Friday, May 31, 2013

Tara in China: Learning a new set of manners

Meet our friend, Tara.

In the People's Square.

Tara, an American, is  living and working in Shanghai, China. Tara is no stranger to adventure - she recently took a solo cross-country trip by train and wrote about it here - and we were delighted when she took the time to write us about her current experiences. Thanks for answering our questions, Tara!

How much importance do you place on adapting to local etiquette and culture while traveling in general?

Tara: I think it is really important to understand the local culture when traveling.  I don't want to offend the local people by being inconsiderate or ignorant to their own ways of living.

How did you prepare yourself for any cultural differences beforehand? And what are your tips for handling these differences in the moment? 

In an effort to educate myself on Chinese customs, I read several travel books, learned some basic Chinese phrases, and searched the internet for information about living in China. I also talked to a friend who has lived in China for 8 years about her experiences.Did it help?  I think so.  I was prepared for the spitting and the slurping of food, and I know strangers wouldn't necessarily smile at me or want to exhange a "ni hao" as we passed each other on the sidewalk.  There are things that you just can't prepare yourself for until you experience them, though.  For instance, the pushing in crowds is something you can't really understand until you are getting on the metro at People's Square on a busy day.  There is nothing else like it...I think you just have to try to keep in mind that "rude" and "polite" are social constructs and that they are also very subjective.  I would advise people to try very hard not to take things personally and to just go with the flow. 

Are there occasions or events that have a certain etiquette and exist only in China? Have you found any etiquette habits in China that you really like and wish were more present in the U.S.?

There are so many!  For one, pregnant women are supposed to stay in bed for the first month of their pregnancy.  They don't wash their hair or even move unless necessary... Really, Chinese medicine in general is fascinating.  I don't know if that really fits into "etiquette" or not, but there are lots of rules about what you can and can't do based on your health...I also like the way people have meals in China.  If you go to eat with someone, you never order your own dish.  Everything is served family style, and you share all of your food.  Many tables have Lazy Susans so you can spin the food around more easily.  I really love that.  People here love to share food.  Even if you bring your own lunch to work, you always offer some of it to your coworkers. 

Have you had any particularly sweet or surprising or interesting moments in etiquette you'd like to share?

Yes, I have had two really nice interactions with people on the subway.  The first was one morning when I was on my way to work.  A man in a business suit was sitting on a crowded train, and I was standing in front of him holding onto the railing.  He insisted on giving up his seat to me.  I thought perhaps he was getting off at the next stop, but he actually got off on the same stop I had, which was at least 15 minutes later. 

Another really sweet moment happened one night after work on the subway.  My stop for work is the very last stop for the train, so I always get a seat when I get on because it's the first stop going back.  I sat down next to an elderly Chinese lady who was knitting.  I have done some knitting myself, so I asked her (using body language because my Chinese is terrible) what she was making.  I asked if it was a sock, because it kind of looked like a baby sock.  She shook her head no, and I asked if it was a glove.  She shook her head no again and asked for my cell phone.  I handed it to her (reluctantly) and she put it into what she was knitting.  It was a tiny Chinese dress that holds your cell phone.  She kept saying something to me in Chinese, but I didn't understand her.  Finally, some other people on the subway told me that she wanted me to have it.  I said thank you and asked her (in Chinese!) how much she wanted for it.  Again, the people on the subway had to translate for me that she was giving it to me as a gift, for free. 

The knitted cell phone holder!

What etiquette differences have you learned throughout the ordinary moments of each day?

It's still weird to me that you don't tip anyone here.  You don't leave a tip for your waiter at a restaurant, for a taxi, for a massage, haircut, etc.  I still feel kind of guilty, and sometimes I tip anyway.  Also, when you go to a restaurant, you don't wait for the server to come to you.  When you are ready to order or when you want a refill or more food, you yell "fuwuyuan" across the room to get their attention.  And when you are ready to pay the bill, you yell "mai dan" to have them bring you your check.  For the first several times I went out to eat, I thought this seemed so rude, but now I quickly call the waitress over to my table and ask for the check with no problems. 

Shopping is a tricky one.  Depending on where you go, the prices are negotiable.  For instance, if you are purchasing items in a mall, you always just pay whatever the sticker price says.  But, if you are shopping at a market on a street, you are expected to haggle with the shopkeeper.  I'm really not good at this, especially because the prices for things are already so much lower than anything I'd pay in the U.S.  For example, I went to the fabric market two days ago to have some clothes custom made.  I went to a scarf shop and bought 7 beautiful scarves.  The shopkeeper first told me the price was 30RMB (or about $5USD) per scarf.  I bargained with her and got all 7 scarves for 105RMB (or about $17USD total).  I still don't feel comfortable with doing this and have a friend accompany me on my bargaining trips.  I have a few friends who are really good at haggling over prices, so I let them do the dirty work…The rule of thumb is to offer them 10% of their original asking price and then negotiate from there.

Thanks, Tara!

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