06 September 2010

What not to do when in China

One of the perks of being a librarian is that one has an opportunity to peruse the new books that come into the library. Every morning, we spend time straightening up the new books and pulling off titles that need to be moved to the regular shelves. This can be looked on as either a blessing or a curse. On one hand--as many people who love books imagine working in a library or bookstore can be--it's a little like being a kid in a candy store.  On the other hand, if, like me, you are not a fast reader, such a wide and unending selection sometimes feels like a curse. It is the proverbial case of "too many books, too little time."

Recently, I was straightening in the 300s--the section of the Dewey decimal system that includes customs from around the world--and I came across a fascinating book called Going Dutch in Beijing: How to Behave Properly When Far Away From Home by Mark McCrum (Henry Holt, 2008). I immediately flipped to the index to see what was listed for China and found several entries. While perusing the pages over the next several days (OK, how long has it been since my last post? That long), I compiled an enlightening list of "dos and don'ts" for the trip.

For example, Mr. McCrum says that Westerners tend to find the Chinese interpretation of "personal space" to be quite different than our own.  He says to expect that Chinese may stand very close while talking, and may come right up to investigate someone who is, for instance, blonde, as my cousin and his wife discovered last year when their daughter was constantly approached and photographed by strangers while they were in China.

More don'ts: Don't make eye contact for too long when shaking hands--it's considered disrespectful.  Don't talk about Tibet, human rights, sex, religion, bureaucracy, or refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China or, God forbid, "Free China."

Don't give a clock as a gift. (Good gifts to give are a fine Cognac or a fancy pen.)  Don't lose your temper in public, which would be considered an embarrassing loss of face. More no-nos in the face-saving department : Acting confrontational, calling attention to someone's error, or bringing embarrassment upon oneself or others.

Don't rearrange the furniture or other items in a room--especially in southern China: You may be upsetting a carefully planned Feng Shui arrangement. Don't use green (unlucky) or blue (funereal) as backgrounds in a PowerPoint presentation (or, presumably, for other purposes). And try not to get sick in China. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is used widely, and the concoctions Mr. McCrum describes are decidedly unappealing (then again, isn't medicine supposed to be unappealing? Maybe I'll pack a few spoonfuls of sugar).

Now for some DOs: Do wear socks with sandals--bare feet are not acceptable. Do things in threes, sixes or eights (six and eight are lucky numbers), but not fours, which is considered unlucky. Do expect to haggle for things--the Chinese are all about finding the Tao--the way--between two sides.

If applauded, the appropriate response is to applaud in return. If you have a business card, keep it in a breast or hip pocket of a jacket--never in a pants pocket--and offer it (or accept someone else's) with both hands.

I learned two other interesting facts from perusing this book: Chinese names, as many westerners already know, are arranged in reverse of the western order: The surname comes first, and the given name last. The middle name is used to indicate the generation of the individual. Presumably, family members of the same generation in a family will have the same middle name.

Also, when Chinese women get married, they keep their maiden names. This answered the obvious question that arose about this photo of my grandfather's parents, which listed them as Yin-ching Chien and Van Hsien Mao.

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