9 Chinese cultural norms that I struggled to adapt to

China is a strange country. To me, it was as if I had landed on a different planet when I stepped off the plane at Hong Kong’s airport. I had researched some of their customs and thought I was prepared but after two months of being here, I realize how little I actually knew. Here are 9 cultural norms in China that I found quite unfamiliar.

  1. They only drink warm water.

On my first night in Shenzhen, I was slightly surprised to receive a glass of boiling water during our supper. I then noticed that if you ask for water anywhere, you will be given hot water unless you specifically ask for cold water. And then expect some stares to come your way – it’s believed to be very unhealthy and strange to drink cold water, especially in cold weather. To be honest, I got used to it quite quickly and have found it very helpful to stay warm here.


  1. “It’s better out than in”

I find this one quite difficult to cope with. It’s not considered rude to slurp, sniff, snort, cough, spit, burp or fart publicly. Burping during mealtime is considered a sign that you are enjoying your food and you may have to keep yourself from looking utterly appalled when they slurp their soup and chew and speak at the same time. And they spit. A lot. A day has not gone by where I have not seen a multitude of people cough up phlegm and spit it on the pavement while walking and talking to others. I don’t think I can get used to it.


  1. No shoes indoors.

Every single apartment and house I have entered, I have been asked to take of my shoes and have been given slippers to wear. I am actually not sure why, but I assume it’s just to make sure their homes stay clean. You have, after all, just been walking on a phlegmy pavement. Dust also accumulates a lot quicker in China due to the air pollution and this makes it very important for to try and keep the house as clean as possible.


  1. Surgical masks are a norm.

Whenever you go out, you will undoubtedly see a few people wearing surgical masks. Don’t freak out, they are just doing this to try and lower their chances of being affected by the massive amounts of air pollution in China. Okay, now you can freak out. The pollution in Shenzhen isn’t as bad as in Beijing (apparently breathing the air there is the equivalent of smoking seven cigarettes a day), but many people are moving to different countries specifically to get away from the pollution.


  1. Most people smoke.

Despite wanting to get away from the air pollution, an insane amount of people smoke cigarettes in China. And they smoke in the weirdest places. They’ll smoke in cars, cafes, restaurants, but I’ve seen a man jogging and smoking at the same time! Talk about contradiction. He would jog for a while, then sit on the sidewalk and have smoke before continuing with his workout. I was stunned, to say the least.


  1. Karaoke is a thing.

Karaoke is a major pass time in China. Forget the clubs, people go to karaoke clubs and book private rooms for them and their entourage to falsely sing “Don’t go breakin’ my heart” to their hearts content. What if I want to do karaoke but have no one that’s willing to join me? Don’t worry – private karaoke booths, about the size of an English telephone box, can be found in most major shopping centres and malls!


  1. “Ladies first” doesn’t exist here.

In South Africa it has been engraved into the minds of men that it is respectful to offer your seat to a woman if she does not have anywhere to sit, to let women walk through doors first and to help women who are carrying heavy loads. These societal rules do not apply here. Generally, men will walk first, but many younger men have held doors open for me and let me go first. But if you find yourself standing on the metro, you can forget about being offered a seat – open seats are free game to both genders!


  1. They can drink. A lot.

I cannot stress this enough. The Chinese know how to drink copious amounts of alcohol. And some of the stuff is absolutely potent. Mao-tai, China’s national drink, has been described by Dan Rather as “drinking liquid razor blades”. I just call it surgical spirits – it has an alcohol percentage of over 50%. If you ever visit China, you will most probably have to drink Moa-tai, and if you are attending a dinner and have to toast to everyone sitting at the table, you are going to become very drunk – trust me.


  1. Meat is not the main focus of a meal.

I have to admit this one got to me. I love meat and eating steak, boerewors (a type of sausage in South Africa) and lamb chops. I can smell a braai (a South African barbecue) from a mile away and would much rather eat a plate full of meat than chocolates or sweets. Since I have come to China, I have eaten an insane amount of rice and not a lot of meat. Rice or noodles (this is depending on which province you are in – rice is the staple of my province, although I have also had quite a lot of noodles too) will be the main focus and small amounts of meats, veggies and nuts can be added to your meal. If I could import one thing from South Africa to China it would definitely be boerewors!



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