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Culture Shock in China

Many expats don’t know what to expect before they arrive in China. Will it be completely different from what they're used to or will the fact that it's developing so fast mean it may be more familar? The answer is simple: there will be a degree of culture shock in China, but many expats still find they have a lot in common with Chinese people. 

Meeting and greeting in China

When it comes to greeting, people usually say “ni hao”, which means “hi”. If they want to show extra respect, they use the phrase “nin hao”.  Expats should keep in mind that Chinese people don't usually shake hands as this isn't part of their greeting ritual, although they may greet a foreigner with a handshake to show an understanding of Western culture. Chinese people are generally friendly and very hospitable.

Dress code in China

In daily life, Chinese people dress in Western clothes and, apart from big festivals, it’s not common to find traditionally dressed people. What’s more, there are a lot of Western clothing brands in China.

Language barrier in China

The language barrier in China is a big challenge for expats. There are a few reasons for this. Apart from Chinese Mandarin, which is the country’s official language, hundreds of other dialects exist. Learning Chinese Mandarin is hard enough, but in some rural areas, and especially the older generation, people can't even speak Mandarin.

The second reason is that even though young people learn English nowadays, the education system doesn't give them many opportunities to use it. This means that while many people can understand easy phrases, they're often quite shy when it comes to speaking.

People generally don’t bother translating things into English outside of the big cities, where the biggest numbers of foreigners are found. As such, it's a good idea for expats to learn a few useful phrases in Chinese before arriving in the country.

Time in China

There's only one official time zone in China: GMT+8, which is also called Beijing Time. In reality, China stretches over several time zones and in some provinces far away from Beijing two versions of time are said to exist. One is the official one and the second is the local one. Urban Chinese people are generally punctual, although huge traffic jams and conditions on the road are often difficult to predict and expats should keep this in mind when making appointments. On the other hand, time is much more flexible in the smaller cities and rural areas. For example, people won’t say, “Let’s meet at 6pm". Instead they'll arrange to meet in the evening.

Religion in China

Religion isn't very popular in China and it's more common to find religious people in the rural areas than in the cities. Those who are religious are mostly Buddhist or Muslim, although there are small groups of Christians in bigger cities. Although Chinese society is not very religious, many locals go to Buddhist temples to pray for the happiness of their families during celebrations such as the Spring Festival.

Women in China

Although perceptions of a woman’s role in society have changed, an ancient concept still exists in many Chinese minds. The Chinese concept of beauty is called "baifumei", which means “white” (woman should have white skin), “wealthy” (wealth is very important in China) and "beautiful" (women should be quiet and feminine). Women nowadays play a significant role in the management of Chinese companies, but they're also still expected to fulfil traditional roles when it comes to home and children.

Cultural dos and don’ts in China

Chinese culture is so diverse that only the most essential and crucial cultural dos and don'ts are listed below:

  • Don't be surprised if a stranger asks about your age, marital status and your parents’ jobs

  • Don't refuse an invitation when you're asked to lunch or dinner as this will cause your host to lose face. Rather reschedule if you have to.

  • Don't criticise Chinese food and culture when eating out with local people. Rather focus on the good points.

  • Don't be too individualistic. China has a collective culture that values society over the individual.

  • Do realise that Chinese concepts of personal space and privacy are different. The local shop assistant will follow their customers around and teachers sometimes look at their students’ notes. Not to mention the massive crowds in some cities.

  • Do be tolerant when people spit in public places. Foreigners might be shocked or disgusted when they first notice it, but this is a Chinese cultural habit.

  • Do spend time in parks. Chinese people spend a lot of their time in city parks, singing or dancing together. 

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