Decoding China Now Available!



My new book Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Living in Today’s China is now available. You can find it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are links on the right.

I started this book back in 2002, put it away for a few years (busy with other projects), then began writing in earnest again and updating the research in 2010. If you get a chance I would appreciate any feedback you might have. I would also appreciate it if you would o a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have just returned from another trip to China; this time to the Southwest—Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. I’ll be posting about that and my trip two months ago to Guangdong and Taiwan.


Decoding China


Back in 1998 I was leading a study abroad group to China, Nanjing University to be specific. We had been in the country for only two or three days. I was eating lunch in a small restaurant just off campus when I noticed three of my students enter. They didn’t see me, so I just observed what happened. They entered the restaurant and stood just inside the door. I knew what they were thinking—they were waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a table, just like in an American restaurant. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could see they were getting impatient and maybe a bit frustrated. I also observed the two waitresses working in the restaurant. They seemed equally perplexed. One said to the other, “What are they doing just standing there?” The other replied, “I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.” What my students did not understand is that in small, informal restaurants like this you simply find an empty table without waiting for someone to show you. In other words, there is no host or hostess. They assumed that eating in China was the same as eating in the U.S. These students had pretty good Chinese having studied at the University for 4 to 5 semesters. I knew they had the linguistic capacity to order a meal and do whatever else they needed in a restaurant. But they still didn’t know the “rules” or “codes” involved in eating at a restaurant in China. It’s not as simple as it may seem, even if you know some Chinese.

This experience impressed upon me the importance of cultural knowledge. To get things done in China requires a whole set of knowledge that goes far beyond linguistics. In fact, one could argue pretty persuasively that cultural knowledge will get you farther in China than linguistic knowledge alone. This book is the result of several years of research on how to get things done in China; how to make sense of the Chinese world; how to decode China so it makes sense for a foreigner.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I am happy to announce that my book, Decoding China: A Handbook or Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China is now available for pre-order. It is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and there are links on the right side of the main page of this blog under Books. It will be available in April.

Who is this book for?

I think this book would be a great benefit to students going to China to study, students doing internships in China, people going to China to live and work, independent travelers in China, and even armchair travelers. It contains all the information I wish I had when I first started traveling to China. I think it will even be valuable for those who have been living in China, even for several years. Basically, this is a book for those that want to go beyond the tourist or typical expat level of understanding. This is a book for those who want to live, work, or study independently among the Chinese. It is for those who want to blend in, not stand out.

Here are just a few topics covered in this book:

Which train should I take? Deciphering the train class numbering system.

Characteristics of hotels in China.

How to make sense of a Chinese menu.

How to buy and make sense of cell phone plans in China.

How to use the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter.

How to open a bank account in China.

How to barter like a native.

Self study learning strategies.

How to select a Chines study program.

Making sense of Chinese “face” relations.

The concept of guanxi explained.

What kinds of gifts should you give.

How to deal with culture shock.

Strategies for staying healthy in China.

Send me a message if you have any questions.

The Art of Bartering 讲价 jiǎngjià

Chestnut vendor in the city of Huai’an in Jiangsu Province

China can be an exciting place to shop, especially if you are willing to barter for a good price. In many markets, especially outdoor markets, prices are often not marked and can be negotiated through bartering or haggling.  

The disadvantage of being a foreigner in China is that as soon as any vendor sees a you coming, yuan signs will light up their eyes. When you ask how much something cost, the vendor will probably jack up the price as much as ten-fold or more, knowing that foreigners are often eager to spend money and usually are clueless about how much things should cost.

Bartering is to be expected at most markets, outdoor shopping areas like at tourist sites, some produce and meat markets, and anywhere where prices are not marked. Sometimes even when the price is marked you may try to talk them down. Bartering is not acceptable in department stores, convenience stores, large discount stores, restaurants, and other such places. While you do not barter at hotels, you can ask for a discount. This is typical in the off-season and many hotels will give you a discount just for asking. You can ask for a discount by saying,

可以打折吗?kěyǐ dǎzhé ma?                                     Can you give a discount?

(给)便宜一点吗?kěyǐ (gěi) piányi yīdiǎn ma?         Can you give it for a bit cheaper?

Jade dealers at the Chaotiangong Confucian temple in Nanjing

 Strategies for successful bartering 

1. Plan on using cash

It’s a good idea to have the exact amount you plan to pay in your pocket. It never looks good after a hot bartering session to pull out a thick wad of 100 yuan notes, especially when you have talked about how little money you have. It’s also a good idea to come equipped with your money in small denominations. Many vendors are unwilling to break large bills, nor are they eager to give you any change back.

2. Pretend that you are not that interested in the product

If the dealer knows you really want the item, she has the upper hand. So look at the item skeptically, notice and verbalize negative things about the item, walk around looking at other things, then casually go back to the item you would like. Next, offer a price well below what you are willing to pay. Remember that bartering is a two-way deal. Not only must you be satisfied with the price, but the seller must be satisfied as well. If you start low, then you are willing to go up in price, which the seller will expect. No vendor will sell something at a loss; they will always make sure to make a profit on all their deals.

 3. Offer a price well below what they are asking

The vendor will likely scoff, act disgusted, give you some line about how he or she has a family to support, and so on. Don’t take anything personally. This is just part of the script or game. They will probably say that they could never sell it for that low. They may even act offended at your offer.

 4. Walk away

The is an essential strategy. Simply start walking away. Remember, you have been pretending that you are not all that interested in the item anyway. The vendor will in most cases call you back, and offer a slightly higher price than what you originally offered. Now the real haggling begins. Continue to feign disinterest, that you could take it or leave it. Counter with another price lower than his. This may go on for awhile. The vendor at some point will refuse to go any lower. When this happens, tell the vendor to forget it (算了 suān le) and walk away again. Either the vendor will call you back again and offer a lower price, or he will let you go. At this point you need to be willing to walk on and find another vendor selling what you want. If you go back at this point, the vendor will know that he has you, that you really do want the item and probably won’t leave without it.

Selling bananas in Nanjing

Remember that this game is well known by everyone shopping in China and is expected behavior on both sides. Some people hate bartering and would rather just pay the asking price, and will get ripped off. Learn these basic bartering strategies and your dollars will go much further, and you’ll have a good time shopping.

Selling fruit off the back of a truck

Blending in

Group conciousness

What is it about Americans abroad. The seem to want to be heard, seen, acknowledged, liked, accommodated. The unflattering term “ugly American” refers to this perception that Americans are loud, arrogant, demeaning, and ethnocentric. Of course this is not true of all Americans, but unfortunately for some, it is true.

When traveling in China, I have found that it is better to do your best to blend in. Well, we can’t totally blend in because our physical features will always give us away. But there are several ways that you can better assimilate yourself into Chinese society. Remember China is a group oriented society, so blending in, and not standing out, is what the Chinese value.

Here are a few tips I have found to be valuable. These tips are not just valuable for Americans, but for any foreigner living or traveling in China.

• Avoid loud, flashy clothing.

Wear clothing that is similar to the clothes of those with whom you work or study. Err on the side of conservative dress. Women should avoid overly revealing clothing. Extreme clothing styles will only be a distraction and draw attention to you. This is especially true in professional settings. Shorts, sandals, a loud flowery shirt, and a baseball cap do not go over very well in China and will make you stand out like a sore thumb.

• Dress appropriately for the occasion.

If everyone at the office is wearing shirts and ties, or skirts and blouses, then you should also. Be aware that Chinese may dress up when you would not expect it, like for outdoor outings.

• Keep your voice down.

Americans can be very loud, even boisterous, especially in groups. When in public try to keep your voice down; avoid yelling, screaming, and loud laughter.

• Don’t assume everyone loves Americans.

You may feel like the world revolves around the United States and that everyone is enamored with American pop culture and lifestyle, but most Chinese are very proud of their heritage, ideals, and lifestyle. Be respectful of Chinese ways, even though they may be very different from what you are accustomed to.

• Avoid criticism and complaining.

You’re not going to win many friends if all you can do is complain about the pollution, the traffic, the humidity, the food, people spitting on the street, and so on. It is especially bad to compare everything to the United States and constantly mentioning how much better things are back home.

• Don’t insist on American style goods and services.

This is especially true in rural areas or smaller cities. Sometimes Western goods are not available or are at least hard to acquire. Potatoes are not common fare in most areas of China.

• Eat what is placed before you.

At least pretend that you appreciate the food and nibble on it. Shunning food given to you, especially at a banquet, can be very offensive to your hosts.

• Learn at least a few phrases in Chinese.

Learning a few phrases in Chinese and using them when you can will go a long way in China. The Chinese understand how hard their language is and appreciate when foreigners try to speak Chinese.

• Always remember that you are the guest.

The Chinese should not have to adapt their behavior to accommodate you. You should adapt your behavior to fit in with them.

• Make friends with the locals.

Sometimes Americans tend to hang out together in groups. Branch out and try to make friends with local Chinese. You will see and do things that most Americans will not have access to.

• Avoid common stereotypes.

Not all Chinese are good at math, are humble, and are martial arts experts.

• The Chinese are neither quaint nor cute.

With over a billion people, the Chinese can hardly be considered quaint. Some tourists make a big deal about the Chinese and Chinese things being “so cute.”

• Be inconspicuous with your camera.

Nothing screams tourist more than a large expensive camera around your neck, except maybe pushing into everyone’s faces and taking pictures. Keep your camera in an inconspicuous bag when not photographing. I will often leave my camera in my apartment or hotel, unless I am specifically going out to take pictures. Be respectful when taking photographs. It is best to chat with someone before asking to take their picture.

• Don’t always hang out at expat bars, hotels, and Western fast food restaurants.

Eat like the locals. Hang out with locals. Unfortunately many Americans spend a semester or two in Beijing or Shanghai, and spend the bulk of their time eating American food, and hanging out with other foreigners. That’s not why you are going to China.

• Smile.

Even if you are confused, frustrated, and don’t know what is going on, smile. It will ease the tension for both you and others.

• Take it easy.

Avoid public displays of anger or frustration. Keep your cool and be patient. Logic and reason do not always work. Trying to force your way seldom works. Try to understand the situation, be open to alternatives, and generally try to be pleasant no matter how ugly things get.

• Don’t flirt.

American style flirting is often misunderstood in China. While you may think it is all innocent and that not serious, Chinese usually interpret this behavior as serious affection.

• Pay attention to mannerisms.

This is especially true with non-Chinese minority groups. They have different behaviors and mannerisms. If you are traveling to the Western provinces, such as Gansu, Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunan, and Western Sichuan, pay close attention to how people interact with each other.

• Be Humble.

Look people in the eye when you talk to them and acknowledge their humanity. Treat people with respect and dignity.

• Go slower, but go deeper.

Become a regular by frequenting the same places repeatedly. Get to know local people, like your neighbors, the lady that sells breakfast items from a cart on the street, the bicycle repairman on the street corner, and so on.

• Have patience with yourself and those around you.

China can be a difficult place. Allow yourself some time to and adjust and adapt to the differences.

• Embrace the culture.

Remember that you have a unique experience that may be over before you know it.

• Don’t expect things to be the same all over China.

Each area of China has different food, cultural icons, and ways of doing things. This makes your experience rich, exciting, and varied.

And lastly, be positive and have fun.

Tips for Self Study, Part 3: Using a Tutor 个别辅导 gèbié fúdǎo

High School kids in Wuhan

Using a tutor can be a very effective way to learn Chinese, maintain what you have, or go beyond what you have learned in the classroom. Keep in mind that just because a person is native Chinese person does not automatically qualify them as a good tutor or teacher. To effectively use a tutor, it is important that you have clear objectives in mind and that those objectives are understood by your tutor.

Finding a tutor 

The best place to find a tutor is around university campuses. Students are often looking for a chance to make a little money on the side. You may also want to arrange a language exchange—you help a Chinese person with their English in exchange for them helping you with Chinese. There are numerous Chinese students that could use help with their English. A good place to start is with the department of foreign studies, or whatever department teaches Chinese as a foreign language. Many of these kinds of departments not only teaching Chinese as a foreign language, but also have graduate programs for Chinese learning how to teach Chinese as a foreign language. You may also check the English language department, or any other department where you have interests. For example, if you are studying engineering or are an engineer working in China, finding an engineering student may be best suited to help you with your specialized Chinese language needs. Most campuses have an “English Corner” where people get together in the evenings to practice English. This may also be a good place to meet a potential study partner.

Some Chinese have a deep-seated belief that foreigners cannot really learn Chinese well. You may need to convince your tutor that you are serious, and that you want to go beyond basic greetings and survival language if that is your goal. Hiring a faculty member, or a retired one, may also be a good bet. Often they could use the extra money and are just happy to interact with a foreigner. Or if you are working in China, a colleague may be willing to help.

Pay for services rendered 

If you want the best from your tutoring experience, I think it best to hire and pay for your tutoring services. You may have Chinese friends that will offer to help you out, but when they are not getting paid, they may not take it as serious as if they were getting paid and felt the accompanying responsibility to do a good job. In this case, you often get what you pay for.

Have clear objectives—you call the shots 

It’s usually not a good idea to hire a tutor and give them no guidelines. This usually results in chit-chat sessions that wander around but seldom get anywhere substantial. You will get much more mileage from your sessions with clear objectives about what you want to learn. If you are using a textbook or phrase book, make a copy of the lesson you want to cover and give it to your tutor. Tell them specifically that you want to work on the material in that lesson for the appointed meeting. This way, they will come prepared, and you can work together on practicing the material in that particular lesson. If you are not using any formal materials, come up with a plan of what you want to learn, then share with your tutor specifically what you want to learn. For example, if you are a beginner, you might want to work on basic greetings, talking about yourself and interests, asking others about themselves, and so on. You may also want to learn how to order a meal in a restaurant. Before each session, tell you tutor what you would like to learn so they can come prepared with some vocabulary items and phrases to practice with you. If you want to work specifically on your reading and writing skills, either pick out a reading passage from a textbook, or have your tutor select some passages for you based on your language level. Without a textbook, this may be challenging unless you are at the advanced level. Even at the advanced level it is suggested to at least read the newspaper or talk about current events.


Tips for Self Study, Part 2: On Your Own in China

Primary school kids in Nanjing

Merely being in China does not guarantee that you will have a good language learning experience. The number of programs in China that offer Chinese language instruction is mind boggling. Some programs are excellent and some are pretty awful.

This post is for the many students, professionals, and travelers in China that are learning Chinese on their own and are not part of a formal language program. By following the advice below, you will be able to make good use of your time learning Chinese independently.

Take advantage of your environment 

Being in China is a great advantage to your language learning efforts. You have an instant language learning lab just outside your door. You are surrounded by people speaking Chinese; there are Chinese characters everywhere you turn and you are immersed in a living society where people act and react according to Chinese attitudes and standards. This can be intimidating, but you to be a successful language learner you must be bold. You cannot be afraid to speak and use the language that you have learned. Make it a point to use Chinese whenever you can. Take every opportunity to use Chinese, even if you could use English. You will make mistakes, but hopefully you will learn from those mistakes and improve with every language using opportunity, such as riding trains.

For many it is so easy to hang out with other foreigners, frequent the bars and restaurants where foreigners hang out, and otherwise avoid, sometimes subconsciously, using Chinese.

 Be positive and confident 

You must believe that you can learn Chinese and use it on a regular basis. If you believe that Chinese is just too hard, then it is a lost cause. Chinese is challenging for the western learner, but it is not impossible. It will take longer to learn than European, cognate languages, but you can learn it. Thousands of Americans have done it. The more confident you are of your abilities and your potential the more likely you will be a successful learner and user of Chinese.

Set Goals 

Making specific language goals can be a great motivator. Make daily, weekly, and monthly goals about what kinds of things you want to accomplish. It may be as simple as learning and using a few new vocabulary words each day, or as ambitious as  you want to be able to order a Chinese meal on your own by the end of the month. You may also have a goal to read a new newspaper article each week, and talk about it with a Chinese friend or colleague.

Enlist your friends and colleagues 

Ask your Chinese friends and colleagues to correct your pronunciation. This will be hard for most Chinese, so be insistent. You may need to really convince them that you want them to do this. You may offer to help them out by correcting their English. Often we go around saying something thinking it is correct only to discover later that you have been saying something wrong all along. This is usually because Chinese will be reluctant to correct your pronunciation. This results in what we call fossilized errors, that is, errors that are difficult to change because we have been making the error repeatedly over time. Chinese may complement you even if you only said two words to them. Don’t let this go to your head. Tell yourself that you need to study harder and that your Chinese is actually pretty poor. In general, Chinese people in China are usually surprised that foreigners can speak Chinese. No matter what you say, they will be impressed.

Repetition is key

Learning a foreign language really involves over learning. That is, you need to practice enough until it comes fairly naturally. Repetition is essential to mastery. The first time you do something in Chinese will probably be fairly difficult; it won’t feel very natural. But the twentieth time you do it, it will feel smooth, normal, and natural. This goes for speaking as well as reading. The more you use or see a word or pattern in context the more likely you will remember it and be able to reproduce it in a correct way.

Use what you have studied 

Meaningful learning involves contextualization. That is, you must use the material you have studied in real live situations, whether that be reading a newspaper article or having a conversation with someone. When you learn a new word or grammar pattern, try to use it in your everyday interactions. Using it will help you remember it, especially when it is used in a meaningful context. It is amazing how after learning a new word, you suddenly realize that you are hearing it all around you. When you hear a word used by Chinese around you, try to use it yourself. The more you use the language you have studied the faster it will become a part of your everyday working language.

Use a language learning notebook

Get in the habit of carrying around a small notebook. Jot down things that you see and hear. Write down vocabulary items that you have studied and want to use. Write down characters on a sign that you don’t recognize, or items on a Chinese menu. Later you can look these words up in a dictionary, or ask a friend what they mean. When you encounter a situation that you do not understand, jot down a few notes so you can ask someone later what was going on. This simple notebook can be a great language learning tool.

 Be a keen observer

Watch carefully how Chinese interact with each other. Pay attention to what they say and how they say it. Observe how Chinese haggle over prices in a market. Watch how the Chinese greet each other, how they take leave or each other, how they pay for items at a department store, and so on. If you are ever unsure about what to do in a given communicative situation, watch and listen to what the Chinese do, then imitate their behavior.  You will not be successful if you think you can just do things the way you do at home, but using Chinese to do it. You must do things the way Chinese people expect people to do things.

There isn’t always an exact English equivalent 

Get used to the fact that language learning, especially learning Chinese, that there is often no one-to-one equivalent of words and expressions in English. Rather than asking, how do you say “hi” in Chinese, the better question is “how do Chinese greet each other?” The answer then is, it depends on the situation and your relationship with the other person. Understand and accept that the Chinese do things differently; they say things differently than we do in the US. Ordering a meal in China is done very differently than in the US. Learn to play by the Chinese rules of the game. That is, learn how the Chinese get things done and follow suit.

Reading strategies 

Reading a text once is usually not enough. I recommend that you read a given text at least three times. The first time, read for the gist; get a feel for what the text is about. The second time, read for details. Try to understand the grammar and vocabulary. The third time, put it all together and hopefully understand the text better. Don’t write pinyin or English above characters in a written text. This will immediately become a crutch. The next time you see that passage you will immediately go to the pinyin and not the characters. It is better to write pinyin for a word or definition on a separate sheet of paper, or maybe in the margin where you can cover it up when you are reading. This allows for a nice neat, and authentic text and fosters real reading and not decoding. The more you read the better you will get. To really master Chinese characters you must use them. Be consistent and try to read something in Chinese everyday.

Flashcards are just a tool

Be careful how you use flashcards. Instead of just writing the English equivalent of Chinese words, write down the word in a Chinese sentence so you better understand how it is used. Just knowing how to pronounce a character and know it’s English equivalent does not guarantee that you will actually be able to use it in an appropriate context. Remember that flashcards are simply a tool. It is important to know what words mean, but to be successful you must be able to use them in the right contexts at the right time. This goes far beyond flashcards.

Consider hiring a tutor

Hiring a tutor can be very beneficial. You can tailor your learning to fit your exact needs and aspirations. More on this later.

Tips for Self Study, Part 1: Learning Resources

On the Nanjing University campus

Students ask me all the time questions like:

“I’m going home for the summer, how can I keep up my Chinese?”

“How can I improve my listening comprehension?”

“I’m taking a year off from my studies to work, what can I do to maintain my Chinese?”

And so on. There are quite a few resources out there but there is also a lot of junk as well. The internet has a wealth of resources but sometimes its hard wading through all the crap to find the good stuff. Below I outline some resources I have found to be useful.

Chinese Reading and Reference Software

These kinds of programs allow one to read Chinese online by having an instant pop-up dictionary wherever you place your cursor. In other words, when you place your cursor over a character, the definition pops up in a window. This can make reading much faster. They are sometimes called text annotators.

The three main software programs for this are:

Wenlin (

Keytip (

Clavis Sinica (

All three of these are quite powerful and have very good dictionaries. They are also fairly expensive, but sometimes you get what you pay for. Free programs that do much the same thing are around, but have some limitations. They include, Dimsum (which can be found at, and the fairly new Google Chrome Zhongwen Pop up Chinese Dictionary. I have just recently started using the Chrome dictionary and it is pretty good. It allows you to have instant access to a Chinese dictionary when you are browsing a Chinese website. You can find it by going to the Chrome app store and searching for “zhongwen Chinese dictionary.” Firefox also has a free pop up dictionary as well. These free options do not have all the functions of the paid programs, but they are still pretty good. I personally use Wenlin in my own learning and teaching and the Chrome dictionary when I am browsing Chinese sites on the web.

Two Chinese sites that function more as translation tools are:

Chinese Dictionary Apps for your smartphone

The best that I have found and use all the time is called Pleco ( I would pay for the upgrade to be able to write characters with your finger for automatic look up. I’m amazed at how good this feature is, even if you have crummy penmanship.

Online Resources is a clearinghouse of information with links to sites that offer all levels of resources for speaking, listening, reading, writing, proununciation, and just about anything else related to learning Chinese. is a subscription based service that provides all levels of listening comprehension practice. I have known people that have used it and really like it. has more Chinese related resources than any site I know. You can find information on everything from Chinese dialects, schools that teach Chinese, Chinese linguistics, learning Chinese, and everything else. Highly recommended.

Popular online dictionaries can be found at:

These are just a few, but the better resources out there, that can assist you in your Chinese language studies. If you know of other good resources, send them along in the comments section.

Remember that learning a language like Chinese really is a life-long process. It is important that you know how to learn on your own and that you know how to use the resources effectively to continue your studies beyond the classroom.

In a later post I will discuss specific self study strategies, like how to effectively use a tutor.