Dos and Don’ts For Foriengers in China

My reader asked what is the dos and don’ts for foreigners (or America as he is) in China. Here is my answer:

@Pedro Godoi, don’t worry, just enjoy your trip and don’t care too much about the dos and don’ts. Just follow the common sense in America. Typically, people in China, and in Shanghai of cause, are very nice to foreigners, and they tolerate a lot if you cannot use chopstick, or don’t understand many local things. It is OK to be nature as in every where in the world. Most dos and don’ts here are the same as most places in the world.

If you do ask me for one don’ts, that is, don’t always think there is only one correct way to do things. Be open in mind and don’t be too quick to judge the country.

At a second thought, I may want to add the following dos and don’ts for my friends.


  • Do try new things in China. Many people come to see a world different from the world they live, so take the opportunity to try some new things, like walking out of the 5 star hotels to the street to learn what normal people do.
  • Do smile. People in China are generally very kind to visiting foreigners, so be kind to them.
  • Do make local friends. It is through friends that you understand the country better than wandering on the street. People in China love to make foreign friends, especially young people, since it is also a good opportunity for them to learn world outside, or at least learn English or other foreign language


  • Don’t think people staring at you as hostile. Most of the straight look is out of curiosity instead of discrimination, or hate. This is especially true in inner China where people don’t see many foreigners in their life before.
  • Don’t try to enforce your local rules. I saw foreigners yelling at local people claiming to send them to court, or get involved in argument based on the local rules, or laws. Show some respect, since there are other rules locally. Just try to understand it. If people cross the street at red light, give people time (in China, it means decades) instead of yelling at people.
  • Don’t misbehave. This is very general, but don’t misbehave just because you are out of your home country, and you don’t feel the pressure of laws. Or you may find many local people did something, like jaywalking, and you follow. Please don’t do it, since when you don’t know something (for example, you don’t know what is Qing Dynasty, or you don’t use chopstick), it is acceptable, and often welcomed. However, if you do some bad things that local people think is bad (no matter how many break the rule), they will think very badly of you (I do). Try to stay the bar high. I understand that China is still far from a modern country, even after a successful Olympic or enjoying high grow economy, but I don’t want to lower the standard I set for myself. Many local people do the same thing, that is the reason they don’t like people behave differently from the relatively higher standard in public places.

Anything you want to add?

11 thoughts on “Dos and Don’ts For Foriengers in China

  1. i totally agree with you, Mr wang

    this summer,i suddenly realized i should do a favor for our foreign friends,so i opened a sina blog,try to introduce in english.

    but it’s not detail.and most about my personal emotion.because i’m stil a college student in ningbo,no much experience,my major is tourism management

    whatever,i will try.try to introduce my experience about travelling in english.make it easy for our friends.thank for your blog.

  2. Why so much focus on jaywalking?

    I am foreigner, I personally never look if the light is red or green for pedestrian (whatever I am in China or aboard), but I look carefully of the cars, if I can cross without danger and without forcing car to slow down, then I cross. What is the point to wait??? And whatever in China even if it is red for pedestrian the car can still turn right, so it is not safe for pedestrian.

    Furthermore, when I walk I do not pollute the air, I do not make noise, I am already nice enough to let the way to the cars who make noise, pollute, can hurt people.

    But the problem is that many many local people just cross on red light without looking to the cars… When I am in a taxi and it happen, I most of the time say to the taxi driver for fun: “he tried to suicide, please do not help him”

  3. @Smith, where do you come from? I am just curious. Jaywalking has been a topic we discuss a lot of time on this blog. It is not something very special – it is just one of the typical examples (out of thousands of other examples) to illustrate the conflict of rules in this world.

    You are right. In some cities, or countries, traffic light is not that important. It is not completely a western vs eastern matter. It is more a big city vs small city, or city vs rural area problem. With so many cars in the city, they need to have traffic lights.

    For me, I think Shanghai needs to enforce traffic rules, and many of my friends from US think so, although I do have friends with different opinions. My way of thinking about it is, it is fine to believe in whatever you believe, but give other people a break and give them time to change (or for yourself to change) to get a common practices.

  4. Do try the local restaurant food. Don’t just keep looking for McD.

    Do try out your bargaining skill in some local shops or market. I know it is not a common practice in a lot of western countries.

  5. Hello Jian Shuo Wang!

    I am from French, living in China since years.

    For me, the goal of pedestrian light is to avoid accident, to increase security… Thus if there is no car, the security goal is achieve… thus why wait for nothing?

    I will be a little rude: I think there is three kind of people: the one who do not think do not look and just cross (the suicide type), the one who apply stricly the jaywalking rules (who think himself has civilized but do not think much, just obey), the smart one (me of course >_<)

    For me be civilized is not respect stricly pedestrian traffic rules, but a way of behaving with other people (beeing nice with people around you, even the people who low rank job), do not destroy your environment, and think to not disturb other people. So to make it short: “Beeing civilized is take into account that you are not alone, and that others deserve your respect”

    I think that many chinese are focus on “beeing Civilized, romantic, and open minded is good” but very few understand the meaning of these words and most of them just apply cliche they have been told or see in stupid TV serie.




  6. I’ve lived in Shanghai for seven “Chinese” years. I’m sorry to disagree with the bloggers comments above. I do not find the citizens of Shanghai to be at all friendly to foreigners. For the first few years living here, I was subjected to all kinds of abuse and mistreatment, and was cheated by Chinese folks on a daily basis. I am still occasionally charged double for riding the bus. I have been spat on 21 times. My camera was stolen from my bag in broad daylight while perhaps a hundred Shanghainese watched with indifference. I am riding my fourth bicycle (I possessed my third bike for less than 24 hours!) now. Oh, yes…there are many new buildings and the metro system gets more extensive as time goes by, but I’ve not seen much difference in the behavior of Shanghai residents. They still spit, piss and–yes–shit in the streets. They still displace two seats on the metro with their shopping bags and purses whilst the elderly and infirm struggle to stay on their feet. Street and metro maps still have no pinyin (much less English captions), and–ironically–are not oriented with NORTH at the top, as is done everywhere else in the world. I avoid the Century Avenue metro station if possible because I can never find my way out of it. The information posted at bus stops faces the sidewalk, not the street, so I must alight from the bus to get any information regarding transfers (I used to be able to see the bus numbers on the signs from inside the bus). If there is an impractical way to do something, Chinese folks will proudly claim to have devised it, and will stick to the so-called “tradition” like glutinous rice to a silk tie. I often hear folks explain that “China is a developing country,” but I find that this merely deflects attention from the apparent fact that the Chinese PEOPLE are not “developing” themselves. Shanghai changes daily; the Shanghainese will die before they change. In spite of all the modern developments in infrastructure, the folks I encounter daily remain backward and narrowminded in their view of anyone who is not like them. Whenever I tried to speak Chinese, folks laughed at me, then, ignored me. I gave up trying years ago. I have actually been kicked out of taxis (four times–the first time was on a rainy Christmas Day in 2003) because I could not speak Chinese perfectly. Because of smokers, I cannot even enter a Shanghai restaurant, much less enjoy a meal indoors. I would like to travel and see in person the places I see on television, but I cannot ride a train or bus or even take a taxi because of smokers. I used to go to the Children’s Hospital to distribute candy and toys on Christmas Day…until a nurse complained that I had not filled out the required forms for permission. Most Chinese folks I meet think I am lying about my experiences here because they base their concept of foreigners on what they see on television or read in the newspapers. Attempting to “Do as the Romans do,” is pointless here: I will always be a stupid, unwelcome foreigner in this land, in spite of my valiant efforts. Let me correct this mistaken view: Not every foreigner has a wonderful time in China. My experience has been quite the opposite, and it is not at all unique.

  7. Hello resident foreigner,

    having lived in Shanghai for three years now, I can just fully agree with your thoughts. I found a way to live with this by watching people and do it their way:

    1) Accept the fact that you are “Non-Shanghainese”. Shanghai people will always treat outsiders differently, altough beeing a foreigner gives you some bonus points.

    2) Expect to be cheated. Everywhere, by everyone, always.

    3) Double check everything.

    4) Complain. A lot. Best in Chinese, even if just with some broken words.

    5) Your bad Chinese will always hurt the local’s feelings. Don’t care. Pretend to be from Greece and that you can not speak English.

    Accepting these things, relax, and realize that you can not change them is probably the best way to manage to get a sort of a life here.

    It isn’t to bad tough, specially the complaining thing can be a lot of fun and definitively helps improving your language skills.

  8. Okay, there are definitely two very different opinions towards living in shanghai!

    I’m gonna go there in about 3weeks planning to stay for a few years.

    A lot of Americans/Europeans claim that it’s hardly possible to make friends with the locals, mostly they stay with their kind as well as the chinese do. Is that true? Any expat here who made some close friends with chinese people?

    How do you get along on the streets and restaurants if you don’t speak chinese? I heard you wil be kind of lost speaking english only?!

    As in any big city in the world I can’t believe the shanghainese to be THAT nice and kind as some people posted here…I think there will be a lot of rushing and shoving, egoistical behaviour and of course stealing or “betrayal” in the streets?! Being someones guest, having dinner with some people you know etc. I bet the chinese are wonderful hosts and very nice people – so probably there is always a good and a bad side to everything, it depends on where you set your point of view. As far as I am concerned: I’m really looking forward to go there, but I’m also preparing for the first big shock and probably a few smaller ones following;)

    On the other hand I will learn new stuff, experience something I would not be able to on this western side of the gobe.

  9. @Das, with 1000 people coming to Shanghai, there will be 2000 different opinions (with everyone has at least two opinions depending on how long he/she stays).

    Regarding the claim that it is hardly possible to make friends with the locals, I believe it depends on the person, not the environment. People tend to stay in their comfort zones. Chinese people migrating to US tend to stay in China town for their whole lives. It is the same to expats in Shanghai – they stay in international communities like Gubei or Biyun. Fortunately, there are great places designed to expats, so they can be very comfortable living in the similar world, but… losing a chance to mix into the local community.

    Regarding the behavior of Shanghainese, well, you can get some first hand experience from your first few weeks in Shanghai and please share with us later.

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