Once you set foot on foreign soil, you’ll have to adapt to your new environs. Of course, there will be the odd custom or two that you’re not familiar with, but we’re here to help you avoid turning naïve behavior into a majorly bad faux pas. All you need is a little openness. After all, this is a global village with many unique wonderful cultures.
But, along with native customs comes the sticky subject of taboos – those things one should avoid at all cost. You're probably already familiar with some cultural taboos; for example, in India, parts of Africa and the Middle East, the traditional way to eat is with the hands, and eating with the left hand is frowned upon because it is seen as unclean. In Thailand, the head is considered sacred, so even patting a child on the head is not acceptable. In Korea, if you slap someone on the back who isn't a family member or a good friend, you'll make them very uncomfortable. Every country has its own list of no-no’s, so what about in China? What are the taboos? Let's take a look.
1. Wearing a Green Hat is Bad News
“Green hat” in Chinese is "绿帽子(lǜ màozi)." Foreigners might think that a green hat is just like any other hat, but not in China. In China, a "green hat" means that a man's wife has been unfaithful to him. There is even a saying: the most horrible color for hat to a Chinese man is green.
Why does “绿帽子(lǜ màozi)” carry such a particular meaning in China? One story is that in ancient China the wife of a merchant had an affair with a cloth seller. She made a green hat for her husband to wear, and when the husband went out for business, the cloth seller would see the green hat and know that he could meet his lover. Since that time, “绿帽子(lǜ màozi)” has been the symbol of a wife betraying her husband. No wonder it is impossible to find a green hat in Chinese markets!
2. Never Say "我不是东西(wǒ bú shì dōngxi)"
You may be confused: aren’t “东(dōng)” and “西(xī)” the words for east and west? That’s true, but when put together, these two words take on a new meaning: "thing." For example, you can say: I bought some "东西(dōngxi)" this morning at the supermarket. When talking about a person, 东西(dōngxi) is rather insulting. An English equivalent of “我不是东西(wǒ bú shì dōngxi)” is something similar to “I’m bad." Friends might jokingly ask you, "“你是东西吗(nǐ shì dōngxi ma)?” If you say, "Yes," it means, "I'm a thing." But, if you say, "我不是东西(wǒ bú shì dōngxi)" then you are saying you are bad.
3. Avoid Certain Numbers
Different cultures have different number associations. Many countries, for example, dislike the number 13, considering it to be unlucky. Similarly, in China people often avoid the number 4 because "四(sì)" sounds like "死(sǐ)," which means "death.” Also, Chinese people use the number 250 to refer to a person who is frivolous and thoughtless. Sometimes a tactless person who always makes a spectacle is called 250. In this instance, 250 is not pronounced 二百五十(èr bǎi wǔ shí) but 二百五, omitting the 十.
4. Don't Kiss to Greet!
Kissing a Chinese woman as a greeting will not only make her very embarrassed, but it will also embarrass (and possibly anger) any Chinese men with her. Kissing or hugging as a greeting is quite normal in the western world, but not in China. A warm handshake is enough! Doing it differently could create a very tense interaction.
5. Don't ask, “Why are you wearing the same clothes?”
In China, not everyone takes a bath or changes their clothes every day. Although, many westerners will not bathe every day, it is not considered a commonly accepted practice. In China it is different; many people have the custom of wearing the same clothes a couple of days in a row. It is not always possible or practical to change clothes and bathe daily. Some foreigners, at the sight of their colleagues or friends wearing the same clothes a couple of days in a row, are very confused and may ask, “Why are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday?” Just remember that this is not considered polite and can cause embarrassment.
6. Vertical Chopsticks
Chopsticks "筷子(kuàizi)" are the tools Chinese people use to eat with, just as westerners use a knife and fork. Some taboos around using chopsticks have gradually developed during the long history of their use. For example, standing your chopsticks vertically in your bowl is seen by the Chinese people as very bad table manners. Why? Vertical chopsticks look like burning incense. Incense burning, is heavily associated with making offerings at graves or tombs for ones ancestors. So, when you are invited to dinner at a Chinese home, put the chopsticks down parallel on the edge of the bowl or on the table.
When you’ve been invited to a social event in China, it’s courtesy to bring a special gift for the host. For this the options are nearly limitless: food, clothes, books etc. However, there are a few exceptions. For example, in China, a clock "钟(zhōng)" should never be given as a present.
In Chinese, clock "钟(zhōng)" has the same pronunciation as death "终(zhōng)." To elaborate on their similarities, "送钟(sòng zhōng)" means to give a clock as a present and "送终(sòngzhōng)" means to attend a funeral. It’s easy to see how the two homophonic phrases are naturally connected in the minds of the people and their culture and as such, "送钟(sòng zhōng)" became taboo. At first, people only refrained from sending clocks to the elderly, but later this became a standard practice among all Chinese. At this point, you should be able to imagine the faux pas you’d be committing by sending a clock as a gift. Whether it’s your friend’s birthday, an official’s promotion, a token for newlywed couples, or a housewarming gift, by giving a clock as a gift you would be in effect cursing them.
绿帽子(lǜ màozi) n. green hat
东西(dōngxi) n. things
二百五(èr bǎi wǔ) n. a tactless person who always makes a spectacle
筷子(kuàizi) n. chopsticks
送钟(sòng zhōng) give a clock as a present
送终(sòngzhōng) to attend a funeral
Drill your knowledge:
1. Which of the following things will NOT cause unpleasantness in China?
A. saying somebody is “二百五(èr bǎi wǔ)!"
B. giving somebody a green hat as a gift
C. putting chopsticks down parallel at the dinner table
D. asking your friend why he wears the same clothes two days in a row
2. In China, what is the proper manner in which to greet a woman whom you have just met?
A. kiss her on the cheek B. give her a hug
C. smile at her D. give her a firm handshake
1. C 2. D
Related Post: 6 Surprising Taboos for Chinese New Year