Living in China: The Rules

The shock that arises from moving to a new country comes in many forms: attempting to understanding its people, getting accustomed to its building and amenities, accepting the environmental quality, and embracing its food, traditions, and habits. Some of the early shockers wear off quickly and soon you don’t even notice the motorcycles driving on the sidewalks or the necessity to carry your own tissue at all times to serve as napkins and toilet paper.


In China where the culture is "community" living and a "one unit" mindset, I was surprised at what I perceived as a very individual way to interact. Instead, I have learned that because the are so used to being around so many people all the time, they are very capable of making their own space and their own way among multitudes around them.


So with this behavior, I have noted several laws and also some simple habits that we consider "courtesies" that are in opposition of the standard daily conduct I experience among Chinese people.    


The law says red means stop, green means go. Yes, even in China, this is the law. But the people still follow a "green means go, yellow means go, and yes, red means go" practice. All vehicles, all the time. In our town this year, they doubled the fine for running a yellow or red light and I have seen some improvement, but really only with "professional" vehicles like taxis and buses. Even these vehicles find loopholes like going straight on green and then veering left across the intersection where the left arrow was red. As a result, be careful when attempting to follow the "green means go" rule, especially in the crosswalks!


The law says there are posted speed limits to be followed. There are even video cameras in place to "catch" offenders and send them a ticket in the mail. Easy enough to get around, however. Just pull over to the side of the interstate before you start your long road trip and put duct tape over your plate. All is well, you can go as fast as you want, and they won't know where to send the ticket! :)


The law says there is no smoking inside buildings. Yes, even in China, this is the law. But no one cares. Anywhere, everywhere, all the time without regard for others. Bus drivers (while driving) are the worst offenders.


SideWALKS are for pedestrians. Not in China, they aren't! When the sidewalks in China aren't filled with illegal weekend street vendors, any and all traffic use this "lane" for parking and driving.


These rules are just the tip of the iceberg. It is easy during the first few weeks or months in China to get frustrated with some general conduct that we would consider unacceptable, rude, disgusting, or otherwise improper. Some people allow these culture shocks to taint their entire China experience, never embracing a new way of life or at least letting go of the control that you could never hope to possess over everyday circumstances. I am myself am person who likes to control my environment and surroundings but, in order to maintain my own sanity, I "let go" of my expectations of general societal conduct early on, now just taking it in with a giggle and a "shake my head" gesture.  So what am I talking about that is so different?


Things we think are general conduct rules and common courtesies:


When waiting to get on a bus, enter a movie theater, or be serviced in any place of business, you should form a line behind the person in front of you, right? Not unless you never want to find a seat or actually accomplish the task you came for.




When waiting for a bus, you crowd to the door as soon as it arrives, pushing and shoving Grandma and everyone. If not, Grandma will be the one to put you on your butt and take your spot. Also, when that bus arrives and the entrance is crowded beyond your liking, cut in the back of the bus and then ask those same people you cut in front of to pass up your fare and drop it in the box.


When you enter a business, immediately walk  to the counter, state your business, and hand your papers to the clerk. I can't quite go this far, so I make my son stand defense and ward off any "cheaters" who try to cut in front of me. My other "trick" for this is to go to the line where they are no people, often a VIP or special service counter. I don't "know better" since I can't read or speak Chinese, so they usually help me right away!


Don’t point or stare.  Not only do Chinese not follow this rule, they do it in closer proximity than any other culture I have ever experienced. My son and I have eaten more than one meal with a waitress standing over us and watching us eat the whole time.  


Follow posted signage and implied barriers in public places or businesses. Signs and barriers tell or imply things like: "No smoking", "Stay  off the grass", "No cutting in line", "Don't touch the exhibits." I'm not exactly sure why this one is so rampant, but instead of discouraging the posted prohibition, the signs seem to be an open invitation to do exactly what it says not to do. My most recent experience was at an orchid show I attended in Sanya. There were beautiful exhibits with live grass, elaborate statues, and exotic and rare orchids displayed in awesome and artistic scenes. Each exhibit had a small, low picket fence around it in addition to a rope barricade in front of that. In front of almost every exhibit, people were ducking under the rope to get closer to the exhibit for photos. I was pushed over in disbelief, however, when I watched people climbing INTO the exhibits for pictures. A show employee even came along and asked them to come out, and then did, but only after they finished their photo session.  


culture shock in China


culture shock in China


Don't touch a stranger's baby. The Chinese are obsessed with babies and simply adore any "xiao har" that enters their path. It is simply an irresistible temptation and they will often make it a point to step in front of you to block your path, speak to your baby, try to touch her, and often offer her food.


Put your trash in a receptacle. There are lots of public trashcans on the streets, so littering is one behavior that "irks" me more than others. The most surprising display of littering is when a business owner take his full trash can into the street and dumps it. Wow, no words. We have litterers in America, too, but they tend to try to be sneaky and make sure no one sees their misbehavior. But here, no one notices or seems to realize it is "unacceptable." My son LOVES to rush over to pick up trash and make a scene of putting it into the receptacle while a recent offender is still close-by and watching.


I think my time in China has grown me as a person when it comes to acceptance and releasing control. Living in China has forced me to let go and let live. China is very different from what I am used to, but I have grown to love China and the people. Most of these cultural nuances really do just make me laugh now! They mean no harm and aren't trying to be offensive.


P.S. My "alternative actions" are meant to be humorous and not written to say we should drop all of our western courtesies.  Then again, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, right?



Joslynn is the China Editor for Wandering Educators.  Her husband has dubbed her "former Marine and roller derby queen" - two descriptors that represent her hardcore nature and adventurous spirit.  Joslynn currently lives in China with her 13-year old son and 2-year old foster daughter on what started as a year's adventure while her husband is working in Afghanistan.  She is an English teacher at a college in Guangdong Province and spends her free time traveling, writing, and visiting a special group of local orphans ( 

Joslynn recently completed her Master's degree in Community Economic
Development and hopes to return to the United States this fall to begin her PhD.  You can read about more of her experiences at   


Photos courtesy and copyright Joslynn J. McLaughlin





Comments (2)

  • Cat Gaa

    5 years 1 month ago

    I spent two weeks in China, and never before has my culture shock been so acute! From the strange creatures I consumed to the traffic laws to people taking pictures, posing next to me. What a bizarre and interesting place!

  • Terry at Overni...

    5 years 1 month ago

    What fascinating observations -- especially the part about touching -- and even offering food to -- a stranger's baby.

Leave a comment