For newcomers just arriving in China, or people planning a trip or move to the Middle Kingdom, there are an abundance of cultural quirks that you should know about. I’ve been living here for around three years now, and I’m still learning new things each and every day. As such, I am by no means an expert on Chinese culture, but I do know a thing or two, and hopefully sharing this knowledge can save at least one of the readers of this blog from suffering the same embarrassing moments that I have experienced. After all, the last thing you want to do in China is lose face (丢面子 – diū miàn zi).
Wearing a Green Hat
It’s a cultural taboo in China for men to wear green hats. Seems strange, I know, but before I explain this, let me share a funny story from my first year in Beijing:
Having spent my college years at Michigan State University (Go Green!), I brought a whole bunch of Spartan gear with me to the ‘Jing – t-shirts, hoodies, and a nice, warm, green winter hat. Once the bitter cold Beijing winter hit, I made sure to wear said hat out one morning. Nice and full from a wonderful street food breakfast, I walked to my Chinese class. On the way, I noticed a group of Chinese girls pointing and laughing at me. “Do I have food on my face?”, I thought. “Or maybe I forgot to zip my pants up.” After confirming that my pants were, in fact, zipped up, I just shrugged it off and went to class. Arriving in the classroom, however, I was again greeted by chuckles – this time from my Chinese teacher.
“What are you laughing at?!” (你在笑什么呢 – Nǐ zài xiào shénme ne), I angrily asked her.
“You are wearing a green hat!” (你戴绿帽子 – Nǐ dài lǜ mào zi), she replied, in between fits of laughter.
Extremely confused, I begged her for an explanation. She went on to tell me a sad story of a hard-working country man and his woman troubles. Apparently, this particular man’s wife found herself bored at home while he worked all day; so bored that she recruited other men to keep her entertained. Well, one evening, her husband returned home a bit earlier than usual, and her entertainer had to quickly slip out the back door. The next morning, half-asleep and in a hurry to get to work, the man grabbed his coat and hat on his way out the door. When he got to work, the other men whispered and laughed amongst themselves, for the man was wearing his wife’s lover’s hat – a green one.
Another story says that, in ancient times, husbands of sex workers had to identify themselves by wearing green scarves. Either way, the saying “戴绿帽子” (wear a green hat) is now used to describe a cuckold, or a man whose girlfriend/wife is unfaithful. You can imagine how upset I was when I realized that wearing my favorite MSU hat was like walking around with a sign that says, “My girflriend is cheating on me.” Luckily, I’m not the only 老外 who has made this mistake – here is a funny video about another green hat mishap.
The Number 250
“What could possibly be wrong with the number 250?”, you ask. In other countries, probably nothing; in China, however, this number carries another meaning. In Chinese, 250 (二百五 – èr bǎi wǔ) means moron, ignoramus, dumb ass – basically it is used to describe an incredibly stupid person. There are many explanations for why this is the case, but the most common relates to ancient Chinese currency. A long time ago, a string of 1,000 copper coins was a unit of currency called a diao (弔). Half of a diao, or 500 coins, was called 半弔子 (bàn diào zi), and this phrase was also used to describe someone with inferior skills and/or mental abilities. Being a very humble and modest bunch, many Chinese scholars would often refer to themselves as ban diao zi. As such, er bai wu, or one quarter of a diao, came to be used as an insult. When bargaining for something in China, shoot for 240 instead of 250. Likewise, for you aspiring English teachers out there, don’t tell prospective clients that you charge 250/hour – you probably won’t pick up too many students that way. Er bai wu has moved out of China’s borders, as it has even made it into the Urban Dictionary!
These are just two of the many interesting cultural quirks you may run into in China. Some other examples include:
-Giving a clock as a gift: This symbolizes time running out, as in death, and is an awful gift to give to a Chinese person. This goes for watches as well.
-Clearing your plate: The food may be delicious, but if you scarf it all down you will be sending a message that the host did not serve enough food, which is an insult.
-Leaving chopsticks in your rice bowl: Doing so resembles the burning of incense at a family member’s grave, and it is another unpleasant and unwelcome reminder of death.