6 Months in China: Figuring Out The Rules
Each day of my kindergarten class I begin with a routine. The routine starts with a song, reviews easy kindergarten vocabulary like the ABCs and the weather, and ends with the rules. Rules matter.
English class rules are:
- I will sit properly.
- I will raise my hand.
- I will listen carefully.
- I will be kind.
- I will do my best.
- I will speak English.
Future versions will eliminate the adverbs. These rules govern the class each day. Students and myself are expected to follow these rules. They are written down in a concise sort of simplified mission statement that we cover each day. China, and the real world, is not quite simple. There are many unwritten rules we follow.
Some examples of unwritten rules and etiquette in America:
- Not talking on the phone during a performance at the Theatre.
- Using your inside voice inside
- Parking your car with more than 1inch of space between your car and the car in front of you
- Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough
- Saying bless you when someone sneezes
- Avoiding extended periods of eye contact with strangers
Now, occasionally, people violate these rules.
In China, many of these rules do not exist. The consequences:
- People answering their phone during theatre performances, talking loudly to their friends, which results in the venue cranking the volume to the max to be heard over people talking.
- Yelling inside. I listened to two woman talk at the bank the other day about what kind of clothes they had just bought. If I did not know what they were saying I would have thought they were fighting.
- You can park wherever you want. Sidewalks, in the middle of the road or intersection, grass patches, wherever.
- People not do not cover their mouth. Instead they, without shame, urinate, defecate, spit, snot-rocket, and cough.
- Theres is no word for bless you. Or excuse me. Or sorry, what was that you just said? or No.
- People stare here. I enjoy a staredown on a regular basis, where I get into a staring fight with a stranger, assert my dominance, and make them look away before I do. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but is kind of a unique challenge.
Figuring out what rules don’t exist in China that exist back in America is easy. The bigger challenge is figuring out what rules DO exist. Some of these are written down in guidebooks, others I have had to ask people to explain to me, and there are MANY that I still have no idea exist, and even if I know exist, cannot figure out the implications. There are too many to know or remember for this post. I’m sure books have been written on this subject. Trying to figure out the answer for reasons here can be an impossible challenge, but I am constantly trying to ask Chinese people “为什么？” or “Why?” So I try to just have the rules here, not the basis behind them.
So. Here’s some rules that DO exist in China.
In Chinese, rules are called “规则” or “Guize” (pronounced “Gwadezeh”).
- Don’t Call People Out: Don’t call anyone out on anything ever. Someone is blowing smoke right in your face in a train station right in front of a sign apathetically posted saying “NO SMOKING” in English & Chinese? Don’t call them out.
- Cutting in line: If there is any space between two people waiting in line at all, like, if there is a 6 inch gap between two people, it is OK to get between these two people in line. If they call you out on it, either argue with them endlessly, or go to the back of the line. Just remember the first rule.
- Pushing with minimal force: It’s okay to push and shove people when getting on or off a bus or train, but only with a small amount of force. If you push people too hard they think you are rude and violent. If you push them too soft, they will not move.
- Smoking: You can talk on your phone on the bus, but do not smoke or eat anything smelly. Inside the bus station or underground train station it is OK to smoke or eat, just not on the actual vehicle.
- Always answer your phone: Answer your phone anytime anyone calls, no matter where you are. In the shower? Answer it. On the John? Answer it. In a meeting negotiating with your boss not to fire you? Answer it. Driving a bus with 100 people on it? Answer it. Teaching class with parents observing you? Answer it. If not, people will be very upset and bewildered as to why you did not answer their phone on the second ring.
- Chopsticks sideways, not up: As a foreigner you can get away with this. But you should keep your chopsticks horizontal in your bowl if you are setting them down. Vertical chopsticks remind people of death or something.
- Hand over cards/cash/receipts: When giving or receiving anything, use both hands, and bow a little as a way to say thank you. If you are holding stuff with your other hand, like your phone, then it’s not expected.
- Shaking hands. Many Chinese give you the worst dead fish handshake you’ve ever felt. Mostly, they just don’t do it here. It’s a sanitation thing, and to be honest, might be a good idea for us germophobes in America.
- Walk, bike, and drive slow. The slower the better. Don’t let your car go above 25 MPH, too dangerous. Bike at a walking speed. Walk slower than you thought was possible.
- Don’t say no to people higher up on the power distance chain. This really throws our boss off at school, since she is not used to people saying no to her ever. This one is tricky, since we have to say no to not be exploited.
- It’s OK to lie. Since there are no set in stone ethics of right and wrong, lying is normal here. It drives me insane.
- Taking a nap at work is OK. Just make sure it is between 12:30-2:30 pm, and you aren’t missing any important meetings. I don’t partake in this, but most Chinese staff do.
- Prices can be incorrect. If something you are buying rings up for the wrong amount, which it almost always does, there is no convincing the person running the cash register to give you the product for the advertised price. Again, Lying is OK.
- Keep the windows open: Gotta let that fresh 300 PMI polluted air in each day, otherwise you may get sick from the lack of fresh air. I can’t even.
- Bring multiple gifts: When visiting someone at their home, with one of the gifts being some sort of fresh fruit. The more, the better.
- Shoes off, booties/slippers on: This also applies to visiting people’s homes.
- Get more food than you can eat: At restaurants or at home, make many dishes, and way more than people can eat. Don’t finish off a dish, or the host will think you are hungry and buy/make more dishes.
There are many more rules that could be on this list, but this is a good start. Each day I learn a little bit more about some of the rules in China. Many things I do not expect to ever understand.
What are some other rules? Either in the USA or China? I think each nation, region, city, neighborhood, family, and workplace has it’s own unique cultural rules. Sometimes they’re written. Sometimes they’re not. I like to talk about them. What rules do you have in your life?
Thanks for reading.