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A few things to know before visiting China

With the Beijing Olympics now fewer than 90 days away, travelers lucky enough to get tickets – or those just wanting to see the city hosting the Games – along with business people wanting to expand are thinking about China.

China ’s long history and rich culture have helped shaped the formation of its modern society. Although China has come a long way in the last 30 years, just because “Prison Break” is a hit show and young people wear blue jeans doesn’t mean that it isn’t culturally very distinct.

As such, visitors for both business and pleasure must consider that culture when going to China, and being aware culturally can make a trip there more successful.

Basic customs. China is a hierarchical society; power flows from the top down. Decisions are made by people at the top, and are followed by the people beneath them. As such, when dealing with Chinese organizations, business or otherwise, it is important to understand who is in charge, and who is genuinely authorized to make decisions. Far too numerous are the tales of Western businesses who followed the person who told them, “I can deliver China,” only to find out that person was at best a gatekeeper, at worst, a con artist.

This means two things: if you’re dealing with someone at the bottom of the totem pole, they will have little ability to assist you out of the normal course of businesses. That means it’s hard for them to get you a good price, a meeting with the minister or to let you sneak down to the good seats at the Opening Ceremonies. If you need something done, make sure you’re talking to the boss, or at least to someone who is talking to the boss.

Etiquette. An awareness of Chinese customs will help any visitor, and respect for them often helps to get travelers out of a jam, or at very least, better service.

Western visitors are sometimes upset by situations they encounter in China. For example, queuing is not universal, so hold your ground when approaching a service counter. It’s a function of living in an overcrowded nation more than a lack of manners.

Although probably not an issue during the Olympics, spitting is a common habit visitors find off-putting. It stems from aspects of Chinese medicine regarding removing waste from the body. Beijing’s government has become sensitive to the issue and the impact it has on the city and country’s image. It happens far less now than even a few years ago, but has yet to be eradicated.

In business situations and most social situations, men shake hands. Social introductions are far less formal than in the West, and sometimes people won’t even bother introducing others if their contact is considered to be limited. Except for high-ranking women in business situations, or those who have spent time in Western companies or countries, women will generally feel uncomfortable shaking hands. A polite nod will suffice instead.

In China, the ground is considered to be unequivocally dirty, as is anything that comes in contact with it. Therefore, people change their shoes to slippers when entering a home, unless specifically asked not to. Putting your feet on something, like a chair or table, is offensive. If for some reason you need to climb on a seat to fetch something, take your shoes off and stand on it with socked (never bare) feet. Also, shoes worn without socks are frowned upon, as only poorer people in China cannot afford to wear socks, and also unsocked feet get dirty much faster and therefore should not come in contact with anything else.

The trickiest etiquette in just about any country is table manners. Chinese people do not expect foreigners to have mastered chopsticks prior to arrival, but it’s nice to try. Hands are generally not used while eating, although they’re fine for Beijing Duck. Unlike in the West, bones are spit onto a separate plate, the table or the floor, depending on the quality of the restaurant, but they should not go on your own dining plate. Follow your hosts’ lead as much as possible.

There is no need to tip in China anywhere except with a tourist guide, if they have done a particularly good job, or with bell boys at hotels, who have come to expect tips. It is not part of the culture sometimes the offering of a tip can be seen as an insult.

If involved in a dispute, remain calm and try to find someone who can translate while resolving the matter. Do not assume you have genuinely wronged the other person just because they say so. Ask your hotel ahead of time how much a taxi fare to or from the airport or other major destination is – and don’t pay 10 percent more than that.

Common sense and basic caution are the best rules of thumb while traveling. Don’t advertise yourself as a target by wearing lots of jewelry; do be polite and maintain proper manners within your own societal norms. A visit to China should be fun and productive, relax and enjoy it!