I’ve had many a conversation with people about the pros and cons of growing up in different cities, among different cultures. I was born in Liberia and went on to live in the UK, Nigeria, India, Ireland, Hong Kong and Taipei. I loved it and wouldn’t change it for anything. My experiences have exposed me to so many different cultures, people and ways of living.
One thing I have learnt is how important it is to be sensitive to the local way of life when you’re living there. What’s considered rude in one culture may be completely acceptable in another. Things we take for granted in the West are a complete novelty in the East. Having spent 5 1/2 years living between Hong Kong and Taipei, here’s a quick list of the do’s and don’ts in the Chinese culture.
- Gift giving – Handkerchiefs, clocks and white flowers all symbolise death or a parting…do not give these as gifts. In fact giving someone a clock as a gift is like wishing death upon them. No shoes as presents. I once bought a friend a pair of shoes she’d asked for and didn’t want to take the money from her. She insisted so it wouldn’t feel like a gift.
- Eating – When dining out in Asia, they prefer family style eating. Lots of dishes are ordered and everyone on the table shares them. If you’re hosting a dinner, you’re expected to insist your guests (especially the elderly) get served first. Chopsticks should never point towards anyone on the table.
- Shoes in the home – Outdoor shoes are not worn in the home. In Taipei, it’s not uncommon to see shoe cupboards outside people’s front doors so the shoes don’t even cross the threshold.
- During Chinese New Year, the custom is to give “laisee” (red envelopes with money) to family, friends and members of staff. When giving Laisee, it should be an even number, a new/crisp note and nothing to do with the number 4 (which is considered unlucky). Number 8 is considered very lucky as it signifies infinity.
- Visiting friends/family – Never go empty handed to someone’s home. This is sort of a rule in my Indian culture as well. Of course it depends on your relationship with the person but you’d never go empty handed to someone’s home, especially if it’s your first time.
- Business – When handing over business cards, the chinese will *always* hand it over using two hands, often with a slight bow of their heads.
- Paying a bill – This is common in my culture as well. Arguing over who pays the bill. You see it a lot between friends at restaurants. However, between families, in the Chinese culture, the youth always pay. Where I come from, the elders usually pay.
- Weight – The Chinese (although I think it’s an all over Asian thing) have no qualms about telling you how much weight you’ve put on or how much weight you’ve lost. Every time I flew to Taipei, the cleaner there would make a comment about my weight. In one ear and out the other is the only way to handle this.
Have you come across any other cultural differences I’ve missed out? I’d love to hear your experiences while travelling/living abroad.