Visiting China can be a culturally eye-opening and vividly spiritual experience. Although your first time in China might feel intimidating, the payoff of experiencing such an incredible country is worth any pre-trip anxiety. It’s completely normal to worry about things such as the language barrier or how “bad” the little Chinese you do speak sounds. This is true of visiting any country with a first language other than English. But as normal as a little anxiety is, you shouldn’t let it ruin your trip. In fact, knowing what not to do in China can be key to a calmly exhilarating adventure.
While this should seemingly go without saying, a lot of travelers visit China and expect everybody to know English. It’s true that these days some schools in China teach the basics of English, but very rarely does it go deeper than that. If the case arises where you’re lost, approaching someone who is college-age will be the best chance you have of conducting a conversation in English. However broken. Regardless of this, speaking a foreign language to everyone in a country is just plain bad manners.
When you’re visiting a country where English isn’t spoken, you should learn a few basic words and phrases in the language. This is a simple courtesy. Although there are dozens of different Chinese dialects, most travelers will find comfort in knowing a few key phrases. “Hello” is perhaps the most useful word to learn in any language. "Hello" can get you far all around the world. In China, “hello” is “ni hao” (你好), which literally means, “You good?” Other useful Chinese words include “xiexie” (thank you), “zaijian” (goodbye), and “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand).
In a lot of the martial arts movies of the 70s, you’ll see the characters bowing when they greet each other. This is misunderstood. Bowing is not a sign of respect in China. While you won’t insult anyone you greet with a “ni hao” and a bow, you do stand the chance of appearing ignorant. Bowing is actually more of an informal thing practiced when paying respect, not each time you greet someone. Instead of bowing, offer a handshake.
China is primarily a cash-based society, particularly if the credit cards in question are from another country. While this can seem inconvenient as a traveler, there is a good reason for largely veering away from credit. First and foremost, they have a very debt-conscious society. Chinese people will do all they can to avoid getting into debt, and given the state of the US and the UK these days, that makes complete sense. Although you can pay for some things in China with your card, especially in bigger cities, it’s advised you always have cash on hand, as well. Just in case.
A big way of keeping Chinese people comfortable around you when visiting their country is to keep to yourself. Personal space is a big thing in China. In fact, giving someone their space is seen as a sign of respect. While nobody seems to mind crowds or being packed into public transport like sardines, when it comes to one-on-one situations, it’s respectful to keep your distance. That being said, keeping your eyes open to others’ body language can signal whether or not you’re too close for comfort or not.
As much as leaving your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice seems like a logical thing to do, in China it has cultural connotations. The Chinese use incense sticks placed vertically to honor the dead. Leaving your chopsticks vertically looks a little too much like this, and therefore doing so is considered bad etiquette. In short: vertical chopsticks are a symbol of death.
In the West, we might be used to hearing that we don’t know how to take a compliment. However, the act of taking a compliment in China is considered a huge no-no. Deflecting any compliment aimed at you is the only option here. Saying “thank you” is considered rude, as if you think too highly of yourself. In other words, saying, “thank you” might as well be saying, “yes, I am the best.”
Thanks to the Internet, it’s more common than not for people to work remotely. Even if you’re just visiting China for a holiday, you still might take your laptop or tablet. If you’re traveling to China with your computer, you should also track down and use a VPN. Chinese privacy laws prohibit the use of a lot of websites using firewalls. Therefore, if you want to upload a picture of yourself at the Yuyuan garden to social media, you’re going to have to do it via a VPN.
Like a lot of things, even drinking culture is different in China. Alcohol is a huge part of Chinese Culture. Business meetings are full of it, and you’re expected to keep drinking for as long as they last. However, it’s also customary to offer a toast before taking your first sip. “Ganbei” is one way of saying “cheers,” although depending on your company, you might be expected to drink the whole glass after saying it. Unsurprisingly, it’s very hard to stay sober in China.
Usually, when you’re offered something, you take it and say, “thank you.” This seems to be the case even if you decline it at first. In China, though, this is a dance that is expected to go on for as long as possible. When you’re offered food or a gift, you should decline it. Not just once, either. You should expect to decline the offer until the other person relents in asking. A helpful phrase here is “bu yao,” which means no. And you’re probably going to be saying it a lot.