Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated March 22, 2019
By Nicholas McKay

Cultural misunderstandings I’ve experienced in China

A lot of people talk about culture shock when coming to China.

Though yes, the focus is often on us foreigners experiencing the ‘shocks’, that does not mean it doesn’t go both ways.

You might be wondering, ‘what does Nick mean?’

Well, while you’re living and teaching in China, you’ll meet plenty of Chinese people who can speak English. The issue however, is despite their knowledge of our language, they might have little knowledge of our culture.

Many words and phrases are culturally loaded. What a Chinese person might take as meaning one thing, means something completely different to us.

So, today I want to talk about some of the cultural misunderstandings I’ve experienced in China. By reading this, maybe you’ll be able to avoid them!

Take it with a grain of salt

Yes, sometimes you will need to take things that Chinese people say with a pinch of salt.

As an example: today, on WeChat, one of my contacts told me she wanted to ‘date me’. In the West, I think we all have a very similar idea of what that means.

What she meant however, was that she wanted to go out for a coffee and get to know me. In short, she was asking me out as a friend.

Cultural misunderstandings I have experienced in China include a woman asking to date me

You may encounter a number of cultural misunderstandings in China.

I had another Chinese girl send me photos of herself at the gym. I don’t think I need to go into detail about how amazing she looked!

Outside of China, a man could be forgiven for thinking that a woman was showing off her body to him.

In China, being thin is very important, as there are stigmas on being overweight. Sometimes girls take photos of themselves, not to flirt, but to show off how thin they are; to boast.

This is one of the quirks of Chinese culture.

Both examples come under the ‘think before you act’ banner. Remember, typical Chinese are more reserved.

What’s more, if you really know a person, and something they say seems off, it could just be a language issue.

An invitation to make babies

When I first arrived in Ningbo and started working as a teacher at a language training school, I wanted to get to know my colleagues, as you do.

So, I asked some of them out for drinks. This is where it gets weird – you see, I am only one of five men employed at my school. Most of my co-workers are women.

Having a foreigner ask them out for an innocent drink did not always seem so innocent to them.

I remember saying to a receptionist during my first week: “I am new to Ningbo. I want to know more about this city, and I want to get to know the people I work with better. Do you want to go out for lunch, or to have a drink?”

She took this to mean that I wanted to – how should I put this – make babies with her.

Inviting someone out for lunch could cause a cultural misunderstanding in China

Asking someone out for a meal? They might think it's a date.

So, she proceeded to tell half her friends that I was a dirty foreigner with a serious case of yellow fever. Safe to say, it did not make trying to make friends any easier.

In fact, I had to tell my colleagues that I was not interested in taking sexual advantage of them. Yes, I really did!

After saying that, it made my life easier in the school office, with my co-workers being more open with me, now that they knew I was not a predator.

This has to be one of the most awkward cultural misunderstandings I’ve experienced in China.

(For those interested, I’ve written a blog about how I’ve found dating in China.)

I’m not really your man

I was talking to a colleague of mine, and she noticed how bad my mathematical skills were. She said that I was clearly only good at English.

I told her that “if ever you want to learn about English or media, I’m your man!”

Now, ‘I’m your man’ is just an expression that we all know, in this context at least, means ‘I’m the one to call’.

She took it to mean something romantic, and I needed to explain to her what the expression meant.

Some foreigners do come to China with the intention of sowing their oats. Notice I use the word ‘some’ not ‘all’, but regardless, all of us ‘foreigners’ are grouped together in the eyes of many Chinese. If one of us did something appalling, then all of us are equally suspect.

A Chinese friend of mine told me that she met many foreigners who wanted to be ‘friends with benefits’ and a Chinese co-worker of mine told me that foreign men have sent her pictures of their genitals.

Occurrences like these make some Chinese people think that a lot of us have nefarious intentions.

As a result, whenever I invite a colleague out, I always include the addendum that it is purely a friendly invitation with no strings.

Hands off!

Many Chinese people will have a serious aversion to being touched. Where I have had foreign co-workers hug me, don’t expect the locals to feel too eager about being this close to you.

Occasionally, even a mere handshake is downright unsettling for them. I went to shake the hand of a woman in my office and she pulled back as though I was infected with the plague.

Physical intimacy is not something that Chinese people enjoy exploring in public, and though a handshake is anything but, for some people, it is still too close for comfort.

Shaking hands in China can cause a cultural misunderstanding

Shaking hands can cause awkwardness in China.

Other times I have had a person giggle when I held out my hand, before accepting it, as though befuddled by the gesture. A classic cultural misunderstanding!

In short, don’t feel too dejected if your handshake is rejected. And please don’t go around trying to hug Chinese people.

Appreciate the differences

When I first came to China, I found myself comparing the life, the places and the people there to everything back home.

To really immerse yourself in the experience of travelling abroad, and to come to terms with the people around you, you really need to recognize and appreciate the cultural differences.

This way, you may not feel so bad when the unexpected happens. You may also need to explain yourself more often than you think.

Lastly, think about what is considered socially acceptable, as to not offend, because what was approved of back home may not be appreciated in China.


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