How “Chinese” Should You Act in China?

mp1538457_1423329768198_2Living and working in China can be a rewarding experience for some and a trying ordeal for others. What “makes or breaks” Western visitors to China is often their ability, or lack thereof, to adapt to Chinese culture and society. This usually involves learning some Chinese, adapting to Chinese communication styles, learning about local working environments and giving up (i.e. not being able to fully follow) some of the customs, habits, or norms of their home country. And while this process is both natural and necessary, it is by no means simple. After all, when living in China, exactly how much should you adapt, and how much of your old culture should you be prepared to give up?

This is a contentious issue, and I have seen it debated on many social media platforms (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Quora). Both sides have strong proponents, each with their own ideas on the best ways to “survive” in China and the most effective ways to interact with the local Chinese. While I have an obvious preference for localization and adaptation, I’d like to briefly share my thoughts on both sides of the argument, as well as how to quickly, healthily, and effectively adapt to life and work in China. Broadly speaking, there are two main camps: those that want to live a more Western (or non-Chinese) lifestyle, and those that are favor of doing things the Chinese way.

The International Expat

To some extent, the international expat (or expatriate) could be considered a holdover from a bygone era when international business and economics was clearly led by Western countries (e.g. the USA, UK, Germany, etc.) and China was still an underdeveloped country. In the 1970’s and 80’s when Western companies began expanding into China, it was natural for high-level experts,  managers and executives to be deployed to China, complete with expensive benefit packages. Due to the differences in culture, language and economic class, it was natural for Western expats to live apart from the local Chinese, banding together for comfort and companionship. However, despite over 30 years of break-neck development in China, this trend has continued. Life for many expats in China still exists in a bubble, and a number of large cities (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong) have their own expat districts or communities. In these areas, expats can distance themselves from Chinese society and culture, and live a life similar to one from their home countries.

Western expats in China don't adaptBut is this really necessary? I have seen a number of comments by Westerners and non-Chinese on social media (sometimes in response to my own posts), saying they will “never, ever, give in and start doing things the Chinese way.” While I have nothing against trying to maintain one’s own cultural identity in China (I do so myself), refusing to do anything the Chinese way can result in some fairly obvious negative consequences:

  • An US vs. THEM mentality
  • A lack of trust between Chinese coworkers and partners
  • A lack of learning opportunities
  • A potentially miserable experience in China

It’s true that a visitor to China can’t really be expected to completely adapt to or accept everything about living and working in China. However, for those of us that choose to live here, it is worthwhile to remember that this was our choice. While it is completely acceptable to disagree with certain aspects of Chinese culture, society or business practices on a personal level, refusing to participate may do more harm than good. Remember, Western expats are now leaving China in increasing numbers, partly because more and more Chinese locals can do their jobs, AND because they understand the culture. While there will likely always be some need for Western expats and experts in China, those that refuse to adapt will not last long.

The Zhōng Guó Tōng

A zhōng guó tōng (中国通), can be roughly translated as: “someone from outside China who possesses a high level of Chinese language skills, a deep appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture, and the ability to fluently engage and interact with Chinese people from different backgrounds.” The zhōng guó tōng is an ever-increasing phenomenon in China, and it not restricted to specific groups or backgrounds. They can be foreign students studying at Chinese universities, travelers exploring the Chinese countryside, or adventurous professionals from all over the world working for Chinese companies. There are an increasing number of Westerners and non-Chinese learning about the Chinese language and culture and adapting to local Chinese customers and practices. This includes: networking and spending time with Chinese locals, imbibing generous amounts of Chinese Baijiu, trying local Chinese delicacies, and doing things in a more Chinese style.

Doing things the Chinese way in ChinaWhile the number of zhōng guó tōng is comparatively smaller than that of International Expats, their numbers are growing. After all, China is full of new, strange, and exciting opportunities, and it makes sense that many would want to experience all they could. However, based on my time in China,  as well as my conversations with other Westerners and non-Chinese, there are several potential negative side effects to this lifestyle. For example:

  • Reverse culture shock can be greater when returning home
  • Other Westerners or non-Chinese often mistake a zhōng guó tōng’s passion for showing off
  • Becoming too close to the Chinese world can distance you from useful Western networks and contacts

The path of a zhōng guó tōng or any non-native Chinese with a love for Chinese culture can be both easier and harder than others. On one hand, with knowledge of the Chinese language, culture and people, it is easier to communicate and get things done. However, on the other hand, this knowledge and passion takes us to faraway shores, and it can be easier to lose one’s way, or at the very least lose heart, from time to time.

Finding a Balance

During my time in China, I have come to the or conclusion that, for Westerners and non-Chinese truly interested in learning about and living in China, trying to choose between Chinese culture and one’s own is not realistic. Just as shutting ourselves off from the Chinese world by living in isolationist expat complexes does nothing to help us adapt, shutting ourselves off from other Westerners while we study Chinese language and culture can also be unhealthy. If we truly aim to live in China (and this applies more to larger cities), it’s very important to live with one foot in each world.

Balancing Chinese and Western customs is importantIn the modern era, there are multiple reasons to stay involved with the international/Western world, some cultural, and some more related to career development prospects. For young Westerners wanting to live and work in China long-term, and who aren’t content with potentially low-paying or illegal jobs teaching English, the bigger international firms offer key opportunities. With this being the case, it definitely pays (sometimes quite literally) to maintain ties with the Western or non-Chinese communities. Therefore, whether through social networks (such as LinkedIn) or through personal relationships, I feel it is very important to maintain ties to the international community.

Lastly, it is important to remember that one reason English and Western culture have dominated the world for the past several centuries is due to continued economic superiority. With the rise of China, this global focus on English and the West can at least be partly expected to shift to China and Chinese. In fact, a trend towards China and the Chinese language is already clear is certain areas. Western expats have in recent years been leaving China in increasingly greater numbers as Chinese with local experience connections replace them. Across the Pacific, I have seen certain Chinese firms in Silicon Valley require fluency in Mandarin as a job prerequisite for some roles, effectively keeping many Americans of non-Chinese decent out of the running. In short, Westerners who want to work in China can no longer afford not to understand the Chinese language (including the writing system) and culture, or not to be comfortable interacting with the local Chinese.

Final Thoughts

In the end we all have to make our own choice on how much to adapt to local Chinese customs and behavior. Some people naturally feel more comfortable in a Western environment, or one resembling their own home country, while others might feel more at home among the Chinese locals. However I believe its important to realize that the Chinese world is becoming increasingly important to global affairs, both economically and politically. When dealing with the Chinese world, those that feel comfortable “walking the walk” will undoubtedly be better prepared, and able to do more.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any about living and working in China? Do you prefer to live more of an expat lifestyle, or localize and adapt to the local Chinese environment? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Published by Sean Upton-McLaughlin

Sean is a business and communications professional based out of Shenzhen, China. He has worked for Chinese companies for the majority of his career, including well-known smartphone and technology firms. Through his mastery of the Chinese language and culture, as well as his empathy and understanding towards the Chinese point of view, he advises Chinese companies on successfully going global.

9 thoughts on “How “Chinese” Should You Act in China?

  1. Well, it is always good to find a balance 🙂
    What do you think: how Russian student, who studies tea should act in China? I mean, would elderly people, who study such an old tradition, as tea, appreciate honesty and naturalistic look or maybe they will appreciate more your struggle to act closer to their culture?

    I am actually thinking about moving there for a year or two and find a place, where I can master tea ceremony. I never thought about how you act, when you move to a completely new culture, but now, when I am thinking about it, eventually you end up mimicking it, no matter how natural you are trying to be


    1. Thanks for commenting.

      In this case it really doesn’t have much to do with “acting Chinese” or mimicking Chinese culture”. The important thing is that by wanting to learn more of Chinese traditional tea ceremonies, you are willing to move away from the normal foreign-channels or circles. So even if you don’t want to mimic Chinese culture at all, you are still being very open to learning about Chinese culture.

      And maybe that is another key thing I was thinking of when I originally wrote this article – not that people absolutely need to adapt to Chinese culture or mimic it, but that we all should keep ourselves open to learning more about China.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sean, Since I first came to Shenzhen 6 years ago I have found that there are now so many foreigners here that are highly proficient in Mandarin, the situation is changing fast, and speaking fluent Chinese is hardly unique now.

    What is interesting is that most expats/foreigners are considered to be American, whereas I have seen far more Russians, Poles, other European nationalities than Americans, Canadians, and Brits. These non-English speaking expats obviously have to put more focus on speaking Chinese as they cannot rely on English too well as a backup. I would say this is especially common outside of Shekou, for instance in areas where I am such as Longhua. It would be interesting to look into and highlight this phenomenon as I feel it is very much neglected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point Adam.

      It definitely makes sense that expats who didn’t grow up with English as their native language would have an easier time seeing the benefits of achieving fluency in another language. However one area that I think most expats still need work in is reading/writing in Chinese. Without that its much harder to make the case for being able to work in a Chinese language only environment.

      Another interesting issue I have experienced is that its very hard for both Western and Chinese recruiters/managers to accept that a non-Chinese professional can handle enough Chinese to make it in a position where it is used every day. There is still that assumption that Chinese is too complicated for non-Chinese to learn, which is in fact ridiculous. But its still a common assumption that we have to counter on a daily basis.


  3. Hi Sean, I’ve got an American expat friend (actually ex-expat, since his job is over & he’s back home now). He was here in Taiwan on an expat package (expat package = especially good pay & benefits package, generally for those who possess skills that the locals need badly & don’t have). As you say, expat packages are becoming fewer & fewer here as well, as Taiwanese gain increasing amounts of Western (that W word again, from your other essay!) education & specialized professional experience and no longer need as much expat expertise (say “expat expertise” fast several times, if you dare!). My friend spoke little or no Mandarin, lived in Tian Mu (think of AmericaTown) where he belonged to the American Club, had a nice apartment, his kids went to the American School, and he had no need of local language or cultural skills. He even had a driver who would pick him up and deliver him to work in a very nice set of wheels while he read the paper and drank coffee–no hanging onto the strap on a bus or fighting his way onto the commuter train!

    BUT: he worked for a Taiwanese company, and was going to ply his skills to make THEM This Much Money (spread your arms as far apart as you can) before he left Taiwan. I don’t think that he was anti-Taiwanese, anti-Chinese, anti-Asian, or anti-anything, but rather, that his company wanted his focus to be on making ton$ of ca$h for them (and of course, for himself), rather than on spending his time doing off-duty Asian Studies. They wanted him to be rested and productive. So maybe my friend falls into a 3rd category: an expat who’s here to do a job & go home afterwards, and coping with the reality that there are only 24 hours in a day and the mission comes first.
    Thanks again for another thought-provoking essay & I do hope that you’re able to dodge the typhoon that’s had me cooped up in the apartment all day here in Taipei!


    1. Good points Daniel, thanks for sharing.

      I think many current China expats may have started off in the third category you mentioned, but over time grew to love China and wanted to stay. So long as an expat is just focused on doing the job he or she was sent to do, there is likely not going to be as much worry or concern about local workers training up and replacing them. They could go somewhere else after all. China expats are different though; they/we only want to stay in China, hence the dilemma…


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