China Travel: Cultural Missteps to Avoid

China, Travel Philosophy — By on September 17, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Lost Girls Deputy Editor Meghann Foye learns to navigate confusing, but fascinating social customs on her recent trip to China.

I’d read my Lonely Planet China diligently, poured through Ann Mah’s excellent book Kitchen Chinese and Lisa See’s best-selling Shanghai Girls, and badgered my well-traveled friends for clues on what not to do if I didn’t want to be seen as an ugly American. But even still, I found myself mired in an embarrassing cultural impasse one day while talking with my tour guide in Shanghai.

“Where are the trendy places to go out?” I asked our soft-spoken 24-year-old guide Alan on our first day there, hoping to get the equivalent of a New York Magazine-style recommendation on the hottest restaurant and bar openings for a story I was working on.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he responded politely.

“Where do all the young Shanghai students go out on the weekends?”

Still no answer. Alan just looked at me nervously, tugging a flop of hair behind his ear. There must be secret hot spots where students go to listen to music, grab drinks, hang out and talk, I thought. I’d seen tons of cute lounges along the banks of the river in Beijing, filled with young locals talking with friends. What was the equivalent here?

“Where do international businessmen go out to impress clients?” I tried, thinking, with his cool jeans, slim-cut shirt that seemed pretty trendy, Alan would have the scoop on the hot night clubs.

Looking anxious, Alan tried desperately to change the subject. “How are you finding China so far?”

Undetered, I persisted. “Where do the expats go out?” I thought of asking finally.

“Maybe, Xintiandi,” answering as if he was asking me a question instead of telling me. Though I’d heard of the popular nightlife area in Shanghai, it had been around for years, and not necessarily what I was looking for. I needed more specific, newsier recommendations to check out for possible inclusion in my story.

“But which bars have just opened? Which are the hardest to get into?”

I could tell he really wanted to help me, but couldn’t give me anything more, which at first confounded me since as a tour guide, it was his job to know the city, but then later on, while talking with a British editor at Time Out Shanghai, I realized that it wasn’t Alan—I was asking a dumb question and he was trying desperately to not embarrass me by giving me the blunt answer. Young Shanghai students and workers don’t go out partying and drinking to clubs like expats do—they spend time studying and with their families. It wouldn’t be something Alan would really keep tabs on, or have a good answer for me, but instead of explaining that, he was doing something very Chinese—allowing me to save face by not answering directly.

In the past few years, more and more Americans in their 20s and 30s have been heading to China for job opportunities, learning, like me, how simple interactions can lead to confusing  mix-ups if you aren’t aware of the cultural differences.

Talking to other expats living in Beijing, I learned that guanxi, or connections, are extremely important in China, and you can’t be successful in business without them. Though since they’re often formed by dinner invitations and exchanging gifts through a complex system of one-upmanship, it can get nerve-wracking keeping score. One hotel manager we met told us how she was often kept awake at night worrying about the trips and gifts she’d prepared for future business prospects, since it could spell disaster if they weren’t considered generous enough.

Another expat who’d taught school in a rural village outside Shanghai often got confused when he’d ask students whether they understood the lesson and received nods, “yes,” but when he then asked them to translate, they couldn’t. He later learned that it’s considered rude to contradict, or say no to a superior, because it might embarrass him. To the students, telling the teacher they hadn’t understood the lesson might mean that his teaching skills weren’t good enough, so the nods yes were allowing him to save face.

As I trekked around China, from Beijing to the Huangshan Mountains to Shanghai, I tried to keep this in mind, all while witnessing shockingly open and direct displays that as an American, I’d normally find rude. For example, it’s common to see people spitting on the street, men tucking their shirts up to expose their bellies in the heat, blasting snot from your nose in public, little kids wearing split trousers exposing their private parts, and public bathrooms consisting of one big trough where you’re expected to go to do your business right next to other women. Even seemingly very direct questions, like, “How old are you?” “Why aren’t you married?” and, “How much money do you make in America?” were asked to me around the dinner table and many times I found my cheeks reddening in chagrin.

I also found that blunt, direct speech without “please” or “would you mind…” shows that your Chinese friend considers you close enough to avoid formalities, while sometimes I’d find our tour guide’s directions, “Ladies, come here, now!” a little abrupt.

On my plane ride home, I tried hard to fathom all that I’d learned about a culture that relies mostly on the unsaid to express true feelings. I have to admit, at first my youthful American lens surmised that things would be a lot easier if people could just say how they feel. But later, after thinking it over, I realized that Westerners use subtle glances, hints in conversation and actions to show our meaning just as often. And while we can get confused when our words don’t always back up our true intentions, the Chinese may be taking the more realistic, mature view that often actions do speak louder, no matter what words are shared.

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