Dealing with cultural differences when you have Bad China Day

Group of Chinese students I met when traveling, 2014

Recently one of my blog readers sent me a question related to living in a different culture. I have seen this question popping up frequently so I decided to answer it in a blog post.

Her question is:

The longer I live in China the more I am unable to accept the behavior of the locals. They ask me all sort of personal questions the minute they meet me, but I don’t really want to share personal details about me to a complete stranger. I also feel like they want to find out if I’m worthy of spending time with, meaning if they can benefit from our friendship in someway in the future.

You are not alone in this! Living in a totally different culture to yours is tough, the way people speak, socialize, behave and make friends is different. For  those who don’t speak the language, the barrier is even greater.

First I want to write about the language  barrier in case the locals you speak with don’t speak fluent English or you don’t speak fluent Chinese. When speaking in a second language, especially if someone’s level is not that high, it’s easy to come off as too direct or even rude. Often that is because they simply lack the vocabulary to express what they truly want to say. So try to be understanding if someone is communicating with you with their second language.

Those of you who are studying Chinese, don’t get frustrated if the locals don’t seem to understand you even though you think you said it correctly. Most of the Chinese are not used to speaking with foreigners in Chinese and because of the pronunciation system, misunderstandings happen easily if your pronunciation or tones are off. I will assure you, that misunderstandings will get fewer and fewer the longer you study Chinese.

Secondly we need to remember that we can’t put our own culture and habits onto a pedestal and expect others to follow our norms or values. Asking lots of questions is a way of showing care, if you don’t do that, you might come out as cold and uncaring. Topics like money and weight aren’t taboos in China as they are in the West. When I encounter questions I don’t want to answer, I simply say “We don’t really discuss this in Finland, so I feel a bit embarrassed to talk about it.” Then quickly change the discussion to something else.

Thirdly comes the feeling of being used. Guangxi and networks are very important in China, you get things done and a lot faster when you know the right people. Chinese are also very good at doing business, so their business mode might be on all the time even when meeting friends. They spend time with friends who might be helpful in the future and not waste time with others. If you feel like someone gauging you in this way, and you feel uncomfortable, try to find other locals to socialize with. Hobby groups are usually better for making friends and networking events are mainly for business.

Last but not least, sometimes you just need a little break. When you feel it’s been too many Bad China Days in row, cross over to Hong Kong for example for a well deserved break. Then come back with new energy and an open mind.