If you’re thinking of buying a gift for a local, there are a few things to avoid. While flowers are usually a safe bet, white and yellow ones, which are often used at funerals, are a no-no. Steer clear of clocks and watches, too, particularly for the elderly, as such items imply that your days are numbered. Finally, while umbrellas might be useful for the city’s not infrequent downpours, the Chinese word for umbrella (sǎn) is very similar to the word for breaking up (sàn), so brollies have negative connotations.
When dining with others in Shanghai, an empty plate can be interpreted as inferring that the host did not order enough food, which can be very embarrassing for them. This is less of a worry at fast-food joints and Western restaurants.
Sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice may bring to mind certain funeral rituals for those around you – not a good idea. Also, be careful of tapping your bowl with them; this is seen as impolite. Instead, when eating out in Shanghai, place your chopsticks just to the right of the rice bowl before you eat and across the middle vertically after you finish.
When chowing down with locals, you might want to split the bill. If dining as a guest, however, don’t even think about it – offering to do so will be seen as insulting to your host’s finances.
If there’s one thing that Chinese people are comfortable with, it’s the lack of privacy. Traditional squat toilets are often barely concealed by panelling, allowing users to chat away as they respond to the call of nature. Queuing is a non-existent concept here, too, so don’t be too surprised if locals don’t appear to acknowledge personal space, or shove past you to get on the Shanghai metro.
Even if you’re not drinking, joining in with the many toasts (gan bei) of a meal is mandatory. The clink of your glass is important here, too: aim the lip of your glass to clink the bottom of theirs, as a nod to their superiority and status.
Money can often dominate Chinese conversation, so don’t let it phase you if you’re asked about your earnings. The country’s economic revival has driven many to embrace an attitude that equates success with wealth.
You’re likely to be served hot water when eating out, even if the weather is sweltering; the Chinese believe hot water to be very beneficial for your health. When dining in traditional restaurants, expect to order plenty of dishes for the table. And they’ll arrive when they’re ready, rather than adhering to a Western-style course system. Finally, unless you specifically request otherwise, rice is usually served last of all.
Overall, tipping is not part of Chinese culture and could even be perceived as rudeness. That said, tipping has started to become common in the more Westernised Shanghai hotels and restaurants. Unsure what to do? Follow the example of your fellow diners and guests.
For many of the older generation in particular, foreigners are still a noteworthy sight – don’t mistake staring and pointing for rudeness. Locals can sometimes be eager for the chance to practise their English, too, so you may be approached for a chat – or even a selfie.