Henriette Els moved to Beijing in September 2008. So far, so splendid, save perhaps the spitting and staring…

Spitting image

Man, woman and child indulge in this national pastime. Don’t worry; people won’t spit directly at you. They generally aim for the ground and, geography permitting, somewhere out of the way. This is the polite way of doing it and generally reduces the chances of your compatriots slipping and falling on your spittle. Your foreign ears will take some time getting used to the hacking sound that accompanies the act, but eventually you develop a deaf spot.

Queue? What queue?

It is completely acceptable to push in. If there’s a queue one should see it as a vague guideline of who came first. Pushing and shoving is fine if you’re getting onto the subway. Slipping into a line in front of people is tacitly encouraged and you’ll mostly get away with it. In more gentile places, such as major mobile shops and travel agents, there’s likely to be a ticketing system which allows you to take a ticket as soon as you come through the door and allows you to sit around staring at everybody until your number is called.

Here’s looking at you

Your mother might have told you that it’s not polite to stare. Clearly, your mother did not grow up in China. In China it’s the done thing. You can stare all you like. Go right ahead. Look. Nobody cares that you’re looking. And if you’re a foreigner, people are bound to stare, or at the very least notice that you’re not a local.


Patience, my friend

Visiting anybody’s office or shop will probably result in a lengthier than expected visit. You’ll be asked to sit – if you stand around it makes people nervous and it looks like you’re in a hurry. Bad idea. You will be offered green tea or hot water to drink. There’s no point in refusing to sit or to reject the water/tea. If you refuse you will be asked again, and again, until you are ground into submission. Then they will call somebody who can speak English. The phone will then be handed to you and the person will ask you to please wait a while until they get there. No need to get excited. Enjoy the tea and relax cause you ain’t going anywhere fast.

Snap happy

The Chinese LOVE taking photos of everything, but mostly of people posing in front of what seems like completely inane objects giving the V peace sign. If you’re blond and blue-eyed you may even be asked to join in the photo op. Be gracious about it – most city dwellers are rather passé about Westerners these days so it’s happening less and less. At the end of your holiday there may be pictures of you in several photo albums around China – so work it baby and give it your best pout.

Say what?

Mandarin is not that difficult a language to master, but the dialects are so different that what you’ll hear in the South is completely different from what you’ll hear in the North. “Nihao” is pretty universal and learn to say “thank you” in the regional dialect – that should get you a smile or two. Always carry your address printed out in Chinese characters where ever you go – that way the taxi driver will be able to figure out where you’re staying because he won’t understand you even if you say it really s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully in English.

Henriette Els




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