You can never really see or understand another culture until you’ve lived in that country.

No matter how informed you are about the world, or how much you travel, the Chinese culture will still surprise you.

China is incredibly different to any Western culture. It’s also different to what you’ll find in the Chinatown of your home country.

China is quite literally another world. While this may not directly impact your way of life while you’re overseas, it will be easier for you if you know what to expect.

Some things will still be a surprise though.

There are lots of languages

If you decide to learn Mandarin before you go to China, thinking you’ll be able to communicate with everyone, you might be in for a surprise.

There are literally hundreds of dialects and languages in China, and not everyone will speak Mandarin.

For many years now the Chinese government has been pushing the use of Mandarin, but their efforts have been stunted by the sheer size of the country and the difficulty of policing every single school curriculum.

Chinese culture is made up of many languages

Chinese culture is unique as there are hundreds of local dialects.

As a result, young people will usually speak it, because it’s taught in school. However, if you’re speaking to older people they may only speak their native dialects.

This can make communication even more difficult, but it’s a wonderful sign of the diversity that China represents.

You should still try learning some basic Mandarin phrases before you go. It’ll help with day-to-day stuff like getting around and ordering food.

Spitting is normal

This is something that a lot of TEFL teachers struggle with.

Chinese people spit on the ground in the streets, in restaurants, and even in shopping centres.

It’s also fairly common for people on bikes to pull over to the side of the road, block one nostril and blow into the gutter.

This can be hard to adjust to because there’s nothing worse than walking down the street and slipping in a ‘puddle’.

But it’s not something that you can change. Just do your best to ignore it, and watch your feet!

Religion isn’t Illegal

Lots of people assume that religion is against the law in China, but this isn’t the case.

While the government is openly atheist, there are a number of religions that are generally accepted by law.

This includes Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, and Islam.

As such, you will see Catholic churches and other religious buildings around China and even hear some people mention their religious practices.

Guangzhou church

A church in downtown Guangzhou.

Temples are part of Chinese culture

People praying at a temple in China.

Chinese people are very good with chopsticks

If you’ve grown up using a knife and fork, you will probably find chopsticks a little awkward to use.

In fact, you might find it nearly impossible to eat certain foods with chopsticks. But Chinese people grow up using them, and their dexterity will amaze you.

They can hold a bone the length of your arm with chopsticks and daintily pick off the meat, and peel off a prawn shell with a few practiced moves.

There is no one right way to hold the chopsticks. You will see a variety of grips and none of them diminish their skill with this utensil.

China loves technology

China loves technology, and this is particularly true when it comes to mobile phones.

Phone apps are used for everything in China.

You will see people using their phone to scan barcodes at restaurants so they can access the menu and order food, before scanning another code to pay for it.

You will see people sitting in the same room at a party playing games with each other on their phone.

Technology in China is really taking off and it’s more advanced than you would probably experience back home.

You might think it’s strange at first, but before long you will find yourself following along.

Technology is part of modern day Chinese culture

Technology is now entwined in Chinese culture.

You will learn the ease of ordering from a hundred restaurants with one app and how to book a weekend trip using another app.

And when you get home, you will probably marvel at how much slower your own country is to adopt these technologies, and how inconvenient it seems.

Despite China’s thirst for all things tech, the public education sector hasn’t really kept up. For example, many schools still rely on a blackboard in the classroom.

It’s disparities like this that make China so fascinating.

The importance of face

The idea of ‘face’ is extremely important in China, but it’s also one that Westerners struggle to understand.

It’s a complex idea that doesn’t translate well to English, but the basic premise is that you must never deliberately or accidentally cause another person to lose their dignity, or allow yours to be lost.

This means that you need to control your emotions in public, never reveal a weakness or a lie, and never criticise in public.

Face is an important part of Chinese culture

The concept of face plays an important role in Chinese culture.

Westerners are usually given a little leeway in terms of face, but it’s still something you need to keep in mind when you interact with locals.

The idea of face is also tied to the collectivism that’s such a big part of Chinese culture.

So if one person loses face, their group, family, and even the country does as well.

That’s why it’s so important that you avoid doing anything that could cause Chinese staff or locals to lose face.

You can also help them gain it with the following ideas:

  • Praise someone openly for good work, particularly in front of their superiors
  • Compliment regularly (but honestly)
  • Give gifts if someone has helped you in some way.

The importance of the group

China is a collectivist culture in a way that Westerners just don’t really understand.

The individual’s needs are less important than the group, whether that group is the family, the workplace, or China as a whole.

The actions of each person also reflect on the group as well. So if one person does something wrong, their family and even their country suffers as a result.

This can be hard to understand and even harder to accept for a Westerner, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

China is a collectivist culture

China is a collectivist society.

In fact, this idea has a number of benefits for the people and for the individual.

It creates incredibly strong family bonds, in which the younger care for the older in a way that’s been mostly lost in Western culture.

It also creates a strong sense of belonging, where each individual understands that they are part of a greater whole.

This idea also creates very strong expectations for the behaviour and actions of the Chinese people that you will interact with.

You might not always understand these expectations, but learning to accept them is a big part of learning to live in China.

Further reading about Chinese culture