Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated May 01, 2021
By Nicholas McKay

Teacher Nicholas making Chinese friends

You always hear how friendly Chinese people are.

Teachers who worked in China before me praised Chinese people for being so welcoming.

While I’ve found this to be true, it doesn’t mean that making friends with Chinese people, and spending time together, is necessarily easy.

In this article I will explain why it can be hard to make friends in China.

Show me the money!

Ask any Chinese person, ‘Why do you work?’, and you’re likely to receive the same answer every time. ‘Because of money!’

I, on the other hand, would be quick to say how I’m passionate about my job, or I enjoy the work environment.

For me, money is just a tool.I don’t mean to undersell its importance, but for Chinese people, money is paramount.

While teaching in China as a foreigner, you will be privileged to sometimes receive twice the wage your Chinese colleagues do.

This alone is one reason why they are so motivated to work hard.

Work, work, work

Not only this, most Chinese are expected to work overtime, often without pay. Despite there being laws in place to stop companies taking advantage of their staff, it still happens.

There is a lot of stress for Chinese workers. In fact, it has been reported that each year an estimated 600,000 people die from work-related stress in China.

Due to the large population, there is a revolving door of employees. Anyone underperforming can be immediately terminated, and quickly replaced.

This incentivizes Chinese people to work extra hours, and sometimes work on their days off.

Overworked Chinese person

Chinese people work hard and can be seen sleeping on the job!

Many receive only one day off per week. Depending on the company, this could be a fixed day, or it might change every week or month.

This makes arranging a lunch date with a Chinese friend next to impossible.

Moreover, many Chinese I know prefer to sleep in during their days off, due to the many hours they are required to put in at work.

Even if a Chinese friend has the weekend off, don’t be surprised if your rest days do not coincide.

If you happen to work at a language centre in China like I do, you may be required to work on weekends.

Being ignored is anything but bliss

Often when I messaged a Chinese friend or colleague, they would not respond.

If someone sends me a message, I endeavour to respond. Say, I am invited out for dinner. If I can’t make it, I will always reply.

Some Chinese people I found don’t bother replying at all. This lack of a response is the message.

Sending a message in China

It can be hard to make Chinese friends if they don't respond to your messages.

Other times, Chinese people will not reply because they don’t think they have to.

Example; you send a message in the morning. If the Chinese friend you sent it to doesn’t see the message until the afternoon, by then, some will assume they don’t have to respond.

Living in Chinese cities, you will find that life can be very fast, and there will be many an occasion when your Chinese friends have no time for you.

This can make it hard to establish friendships in China.

A double-edged sword

Though Chinese people may not reply to your messages, the same rules concerning etiquette do not apply to you.

I had Chinese friends, mainly women, complain if I did not quickly reply to their messages. It’s a fact, Chinese women can be very possessive, and the same goes for their friendships.

I had friends demand to know where I was or what I was doing, and even ask for corroborating evidence.

When this first happened, I was unsure how to respond. Later, I just expected this, and if I truly appreciated the friendship, I would do whatever the girl wanted.

Saving face

If you have heard the stereotype of Chinese people being friendly, you have probably heard of the concept of saving face. It’s an important part of Chinese culture.

A Chinese person’s reputation is very important to them. Because of this, occasionally they will lie to protect their image.

It can be hard to make Chinese friends

Face is an important part of Chinese culture, and can affect friendships.

I will give an example. I invited a friend out for drinks. He replied that he was too sick to go out.

He clearly wasn’t a mastermind. That evening he posted images on his WeChat timeline of himself at a club.

Another time I invited a girl out and she said she was too tired. Like the boy above, she later posted pictures of herself at a café with another friend.

These were people who obviously did not want to go out with me that night, and made excuses, rather than admit the truth.

At the same time, some Chinese will want to protect your reputation too, and lie to make you feel better. I imagine being told ‘I don’t want to see you tonight’ hurts more than ‘I am busy’.

Footing the bill

When working with Chinese, or if you’re teaching adults, some will invite you out for dinner. This is one of the major ways Chinese show their appreciation.

Always, they say, ‘let me treat you’.

When going out for dinner, or a social occasion, if it hasn’t been arranged who will pay, this can result in a small, but usually friendly argument.

Chinese people will invite you out for dinner

If you're invited out for dinner, your Chinese friend will likely pay.

As an example, some foreign colleagues and I went out with a Chinese friend of ours to KTV (this is karaoke – one of the many leisure activities in China). We spoke about going Dutch, and splitting the pretty hefty tab.

Our Chinese friend would have none of it and insisted on paying for everything himself.

Sometimes Chinese, men in particular, show off by paying for everything, even if they are struggling financially.

The concept of sharing a tab is not widely known in China. Some Chinese will be insulted if you ask them to go halves. Women especially, even your friends, are used to being pampered.

Give and take

A huge difference between Chinese and foreigners is the act of borrowing and lending money.

Until arriving in China, I had not experienced many friends and colleagues asking me for a handout.

In five months, I had been asked six times for money. And we’re not talking chump change here either!

Once you know a person in China, it becomes perfectly natural to ask them for some dough.

Sadly, considering the pittance some Chinese make, it is no surprise they need help. This ranges from paying the rent, to purchasing new products.

Others pretend they live lavish lifestyles, splurging on clubs and at KTV, and buying the newest fashion trends, needing some extra cash to keep up with their image.

Chinese money

Your Chinese friends may ask to borrow money.

In a society founded on the importance of money and reputation, obvious problems can arise if you say ‘no’.

It takes a lot of courage to look someone in the eye and ask for money, and the shame of being told ‘no’ is sometimes more than some can stomach.

I gave this exact answer to a friend who asked for 50,000 RMB. She never spoke to me again.

You often hear of people who never see a return investment. A friend leant 100,000 RMB to someone she knew, and over a year later, had still not received any of it back.

She is now taking her friend to court to get back her money. Let’s hope you don’t have to do the same.

A friendly finale

If you visit another country you can’t expect everything to be the same, and China is no different.

While it can be hard making Chinese friends, the country is filled with amazing people.

Try as best you can to navigate the minefield of cultural differences, and kick over every rock in your attempt to meet as many of these wondrous people as possible.

Have you found it easy or hard to make Chinese friends? Please share your experience below.


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