Chinese culture: I don’t mean calligraphy, Taiji, and tea. I mean the everyday things. Mannerisms, etiquette, customs, the underlying mindset. Here are just a couple of things which I’ve noticed while I’ve been in Beijing.
Perhaps one of the biggest shocks has been the frequency and volume of spitting on the street in China. And I don’t mean some subtle spittle in a secluded bush or at the side of the street ( who doesn’t get a bit phlegmy now and then? ). I’m talking about gobbing off something apocalyptic: first the sound like a rushing wind and then the entire salivated contents of someone’s mouth hitting the pavement. Maybe it’s the smog? Whatever it is, it caught me off guard at the start. They even make the noise in the canteen ( they don’t spit on the floor though ). The first time I heard that over breakfast it killed our conversation with a mixture of laughter and disbelief.
Talking of canteens, eating is another big cultural shift. There are no knives and forks, so it’s chopsticks or die. And chopsticks bring a whole etiquette with them. There’s no cutting, so large pieces of meat, a pancake, or a slice of eggy bread all comes up at once and you tear bits off it. The bowl comes right up to your face, or you go down to the bowl. I have seen a few students at risk of drowning with their faces so close to their stir-fried whatever. There is much shoveling and trailing of food from mouth. Noodles, no problem. One load for my mouth, one load for my chin/neck/upper body.
( Don’t worry, gastronomes and foodies. I wouldn’t tease you in this way and then not do a post on food. There will be photos as well, my inner hipster has been unashamedly photographing my meals, instawuuuuuut )
In terms of politeness, China has one particular custom which I’m trying to adopt. When exchanging money or business cards or presents or other important things you give with two hands and you receive with two hands. To do otherwise could be considered extremely rude, especially with business cards. I haven’t received many of these, but I’ve been making it rain and perfecting the art of two-handed money, which is harder than it sounds. I normally have something else in my other hand and just stick out my other mitt for the change, but am making an effort.
I think maybe the Chinese don’t mind too much because I’m 老外 ( Laowai – foreigner ), but all the same I want to be polite as I would be polite in England. English politeness doesn’t get you very far, and saying “thank you” too much can be rude ( they get paid, so they don’t need thanks. Similarly, there’s no tipping ). It’s not to say that etiquette doesn’t exist, it just operates in an entirely different way. I could think I’m being impeccably well mannered and it turns out I’m holding up a middle finger to these people.
In my attempts to become more Chinese, I am adopting the everyday ways. I can be seen most mealtimes up to my arms in rice, I fight everything British in me and shout for a waiter ( if you don’t you will go ignored ), I join in the elbow fights in queues, I give money with two hands ( and feel a little insulted when someone doesn’t reciprocate ), and I have even ( sorry Mum ) spat in the street. I love to Beijing.