the Temple of Heaven

6 Social Mistakes I Made in China

Going to a new country is bound to be met with confusion and curiosity when it comes to social cues. There are new social norms to understand and customs to adhere to in each new destination. Moving to China with little to no background information on their customs, I made a whole lot of mistakes before figuring out what was right or wrong. If you’re planning on visiting China, here is a chance to learn from my social mistakes so that you don’t have to make them yourself.

Pointing my Chopsticks

If you have a habit of talking with your hands, this is one that you’ve got to watch out for. While out to dinner with some new locals friends, I was deep in conversation, talking animatedly with my hands.

Without even realizing it was an issue, I began moving my hands around with the chopsticks still intertwined between my fingers. It wasn’t the worst of mistakes, but when I found out that it was rude, I felt extremely embarrassed.


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Not Taking Beers or Cigarettes

As a foreign girl living in China, I experienced a lot of generosity from the local guys while out at the bars and clubs. At least a handful would approach me and offer up cigarettes or suggest that we cheers over a beer.

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Since I didn’t smoke or want to drink too much, I often denied my suitors. It turns out that declining is extremely embarrassing for them in front of their friends and that it’s best to either accept or be as nice as possible.


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Helping Strangers

It may sound a bit odd but helping out a stranger in China is almost a definite NO NO. It apparently started when someone got hurt getting onto a bus, and another passenger tried to help them.

When the police came to ask the victim about what had happened, she ended up blaming the good Samaritan who had helped her and sued him for a large sum of money. This apparently started a trend, and more and more citizens became wary of lending a helping hand to anyone.

While walking to the post office with my Chinese friend, we stumbled upon a man dressed in a business suit and passed out on the sidewalk in the middle of the day.

Hoards of people were walking past him, stepping over his body and staring without even attempting to see if he was alright. I forced my friend against her will to try to wake him up and see if he needed help.

It turns out that he was just drunk from a rowdy work dinner the night before and decided to take a snooze on the sidewalk. Nothing bad ended up happening, but according to my local friends, it could have been bad.

Causing Someone to “Lose Face”

The concept of “losing face” was completely foreign to me until moving to China. Essentially meaning to cause someone great embarrassment, losing face is a big deal to people in China.

I first encountered this not by something I did but by something my roommate did during a dinner. A group of us foreigners were invited inside the private dining room of a group of very drunk, Chinese men.

We were eating, drinking and trying to communicate when there was a loud car horn coming from a woman outside. My roommate, in a playful manner, asked the man if he was “under the thumb” of his wife, using a coinciding gesture.

Ultimately losing face in front of his friends, the man yelled at my roommate, forced him to chug down beers and scared us all into never causing someone to lose face ever again.

Not Taking Off my Shoes

Taking off your shoes before entering someone’s home is pretty standard in China. Every home seems to have a pile of shoes sitting at the door and a rack full of slippers that are on offer to guests to keep their feet warm.

When going to the home of a private student for the first time, I forgot to take off my shoes. While it wasn’t the end of the world, I still felt pretty ashamed when the parents of my student came running after me with a pair of slippers to wear.


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Being Confrontational at Work

I’m not one to shy away from expressing my point of view in the workplace. When I believe that something is unfair or that something is wrong, I’m not scared to bring it up to management.

However, after closely teaching with my Chinese co-workers, I began to realize that my bluntness in the workplace was making many of them uncomfortable. I learned to tone it down after that so that everyone could feel happy during the work day.

I’m sure that you are bound to make one social mistake or another while traveling in China but I hope that reading some of my mistakes can help you avoid them!

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Shannon Ullman

Hey! I'm a published American travel blogger and teacher. My travel writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Matador Network and Thought Catalog. I spent over a year living and traveling around China while I taught English there. I have also visited dozens of other countries around the world.