If you had any contact to intercultural topics, any influence from people from foreign countries or at least watched the fruitful Galileo documentaries about other cultures (that one is for the Germans reading this), you will know that people in other countries act and behave differently from your own country and sometimes that might lead to irritated looks, misunderstandings, wrong impressions or even fights.
As a thoughtful student of the intercultural studies I naturally considered this before I went to China and found some useful books with the help of one of my teachers (I didn’t want to rely just on my Galileo knowledge). I ended up with two books about Chinese culture and customs.
While the first one “Der rote Drache ist kein Schmusetier”, was rather useless for my
purposes, the second one “Der China Knigge” was really interesting. A pretty informative book by a Chinese/German couple covering the history of China from the beginning a few thousand years ago up to the current government and giving background information how Chinese people in general would act and behave and why. Several daily or not so daily situations (dinner invitations vs. funerals) are covered and with everything they emphasize that it is a generalization and in a particular situation a Chinese person might act like that but he might as well act completely different.
What is important to keep in mind with these kinds of books is that they are a rough guideline, not a law. It’s like the serving suggestions on food packaging. You can follow them step by step or you can chose to pick only the parts you like and replace the others. You can even completely ignore them and do your own thing. But whatever you do, it will most likely never look like the picture of it on the package.
Especially with a country so big and diverse as China you find a lot of differences between provinces so that it is impossible to cover all possible situations you might encounter for all parts of the country and then keep that up to date as well. My strategy therefore was to read it through and hope that the important bits will stick to my mind so that I remember them when it is important. That happened to an extend where, when people asked me what I learned after reading this book, I couldn’t cite more than one or two facts, mostly the ones I knew before anyway.
First of all it was definitely helpful to know what I knew. I am not sure how many of these things are common knowledge and how much stuck to my head from researching some information but when meeting other foreigners I often realized that they knew less about how to behave in China than I did. As at least for me it was not really likely to have any important encounter with Chinese which never met foreigners at all, this knowledge did probably not have any strategic advantage for me. The only advantage (not sure if really useful or not) I had was that I understood why people were acting in a certain way and wasn’t just amazed by the fact THAT they acted that way (e.g. getting automatically more rice when the bowl was empty). That said usually people were aware that foreigners might be used to different customs, so when you say “I don’t want more, I am full!” they would stop giving you rice and if you said that you wouldn’t like more of the liquor they wouldn’t insist on refilling your glass. However that probably depends heavily on how used people are to foreign guests.
Of course I cannot judge how the impression was that I left and obviously a negative (i.e. different from Chinese customs) behavior will leave a deeper impression than one that complies with the expectations. What I can say is that I never realized any irritated or even disturbed looks and I most likely did a few things that Chinese would do differently.
I also think that with a bit of attention and common sense many of the so often quoted things like not shaking hands, not finishing the food on your plate, giving clocks as presents (why would you do that anyway?) and not sticking the chopsticks in the rice (again: Who would do something like that? That is an utterly absurd idea to me and once you have a bowl of rice in front of you, you will realize why. Nobody in the western world would “park” a fork by sticking it in his steak either!) won’t be a problem. And even if you fail at one of them, nobody in the daily life will get angry at you just because you handled a particular situation “wrongly”. Just from your appearance everybody instantly knows that you are a foreigner and that these people have funny ways to do the simplest things, so people might be rather amazed by how you handle the chopsticks (even after months in China) than worrying about you sticking them into the rice.
That said, I do think that a bit of research is pretty helpful and it’s a better idea to know and do as many of these things as possible; I would also expect them from foreigners that visit me as well; although it wouldn’t be a huge problem (at least for me), a Chinese guy burping at the dinner table with MY family would definitely leave a bigger impression than one who behaves like Germans do and although we do drink tea at home, my mum would probably not understand why she got a box of tea as a gift. Some of these little mistakes might be funny and a good topic to talk about but people expect you to adjust up to certain extend and although these kinds of faux-pas won’t make people throwing you out, an increased number will definitely have an influence on how they perceive you.
Of course these experiences heavily depend on which people you will meet. In case you have business contact with a traditional Chinese company you most likely need to know and practice some of the customs, however for travelling in bigger cities and occasional contact to people in smaller villages the average knowledge and a bit of common sense is definitely sufficient to get around in China.