Understanding Chinese social etiquette: a primer

It was a 95ºF day and they were serving lukewarm beer.

One of the hardest things about being in China (aside from the language, the language is quite hard), has been knowing how to behave around people in public. Yes, the expectations aren’t high. There are enough expats here, that the Shanghainese don’t expect me to speak 普通话 (but when I do, they kind of act better towards me, although they laugh all the goddamn time both behind my back and to my face at my Beijing accent). I’ve been here a week and I’ve already managed to embarrass myself in numerous social situations. So here, presented in all of its glory, is my guide to surviving my first week in China.

1. You will be constantly dehydrated. There is no water in restaurants. If there is, don’t drink the water. It’s probably a bad idea and it will not end well.

2. The plumbing is often questionable, but luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), you probably aren’t using it much, because you’re constantly dehydrated.

3. There is no ice in the water. Everything is served lukewarm —  lukewarm beer? lukewarm soda? -lukewarm soup? — yep, you’ll see all three.

4. Even lukewarm water is sometimes a luxury (did I mentioned you should avoid drinking it?).

5. You will not see any napkins in restaurants. But you will see plenty of spicy food and plenty of sniffling foreigners trying not to make a mess of themselves.

6. Pretend you speak fluent Chinese, even if you don’t. There’s nothing quite like loudly telling off a restaurant worker in half-broken Chinese that you only have half an hour for lunch that will make them finally give you that takeout container that’s been idling outside the kitchen for the past five minutes.

7. Waiters need to be summoned to take the order. Waiters need to be summoned to ask for the check (actually, I kind of like this).

8. If you do not call a waiter to the table to take your order, no one will say anything to you for 20 minutes and you will starve.

9. If you don’t know the proper word for calling a waiter to take your order (服务员!!), you will starve.

10. There is no tipping in restaurants. There is no tax in restaurants. People will be insulted if you try to give them either.


It’s no wonder I was too terrified to eat out my first few days..

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