Teaching Western Etiquette in China


Next semester, I have a unique opportunity. I will be teaching a class called ‘Western Etiquette’ and I am free to create the lessons myself. The stated goal of the class is to familiarize students with manners and customs in the West and help them to understand how they should behave if they go abroad.

This should be fun. After living here for a few years, we should have plenty to talk about class. I especially look forward to teaching about some of the DO’s and DONT’s in Western countries — but especially the DONT’s. Those are more fun because I can draw them directly from my experience living here.

They are already popping into my head. Here the top 8 things that people do here that they SHOULDN’T do in the West:

  • Walk up to another man (like your teacher for example) and say “Hey handsome, how’s it going?I have two or three boys do this to me at least three times a semester.
  • Tell your teacher that you can’t participate in the class outing because “I’m on my period”. Yep. I’ve heard this one more than once. TMI!
  • Tell someone that you’ve only met recently that they’re fat and should lose some weight. Okay, so this didn’t happen to me directly but I’ve seen it happen. Chinese people can be very straightforward sometimes and making a comment about someone’s weight isn’t necessarily considered rude here. 
  • Let a door slam in the face of the person who walking behind you. Recently, one of my friends actually saw a boy  at a local restaurant let a door hit a girl behind him and then to my friend’s amazement, they both sat down together. They were boyfriend and girlfriend…
  • Cut in line. Students of mine who try to cut their way through a line in the West (like they do here) will be in for a rude surprise. In my city, Chinese people barely even notice when this happens, it’s so common…
  • Pick the food out our teeth immediately after dinner while you’re still sitting at the table. GROoooSS! Need I say more…?
  • Answer your cell phone no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Voice mail for cell phones is almost unheard of here. It’s rude NOT to pick up you’re phone even if you’re being rude to the people that you’re with when you receive the call!
  • Play a song at full volume on your cell phone in a public place (like a bus or airplane) because you think that everyone else will enjoy it. I think people just like to show off their cell phones here or something…

Can you think of some more? I’d be grateful for some more ideas as I’m preparing for my class!

14 Responses to Teaching Western Etiquette in China

  1. John Trimmer says:

    I have to laugh at all these so called cultural differences between the U.S. and China.
    I just returned from spending six months with my Chinese wife and her family. During this time I had only three occasions to use my English when speaking to Americans. Otherwise it was all pure Chinese.
    Looking back now I realize that only two of their so called customs still bothered me. One was hawking and spitting into the wastebaskets, and the other was serving me with their own chopsticks.
    I should point out that I was born and raised for my first 16 years in China and have lectured all over China, conducted numerous tours, and traveled on my own.
    Some things have improved. No more open sores seen on beggars or dying children being held out to you by beggars, asking for a tungbon, old Chinese coin worth 1/10 of a penny.
    At least some of the babies with slit pants have diapers inserted.If it is only the babies now ,quit complaining. In my youth you could not walk through a park without tripping over the results or the people using the space for human excretions. In fact the government hired poopper scoopers for people leavings. It actually was a profession. Public bathrooms were worse than today and no running water anywhere.Honey buckets, or human waste collection carts sloshed along the streets splashing their human waste all over the streets before delivering it to the vegetable farmers for distribution over your vegetables.Believe me, we ate only home grown vegetables raw, boiled every bit of drinking water and only drank tea when away from home.
    It was not uncommon to see lepers, usually beggars, on the streets. I actually saw cases of elephantiasis wandering in the open. Well over 30% of the population had TB and spat all over.
    Ever seen a person with rabies. Knew of several in the hospital. Just tied them down until they died. No cure, they were brought in to late.
    Starvation due to floods, colera and typhoid epidemics occurred every year.
    China has improved. Believe you me.
    By the way Do you remember separate drinking fountains, separate bathrooms and separate but equal(ha-ha) schools in the near past in the U.S.A.? WE HAVE CHANGED ALSO.

    John Trimmer


  2. John Trimmer says:

    I have to laugh after reading about teaching “Culture in China”
    I just came back from spending six months with my Chinese wife and her family. During that time I saw only 2 Americans and only for a short time.
    I guess if you live in China long enough you forget most of these cultural differences.


  3. J says:

    Utterly revolting are the Chinese. Rules are made to be broken here. But its kinda ridiculous to need a sign posted
    “don’t let your infants piss on the bus floor” or don’t hack on the restaurant floor.

    or when at the supermarket til and you are behind me don’t stand so close like we are glued together, and shoving your basket into my arm to push me aside so you can put your stuff on the counter.

    I once saw a guy spit carelessly and it got all over a womans dress. She casually wiped it off, never even blinked an eye. Unbelievable.

    This was gross. I was at my GF’s home village for Chinese new year a couple times, and i’m sitting there in the living room, her sisters baby is being held up to piss into a small trash bin right next to me. So of course I get disgusted and quietly leave. ewww. later in the day GF’s father was plucking a chicken, so im watching and not really willing to get my hands dirty. But to do my part I get little plastic bag so her dad can put the plucked feathers inside. I insist that the feathers should not just be washed into the little creek, for obvious reasons. SO he puts em into the bag, then just lofts the bag into the air over the compound fence and the garbage is someone elses problem. Grrrr

    Garbage, Heellllooo? Maybe if the Chinese didn’t toss their trash right out onto the sidewalk there would be less stray dogs, cats, filthy rats and roaches running about.

    Logical thinking even with university educated people is severly lacking, you have to explain EVERYTHING to them. Why shouldn’t you spit? Duuhhhh Why shouldn’t you eat on buses, trains ect? Rats and roaches are attracted by the inevitable garbage that’ll be discarded. yet you tell them this and ting bu dong.

    The chinese are trying hard to modernize, and have effectively copied the designs of our best cities, & buildings but its all an empty shell. Rotten on the core, with a shiny surface. Ive met very few Chinese that comport themselves better than a western kindergarten kid. I love China, but as a poster above said, some tough love is necessary


    Fred Zhou Reply:

    I’m a university student from Liaoning,China.Seeing your comment I just want to tell you.The culture and history background between China and the Western countries are too different!Have you known that we chinese had been living in the Medieval age for too long!Modernizing in China just begins from “the Revolution of 1911” and the foundation of “The Republic of China”(Sun yatsen) and It’s history was sadly too short!So by this reason we act differently from you.We are as rude or brute as your old ages! That’s to my opinion


    KathleenP Reply:

    With all due respect, Fred, cultures can change fast in some aspects. China got rid of the horrible practice of footbinding in record time; why can’t it do the same thing with things like spitting and public crapping and peeing? In my country NOBODY save for severely mentally ill people and drug addicts use the street as their personal toilet, and even then most of them at least try to do it without anyone seeing. No parent would dream of letting their child pee or poop on a public street in front of hundreds of people, or expose their child’s private parts to hundreds of strangers. Even babies are seen as entitled to some privacy and dignity. Very few people spit, no matter what their social class, it’s just not done. There used to be strong anti-spitting laws in Canada because of TB; people could actually go to jail for it, so I think that had a lasting effect. It’s all about the willingness to change and for authorities to enforce the laws. I see Chinese people getting away with murder every day, driving like animals, ignoring traffic signals and rules, riding their motorbikes on the sidewalk, and generally treating their fellow citizens like garbage, without ever being called on it, much less having their asses fined or arrested. I never see Chinese cops on the street, come to think of it; if I hadn’t had to deal with them myself occasionally re. my working visa status I could be forgiven for thinking there were no police in this country at all. And traffic police? Don’t make me laugh. I wouldn’t mind it so much if I didn’t know there ARE police somewhere, earning a paycheck, like so many Chinese “public servants”, for sitting on their butts doing absolutely nothing.


  4. Steve Henderson says:

    Well Chinese people and chinese culture is really selfish and everything listed above just proves it. Everyone does what they like, when and where they like because they are totally selfish ignorant people with no manors.

    I have lived and worked in Shanghai for 2 years now and I’m still amazed at how rude and selfish these people are.


  5. Jim Krugh says:

    I think that teaching western etiquette is a great idea. I just think some sensitivity should be used

    We, of course, see things from a western perspective and base everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell here in China from that perspective.

    I once saw a Chinese spit on a hospital floor–a hospital floor.

    I had been shopping in a supermarket and from the top of the travelator as I was leaving the store, I saw an older gentleman holding up a little boy, his grandson I supposed. As I got closer I realized that he was holding the little boy up so he (the little boy) could pee into a trash can.

    I have seen the kids defecating on the sidewalks. I saw a guy spitting fish bones onto the table and, in the same breath, telling me that I shouldn’t be eating my jaozi with my fingers.

    The differences between the US and the Middle Kingdom, etiquette being a very evident example, are immense. I read once that is no way to express the term “common courtesy” in Mandarin. There are other incidences that we find equally appalling, but I think I have made my point.

    These things that we find so disgusting, are not going to change in our lifetime, I am sure, but we can certainly make things easier for those coming to the west to fit into our cultural milieu.

    I tell my students about these issues, especially those coming to the States, and emphasize the importance of saying please, thank, excuse me, spitting nowhere, taking your children to the rest room, forming a line and the countless other aspect of etiquette, cleanliness, and hygiene that we espouse in the west.

    If things are going to change, it is going to start with the people with which we western teachers have contact with and have influence on.

    I envy you, Robert. That class could be interesting.


  6. Christin says:

    I LOVE this website!! I am going to be teaching English in Yanji, Jilin starting in April and I’ve never even left the U.S. before! So hearing about life in China from a Westerner’s perspective is extremely helpful! Thank you!!!


  7. Ma Shuai says:

    Generally, I have found them to be the rudest, filthiest, and most (dangerously) unhygienic people I have even come in contact with. But even most basically, their manners are abysmal. Have you ever eaten soup or noodles with them? Granted, chopsticks are no the most ideal tool for noodles, but it is possible to eat them without waking the dead -or would it really be so hard to just switch to a fork and a soup spoon?

    And I wanna know who was the first person that said: “Yeah, it’s cool; no problem -go ahead and spit on the floor (of the restaurant).” Another thing that bothers the crap outta me is that they never push in their chairs. Never. Whether they’re sitting in them or when they leave the table, it makes no difference. They need to hire people to bus your table at fast-food joints because if they didn’t, they’d just leave it on the table anyway.

    How about the smoking? The Chinese have this supreme do-nothing attitude about everything: it’s all someone elses’ problem. They’ll smoke right underneath the NO SMOKING sign and NO ONE will say a word. Trust me. Do we need to talk about public urination? Or babies with that slit up their pants so they can shit on the sidewalk? They’re talking about putting a man on the moon in China when they can’t even put a man on an ELEVATOR in a reasonable fashion. They’re next Big Thing? Not on your life.

    By the way, I love China. I’ve even been in love with a Chinese. But that’s why I gotta give it some tough love. It could be so great, but they need to stop being afraid of each-other (my father is so-and-so) and clean up their act if they really want to have a place in the modern world.


  8. Sean says:

    OMG….hehehehe…What an extremely delicate subject. I have natural skill in offending students with topics such as this as I live in Xiamen, by far the biggest farmer city in all China.

    Personal space; Interupting other people; Cutting/cleaning nails (both finger and toes) in public; Seat leeching (going to a cafe, buying 1 drink and playing cards etc for 2 hours); Thanking people for holding open a door for you; Places you can’t take photos; Not being allowed to try on earings or underwear in shops; Flushing toilets and NOT standing on Toilet seats; Cleaning away your own rubbish in KFC, Maccas etc. and; Nose picking.

    I could go on but I think I’m going to be sick…LOL


  9. John Wheaton says:

    Here’s some suggestions:

    Eating etiquette — Wait until everyone is served before digging into your own food. Many of my more sensitive students ask whether it’s polite to talk while eating; most have the impression Westerners never talk while eating. We always did among my family and friends, but maybe we were boorish Americans.

    Sanitary issues — Using tissues to blow noses, covering mouths when sneezing or coughing, not hawking and spitting in public. The last is a finable offense in New York City.

    Classroom/theatre behavior — Actually Americans have bad manners here, too, not just Chinese. NO talking while others are talking/singing/acting/etc., NO using cellphones, MP3/4/5’s.


    KathleenP Reply:

    Not talking at all while eating with other people is a depressing thought. The point I think is not to talk while your mouth is full of food, which is disgusting for the person looking at you, and also presents the equally disgusting risk of bits of chewed food flying out of your mouth onto the table, or, god forbid, someone else’s plate.

    Chinese people in general seem to be accustomed to eating fast, I’ve noticed, even when there’s no particular reason to hurry through a meal. This is probably why they think Westerners must never talk during meals, knowing the taboo against talking with the mouth full. To both enjoy a meal and conversation with one’s dinner companions, you have to slow down. “The food isn’t going anywhere” was probably one of the best pieces of etiquette advice my parents ever gave me.


  10. Wombadan says:

    Hmmm. Expect the same reaction as “Teaching Chinese Culture In The West”. It all sounds a bit Bible bashing educate the savages to me.


    Robert Vance Reply:

    Believe it or not, it’s a required course! I didn’t make it up. I just have to teach it! :)

    But I will also open it up to my students and allow them to come up with their own DONT’S in China based on what they’ve seen on TV about the West.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *