How to be a respectful traveler in China

photo by Mats Linander

Travelers who truly want to experience a country on more levels than just the surface always have to do more than just see the sights and walk through their destination without paying attention to what is happening around them, and how people behave around each other, and what meaning certain gestures and words could have for the locals. Although as a tourist you are often given some slack and few locals actually expect you to know about their daily customs, it’s always nice to show that you respect the country you are visiting. China’s history and rich culture has many unique aspects, so someone who is traveling to China for the first time can easily commit cultural faux pas. If you want to make sure that you don’t, here are some tips on how to be a respectful traveler in China.

Conversation

photo by Gary Stevens

In all countries there are topics of conversation that are considered to be taboo, and are never discussed among strangers or casual acquaintances, especially if one of them is a foreigner. For example, the topic of human rights, politics or working conditions in factories is definitely not what you want to talk about with someone you just met. It is also bad manners to point out mistakes or errors, even if you do so innocently, because this can cause huge embarrassment. If you need to tell someone that they did something wrong, you must do so politely.

Physical contact

photo by Bruce Guenter

In some countries, people can touch each other’s hands while talking, pat each other on the back, or even kiss on the cheek the first time they are meeting. In China, however, physical contact is not very polite, and actually it is considered very rude to slap someone on the back, or to put your arms around someone’s shoulders.

Table manners

Table etiquette is very important in China, and although places where tourists are common will probably provide you with forks and spoons, it’s a good idea to learn how to use chopsticks before traveling to China. Never use your chopsticks to move plates or bowls, to impale food, and never wave them around or point to a person with them, because this amounts to an insult. Since in private homes chopstick could be reusable, it’s good manner to eat in such a way that the chopsticks don’t touch your mouth. And when eating a dish, even if a tasty morsel is at the bottom of the bowl, never dig around with your chopsticks, since this is called ‘digging one’s grave’ and is seen as rude.

Tipping

Tipping is not very common in China, and there are very few occasions when you are actually expected to leave a tip. In most cases, tipping is seen as inappropriate, especially in areas that are not very touristy. Tipping in restaurants is not necessary. Although it’s unlikely that someone will be offended if you try to leave a tip, in order to be a truly respectful traveler in China it’s better to follow the same rules as the locals.

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