7 Social Norms That Americans in China May Find Strange

A couple of years before I moved to China, I had read a book titled “Lost on Planet China.” The book was great, but I couldn’t fully understand why the author referred to the country as its own planet. After merely arriving on the doorstep of my apartment in China, I immediately understood what it meant. China really did seem like another planet and for a whole host of reasons. One of the reasons that stood out to me the most were the social cues and norms.

People in China acted differently, thought differently and interacted with each other in ways that my American mind just couldn’t understand. I’m not saying that their way of doing things is right or wrong but certainly different and often times seemingly strange compared to what I was used to. So, all of you Americans out there, if you plan on visiting China one day, here are just a few social norms that you may find strange.

Pushing For The Bus

My first time waiting for the public bus was an interesting one. Everyone seemed pretty relaxed; chatting or reading the newspaper on the bench while they waited. However, once the bus came into view, the station became an absolute mob scene of people pushing one another out of the way to get on the bus. Young, old; they were all crawling over each other to make it onto the bus, faces still full of smiles.

bush pushing china

Moving Ahead In Lines

The first time it happened to me was in the grocery store. I was just about to hand the cashier my first item when a bag of potatoes dangled past my head and was handed to the checkout girl before I had a chance. Quite confused about what was going on, it took me a few seconds to realize that the little old woman behind me decided that she wanted to be checked out first. Assuming that the cashier would hand back the potatoes and serve me first, I was even more shocked when she acted like nothing strange was happening and served the woman behind me while I stood there blankly staring at her.

Not Lining Up

Forming lines for services all together seemed like a concept that fell into some grey area. When I would stand in line at the post office or hospital, I could always feel people creeping up on the sides of me. Sometimes they would just blatantly stand in front of me or push their way to the front of the line without much if any backlash from others.

Photo Source:

Photo Source: Zerohedge.com 

Dressing Rooms

This could have been a one-time occurrence, but I was pretty shocked when it happened to me. While shopping in the mall, I decided to try on a few items in the dressing room. Mid-change, I was interrupted by violent knocking and a voice on the other side telling me to hurry up. I rushed to get out of there and was met with a women who didn’t show any signs of thinking she had done anything wrong.

Public Bathrooms

Using public bathrooms in China was always an interesting experience. I grew to love the squat toilets and learned never to forget to bring my own toilet paper while out and about. However, one of the strangest things I witnessed was a bathroom in Beijing. I opened the bathroom door to find a row of squat toilets on the floor, not separated by any sort of wall. I had to use the bathroom and couldn’t wait so I squatted next to other women doing the same thing. No one batted an eyelash or thought it was strange at all.

Photo Source: Nana'sBreakfast.com

Photo Source: Nana’sBreakfast.com


I spent a significant amount of time eating in restaurants all around China. It was always a fun experience because the locals tend to turn their dinners into a party. There was always loud talking, shots of beer, and food strewn everywhere. People yell for the server when they need the check, and everyone shares the enormous plates of food that are set on the rotating table top. Meals took a little bit to get used to, but I learned to love them in the end.

Photo Source: Fadoflo.com

Photo Source: Fadoflo.com


From my experience, Chinese people tend to be quite blunt. Friends would tell me when I looked bad, fat, or like I had lost some weight. They would say exactly what they were thinking, and I learned to love their honesty even when it seemed a bit brutal.

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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.