Living in China as an expat for as long as I have, there are many peculiar things that I have learned about this country and its people. If you have ever been interested in moving to China, it might be useful to know some of these things before coming. And if you are already living in China, some of the aspects that I mention here might help you better understand the Chinese culture and know how to respond to it.

It is a sign of disrespect to stick your chopsticks directly into your rice

While it may seem convenient to put your chopsticks directly into your rice when you want to put them down, it is not recommended. When chopsticks are placed like this, they represent incense sticks used to pray for the dead. What is worse, is you are sitting directly across from someone and you do this, it can be taken as a sign that you are wishing death onto that person. So, when you want to put your chopsticks down when eating a meal, make sure you put them beside your rice rather than directly in it.

When going out for a group meal, one person will pay for the whole thing

Generally speaking, when I go out for a meal with my foreign friends in China, at the end of the meal we will split the bill evenly. Very rarely does someone outright pay for the meal, and usually, that is only because they lost a bet or were feeling particularly generous that day.  Conversely, when I go out for a meal with my Chinese friends, I am always the first one to stand up when the bill comes, insisting that I am the one who pays.

If you are confused, let me explain: it is not that I like my Chinese friends more than my foreign friends (I swear!). It is all to do with something called “Face”. “Face” is a big deal in China and governs a lot of social interactions. To put it simply, “Face” is how much other people respect you. When you gain Face, people respect you more. When you lose Face, people will lose respect for you. Paying for meals is just one of many ways one can gain Face, which is the reason why you rarely see people in China split a cheque. Occasionally, people will often fight to be the first person to pay for the bill. It can be a funny sight, seeing people argue who gets to pay for the meal rather than people argue over who has to pay.

That being said, this is not something you have to worry about 90% of the time. Only if you are in a relationship with a Chinese person or doing lots of business would you really need to worry about this. The vast majority of the time, going out for meals with friends in China is the same as in the west.

Hongbaos are often given in lieu of presents for special occasions, but you have to earn them!

A hongbao (or “red packet”) is a little red envelope filled with money that Chinese people will give to one another on special occasions. While the act of gift-giving is not a foreign concept to Chinese people, it is usually much more common to give a hongbao with money instead. When receiving a hongbao, people will often “fight” to not be given the money. This is not because they do not want it. Far from it! But Chinese people generally like a bit of a “show” when giving a hongbao. You can see various examples of this online on the Chinese internet.

It is customary to bring gifts when visiting someone’s house

I’ve noticed that Chinese people love to give gifts to express their affection or good attitude to a person. Sometimes there is no obvious reason for gift-giving, but it is done to build a rapport with somebody. When it comes to visiting someone’s place, it is customary to bring a gift to the host. It could be any gift, but usually, people opt for some food and drink. You can bring pretty much anything from a small basket of fruit to a box of milk, to some meat snacks. Just make sure you do not come to someone’s house empty-handed, especially if it is the first time you are visiting them. Not bringing a gift can be regarded as “losing Face”.


And that’s it for now! There are many more differences but these are some of the most obvious ones that you would notice in any city and province in China. Anything here you did not know about China? Anything you would like to know? Feel free to let us know!


By Connor Ferguson