What is Gross to Chinese People (and Vice Versa) – Cultural Differences

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Western habits the Chinese consider gross or dirty:

Walking around barefoot, or in your socks. If you’re on a flight from the US to Beijing, don’t lose face by walking around the plane in your socks. Double-gross for doing this outside on the pavement. To the Chinese, this is just appalling.

Setting your bag, purse, or backpack down on the ground. Large pieces of luggage, okay, but not smaller bags. The Chinese think that the ground is dirty, and consider it bad form to put a nice bag on something dirty. Find a chair to put it on if you want to blend.

Eating cheese. A lot of Chinese cringe at the thought of cheese.

Wearing revealing clothing. While Chinese fashion is modern and… interesting, it is rare that a women (or a man) will wear low-cut tops or mini skirts, for example. If you visit China and choose to bring along a more revealing wardrobe, be prepared to get stared at by some men and scowled at by some older women.

Eating too fast. The Chinese are about slow-paced meals. This is when conversations and gatherings take place. Don’t ruin it, or lose your face, by scarfing down your food. Eating while in a hurry is an odd concept for the Chinese.

Genetically Engineered Food. GMO, or genetically modified organisms, are becoming more prevalent in Chinese society. But as a whole, Chinese prefer the organic, free-range philosophy of food and frown at the thought of pumping an animal full of hormones just so it looks bigger.

Sitting on a public toilet. No doubt you will frequent at least one McDonald’s in China and see the “Western” toilet seat all loose and mangled with footprints all over it — and when you do, now you’ll know why! Chinese people don’t sit on them. They squat on them, because to the Chinese, sitting on a public toilet (seat cover or not) is disgusting.

Buying “Old” Food. Chinese people are about fresh. They buy chickens alive, kill them, and eat them all in the same day. China is filled with farmer’s markets, where you can buy fresh vegetables straight from the fields. Canned veggies and and meat that has been sitting on the shelf for a few days is considered disgusting.

Chinese habits Westerners consider gross or dirty

Not washing your hands. A water rinse doesn’t cut it for most Westerner after a trip to the restroom. It is also nasty that there is usually never soap, and about a quarter of the time there is no running water.

Food in the mouth. Talking with a mouth full of food, smacking, or slurping noodles or soup can be quiet annoying for Westerners.

Public nose picking, ear digging, or spitting.

Meat Sitting Out All Day in ChinaHandling of Meat. Watch this video to see how they roll with meat in China. The Chinese consider this fresh because it was hacked up the same day, and consider the Safeway, 3-day old meat in shrink wrap to be the disgusting choice.

Poo Poo. When visiting the countryside, you may catch a glimpse of a mother holding her baby at the sidewalk (giving a quiet “shhhhh” whistle) to prompt the little feller to do his or her business — right on the ground.

Missing the toilet. Walking into a stall with 1/2 an inch of liquid on the floor can be a gross sight.

No Doors. Need to do a Number Two? You race to the bathroom to find out that there are a handful of guys, in plain site, doing their business in the doorless stalls. I know what you’re thinking. How much did they save by not installing the doors? Are stall doors that expensive in China? Truth is, Chinese people just aren’t tripping. Keep your eyes either up or down, find an empty slot, and breeze on in.

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66 thoughts on “What is Gross to Chinese People (and Vice Versa) – Cultural Differences

  1. @Danny re: common problem of chinese int’l students having poor hygiene

    most young chinese privileged enough to study abroad (or even in chinese university) are either there due to merit or their parents’ wealth. either way they are products of china’s one-child policy. they have been spoiled and pampered their whole lives with studying being their only chore. (chinese children do not do “chores” like american children do). Even poor family would never allow their children to lift a finger in fear that it will distract from their studies. and if the students come from a wealthy family they probably had maids and are even more spoiled. so when they go away and live on their own for the first time, it would never occur to them to pick up after themselves bc someone else has always done it for them for their entire lives.

    @ tony re: “open their eyes”

    i’d love to hear why you think that would insult them? is it bc you think chinese ppl can’t open their eyes? this may be news to you but chinese ppl dont’ think they have small eyes. just because their eye sockets are not sunken does not mean they are small. and the average eye size of the overall chinese population is likely very similar to all other ethnicities.

  2. Hi Robert and everyone, I’ve read all of the comments here. Very interesting. I was born in South China (Hangzhou). I came to Canada when I was 14. I spent some years in vancouver and Toronto. And now I’m living in Calgary. If this “chinese is rude and disgusting” idea has two sides like yes or no, it’s so hard for me to pick a side. I’m from a very educated family; my parents are Chinese (my mom’s family was originally from Middle East) and they are very open-minded, polite and friendly. So there is no way for me to look down at my culture and b**** about it. My husband is Canadian (caucasian, if you wonder) and I’ve invited him back to Hangzhou a couple of times and he really enjoyed his time here. He had excellent impression of Chinese people, besides the hot weather in summer and the terrible traffic. Well, maybe it’s true he hasn’t seen/known enough about China or Chinese but please let me explain more.

    I don’t feel like judging anyone here, at least not with superficial or rude comments. No offense. Here are the reason.

    Canada is super multicultural country, and that’s the most important reason why I love Canada so much. You could go on the streets and ask people for their opinions on race or religion. Almost nobody would start telling with any discriminatory or inappropriate judgements. Though, this is a general conclusion.

    Anyways, So, living in such an environment has given me the idea that Nobody (or race, nation, religion) deserved to be judged due to your disapprove of whatever they are doing. Everything comes with a reason, a decent reason often, well, this is what my husband often says to me lol (he is a counselling psychologist)

    There was this period in my life that I felt so angry and disappointed towards Chinese people, I didn’t give a damn to be rude or inconsiderate to them because I believed that they deserved it since they were rude and inconsiderate towards me, my Canadian friends and even my families. So one day, I decided to take some time off from work and went back to China simply for travelling. It was one of the most amazing trips in my life. I met a lot of rude Chinese and saw a lot of disgusting things that made me feeling sooo sick! And yes I couldn’t help hating this country and every single Chinese at some points. However, meanwhile, to my surprise (yes a bit), I met so many friendly and extremely polite Chinese, and I saw so many beautiful and touching things that made me weep (especially mainland) . Afterwards, I told myself that I should stop being judgemental and shallow. China is a big nation with 56 different nations. With tons of cities, towns and villages. People have been living in very different life styles and developing different local dialects and cultural habits. Some of the gross, sick, disgusting (whatever you name it) habits that you guys mentioned above, YES I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen more. The difference is, I’ve seen more of boths sides, the good one and the bad one. So I want to yell that geez please leave them alone(refers to Chinese here), they’ve been living on this planet for over 5000 years for God’s sake! And can’t we all be a little bit more easygoing and positive when it comes to an awkward, embarrassing or even upsetting&angry situation? If our ancestors all managed to live happily with each other’s existence and company, at least without killing one another till extinction , why can’t we look at each other and say ” fine, I guess I will try to accept this and understand it. or at least I will try my best to do so” !

    Also, many some of you may think that I believe Canadian culture is so perfect, based on what I wrote somewhere above. Definitely NOT perfect lol. I’ve seen silly young women who were crazy about “girls gone wild” and imitating some of the “crazy actions” in public. I’ve seen Canadian guys running naked on a university campus and wrote “f*** me hard” on their backs. I’ve seen some American or Canadian caucasians (yes adults!) spit on the streets in my city and yell&swear at their kids. I’ve seen some girls getting drunk and laid and nobody cared to help them. I’ve seen some Canadians talking and laughing so loudly at quiet libraries. I’ve seen lots of the so-called bad side. I never enjoyed watching or even knowing those “god i hate seeing/knowing this” things. But I never go and tell people “holy cow, canadians are really bla bla bla bla bla….!!!” I only want to look at those things in my own way, I believe that all I can do is to appreciate my life and people who share this world with me, especially the beloved ones.

    Honestly, if I wanted to get angry or upset or non-stop talking about negative things such as “jesus look at that person, I wonder where s/he is from coz he makes me sick! how could someone do that? omg!” that I could kept it going for years and still felt so angry towards those cultural behaviors or habits and it would make no good for one’s mental or spirual health. Maybe I could just believe that this is how they are actually like even after been treated unfairly or sh**** and let it be, and accept it by believing that meanwhile they do and they really do have good and unique qualities that worth your gratitude, because they often do. There is always two sides for one story right? everybody understand it but hardly apply it to real life.

    I’m probably way off the topic, sorry about that. I just felt like talking so much (lol) after reading some angry and judgemental comments (no offense to anyone), well, some lovely ones too fortunately :) I just hope whoever gets a chance to read this page that somehow feel angry or gross towards whichever race or nation because of whatever reason, in the past, at the present or in the future, no matter what your reasons are, that you are able to calm down and think about what I wrote here and maybe, just maybe my dear, you would be a little bit more understanding towards those negative issues. And just this “little bit”, it certainly means a lot to the people in your life. Just my opinions :) Good night!

    Jennifer Sun

  3. I’ve just discovered this site today, and I want to thank you, Robert Thompson, for sharing your discoveries about life. That these experiences happen in China make them unique for most Westerners. It remains a mysterious place for many. For some, it’s less of a place and more of an idea.

    After reading this blog about “gross” and “dirty” behaviors, you may have unwittingly guided some of the outlandish remarks I read here because those two judgment words are loaded with value. And I do understand that you, yourself, are more fascinated than disgusted.

    That said, it is necessary for neophytes to China to catch a glimpse of another land, and to be prepared. Your Web site does that. It is also necessary for Westerners who will never set foot in China to understand that Western culture is not the paradigm of the world. Culture is not measured by how someone lives differently. It is measured by how someone lives. There is no value in that how. It just is.

    I am returning to China in a few weeks to see two students I taught ten years ago. I lived briefly in one of the ovens, Wuhan, some years ago, teaching English, and I also lived for a year in Chengdu, also teaching English. I traveled throughout China, staying in eastern cities, and in remote outposts of the Tibetan plateau, sharing a single blackened potato with my host. I was honored.

    This July I will see Hangzhou for the first time, and I will see my student’s new bride. In Shanghai I will visit my other student, and I will see his bride and his child of two months. He’s having a Double Moon party to celebrate.

    When I arrive, I will understand clearly that this is not the United States. I will not be shocked or disgusted by that reality. I will rejoice in seeing two dear friends and their families.

    When I say “seeing,” I mean this at multiple levels. I am reminded of the old story, I think Indian, of a group of blind men who were confronted by an experience they shared. One blind man thought that he felt a wall beneath his groping hand. Another believed that this thing he felt was a rope. Yet another sensed that the thing was a giant fan. And so it went, with all of them disagreeing on the truth of what they were experiencing.

    The wall turned out to be the side of the great beast, itself; the fan, his giant ear flapping; the rope, his tail–etc. To a sighted person, of course, it was an elephant. They saw, rather felt, only a portion of the reality. Thus, truth is perceived by individual values and perceptions. Each of the blind men was right, and each was wrong.

    The observations you provide here are invaluable, Rob. I have learned even more about the unique Chinese culture. In so doing, I have learned more about myself.

    Norman Mailer, American novelist and journalist [1923-2007], observed: “Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or retreating into less.”

    Best wishes for growth, Rob, and everyone.

  4. As someone about to leave the UK and teach in China, I have read these posts with great interest, I won’t comment on individual posts, but just say, I have lived and worked across Canada and the USA, I have worked and/or visited every country in Europe and am just finishing a contact here in Italy.
    If my travelling has taught me one important lesson, it would be to try and see a country through the eyes of those who live there, not to compare.
    I have seen mothers allowing children to poop in the street in the US, seen rats in Seattle the size of, well rats lol. Public washrooms in London are some of the worst in Europe. I could go on, what the posters above in the main have written shows to me that they have wasted their time in China, they have such negative and blinkered views that they have totally lost perspective.

  5. I’ve enjoyed reading everybody’s comments and want to contribute my own thoughts just because.

    More Chinese habits Westerners consider gross or dirty
    * Cutting in line – The best thing on a humid summer day is to have millions of Chinese people trying to cut in front of you in a crowded area. Anybody heard of forming lines?
    * Screaming into a cell phone in public places – Ummm, can we keep the discussion short and quiet? They should have an etiquette test before selling mobile phone numbers.
    * Offensive driving (vs. defensive driving) – There is a reason for the traffic lights and painted lane lines. Driving rules make society so much more pleasant.
    * Dumping trash on the food table or floor – Keep your trash on the plate and ask the waiter to change your plate. People do not want to see all your bones and shells for the entire course of the meal.
    * Putting out cigarettes on dinnerware – There is a reason people invented the ash tray. Food is eaten on plates, cigarettes go to the ash tray.

    I can go on forever just because I’m one of those people that have become spiteful of such common Chinese social practices. Living in China for over 5 years, I’ve tried and tried to adapt and accept the ways of China, but at the moment I have given up and the only way for me to deal with it is to vent. I know a lot of people are in the same boat.

    At the same time, I also completely understand my position and respect the position of the Chinese people. It is not my job or duty to try to change people of another country and they do not want to hear it from me. It’s their country, and I’m just a guest.

    That being said, there are many fascinating things about China whether it be philosophy, art, food and more. It’s just a pity that the country is so behind in social etiquette. But the government also is trying by putting up signs everywhere trying to teach proper social etiquette – like signs that say the 10 proper behaviors of citizens. It’s just too bad the signs aren’t working.

  6. @ Edwin

    It’s a shame you got put off by the bridge between cultures. If you have such a problem with it, why stay for 5 years? You are a guest, like you say, and that means that you can adhere to local customs, but also pack up and leave to where it is more to your own standards! You indeed picked some of the great (or bad, well.. fascinating anyway) things the author originally missed..

    However, I’d like to point you to a common downfall: ‘It’s just a pity this country is so BEHIND in social etiquette’. It’s not. It’s just different, it’s not like the American standard (I’m European and do NOT like a lot of things in American culture) is the Golden Standard and everybody should change into this. The Government is ‘educating’ people only because it wants to be more easily accessible to foreigners, not because they believe the culture of their own people is backwards…

    Try to see that. Don’t see America as the standard. It’s different, and to you maybe ‘worse’. On the other hand, imagine a Chinese sitting in an American toilet thinking how gross this country is that you actually SIT where you POO… To them America is ‘worse’… It’s not! It’s just different!

  7. What an interesting article! Some things I’d like to point out: I’ve noticed that Chinese people eat really fast and tend to “pig out” more as well. They eat a lot! Also one of their manners I find gross is when some of them blow their noses they make this really loud honking noise and couldn’t care less about those around them.

    On the other hand, sitting on a public toilet is extremely nasty. I guess hovering/toilet paper liners work well. Setting your bag on the floor is also gross.

  8. If one wants the real, unvarnished truth about Chinese culture and behavior, then this website is required reading.

    Hits the nail RIGHT on the head.

  9. Are you a racist?’
    You can call so many bad things about china, but how do you know that? Not everything in China is bad and some things you write about them is not the real china.
    Why do you write such things?

  10. I work at a public university in southern China and I have to say that you’re a bit wrong about the revealing clothing. My female students are often seen in barely-there miniskirts or shorts and tank tops. If it’s fashionable in Japan and South Korea it’s fashionable here, and that includes the revealing clothing.

  11. the GMO thing is just plain wrong. pretty sure a significant portion of the rice, corn, and pink tomatoes in China are genetically modified. “as a whole, Chinese prefer the organic, free-range philosophy of food” — what a dumb thing to say! so do plenty of Westerners! (in fact didn’t Europeans go as far as to outlaw GM foods? I mean, come on.)

  12. > Setting your bag, purse, or backpack down on the ground
    This is dirty. Its been proven again and again by just about every US news channel and magazine. But the public just doesn’t care. Same with handling money. Go to an US fast food place and you’ll see the employees handle food after handling cash without gloves, won’t happen in a Chinese fast food joint

    Depends on generation and personal taste

    Wearing revealing clothing
    This is just weird. Older Chinese women won’t wear short skirts and low cut or backless tops but have no problems wearing see through tops and skirts to stay cool. Also Americans feel stockings and pantyhose are too sexy but they’re extremely popular in China

    Genetically Engineered food
    Lots of Americans don’t want them

  13. I had a student staying with me and also rented to several people from different backgrounds. I am from the Caribbean and I am sure there are things that we do that one might think of as dirty and growing up in Canada I am exposed to different habits.
    I usually say that if a culture has been around for some time who am I to judge.
    That being said I was kind of shocked by the poor hygiene of this student. There was a disgusting smell that I realized was foot odour that smelled like half a bottle of vinegar had been poured on the carpet. The girl slept with clothes and went out with the same shirt. Never bathed no matter how many times I said she could use the facilities downstairs which had a sauna. Did a number two and left some on the floor on the shower curtain and a bit behind the toilet several times. Would not take care of her teeth. In the week or more she stayed bought 1000 dollars of designer good yet would not buy something to cook. Gucci Prada and Coach. Oh she would take of her clothes and leave them all over the floor. I cooked for her and even cleaned that disgusting odour from her shoe when she was not looking. Alcohol and
    some antibacterial powder while putting the shoes in the sun. I agree with one of the posters that the rich are not used to doing for themselves and have maids. As a younger person I had to cook and do things around the house like my laundry, fixing cars, roofing gardening mowing the lawn you name it. Bit of a culture shock. I found the Persian tenants to be very clean.

  14. There’s a reason Americans like “Chinese-American” food. It tastes really good and especially when made by really skilled chefs who use good ingredients. I have been to many Chinese restaurants where the store sign is not in English nor is the menu. Unfortunately, with the food the seafood items taste fishy. Entrees come in brown briny sauces. I have tried many snacks shipped from China and – sorry to tell you this – they’re not much fun to eat. Bleugh! Good to know Communism is on it’s death bed and soon they will enjoy better things in their daily lives – simple things like good chocolate, coffee and they will no longer have to eat gross, bottom-feeding fish and insects.

  15. This has got to be my, like, 50th comment on your site, for which I apologize. But I do really enjoy this site! I have lived in China, quite near Hong Kong, for a year now and most of your advice, stories, etc. align with my observations. Just a few notes to those who may visit at more “Westernized” area:

    Modesty is about the same in my city as in many American cities (minus really low-cut or midriffs shirts on women, though plenty of men walk around shirtless). And I live in what is considered a “small” Chinese city–3 million–but a city nonetheless and I still see babies doing their thing in the streets or walking around with slits in their pants to facilitate this practice.

    But everything else I find totally right, and laugh at the differences in culture. My Chinese friends are incredulous and also laugh good-humoredly when some kind of cultural etiquette difference arises. I’ve learned to carry toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and use Chinese toilets (which just side-steps the whole foot-prints-on-the-toilet-seat thing) and look the other way when I see spitting or nose-picking. I’m sure Chinese people do the same when they are in Western places!

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