Embracing the Quirks of Chinese Culture as an English Teacher

Rachel Weiss
Rachel Weiss

I’m an American living and teaching English in China. I taught for two years at a university in Hengyang, a small city in the Hunan province where the food is spicy and weather changes every hour. Now I’m teaching at a kindergarten in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China.

 / May 27, 2018



When you first move to China, you'll encounter a number of habits and customs that seem really strange at first. After living here a few years, these Chinese oddities have somehow become (almost) normal to me, and I've even adopted some of them!


Here's a look at some cultural quirks in China that will have you scratching your head.


Drinking Hot Water All Year Round


In China, drinking boiled water is not only a way to stay safe from bacteria in unfiltered water, it is also an integral part of Chinese culture. Chinese people will drink hot water all year round (even in the summer) because they believe it is good for food digestion and overall health. Whenever I have a problem of any kind my Chinese friends always tell me, “Drink more hot water!” 


When I first moved to China I would bring cold water everywhere because restaurants only offered hot water or tea. After months of eating at Chinese restaurants and being invited to my student's houses where only hot water was available, I became more accustomed to hot water and don’t mind it now.




Drying Clothes


Chinese people don't have clothes dryers – they hang everything up to dry! This isn't really a problem in the summer when it's very hot and things dry quickly. In rainy and cold weather, however, you have to be clever in planning your laundry schedule ahead of time.


Chinese People's Bluntness


On the first day of school, one of my university students introduced herself to the class: "Hi, my name is Mary, but my friends call me Fatty." I was shocked – she wasn't fat, and I couldn't believe she would tell everyone in the class something like that! 


Chinese people are very straightforward and blunt when commenting on physical appearance. It's very normal to hear conversations pointing out weight gains, big noses, and other beauty features. They are also not shy to ask about how much money you make, why you aren't married, and when you will have a baby.


Squatty Potties are Normal


The rumors about squattys in China are true – if you’re at a train station, a restaurant, a Chinese friend’s house, or any other public place in China, this is the usual toilet you’ll find. You’ll quickly become adept at using these (either by choice or necessity). 


You will also want to carry toilet paper with you everywhere because you won't find any in public bathrooms (unless you're at a Starbucks or a nicer restaurant). This will become second nature after a while. Before I leave my apartment, I always run a mental checklist – phone, keys, tissue paper. 


Get a tour of an actual Chinese public bathroom HERE



Chopstick Etiquette is China


To be honest, I was terrible with chopsticks before I came to China. I figured it out quickly though and felt pretty good when I could eat at the same speed as my friends – Chinese people can eat really fast! I soon learned food culture is very important in China and there are many rules involved when eating with chopsticks. Don't stick the chopsticks straight up in your rice. Don't point your chopsticks at someone else at the table. Don’t hit the side of your bowl with your chopsticks or make a lot of noise with them. The list goes on.




No Personal Space


There are more than a billion people in China, and naturally this makes things a bit crowded. When you’re riding a bus, you'll be jostled and pushed around. When you’re crammed like a sardine on a metro and you think there can’t possibly be any more room, just wait – a few more people will squeeze in. You have no personal space and you have to be assertive to keep the little space you do have.




I realized I had picked up some Chinese public transportation mannerisms when I traveled outside China and took the metro in Tokyo. I was ready to push onto the metro but had to stop myself when I saw everyone else was politely lined up and waiting patiently. Whoops.


Haggling at Shops

In America you would not dream of telling a store, “Sorry, that is too expensive! How about half the price?” But in China, this is very normal! Bartering is a big part of the Chinese culture. From buying fruit and meat at outdoor markets to selecting clothes and goods at bazaars, you have to become adept at haggling or pay much more expensive prices. 


I was a little intimidated by this process when I first came to China because I didn’t know what a fair price to pay was. After living here awhile, though, I came to really enjoy it! One of the difficult things about being a foreigner, however, is that sometimes no matter how good your bartering skills are, you will still be charged a higher price than the local people. 


See some of the haggling tricks to Chinese Markets HERE


Walking Backwards


Early in the morning you can spot elderly Chinese people in parks practicing tai chi, exercising on playground equipment…and walking backwards while clapping their hands. While that last one may seem a little unusual, this is a normal habit for Chinese people because it is said to promote healthy blood circulation. Give it a try! 




Don't Worry...You'll Get Used to It!


Some of these Chinese quirks are easy to adjust to while others may take a little more time. Don’t worry though, you’ll get used to them. Drink some hot water and you’ll be just fine.


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Rachel Weiss

I’m an American living and teaching English in China. I taught for two years at a university in Hengyang, a small city in the Hunan province where the food is spicy and weather changes every hour. Now I’m teaching at a kindergarten in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China.