Negotiating Prices and Bargaining in China

Edit: March 29, 2016 – 2:24 AM I wrote this article nearly 10 years ago. If you go to China, enjoy the sites, food and people. Forget about bargaining.

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Bargaining in China works but requires a little perseverance. If your are not comfortable negotiating with vendors and would rather spend their energy taking in the sights, move on to another article.

Below are some Chinese bargaining and negotiating techniques that can save you money in China.

From the Chinese shop owner perspective, there are four types of foreign shoppers:

  1. A local, who speaks the local dialect (gets the best deal).
  2. A Chinese person from a different city who speaks a different dialect (someone from Beijing visiting Tibet).
  3. A foreigner or ex-pat who lives in China and who can speak fluent Chinese.
  4. A tourist with little or no Chinese skill (gets the worst deal).

In any country, tourists pay a premium, but the difference in China is that that price fluctuates based on one’s appearance, proficiency of the Chinese language, accent, sex, skin color, and perseverance.

Most tourists do not feel comfortable bargaining for a variety of reasons:

  • They feel uncomfortable lowering the price when it is already cheap.
  • There is a communication barrier.
  • They easily get embarrassed, or care about what others think about the fact that they are bargaining over something.
  • They don’t know the actual value and don’t know what they should offer.

When you Can Bargain, When you Cannot Bargain

  • Rule of thumb: Street vendors, family-owned stores (“mom-and-pop”) or small businesses = you can bargain. Large malls, corporate chains = no bargaining.
  • Bargain on material items only (gift items, clothing, jade, etc).
  • Sometimes at “mom-and-pop” stores you’ll see signs that say “All prices final” or “No bargain” – disregard these signs.
  • Never bargain on food (at a restaurant or on the street).
  • You cannot negotiate prices on automobiles in China.

Before you Buy, Follow These Steps

Disconnect the emotion from the purchase. Despite any appearances, the shop owners are well off, and you should try to not feel embarrassed about anything. Here are some tips to help you before you buy something.

  • Compare prices at different stores. Keep a mental note of the price quotes. This will help you in two ways, 1) you will know the average price quote they give for tourists, and 2) you can use this as leverage when you are negotiating (example, “The guy up the street is selling it for half that price!”)
  • Express no emotion. If you show excitement or smile and the shop owner sees you, you lost your negotiating power. Things like calling your husband over to come look at something, or saying, “Oh honey, it’s so beautiful, she’s going to just love it!” are key indications to the shop owners that you will pay the maximum price. They will take a much harder stance when negotiating prices.
  • Express apathy. Again, use your poker face. Show disinterest for even being at this person’s store. If they show you something, shrug it off like they are wasting your time.
  • Point out flaws. And there will be some, so look closely. Point out the flaws right away — a frayed edge, a knick in the wood, bad color in the jade, an uneven design, a crack. Be sure to point it out with your finger and say, “Ni kan! Ni kan!” (kan pronounced like the French film festival Cannes with a soft “a”) which means “Look! Look!”.
  • “Too expensive!” If the store owner mentions any price, learn this phrase: “Tai gui le!” (pron. “tie-gway-la”) which means, “It’s too expensive!” Say it with gusto, in the same way you would respond if someone cut you off in traffic and keep a serious face.
  • Never fear. The store owner may start to tell you how cheap you are being or may give you disgruntled looks, or may even joke with other people about how “xiao qi” (cheap) you are being. This is part of the process. Don’t falter. They still want your business.
  • You get one shot. If you leave the store and come back, you have no negotiating power the second time around. The store owner knows you want something and knows you have already compared prices.

How to Negotiating Prices in China

So you found something you want to get. Here is a step-by-step way to negotiate:

  • Cut the price by 75% — if they say 200 RMB, you say 50 or 60 RMB.
  • One of two things will happen: 1) They will say, “Okay”. If they say okay, you bid way too high and you should just accept the transaction and pay up. Or, 2) They will yell “Bu mai!” (I’m not going to sell it that cheap) and wave you off with the back of their hand. If this happens, walk away.
  • As you are walking, wait for their second or third offer, take note of how fast they reduce the price. If they make no offer as you are walking away, you bid way too low. (If luck isn’t on your side and different vendors are not making counter-offers, change the initial price to 60-50% off instead of 75%.)
  • If they do making counter offers, it should be much closer to the 75% percent off price.
  • Walk back and buy it.
  • Pay with exact change, or give them a bill that is close to what you are paying. In other words, do not hand a hundred for something that costs 5 RMB. The oldest trick in the book is for them to swap out the 100 with a 50 and they will insist that you only gave them 50. If this happens there is nothing you can do and you will not get your money back.

Chinese Table Etiquette: Tips, What to Say, Paying the Bill

This section on Chinese table etiquette is a more detailed version than the general Chinese dining article. Here, I will focus on things that may happen while you are at the table in China.

Visual Breakdown of a Table

The image to the right is a view from where you will sit, and the bowls and plates that you will be using. This particular dinner is a Chinese fish hot pot.

Click to Enlarge - Eating Hot Pot or Fish in China - The VisualClick to Enlarge, Read Details

Quickly though, #1 = spicy dipping sauce, #2 = hold food, soup bowl, #3 = don’t touch, #4 = the hot pot or fish dish.Not all Chinese tables are setup this way — if you are not eating hot pot, there is no spicy dipping sauce. Sometimes there is no lazy susan.

Passing Food To Each Other

  • If someone puts a piece of meat in your bowl, you can lightly say, “Bu yong! Bu yong!” (Oh, I don’t need it!) while smiling, but allow them to give it to you after a few tries. By not immediately accepting it, you are being modest and humble. As a general rule in China, you should always decline something given to you at least two or three times before accepting it.
  • If an elder passes you food, say “xie xie” (thank you, roughly pronounced “shay shay”). They are showing you affection and respect by them giving you food. It’s best eat it whatever you are given, if you can.
  • When someone lifts a plate that is out of reach to and holds it across the table in front of you, quickly take a piece of food off. If you want to score points, serve your neighboring guests before you take anything for yourself — but be quick (plates are sometimes heavy)! After a bit of time, do the same — take a plate and offer it around the table for the people who cannot reach it. If people say they can’t eat anymore, insist that they eat something a few times before you give up.

Chinese Conversation

There are certain subjects you should avoid altogether on your trip to China, especially when you are in an intimate settting like a dinner. If you are with people you do not know that well, or with a potential business partner, do not discuss American or Chinese politics, Japan, Taiwan, Mao Ze Dong, the war in Iraq, or any other controversial subject as a dinner topic. It will most certainly cause discomfort within the group and may damage a business relationship.Discussing your personal experiences in China is always a safe way to get things rolling, things you saw, things you did, things you will do, things you like about China. On the other hand, if you have a deeper relationship with your company, obviously you can discuss whatever you want. Bottom line: At the table, try to have fun, don’t get too serious, and it is best not to talk politics.Some Chinese etiquette guides say, “Never talk business during a meal”. While this is good advice in general (who likes to talk shop when eating, anyway?), it is dated advice. People talk about business all the time, and will ask you about what you do, and what your job requires, and how much money you make, etc.

General Advice While at the Table

  • Wait to be seated. Never sit at the head of a table unless you are instructed to do so.
  • Never take food, or eat before an older person at the table (i.e., the grandmother).
  • If you ever take out a napkin for yourself, be sure to pass napkins to everyone at the table. When I say napkin, I mean the little pouch of Kleenex that is sitting on the table.
  • If you hold your bowl, palm the bowl from the bottom (video). Your fingers or thumb should never touch (or hook around) the lip of the bowl. Holding the bowl is acceptable, but is more casual. In a business setting, do not hold your bowl while eating.
  • When you do take food, place it on top of your rice. Never mix your food with your rice.
  • Never take more than one item at a time.
  • Soups are usually eaten last. Wait until you have nearly finished eating and then plan for the soup to be the last thing you eat.
  • Try the fried bees and pig brain (read, try the things you normally won’t eat at home). Most of the “crazy” food items are pretty good. Pig brain tastes like creamy tofu. Fried bees taste like crunchy chips.
  • May seem obvious, but worth noting: If you eat at a Muslim restaurant in China, never ask for any pork dishes or even mention the word pigs (pig is “zhu rou”, or “joo-row”). It can, and most likely will upset the owners and other patrons. Most of the Muslims in China are part of the Huizu (“hway-dsoo”) ethnic minority. Their cuisine is off-the-charts good. If you are lucky enough to eat at one of their restaurants, try the squash, the beef soup, the spicy dried beef (“niu gan ba”), or the stomach linings.

No Air-Drumming Allowed

Don’t play with your chopsticks…Chopstick Etiquette… or fidget with your chopsticks, point with them, or do anything else with them besides using them to take food and eat food. Watch a video on how to hold chopsticks.

Dining: Some Cultural Differences in China

  • Sometimes Chinese people slurp or smack their food. You can, too.
  • Don’t ever try to give the host 50% of the bill to “pay your half”. In China, as stated just above, whoever is inviting someone out to eat is expected to pay for everyone. If you want to immediately return the favor, offer to take the person who paid out to a bar, karaoke, or to drink tea.
  • Who calls = who pays. If I call you and invite you to dinner, I pay for everyone.
  • Sometimes a guest will bring a friend, unannounced. This isn’t a big deal, because there is always enough food for a few extra people.
  • A dinner can last hours. You’ll hear “man man che” a lot, and that translates to “slowly, slowly, eat.” Don’t scarf food down, and don’t only eat the dishes you like.
  • Chinese people may leave a lot of food behind at the table. Most of the time this food is recycled and fed to pigs, so don’t worry about waste.
  • The more you eat, the happier your host will be. (Some etiquette guides say, “You need to leave food on your plate to show that you’re not hungry.” Wrong. Eat.) If you eat a small amount, especially if someone made a home-cooked meal, you may insult your host.
  • Pace your eating with the group at the table.
  • Never let anyone still eating feel rushed to finished their meal.
  • It’s okay to answer your phone at a table, absolutely no one will care.
  • In a home setting, if you want to wash the dishes, never take any dishes away from the table unless it is clear that everyone has finished eating. If you do this, it is a cue to your guests that you want them to leave.
  • You will be offered cigarettes and alcohol. Click to read more.
  • Chinese people love to walk, or “san bu” after they eat, they say it helps with digestion.

The Bill

If you have been invited to eat, you can make an attempt to get the check, but don’t actually pay the bill as you may lose the other party’s face. Again, if someone calls you to go out, they are expected to pay.Nonetheless, fighting over the bill is always a good way to gain points. Be creative and aggressive! Try these things:

  • Stand up and start pulling the host by the arm and try to yank him back to his seat.
  • Arm waving and arm pulling is always good.
  • If they manage to pay the waiter first, grab their money out of the waiter’s hand and give it back them, then give the waiter your money instead.
  • The bigger the scene you cause, the better. Don’t worry if they seem disgruntled, they actually will be delighted with your enthusiasm.

Chinese Business Trip Tips

UPDATE: As of February 2011, Skype works fine in China, albeit slow and choppy at times.

This article focuses on specifics of doing business in China. Throughout the rest of the Complete China Guide you’ll find business tips as well.

Business cards

  • If someone hands you a business card, always take it with two hands.
  • If you hand a business card to someone, make sure the writing faces the person to whom you are giving the card.
  • Do not immediately put the business card away in your coat or wallet, keep it visible and in your hand.
  • If you are seated at a table, keep the business card face up on the table.

Planning / Making Schedules

For the most part, Chinese people are extemporaneous. Things happen on the fly, sometimes without any notice. With the language barrier, a non-native speaker is sure to be confused. “Where are we going?” “What’s happening?” Sometimes friends will call you to go out to dinner with an hour’s notice. Once I actually got a wedding invitation with 30 minutes to spare. Chinese people absolutely love it when other people randomly show up at their door, unannounced. Try to embrace this. It is not meant to be rude and is not considered imposing.

Cell Phones / Phone calls

  • Cell phone etiquette in China is much different than other countries — cell phones get answered (at dinner, at a wedding, while you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone.) If you’re talking to someone and their phone rings, be patient and wait.
  • Also, when someone calls you in China, they will let it ring at least 10-15 times. If you do not pick up, they will call you right back.
  • The Chinese do not rely on, or use messaging or voicemail, and it is rare that anyone will have an answering machine in their house.
  • Immediately after you dial someone’s phone number, you will hear music or an advertisement instead of the normal “ringing” you usually hear in the West. This is normal. People can pick the song they want to play when others call them.
  • Skype Will Most Likely Be Blocked in 2008Skype phone calls are in the process of being blocked in China (as of September 2007). SkypeOut (or, outbound calls at the $0.02 / minute rate) will most likely be blocked in the near future. However, if you have a Skype buddy online at the same time, you may be able to call them using Skype’s general “voice chat” mode (the free service), or you can IM/chat with them.

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

Read more articles about Chinese Etiquette and Travel Tips here!

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.

Read more articles about Chinese Etiquette, get more travel advice.

More stuff from either culture? Post it in the comments below.

Chinese Bars, Karaoke in China, Nightlife in China KTV

If you are traveling to China, living in China, have friends or family who just moved to China, or are going to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, you will need to brush up on your Chinese Etiquette. Here you can find the most comprehensive guide by an expatriate who has lived in China for over two years. Here you can learn what nightlife entails in China: bars in China, Chinese karaoke and more.

Bar Scene / Nightlife

    Visiting China Travel Tips Advice Robert Thompson
  • The bar scene in China is lively and loud. If you are doing business, expect that only men will go out to drink.
  • Younger generations play drinking games like “liar’s dice” or guessing games that expedite the drinking process. It is all about having a good time.
  • Chinese bars have shows, comedians, short plays, lots of live singing, and the essential loud distorted Chinese PA system. The point is, if you are used to going to Bob’s Tavern where it’s all low-key, get ready for something different.
  • When you want to call a waiter over, use the terms “fu wu yuan” (pron. “foo-wu-yen”) or for a female “xiao gunia” (pron. “shaw goo-nya”). Never use the term “xiao jie” (“xiao” starts with “sh” and rhythms with “wow”, then “jee-yah”, so “xiao jee-yah”), as it is condescending and dated. You would be surprised at how many books still teach that “xiao jie” is appropriate.

Karaoke

  • Karaoke is very popular way to spend social time. There are karaoke houses, or more commonly known as “KTVs” all over China, some of which rival the looks and feel of an AMC movie theater in the States.
  • You will get a private, insulated room that has (distorting) speakers, a television, a large central table, and couches lining the walls. There will be two microphones and a serious, heavy-duty delay (I guess you could call it reverb) on the vocal tracks.
  • The Chinese are not shy about singing and will insist that you sing. If you do not want to sing, you can say, “Wo bu hui chang ge” (I cannot sing).
  • If you do go to Karaoke, the volume level will most likely be too loud, but do not ask to turn the music down. Come prepared! Use earplugs and explain that you have hearing problems if they ask. You can say, “Wo de yisheng shou wo de er duo bu hao, sou yi wo xu yao yong zhei ge dong xi” while you point to your ears (My doctor said my ears are no good, that’s why I have to use these).
  • Don’t feel oblidged to patiently listen to someone who is singing. It is not considered rude to multitask in the karaoke room. Someone can be singing while four other people are slamming down dice on the table, playing drinking games.
  • Be aware that you are going to be in a small room with little or no ventalation, and that most of the Chinese people in the room will be smoking.
  • One of the coolest things about karaoke rooms is the little button on the wall that alerts an attendant. Need more beer? They arrive within seconds.

Have more to add? Write them in the comments!

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Chinese Drinking Etiquette: Beer, Tea Etiquette, Bottled Water, Hard Liquor

This article is about Chinese drinking etiquette. Depending on what you are drinking, the drinking rules change. Learn about how different beverages have different etiquette.

Alcohol

Drinking in ChinaIf you are at a bar, don’t be shy about saying that you don’t want to drink anymore. The Chinese people I have met can hold their liquor (most of the time). Don’t feel the need to keep up.

Unlike Europeans (and a select few in-the-know Americans), in China, looking someone in the eye when you toast is not imperative. It actually never happens. Don’t be offended, or wait for them to look you in the eye.

Bai Jiu Chinese Hard Liquor“Bai jiu” (pronounced “by-joe”) tastes like vodka. Be sure not to sniff it before you drink or you might gag. I think it is made from fermented rice. I whole-heartedly say it tastes like manure. And you’ll know when you’re drinking bai jiu when they bust out the clear bottle with the red cap. You can say, “Wo bu hui he jiu” (“wo boo hway huh joe”), that means “I don’t drink,” but it probably won’t work and they’ll pour you a glass anyway. Good luck.

Don’t worry about what the books say, “gan bei” does not mean you have to finish your drink (despite the literal translation of “dry cup”). Just take a sip and put your cup down.

General

Cold drinks are not usually served at restaurants in China. 98% of the time you will have a cup of steaming hot tea. Sometimes people will order a 2-liter of soda, but it us room temperature. About half the time, the beer is not cold. Asking for ice is okay, but don’t expect it to be available.

Water

Fresh Water in China is EverywhereFresh, clean, bottled water is everywhere in China. It costs between 1-2 RMB per 12 oz bottle.

Do not drink any tap water in China unless you want to experiment with your digestive system. It is okay to use tap water to brush your teeth or wash your face.

Tea

Pu’er Cha (Tea) from Yunnan by Robert Thompson China Travel Tips

  • Drink it slowly. Some types of tea cost thousands of RMB per bag. Never ask for ice or sugar for your tea.
  • If you ever pour tea for someone else, fill the cup 3/4 full. (When pouring alcohol, top it off, brim to the rim.)
  • When someone hands you a cup of tea, take it with two hands. When you give someone a cup of tea, use two hands. (One hand on the bottom, on hand on the side).
  • When drinking tea, it is polite to use two hands.
  • When someone pours you more tea, it’s polite to touch the side of the teacup as they pour it, and be sure to say “Xie xie” (roughly pronounced “shay shay”), or thank you.

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Chinese Dining Etiquette: Eating, Use Chopsticks, Eating Bones

This artlcle focuses on the general aspects of eating in China. Read a detailed article on important table etiquette here.

Background on Dining

Meals are almost always communal. Chinese people see it as an opportunity to get together, socialize, trade stories, and “slowly eat”. Having a good time is always the goal – I don’t think I have ever been at a dinner table where there were bad vibes. Meals are also a popular way to network. I imagine a lot of business deals and contracts have been settled at the dinner table. Overall, it is a personal, lively, and loud experience.

Dining Etiquette in ChinaIn Mainland China, dishes of food and soups are ordered, placed around the table, and everyone eats from every dish. Sometimes there are serving spoons, but most of the time there will not be. This means that everyone will take food from Dish A, place it in their bowl, eat it, then repeat. If this disgusts you, re-think your trip. All I can say is, “when in Rome…”

Meals are scheduled on a more consistent basis in China. There are three meals a day, 8-9am, 12pm and 6pm (and sometimes the late-night BBQ run). Farmers eat twice a day, 10am and 4pm, so they can tend to the fields and animals. I rarely see Chinese people eat between meals (read, snacking) unless it means eating a pear, apple, etc. Learn to appreciate these meal times. You will undoubtedly feel like you’re eating too much food at first, but you’ll probably lose weight by the end of your trip.

Cleanliness

Dining in China - On the StreetA restaurant’s level of cleanliness varies in China. Obviously, some are clean, some are not. If you visit a normal restaurant, often times you will see paper wrappings, food, cigarette butts, and other garbage on the ground. But if you only eat at the 5-star places, you’ll miss out on a lot of good food. It is a toss up, and you should do whatever makes you feel comfortable.

I find that the little dives, with the little stools and dirty floors have some of the best food. If you have a guide, always ask for the local specialties and be sure to eat at the best local restaurant at least once, regardless of the appearance. In Yunnan, for example, the rice noodles (“mi xian” or me-shyen) is a great tasting popular dish that is served right on the street.

Eating from Street Vendors

Eating Tips in China by Robert ThompsonSometimes it is dirty, sometimes it is clean, and regardless, it usually tastes good. Use good judgement. If you are visiting for a short amount of time (two weeks or less) I would probably pass on eating from street vendors, mainly because your system will not be able fight off the bacteria that have been growing in that meat all day long. If you are in China for a year, I would say go for it. Also, these places usually have the hardcore selection that you won’t see at tourist places — pig brain, intestine, etc.

MSG

MSG, or “wei jing” is used as an ingredient in cooking over China. Say what you will about it, just know that you are going to be eating it. (I have to admit, food does taste better with it.) Good luck trying to ask the cooks not to use it. You could try “Bu yao fan wei jing”, or “Don’t cook with MSG.”

Vegetarian

Though there are many vegetarian dishes to choose from, it is always going to be an uphill battle to not eat meat. And if you are vegan, I can say with confidence you are going to have a hard time eating in China. Don’t expect the grill that they used for your broccoli to be a vegetable-only grill, for example. Also, lard is a main ingredient in most of the vegetable soups.

Invited to Eat at Someone’s House

If you have the honor of being a guest in someone’s home, bring a gift with you (fruit, flowers, wine). After you arrive, you may be offered things like fruit, candy, or cigarettes before you eat. Tell the host thank you, and that you don’t want any (“Wo bu yao le, xie xie!”). Sometimes your host will start peeling a pear or apple and just hand it to you. If this happens, take it and eat it.

Eating Bones

Things are chopped up in China so that you can handle food items with your chopsticks. That means that there will be bone fragments in that chopped up piece of chicken leg that just appeared in your bowl. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but just place the whole thing in your mouth (if it isn’t too big) and work away at it until you get most of the meat off. In most cities, it is accecptable to place the bones on the small plate in front of you. Depending on how nice the restaurant is, you can either put it nicely in the bowl in front of you, or you can spit it out on the floor. When in doubt, watch what others do with their bones and follow suit.

Spicies

Eating Spicy Food in China by Robert ThompsonSpicy food is not prevalent in the Hong Kong (or Guangdong) region, in Beijing, or Shanghai. Henan, Sichuan, and Yunnan are known to use a lot of hot peppers in their cuisine. If you plan on eating spicy food (especially if you eat hot pot, which is oily and has an extra spicy dipping sauce) you should know that you probably will have to use the restroom shortly thereafter. This is not a sign of food poisoning — it is a sign of your body trying to process all those oils and firey hot peppers.

Also, make sure you ask for Coke, Sprite, or some juice as your insurance policy drink. If you’re not a seasoned veteran, that hot cup of tea on the table will only make matters worse after you accidentally chew into a hot pepper.

Chopsticks

How do you hold chopsticks VideoVideo: Learn How to Hold Chopsticks and your Bowl in China

Never leave your chopsticks in the bowl (like you would do with a spoon in cereal). If you are not eating, they should be placed on top of the bowl. There used to be some serious etiquette about which way the chopsticks needed to point, but that is pretty dated. Just as long as they are evenly placed together and on top of your bowl, you are all set.

You may drop your chopsticks by accident. Regardless of how long it touched the table (or worse, floor), don’t even pick it up. As one of your servers to bring you a new pair.

If your chopstick skills are a little shakey, Chinese people won’t judge you on it. That means if you drop something as you are bring it back to your bowl, just say “whoops!” and leave it there.

It is okay to rub the chopsticks together to rid them of the fraying wood pieces. Do this only with the cheap ones. At a nice restaurant you don’t need to do this.

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Chinese Etiquette: Key Concepts, Being Polite, Cultural Differences

If you are traveling to China, living in China, have friends or family who just moved to China, or are going to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, here you can brush up on your Chinese etiquette (or better yet, send them the link!).

This a comprehensive guide written by an expatriate who has lived in China for over two years, complete with pictures, videos, “Insider Tips” (things you will never see in any book), and translations. Most important, it is current information from someone who learned by living it.

First and Foremost / Key Concepts to Understand Chinese Culture

  • Relationships are deeply valued in Chinese culture. Guanxi or ‘relationship’ is an idea that is fundamental throughout society. Having friends, family, and business contacts to help you is very important.
  • Face, or mianxi, losing face, saving face, and giving face are important concepts that should be taken into serious consideration at all times. An quick example of losing face would be to lose your temper in public.
  • Being polite and courteous, or li. Chinese believe that proper etiquette preserves face.
  • Keqi literally means, “guest” and “behavior”. It is most closely linked to being modest and humble. You’ll often times people says, “Bie keqi” (pron. “bee-ah kuh-chee”) which means “You’re so polite”, or “You needn’t be so polite.”

Respect in China

    Arriving in China
  • It is important to show respect to elders (and everyone for that matter.) Although the Chinese do not use “thank you” in the same way or with the same frequency as some Westerners, you should always say “xie xie” (thank you) if someone does something for you (pours you a cup of tea, adds food to your bowl, offers you a pear, etc.) “Xie xie” roughly sounds like “shay shay”. Don’t worry about perfecting the accent, the sentiment is what counts.
  • If you have Chinese family members who are older than you, always go out of your way to help and assist them (pulling out chairs, opening car doors, assisting them with steps, etc).
  • Chinese people offer respect in a different way than Westerners. For example, a taxi driver is called a “shi fu”, or “master”. It is important to give face and respect to people who are working for you.
  • Chinese to not use sarcasm as a form of communication. Sarcasic comments do not translate well and will lead to confusion. Also, Chinese people do not playfully attack each other’s character as some Westerners do. You would never pick on someone in a group, especially if they are your own family. If you have these squabbles back home, do not bring them to China.

“Wow, you’re fat!”

  • The Chinese will comment on your appearance directly to your face. When you hear, “Oyo! Ni pang le!” (Wow, you’re fat!), it’s almost the sentiment as “Oh look, now you have a beard!” In other words, it is not meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, but more of an observation. Take it lightly, smile, and nod it off. Next time you see someone who has gained weight, you can return the phrase.

Chinese Asking “How much does it cost?”

  • For Americans, it is considered impolite to ask someone’s salary, or ask how much you paid for something. In China, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, it is often times the focal point of the conversation, especially with gifts. “How much does that watch you’re wearing cost? How much do you make a month? How much is your rent? Thanks for this vase, how much was it?” (Then there is always the classic, “One week, you make how much money?”) This all goes back to having face. You can always dodge the question by saying, “Wang ji le!”, (“I forgot”) or “Wo bu zhidao,” (“I don’t know”) if you feel uncomfortable.

Cutting in Line

Travelling to China by Robert ThompsonThe Chinese government-operated television network, CCTV, is currently (9/2007) running “etiquette” ads. I guess they are trying to internationalize Chinese etiquette. It is likely that these ads are in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So, they’re trying! However, on your next trip to China, you may:

  • Get cut in line
  • Get cut off in traffic
  • Get bumped into (with no “excuse me”)
  • See (and hear “haawk!”) people spit
  • Breathe in hefty doses of second-hand cigarette smoke
  • See people slurp or smack their food
  • See babies doing their business on the sidewalk (with the loving assistance of their mothers)
  • See people driving recklessly
  • Hear someone call you “lao wai!”

If someone cuts you, tap them on the shoulder and say, “Bie cha dui,” (Don’t cut). Nine times out of ten they will go to the end of the line with no hard feelings.

Have more to add? Write them in the comments!

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Coming Soon: A Complete Chinese Etiquette and Travel Guide

Chinese Etiquette Guide by Robert Thompson

Update: Complete Chinese Etiquette Guide just added (or look to the navigation on the top right).

China is going through rapid change. Having said that, I have about 13 books on Chinese language and culture, and guess what? Most of them give dated advice. For example, one book mentions that “if you want to go camping in China, you’ll be on your own as there are no camping supply stores.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

So, in the next few weeks I’m going to be posting a Chinese travel and etiquette guide. It will address much more than what you can read in any Fodor’s travel book and will be, to say the least, current.

There are a lot of expatriates and foreigners who blog about little pieces of the culture here and there, documenting their experiences and pointing out the differences. It is definitely helpful, but I thought it would be good to have all the information (with pictures) in one place.

If you are about to come to China, have a friend or relative who just arrived in China, or you are going to the Olympics next year and you want to get the current inside scoop, check back soon.

Extending your Visa in China (one year, residence card, etc)

Cost Extend Visa in ChinaHow much does a one-year visa extension cost? As of July 2007, the price of a visa extension in China nearly doubled to 760 RMB. The price for a half-year extension and a one-year extension is the same (760 RMB). I checked at the Kunming visa center and at my city’s local visa center, and they both confirmed this.

Also, if you are going to extend your visa, you are now required to get a health check, or “ti jian”. Don’t worry, the health check is nothing more than a blood test to see if you have any diseases (HIV, hepatitis, etc). The health check costs anywhere from 0 to 100 RMB and you can go to a local hospital and they’ll give you the results back the same day. They will give your certificate with the doctor’s signature on it, along with your results and your blood type. Then take that back to the visa office and fill out the visa form (don’t forget your picture!)

If you own a house in China and you have the deed to your house (which can take over a year to get after you purchase it), you can apply for a three-year residence card. However, they require that you apply for the one-year visa first, to “show them that you don’t cause any trouble.”

From what I’ve learned, a marriage certificate is not is not enough to apply for a residence card, you must have a house deed with your name on it.

Also, after you purchase your house, get the deed with your name on it, and apply for your one-year visa, it is good for unlimited entries and exits and there are no duration limits (like say, a tourist L visa, which limits you to 30 days after entry).