Chinese characters for "thank you"

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Adjusting – Politeness

So I decided to update the blog, imagine that! Sorry everyone. I am terrible at time management. This blog will talk about the cultural differences in living in China (for this particular American couple at least). As with most blogs this is our experience and wont be the same for everyone. I will try to point out the differences or difficulties that seem to be ubiquitous for a foreigner living in China.


Typically, most people are not surprised when they hear someone talk about culture shock. Culture shock is the term used to concisely describe the process, sometimes more difficult the expected, of adjusting to a new culture. However, much to most people’s chagrin you can have a bit of culture shock when moving home after a long period of living abroad—albeit it not as strong as culture going from one’s known culture to a new culture.


Micah and I recently moved back to the United States after living in China for 3.5 years. While the adjustment to living in China was not easy, we have had a few hiccups in adjusting back to life in America (and similar hiccups in adjusting to the Chinese culture).



Chinese characters for "thank you"
Chinese characters for “thank you”

After moving to China it was pretty common to run into the foreigner that was always angry because of the “rude” Chinese that they met all the time. Then you would run into others that just think that Chinese are the politest group of people. There is still the third group that is half-way between. The key difference here is how well you integrate into the culture and how deeply you try to understand the Chinese culture.


A wonderful example comes from the time right after we moved to Shenzhen, China and developed friends who helped us out sometimes. We would often tell them “thank you” or try to compensate them if they had to buy something for us. Their responses were often confused or slightly annoyed. Though their reactions were never big enough to question, until later one of the women asked us why were always thanking them and tentatively asked if we didn’t like them. Of course I immediately said that we both liked them a great deal and have enjoyed their friendship. After an awkward conversation and mentally putting things together we figured out that the Chinese express gratefulness in a much different way, than the Western practice of verbal acknowledgement. Our friends explained that they would often not verbally acknowledge an action because it is a mark of being friends or family, but would look for opportunities to return the action or help. After they told us that than we were able to explain that in the West it is common practice to verbal express gratitude even to our spouses or parents. In fact, Micah explained that he and I say thank you to each other daily for one thing or another.


In our conversations with our friends where we all asked various questions about politeness we discovered that the Chinese take actions or favors are acts of love and do not need verbal acknowledgement for friends. (Which made sense of a young woman in Guilin who would scrunch her brow and tell “We are friends, no need to say thank you.”) Further, in some social circles saying “thank you” and “please” can be received as putting up a distance between you and the Chinese person with the connotation of not being friends but only formal acquaintances.


We could never get out of the habit of saying please and thank you, despite trying. However, we were able to continue reminding our Chinese friends that it was something we did even for people we are very close to.

Other issues of politeness that one might often meet is about personal space and queuing up. Much of the cities in China are often crowded and as such there is not as much consideration for personal space as in the West, particularly Oklahoma. We will try to grant people a respectful distance in public (ie malls) or when queuing unless there is something preventing that. And when lining up for something, like at a checkout, we respect the order of the line with space between people. In China however, it is almost comical how this is different. I do not mean “comical” in a disrespectful way, but simply laughing at how we quickly learned to cut space between us and the person in front of us to prevent others from squeezing in and not minding when we are bumped into when on the subway or a busy stretch of sidewalk. At these times you don’t often hear anyone apologize or ask to step into the line because it is a part of the culture that these things happen. It is understood that you will be bumped into and unless it is a big bump or it causes you to drop something or stumble then it does not require acknowledgement. A Chinese friend who had traveled in America joked about how if it was part of the culture then they wouldn’t get anything done all day except apologizing. Of course she was joking but it still illustrates the point that bumps happen daily in cities and not to worry about it.


So I hope this drives in my point that if we always interpret a person’s actions from our cultural filter than we might always perceive the lack of a ‘thank you’ or lack of acknowledging them bumping into us as rude. Where as in a more cultural informed filter we can see where a Chinese friend might see us as a friend.


Now there are always going to be times when things are going to rub you the wrong way. One such example is when we would queue up to wait for the subway to arrive and someone pushes people aside roughly to get in first. That is rude of course.


TO be honest my best advice, if you travel or move abroad, is to ask a lot of questions and really observe the people around you. How do people interact at your job? How do friends at a meal interact or react when someone hands them something they wanted? Knowledge can go a LONG way to soothing nerves and small social bumps.


Please let me know if you have any questions about this or related topics and please let me know about things you are curious about. :)


Maybe the road rise to meet you.



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