually chuckle and then try and hep me through one of the many translation apps I have on my phone. But navigating a new culture can be a lot more difficult than just the language. And just as China is foreign to you, so you are foreign to the locals living there. So ,keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes, and that some people will definitely have an inaccurate assumption or a generalized statement about your own culture, which may be due to a lack of information. So, just as you want them to be forgiving towards your own naive mistakes and assumptions, be forgiving when they make generalizations about you and your culture. This is easier said than done and something I had to learn to do as there are so many inaccurate assumptions about my own culture made by people I meet. I try and see this as an opportunity to share information with others about myself and my culture, but more often than not these days I just let it go. Who wants to get into an argument about why you don’t eat meat even-though you come from a culture where people are known for hunting and barbecuing.

4.“Saving face” is huge in the Chinese culture

A big NO-NO is showing up a colleague and especially your boss in front of others in China. Saving face and protecting one’s reputation is critical in the local culture. Trust me, the fastest way to ruin any relationship with local Chinese is to embarrass or criticize them in any way, especially in public. So choose your words carefully and if you have to point out a mistake, do so very discreetly and in a way that makes it seem like it could have happened to anyone. I do not mean that you have to change your own values, but it is important to respect the culture of other people. Especially if you are the foreigner and a guest in their country.

Oh! That reminds me… Respecting your elders is immensely important in the Chinese culture. Usually, titles are preferred to first names so, when in doubt, always ask a local how you should refer to people before you’re even introduced to them.

5. Spend Time in Your New Neighborhood

Get to know your neighborhood by finding all the local spots where you can buy groceries, get your hair cut, do your laundry and spend some time doing what the locals do. This has been one of my favourite things to do and this way I get to feel part of the community around me. Spend a few mornings a week exploring the cafes and breakfast spots, taking a book or notebook with you to jot down the places you want to return to. Trust me, when you let people know you’ve just moved in and making an effort to get to know your neighbourhood they’ll be more than happy to welcome you. With a bit of effort the locals will even start treating you less like a tourist and more like a local-foreigner.

6.Be friendly, but not naive!

As a woman traveling alone I find that China is a relatively safe. The most common crime is pickpocketing, which you can find in most major world cities. I have always felt safe while walking around on my own and hardly ever get bothered by any locals. I have found though, that it is not uncommon for local people to stop you and try and chat to you on the streets or at the markets, but this has normally more to do with their curious attitude towards foreigners. However, be aware that apparently friendly invitations from English-speaking students to sing karaoke or visit an art exhibition can hide scams, so keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to say “no” if need be. Especially if your gut instinct tells you there is more to this conversation than just friendly curiosity.

Celebrating China’s Dragon Boat Festival at my Local Temple
Spending the day with my friend and her family at the Dragot Boat at Shezhuang Temple

7. Get out of the expat bubble and make local friends

It’s far too easy to get stuck in an expat bubble in China, especially if you live in a big cosmopolitan city such as Shanghai. China’s culture can be overwhelmingly foreign for so many expats and venturing out of their comfort zones is a scary thing to do. But fight that urge and immerse yourself in local social groups instead, trust me, you’ll benefit in the end. Like most expats my first local contacts were work colleagues, and this was an amazing chance to make new friends immediately. Understand the ‘give and take’ of Chinese social etiquette (they invite you out for a restaurant meal, you buy them a coffee or desert after the meal), and you may just cement some of the most rewarding and valuable friendships of all. 

8. Hugs and kisses are frowned upon – keep your hands to yourself!

This has been my personal motto for years and I was truly happy to find out that in local Chinese culture, public displays of affection aren’t a thing. I have often had to dodge a kiss on the cheek or a hug from a colleague or someone I have just met and was glad to hear that I would not have to do any dodging here in China. But then again, once friendships are cemented, of course, the Chinese can be just as affectionate as other cultures.

9. Skip the Western restaurant chains and eat like a local instead

Food is comfort, which is why you’ll probably feel a tendency to want to stick to what you know after you move.  But food is also culture, and one of the best ways to learn about your new country. Resist the pull of familiar recipes and chain restaurants and make an effort to eat like the locals. 

I enjoy cooking, and love visiting the neighbourhood markets to stock up on unfamiliar ingredients and then trying to figure out how to cook it and make it edible.

Eating local is always easier when going out with local friends or colleagues. Here traditional etiquette suggests that, when invited to dinner by locals, everyone sits at common round tables to share all the different dishes. This is a fabulous way to taste some dishes you have never seen or always wanted to try but didn’t want to buy just incase it didn’t accommodate with you. The best part is that as the serving table turns and everyone dishes up , nobody will notice you avoiding the ducks blood or pig intestines that they ordered especially for their new foreign friend.

I have also found that some hole in the wall places serve the best meals. Follow the lunch crowd and go to the local places that are packed during lunch as the locals definitely know where the best places for things like rice-noodles or dumplings are. Unfortunately it also depends on what you order so make sure you have translated correctly otherwise you might end up with a strange smelling soup filled with mystery meat that you wouldn’t even feed to your cat.

10. Be patient – don’t try to understand everything immediately
The process of adjusting to a new culture requires time. And different areas of adjustment often require a different amount of time. I have been living in China for 2 years now and have still not adjusted fully to this strange and interesting culture. Just as I think I have it, I find something new that amazes me and which I need to get used to.so my advice is to be patient with this experience and not be overly critical of yourself. Adapting to a new culture is an ongoing process. It may be challenging at times, and for some people it can also lead to a renewed appreciation of their own culture. Going through this transition is helping me learn more about myself and to develop greater confidence in my ability to navigate new situations. 

Moving to a new country—and with it, a strange new world—isn’t necessarily a simple adjustment, but it is an amazing opportunity. Whether you’ve made the move permanently or are just there temporarily, use it as an experience to learn and grow, opening up your mind to other ways of living. 

4 comments

  1. Great post! I do have to say China has been one place in my travels that stands out as a culture shock. The local customs and traditions are so specific and totally unique. Very cool to experience, but challenging to fully understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is for sure true Katie. This has been a country that has been quite difficult to understand and to get fully used to. Even after living here for over 2 years I am still surprised by things people here do, think or believe. This has been one of the most interesting countries I have lived in so far!

      Like

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