China: Cultural Differences And Etiquette

By Kristy McCaffrey



The symbolic dragon is more serpentine in nature within


Three years ago, I accompanied my husband to China on a business trip, along with two associates and another wife. We spent much of the week in Beijing, a bustling city with intriguing architecture, insane traffic, and pollution. My husband buys and sells steel products into the U.S. and we were fortunate that the company he interfaces with took care of us, because we spoke no Chinese. I’ve been to foreign countries where I didn’t know the language, but getting by wasn’t a problem. Not so in China. Chinese characters are impossible to decipher, and the country doesn’t include English counterparts on signs.
We saw the main tourist sites: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the 2008 Olympic village, and the Great Wall. But the more interesting aspect was the cultural differences and etiquette expectations.
The Forbidden City, Beijing, China.
The Great Wall at Badaling, a short drive outside
My husband and I at the Bird's Nest, site of the
2008 Summer Olympics.
The hotel in the distance was built to resemble a
dragon. Olympic Village, Beijing.
We learned that when a Chinese person hands you their business card, which they did with regularity, they present with both hands. In return, you must receive it with both of your hands. When pausing while eating, do not put chopsticks vertically in any food. This symbolizes death. This was a difficult habit to avoid since chopsticks tend to roll away when not in use, sometimes to the floor. The Chinese are very adamant about visiting the restroom before a meal to wash hands (certainly a good practice and one we did at times en masse); however, at mealtime everyone jabbed chopsticks into the food on the lazy susan and continuously ate straight from the entrees. Sharing spit was apparently okay. We were given a small plate, but this was merely a drip dish. Old habits die hard though—I always tried to stack food onto the tiny plate, in true American fashion.
We were treated to authentic Chinese cuisine (no rice, no egg rolls, no fortune cookies), consisting of vegetable dishes, noodles, tofu, seafood, and meat (pork, chicken, duck). We were never served dessert, although I recall eating fried pumpkin with one meal that more than satisfied my sweet tooth.
Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an, China. They were buried
with Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 B.C. to
protect him in the afterlife.
Mid-week, we flew to Xi’an, a 2-hour flight south, to meet with additional business contacts. We were also eager to visit the massive Terracotta Warrior Exhibit. It’s truly magnificent and the Chinese government has invested a great deal of money and resources into the area, making it a huge tourist draw. During one business lunch, we were served soup with a side of flatbread. We’d been starving for bread for days, and the sight of it made all of us audibly sigh. My husband wasted no time tearing it into pieces and dropping into his soup. Without warning, all the Chinese at the table yelled and threw up their hands. Stunned, we froze, having no idea what we’d done. No one spoke English, except one young woman, and in the end she never adequately explained our faux pas. But, we were all careful after that to make certain our bread made no contact with our soup.
This amazing find was discovered in 1974 by a local
farmer. The majority of the 8,000 soldiers are still
One issue of concern was that we might inadvertently consume dog, having heard rumors that Chinese ate them routinely. To avoid this, at every meal we inquired as to the contents of every single dish. Only once was my husband served canine meat, which he steadfastly avoided. This custom originated with the Koreans and was brought to China by the large number of immigrants into the country, so isn’t as widespread as we’d feared.
Each evening our host treated us to a large dinner. We couldn’t refuse, despite the fact that we were often dead-tired. (It was a 15 hour time difference for us.) The seating arrangement was of utmost importance, with our host instructing everyone where to sit. My husband and his business partners were placed near the head of the table, ranked by their position of power (or perceived power), then wives, then lower-standing employees.
Near the end of our trip my husband tried to refuse a business luncheon, due to time constraints; all he wanted was a quick office visit. The Chinese refused to take the meeting without the meal. It was simply too rude to show up and not partake of their hospitality. We Westerners don’t like to waste time, and it would seem, are generally less sociable than our Chinese counterparts.
Everyone in China works, in fact they are some of the most industrious people we’ve ever met. The young 20-somethings who made up the workforce of our helper company were energetic, inquisitive men and women who had, for the most part, a strong grasp of English. One young man, who spoke very well, said he learned by watching episodes of “Friends.” (His slang was excellent.) It wasn’t uncommon for these workers to put in 10-12 hour days, but the pay for most is so low that they can only afford to rent a room in someone else’s apartment. They fully accepted the dictate that they would only ever have one child, and seemed a little perplexed by the fact that I had four offspring and the accompanying wife had five.


I’m embarrassed to admit that the only Chinese I attempted was “thank you,” and I soon gave that up. The phrase is xie xie, and I struggled with the pronunciation since every Asian I asked told me something different (see-see, zhee-zhee). Because a slight change in pronunciation can greatly alter the meaning, I received enough laughs and smirks that I soon retreated from speaking the local language. But, despite those moments, the Chinese people are wonderful, intelligent, and hard-working. I was immensely impressed by them.
How do I look as a Chinese Empress? It's more likely
I would've been a concubine.

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