9 Tips for Talking with Chinese

I would like to share some tips for more sensitive, comfortable conversation and deepening friendship with China internationals. These tips are the fruit of my own (sometimes painful and embarrassing) trial and error, shared wisdom, and advice from Chinese friends.[1] My experience has been mostly with PhD students and visiting scholars from China, as well as with university students and their families in China. These tips may not all apply to undergrad students or immigrants.

1. “Be careful when making an assertion about a person purely based on the fact he is Chinese.”

A friend of mine from China who works at Microsoft told me the above, so take my tips with a grain of salt!

I would like to share some tips for more sensitive, comfortable conversation and deepening friendship with China internationals.

In his example, someone may say, “You must be good at computer science because you are Chinese.” Though meant as a compliment, a better way to phrase this is: “I know there is a strong computer engineering culture in China. I’m guessing it’s likely you are skilled in this area.”

2. If you bring up a generalization about China, be humble and curious.

It is natural to want to start with something we know about China and build a bridge to closer relationship. China is large and diverse, and stereotypes are our beginning way to understand things. However, stereotypes can be hurtful. For example, when I lived in China, I often heard, “Americans are open,” which often meant, “I know modesty is not very important to Americans.” I resented being immediately associated with Britney Spears and MTV.

For example, you might say, “In the U.S. we often think _________ . I would love to hear whether that is true in your experience and in your province, or whether that is a mistaken stereotype.” Even if you are sure your stereotype is based on fact, at least somewhere in China, let your Chinese friend be the expert.

3. A simple list of topics better to avoid, unless the other person brings them up.

Before you jump in and try to debate, inform, or change someone’s opinion, think twice. Even if they arise naturally, these topics require a GREAT DEAL of sensitivity and trust, because they can be very personal and painful, let alone creating a huge rift between you and your friend:

  • Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen
  • The one-child policy
  • Abortion
  • Pollution, crowding and other challenges China faces
  • How much time students have to spend in school

Though it may not be obvious why these are personal topics, they truly are sometimes personal and painful. Chinese long to see their country flourish after a long period of struggle. My friends have parents and grandparents who went through famine, war, and other major traumatic events. While we in the West are sometimes intimidated by the recent growth and power of China, often Chinese friends do not know we feel this way and see their country as an “underdog” who was struggling and long looked down upon by the West. Though she has an incredibly rich 5,000-year history, China was oppressed and feels as if it is only now stepping into a new era of prosperity and renown. Bringing up these topics may feel like rubbing in the struggles. If you want to talk about China as a country, you might ask, “What are some major opportunities you see China has today, and what are some of challenges?”

Other topics for conversation if you’re not sure where to start:

  • Their experience in America so far
  • Activities or hobbies they enjoy
  • Their home province and what it is known for
  • Music, books, movies, food, culture
  • Do they consider themselves religious? (For the average Chinese international, this is a far less sensitive question than the above topics and is a topic more open for discussion than you will find among your American friends.)

Even if they arise naturally, these topics require a GREAT DEAL of sensitivity and trust, because they can be very personal and painful.

Questions and comments not to be surprised by:

I remember being surprised as a single woman teacher in China when a vegetable saleswomen asked, “Where are you from?” “How much do you make?” “How old are you?” and then, “Why aren’t you married?” Finally, I realized this was just customary small talk. They might sometimes throw in, “How much do you weigh?” or “You’ve gained/lost weight!” This is a cultural difference you can enjoy, or carefully let your friend know it makes you uncomfortable.


Never miss a story

Sign up to receive our weekly email with our original articles.

4. More tips from Chinese friends: “When the relationship becomes closer, don’t say so many polite words.”

Our tendency as Americans is to say “thank you,” even to family members, for something as trivial as passing the salt. However, in China, “thank you” is for those you don’t know well. Family and friends show their appreciation in actions rather than using “polite words.” This may feel awkward, but consider how it feels for your friend.

5. “Don’t fake smiles or emotions.”

Whereas Americans often feel pressure to smile and act positive to be polite, this can be seen as “fake” and unnecessary between friends.

6.“Ask for help sometimes. Asking for help shows trust.”

In Chinese society, friends and family depend on each other and are generally group-oriented. Treating someone to lunch can mean, “You can treat me next time,” and show a desire for continued friendship, whereas splitting the bill indicates distance. Though saying “thank you” can be formal and trivial, showing friendship through exchanging gifts, food, or in helpful acts of service is appropriate.

A common question from Chinese friends is, “Can you help me with English pronunciation?” I say yes whenever I can, even if I can’t do it as often as they hope, because it takes courage and vulnerability to ask for help and is often a sign of friendship. If I can’t, I explain why and try to help them find someone else.

7. Hospitality is taken to a whole new level in China.

In Chinese culture, if my friend is under my roof, in my car, or under my care in some way (for example, if I am the tour guide for the day), it is my responsibility to provide (or forcefully offer) everything he or she may need, from food and drink (to the degree of putting food on his or her plate) to an escorted or paid ride home; it is even my responsibility to make sure my guest has a toothbrush. If you ever experience this kind of hospitality in China, you will be blown away and possibly embarrassed at the times you have casually told your Chinese guest, “Help yourself.” While American hospitality has its own beauty, just remember it is quite different in China. Decide whether it may show love to do things more in the Chinese way for your friend.

In Chinese culture, if my friend is under my roof, in my car, or under my care in some way, it is my responsibility to provide everything he or she may need.

Here are a few simple tips to try hosting “the Chinese way.” When you invite someone to your home, provide slippers if possible, hot water to drink, or tea. Giving your guests a tour of your house helps them feel welcome. Show them to your sofa and invite them to relax. Rather than asking if they want a snack, prepare and offer it because they may say no just to be “polite.” (If it is a new food for them, let them know they don’t have to eat it if they are “full,” in case they don’t like it). On the other hand, they may already know and enjoy American-style hospitality, and want to help you cook or “help themselves.”

8. Become comfortable with more silence than is common with American friends.

A PhD exchange student at the University of Washington told me, “Don’t worry if we Chinese seem shy. It is usually because we are [operating] in a new language, not because we don’t want to participate.” It’s hard to be quick with replies in your second or third language, so ask a question and wait for a response, rather than continuing to talk.

9. I’m especially clueless when it comes to grief.

Often friends who are going through a hard time will not want to “inconvenience” me (and others) with their sadness, so they won’t tell me if something hard has happened (miscarriage, death in the family, depression, etc.). If your friend is going through a hard time, ask another Chinese friend how you can help, as it may be counter-intuitive to you and stressful to your friend when you offer your American style of help. For example, a friend of mine had a baby, and I wanted to organize a Meal Train, which is a normal American tradition. For her, however, this was a terrifying prospect, yet she felt hesitant to tell me. I asked her friend about it to see what she thought, and she said, “It is because in China the mom stays home with the baby for 40 days afterward, and they do not have visitors.” No wonder!

I am hoping by God’s grace to be a better friend, paying attention to the signs, and truly learning what it means to be “other-centered.” I hope these tips from my experiences can also help you in the process.

Heidi Ifland is on staff with China Outreach Ministries in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Covenant College in 2005 and subsequently taught English at a university in China.

[1]An Introduction to the Mainland Chinese Soul” is an excellent resource on this topic.

 

Pray for opportunities to engage in conversation and relationship with Chinese internationals living in your neighborhood or city.

Share This Story

Further Reading

shio-yang-g_C8w1QBca0-unsplash
Nanjing: Love Under Pressure
Read More
zhang-kaiyv-L9NHlk2CGOQ-unsplash
Why Should I Love My Enemies?: Give Up Revenge, Love Enemies
Read More
yifei-wong-HfLKjg2ic64-unsplash
Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
Read More

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

Videos

ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

Videos

Stories from Shenyang

About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

Videos

Stories from Qingdao

About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

Videos

Stories from Xiamen

About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Videos

Stories from Chongqing

About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

Videos

Stories from Nanjing

About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

Videos

Stories from Changchun

About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

Videos

Stories from Guangzhou

About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

Videos

Stories from Kunming

About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

Videos

Stories from Shenzhen

About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

Videos

Stories from Chengdu

About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

Videos

Stories from Beijing

About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

Videos

Stories from Shanghai

give

A short message about partnering with us.