Manners have always been important in my family. I’m 26 years old, and my mother still reminds me to say “yes, ma’am.” My grandma still checks on me to see if I wrote thank-you notes for birthday and Christmas presents. I was taught to hold the door open for other people. I like to think of myself as a polite person. The only problem is, my American manners don’t seem to work in China.
One of the most awkward parts of adjusting to life in a new country is being unfamiliar with the manners and social norms. Sure, some things are the same, but some are very different. I’ve been living and teaching in China just over a year now, and I so often feel like I’m still on the wrong foot. To a certain extent, I think it’s unavoidable, and I’ve learned that the best way to cope with these embarrassing situations is to call your friends back home and laugh about it. That, or write a blog post inviting the world to read about how rude you accidentally were in China. (Sorry, Mom.)
ADJUSTING TO CHINESE SOCIAL ETIQUETTE
Since coming to China, I’ve only twice been accused of being polite. I wish I could be proud that I’ve at least managed that. I wish I could point to these instances as proof that I’m assimilating, but I feel more lost than before. Neither infraction was intentional.
FROM FAUX PAS TO FRIENDSHIP
The first time was right after a class. I was gathering up my teaching materials, including a wad of new blue sticky tack. Those of you who have not yet embarked on your teaching careers need to understand two things about sticky tack:
- It’s wonderful. Think of it like a reusable glue that will finally put an end to your continual need for more masking tape.
- It looks like chewed gum, chewed gum that a student irreverently spat out and stuck on a wall.
This second quality became a problem when the Aiyi came in to clean the classroom before I’d finished packing up my things. She saw the wad of used tack on the wall and kindly offered to throw it away. Having failed to foresee the need to learn “it’s not actually spat-out chewing gum” in Chinese (and feeling slightly betrayed by my Chinese phrasebook), I resorted to hand waving and several urgent bu yong le (no needs, which I was told is a polite way of refusing something) in an attempt to explain that my precious new sticky tack did not belong in the trashcan.
Since refusing an offer is considered polite in China, those pleas on my sticky tack’s behalf were not taken seriously. Even when I raced her to my sticky tack, that last-ditch rescue attempt was seen as a polite attempt to save her the trouble of throwing away the used gum. She blocked my lunge for the tack, plucked it from the wall, and triumphantly dropped it in the trashcan, murmuring that I was too polite.
I left the classroom having lost my sticky tack, but having somehow stumbled into a better relationship with the Aiyi, who now smiles and greets me when I enter the school. She’ll ask me if I’ve eaten – which seems to be the Chinese equivalent of the American “How are you?” in that it requires a short, positive response and doesn’t indicate an actual interest in your dietary habits. She’ll ask what classes I have that day, and gives me an encouraging thumbs up if I manage to utter an intelligible response in Chinese. Since she’s one of the few coworkers I have who don’t speak English, it’s nice to have built up this relationship, however accidentally.
INDEPENDENCE IN A COLLECTIVE SOCIETY
The second time I was accidentally polite was during my recent trip to Feng Huang, the ancient phoenix town. I’d fallen in with a Chinese tourist on the train there from Zhangjiajie, and we spent the next couple of days travelling around together. Well-mannered Chinese gentleman that he was, he offered to carry my bag for me.
My camera and water bottle were in that bag, and asking him to stop every time I wanted to take a drink or snap a picture seemed pretty inconvenient, so I refused. Besides, he was already trying to pay for everything. If I had to ask him for my wallet, I’d never win that fight to pay the bill, and I’m a little uncomfortable with letting someone I’ve known less than a day pay for me.
However, he was polite, and he offered again, and again, and again, and again. I lost count somewhere north of twenty offers to carry my bag. I continued refusing with increasing curtness. He became the second person to accuse me of being too polite. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t trying to be polite. I was trying (successfully) to restrain myself from hurling the darn bag right at him.
Chinese culture is very different from American culture. Some of it makes sense to me, like greeting someone with a question such as “Have you eaten?” or “How are you?” that you want a brief, honesty-optional response to. That’s normal. Some of it I’m still trying to figure out. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but among all of my friends back home, I have some of the best stories to tell.
Do you want to see by yourself what Chinese etiquette is like?
Come teach English in China with EF and find out
Aly is an avid reader and language learner. She spends her free time devouring books at her favourite coffee shop, puzzling out Chinese, and stuffing her hard drive full of pictures of China.