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FACTS FOR THE VISITOR

CULTURAL HINTS


Some of the culture shock which afflicts foreign visitors to China comes from false expectations, engendered through travel in other parts of Asia . The Chinese are not a "mellow" people. Profoundly irreligious, they are neither particularly spiritual nor gentle, nor are they deferential to strangers. However, many of the irritations experienced by foreigners - the sniggers and the unhelpful service - can almost invariably be put down to nervousness and the formidable language barrier, rather than hostility. But however abused you may feel, remember that foreigners are still treated far better in China than are the Chinese themselves.

Communication between foreigners and locals is never a problem once you get beyond the language barrier. Visitors who speak Chinese will encounter an endless series of delighted and amazed interlocutors wherever they go, invariably asking about their age and marital status before anything else. Even if you don't speak Chinese, you will regularly run into locals eager to practice their English. If such encounters lead to an invitation to someone's home, a gift might well be expected, though people will not open it in front of you, nor will they express profuse gratitude for it. The Chinese way to express gratitude is through reciprocal actions rather than words. Indeed, elaborate protestations of thanks can be taken as an attempt to avoid obligation. If you are lucky enough to avoid asked out to a restaurant, you will discov­er that restaurant bills are not shared out between the guests but instead people will go to great lengths to claim the honour of paying the whole bill by themselves. Normally that honour will fall to the person perceived as the most senior, and as a foreigner dining with Chinese you should make some effort to slake your claim, though it is probable that someone else will grab the bill before you do. Attempting to pay a share" of the bill may cause serious embarrassment.

Another factor that foreign tourists need to note is that the Chinese have almost no concept of privacy, People will stare at each other from point-blank range and pluck letters or books out of others' hands for close inspection, Even toilets are built with parti­tions so low that you can chat with your neighbor while squatting. All leisure activi­ties including visits to natural beauty spots or holy relics are done in large noisy groups and the desire of some Western tourists to be "left alone is variously interpreted by locals as eccentric, arrogant or even sinister.

With privacy an almost unknown luxury, exotic foreigners inevitably become targets for blatant curiosity. People stare and point, voices on the street shout out "hellooo" twenty times a day, or - in rural areas - people even run up and jostle for a better look, exclaiming loudly to each other laowai, laowai("foreigner"). This is not intended to be aggressive or insulting, though the culmi­native effects of such treatment can be very alienating. One way to render yourself human again is to address the onlookers in Chinese, if you can. Otherwise, perhaps you should just be grateful that people are showing an interest in you.

Various other forms of behavior perceived Is antisocial in the West are considered perfectly normal in China . Take the widespread habit of spitting, for example, which can be observed in buses, trains, restaurants and even inside people's homes. Outside the company of urban sophisticates, it would not occur to people that there was anything disrespectful in delivering a powerful spit while in conversation with a stranger.

Smoking, likewise, is almost universal among men and any attempt to stop others from lighting up is met with incomprehen­sion. As in many countries, handing out cig­arettes is a basic way of establishing good­will and non-smokers should be apologetic about turning down offered cigarettes.

Although China would not normally be described as a liberal country, these days restraints on public behavior are disappear­ing remarkably fast Skimpy clothing in sum­mer is quite normal in all urban areas, particu­larly among women (less so in the country­side), and even in potentially sensitive Muslim areas, such as the far west, many Han Chinese girls insist on wearing miniskirts and see-through blouses. Although Chinese men commonly wear short trousers and expose their midriffs in hot weather, Western men who do the same should note that the bizarre sight of hairy flesh in public - chest or legs - will instantly become the focus of giggly gossip. The generally relaxed approach to clothing applies equally when visiting temples, though in mosques men and women alike should cover their bodies above the wrists and ankles. As for beachwear, bikinis and briefs are in, but nudity has yet to make its debut.

Skimpy clothing is one thing, but scruffy clothing is quite another. If you want to earn the respect of the Chinese - useful for things like getting served in a restaurant or check­ing into a hotel - you need to make some effort with your appearance. While the aver­age Chinese peasant might reasonably be expected to have wild hair and wear dirty clothes, for a rich foreigner to do so is likely to arouse a degree of contempt. Another good way to ease your progress is to have a name or business card to flash around - even better if you can include your name in Chinese characters on it. Shaking hands is not a Chinese tradition, though it is now fairly common between men. Bodily contact in the form of embraces or back-slapping can be observed between same-sex friends, and these days, in cities, a boy and a girl can walk round arm-in-arm and even kiss without raising an eyebrow.

Voice level in China seems to be pitched several decibels louder than in most other countries, though this should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of belligerence.

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