How to Adjust to Chinese Nuances & Idiosyncrasies

by Armand Diab

Whether you’ve ever travelled to China or not, you may already know that it’s the most populated nation on the planet.  As of October 2012 census, China’s population stood at 1.39 billion people. That’s about four and a half times the population of the United States.  Naturally, a country this large will arouse curiosity in Westerners who want to intern in China, which they should no doubt visit for its many glorious aspects: the fascinating history it has been through, the variety of different and great tasting foods it offers, and its rapid development as a major world economy, to name just a few. 

Illustration of cultural nuances in China

3 Easy Steps to Follow - Photo by Armand Diab

However, during internships in China, although it may be a joyous experience in some ways, may leave an inexperienced traveler overwhelmed and shell-shocked. Some of the most important things to consider when interning in People’s Republic are outlined below:

1. Sterilization of Utensils at Restaurants.

For some reason, most restaurants in China will have the plate, cup and bowl wrapped in clear plastic on the table. So, when you go to sit down, you will tear the plastic off and, after also unwrapping the chopsticks from their sealed cover, you will proceed to use hot tea to wash them with, and right there at the table, no less.  Yep, the waiter will bring you a kettle of tea, along with a large metal bowl, which is to be used in lieu of a trash can or bucket.  

The washing method is such: you will pour extremely hot tea into your little cup, bowl and plate, and then you will proceed this by dipping every part of the chopsticks into the same hot tea.  This is supposed to sanitize everything, in case that germs or other bacteria have made their home on these utensils and dishes while they were wrapped under plastic.  Then, when you are finished, you will pour all the “dirty” tea into the aforementioned bowl, which will later be taken and dumped outside in the street by the waiter.  Now you’re ready for your meal, because all of your dishes and utensils have been properly sanitized, enabling you to enjoy your meal, germ free.

Cab ride in China

2. Tipping isn't Mandatory.

An American who arrives in China, and who isn’t very familiar with the customs and cultural habits of its natives, might feel inclined to tip his or her waitress after eating at a restaurant.  This is a big mistake.  Leaving a tip may leave some to feel offended, and will create a bad reputation for that customer should they ever return to that particular restaurant.  There was a recent incident in which some tourists, after finishing their meal at a Chinese restaurant in Pingzhou neighborhood of Bao’an District in Shenzhen, were chased down the street by the waiter who had just served them.  Their crime?  They left a tip on the table, and he had come after them to return it.  No amount of determination on their part would convince him to take it, so they eventually just gave up and took their money back.  Hard to imagine that someone would have such a reaction to being given money, but supposedly they’re hesitant to accept tips in fear of that their bosses will mistake their extra cash for theft from the restaurant. Perhaps there is a method to the madness.

3. Surviving a Motorbike Cab Ride.

China’s big cities have many subways, and those subways are often located in remote areas, far from stores, restaurants or malls.  So in order to get from one’s subway stop to a more urban area, a traveler may want to consider taking a motorbike cab.  These are frequently parked right outside of subway stops, their drivers often resting on their vehicles and covering themselves with umbrellas, shielding their skin from Shenzhen’s hot sun.  For a mere 5 Yuan (which translates to roughly 80 cents USD), they will take you pretty much anywhere from your train stop, often over-compensating for the laziness of your own legs.  

However, one important thing to remember: these men, as crazy as their driving may appear to be at first sight, are professionals who’ve done this for many years, and riding with them is as traditional and as safe as eating a bowl of steamed rice during a typical Chinese meal.  When the bike takes off, you may hold on to the driver in front of you, or onto the handles that are located in the rear, on the back of your seat.  Your driver may appear suicidal, as he cuts off that car, and this truck, and even as he swerves in and out of heavy traffic lanes maniacally, but rest assured, 99.9999% of the time, he will get you to your destination in one piece (your heart rate may increase tenfold during your ride, but what the heck, we all need a little bit of adrenaline every now and then).  To be in China and never take a motor-bike cab ride is tantamount to blasphemy.  As they say, when in Rome…

Chinese people in a street

So, as you can see, it’s not too complicated to navigate daily life in China.

Sanitize when needed, do not tip while eating out, and relax while taking a motor-bike cab ride.  Simple rules for a safe and frustration-free stay in this very crowded country.  And if you ever figure out how to safely walk among hundreds of thousands Chinese people on a busy Shenzhen area without being shoved left and right all over the place, then please be sure to let me know.  After all, sharing is caring.