Every time I go to China, I make more interesting observations about the culture there. I absolutely love some of the traditions and customs, and some completely baffle me.
About 1.5 years ago, I wrote a heartfelt piece about Lessons From Time Spent in China. This time, I thought I would put together a fun little list of the weird and wonderful things I’ve discovered about China, accompanied with some of my favorite photos from the past 1+ year.
If you’re traveling to China, maybe you’ll find some of these helpful. And for everyone else, I hope you enjoy this little insight into modern Chinese culture!
(Keep in mind, a lot of this – while true – are written in a tongue-in-cheek way. I love China and am not intentionally saying bad about it.)
1. Body fire is a mysterious affliction that only seems to affect Chinese people. This is the belief that certain foods cause your body to heat up, while other foods cool it down. Consuming too much of either is bad. Chinese people are forever trying to find an eating balance so that it’s just right. I can’t keep track of this, but somehow, whenever I go to China, I come down with a case of body fire.
2. Everyone refers to each other by how they’re related age-wise. As long as you’re not in the same generation, you must refer to a person by their age relation, never by name. It’s extremely impolite to call someone older than you by name. In America, it’s okay to call your partner’s parents by name, but in China, this is the bigger faux pas ever. I call all my mom’s friends Aunties and Uncles. My grandma’s friends are all Grannies and Grandpas. Any kids will call me Big Sister, etc.
And don’t even get me started about actual relatives. A uncle is not just a uncle. There are very specific terms for mother’s older brother, mother’s younger brother, father’s older brother, father’s younger brother, father’s older brother’s wife, father’s younger brother’s wife, mother’s brother’s wife, etc. etc. etc. If you’ve got a big family, you’ll need to know exactly how to refer to each person.
3. I really like how the Chinese culture respect the elderly. It’s custom to give up seats on the bus/metro to the elderly and everybody respects that. One of my Aunties was seriously offended when she was in the U.S. and nobody gave up their seats for her on the metro.
4. You will forever be treated as a kid by your family. Even though I’m already 30 and completely independent, every time I go to China, I feel like a small child again. My older generation relatives still call me “little kid”, as in “I can’t believe that little kid can play mahjong so well.”
“When will I stop being thought of as a kid?” I asked one of my aunties (my mom’s friend). “When you have your own children,” she answered.
But heck, even though my mom is already 60, her mom still treats her like a kid.
5. Food is the most important in social culture. The most common greeting is “have you eaten”? People show their caring for each other by feeding them. It’s not good to eat with others and actually finish everything on the table. There must be more food than people and you must end up with leftovers. Chinese people are forever concerned that their guests don’t have enough to eat.
6. In line with the above, there are two phrases that people never understand: “I’m already full” and “I’m not that hungry.” I swear, these mean nothing. You will still get a table full of food.
7. Chinese people are loud. It’s not impoliteness; it’s just part of the culture. Accept that.
8. Dating in China is serious business. And there are a bunch of rules. In general, men are only considered to be eligible bachelors if they own a house. Real estate is super expensive in China, so women only want to marry men who have a house. So usually, parents will try their best to help their son buy a house so they’re marriage material.
The man’s finances are important to attract a woman. My cousin said that one guy she went out with, early on, he disclosed all his income, bank, and investments info.
9. It’s completely acceptable to comment on one’s weight and looks. If you haven’t seen someone in a while, it’s completely okay to comment that you’ve put on weight. In fact, it’s even okay to outright say that you’re fat. Ex: “You’ve gotten fat lately! Have you been eating too much?” (Perhaps it’s because of #5, which makes it impossible to diet!).
This should never be taken personally, even though it sounds awful. Just smile and acknowledge that you have, in fact, put on weight.
10. Speaking of fat, there is a very skewed definition of it. China favors the tall, lean, slim body type. Someone completely average in the U.S. will be fat in China. Basically, I’m practically obese in China. I don’t even fit into size Large denim shorts, despite being just 5′-0″. True story.
11. Chinese people never go dutch. They are generous with their friends. Usually, one person will just treat everyone when friends go out together. No one likes to count pennies on how much each person’s portion cost. Chinese people think you’re weird if you insist on paying for yourself. I literally had to chase my Chengdu roomie around the apartment to pay my portion.
This is so unlike America, where everyone keeps their money separate and neither want to give nor owe.
12. There are many many dialects in different regions of China. It’s always so interesting to go to another region and not understand a single word. But everyone speaks the common Mandarin, known as “standard language.”
13. China’s digital wallets are super advanced. They seem light years ahead of the rest of the world in this department. The young people never even carry a wallet anymore. All you need is your cell phone. Everywhere – from clothing stores to sit-down restaurants to the little corner fruit tarp – now accepts digital payment. It’s incredibly cool. Just too bad I still need to do the old-fashioned cash, because you can only set up a digital wallet if you have a Chinese banking account.
14. China has the most amazing apps. Taobao is the most amazing thing ever. It’s like Amazon on crack. You literally never need to step foot in a store ever again. Anything you can possibly need can be ordered on Taobao (for fast free delivery) – from clothes to home stuff to meat to groceries. Even restaurant take out.
There is also literally an app where you can hire someone to wait in lines for you. Comes in handy when you don’t want to wait in a 3 hour line at that trendy restaurant.
I hope you enjoyed this! The Chinese culture is so interesting. I know China could be an overwhelming place for visitors, but I hope this helps you understand it a bit better. Just visit with an open mind, and you’ll discover a beautiful country with some of the kindest people. :)
What are some weird and wonderful cultural customs where you live?