9 Tips for Talking with Chinese

Editor’s note: The school year often brings international Chinese travelers and students to the U.S., Australia, Singapore, and other places all around the world. How can you best care for and befriend these Chinese internationals in your community? There’s no need to be intimidated. We’ve gathered together several articles from over the years that offer invaluable tips for anyone who wants to welcome Chinese internationals into their lives and homes.

This article was originally published in 2015, and has been slightly edited.


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?”

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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.

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.

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