The Rules Change

Crossing international borders can be traumatic. This is especially true traveling to a country like China. Even with Chinese language skills in hand, it can be challenging knowing exactly what to expect. In China the rules are different.

I remember a few years ago sitting in a small restaurant on Qingdao Rd. near Nanjing University when three of my students walked in. We had only been in country for about two days. They did not see me so I decided to stay quiet and observe. They stood just inside the door waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a seat. As they waited I could see their frustration growing. At the same time I could hear the two servers saying,

“What are they doing?”

“I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.”

The servers seemed just as perplexed as my students. These students had two years of formal Chinese study at my university, so I knew that linguistically that they could handle themselves. The problem was that they did not know what to expect in a Chinese restaurant. As such, they had no choice but to fall back on their American cultural experience with restaurants—you are usually greeted and shown to a table. In small restaurants in China that is not the case; you simply find an empty table yourself and the servers will bring you a menu.

Being successful in China requires that one learn a new set of rules or behaviors. It’s like learning how to play a new sport. You may be familiar with other sports and be pretty good at them, but if you don’t know the rules of the new game, you probably won’t be a very good player.

An analogy might help. Let’s say that American culture is like baseball and Chinese culture is like tennis. Both sports have a good share of similarities—playing fields, boundaries, a ball, an instrument to hit the ball, and so on. If you are only familiar with baseball and show up in China and find yourself on a tennis court, you’re in for trouble. The ball is served to you and your first inclination is to hit the ball as hard as you can, preferably over the fence. This is your frame of reference. And if you hit the ball over the fence, the Chinese will find this very strange. If you continue to do this, they will eventually take their ball and go home, and will probably not invite you to play again.

China can be a pretty rough place if you don’t know what to expect. These rules can be better understood as cultural and social behavior, and this goes beyond traditional language training. Even without Chinese language skills, knowing what to expect in typical situations you are likely to encounter will make a huge difference in your interactions with others and your ability to get around and understand what is going on around you.

This blog is an attempt to discuss various aspects of learning the Chinese language, explore Chinese culture, and analyze the intricacies of intercultural communication.

5 thoughts on “The Rules Change

  1. I liked the Tennis/Baseball analogy. Not to be an ugly American, but anyone who actively caters to foreign tourists should also strive to know a little about their visitor’s/customer’s conventions.

  2. Mark—Ideally maybe that should be the case, but when you have tourists literally from all over the world, it would be pretty tough to be up on all their customs. Besides, shouldn’t we be adapting to the conditions of the place we are visiting?

    Kyle—Many Chinese do adapt well to life in America, and many do not. I had a classmate in graduate school who was from China and ate at the same, pretty lousy, Chinese restaurant nearly everyday for two years because she thought American food was gross and was afraid to try it. And yes, Americans do have the reputation of being loud and obnoxious. Quite unfortunate.

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