Going Dutch in Beijing: How to Behave Properly When Far Away from Home

Going Dutch in Beijing: How to Behave Properly When Far Away from Home

by Mark McCrum

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What to do and what not to do when traveling almost anywhere—an entertainment for the armchair or the intrepid traveler

Why shouldn't you offer to pay for your share of the meal in China? Or use the thumbs-up sign to mean "that's excellent" in Sardinia?

Because, of course, despite the ease with which we can now communicate with and


What to do and what not to do when traveling almost anywhere—an entertainment for the armchair or the intrepid traveler

Why shouldn't you offer to pay for your share of the meal in China? Or use the thumbs-up sign to mean "that's excellent" in Sardinia?

Because, of course, despite the ease with which we can now communicate with and visit one another, they still do things differently over there. In China your host will "lose face" if you don't let him pick up the tab. In Sardinia a raised thumb means, literally, "Sit on this!"

Going Dutch in Beijing offers a lighthearted and informative guide to everything from first meeting to last rites. Subjects covered include the opening contact between strangers; greetings, gestures, handshakes, and getting names right; as well as more complex traditions and how to behave if you decide to stick around for good.

Whether you are heading abroad or staying at home, Going Dutch in Beijing is a delightful and indispensable handbook designed to ensure that your sense of the world is informed and your travel is happy.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Seasoned traveler and writer McCrum (The Craic) has produced an informative and delightful gem for international travelers. He looks at the customs of various nations and regions and explains how different greetings, gestures, gifts, toasts, foods, names, clothes, and salutations can have extremely varied meanings from one land to another. For instance, as his title warns, tourists in China should not pay for their share of a meal because the Chinese host would "lose face" by not covering the entire tab. Also, in the West, children are taught to look people directly in the eye, indicating sincerity. But in China too long a stare is disrespectful. Usually, as McCrum notes, the distinctions can be seen as humorous, but he also shows that they can have serious consequences. For example, a foreign woman in Saudi Arabia wearing a short skirt or low-cut top would be out of order and could receive a whack on the shins from the stick of a passing mullah or a visit from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. McCrum's chronicle is meant to help the traveler avoid embarrassment or miscommunication, but along the way, he tells much about varied cultures and peoples around the world. An excellent and comprehensive index and 14 whimsical and descriptive line drawings round out the text. For international travel collections in all public libraries.
—Melinda Stivers Leach

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- The information collected here is not only important for those who need to know how to behave when far away from home. It is also a primer for helping to understand people from distant countries who may be living next door. Many ancient traditions can seem bizarre and humorous to outsiders; the author presents numerous instances of personal traits of Americans that are thought to be strange abroad. This is not just a matter of knowing that how we wave hello in the United States may be taken as an insulting gesture in Greece. The person standing so close to you in the checkout line may be unaware that you consider that rude since it is natural to him. An understanding of what is "normal," then, is culturally based. The unique customs and rituals described here are a wonderful introduction to seeing beyond ourselves to the beauty in the variety of human experience. Teens can use this title as a reference book for deciphering lifestyles.-Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA

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Going Dutch in Beijing

How to Behave Properly When Far Away From Home

By Mark McCrum

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2007 Mark McCrum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4140-2


Ha Na?


Not for nothing did primitive cultures tread warily with outsiders. From the very first moment you set eyes on another human being, the possibility of some kind of misunderstanding arises. To those accustomed to informality, the niceties of our initial dealings with strangers may seem unimportant. But the right way to greet people still varies enormously from one place to another....


In Manhattan, London, or Shanghai, saying "Hello" (or Ni hao) to a stranger on the street would be seen as odd, even intrusive. If you do so, people are unlikely to reply and will probably assume that you're either a foreigner or a bumpkin from out of town. Outside the self-absorbed bustle of so-called global cities, however, things are more laid-back. Even in the bigger cities of the American south, such as Atlanta, Georgia, people often say "Hi" or "Howdy" to passers-by in the street, as they do in sunny Fiji (where the greeting is Bula!). The more local the environment, the ruder it gets not to say something. In little towns across France, for example, it's regarded as polite and normal to say Bonjour, monsieur or Bonsoir, madame to people as you pass by, while those strolling past neighborhood porches in New Orleans would expect to give and receive a "Good evening," even if they're not acquainted.

Ha na?

Africans throughout the continent are generally extremely familiar. In many places it's normal to greet strangers, not just with a "Hi," Bonjour, or Dumela, but with a follow-up "How are you?" Ha na? (West African pidgin), Habari gain? (in Kiswahili), and so forth. Mostly this inquiry will be met with a formulaic version of "I am well," and often followed by "And how are you?" which should be answered by a concluding "I, too, am well" before you get on with any other business. In Botswana the sequence goes like this:

Dumela, rra (or mma, for a woman) "Hello, sir (ma'am)"

Dumela, rra. Le kae? "Hello, sir. How are you?"

Ke teng. Le kae? "I'm fine. And how are you?"

Ke teng. "I'm fine, too."

Only now should you say that you'd like a couple of those nice-looking watermelons or ask the way to the center of town.

Farther north, similar ritual questions may well be taken literally, and the polite "How are you?" may be answered by an upbeat or downbeat stream of personal news, to which you're expected to react appropriately. In some places they go even further. As a stranger in rural Cameroon, you won't just be greeted; villagers will stop you and ask you where you're from, how long you've been in the village, who your parents are, if they can help you, and so on. If you're older, and therefore worthy of respect, for strangers not to do this would be seen as actively rude.


In stark contrast to all this is Scandinavia. In Sweden it's rarely done to greet an unknown face, even way out in the sticks. In Finland they are similarly taciturn. If they do say hello, there are various levels of salute: Terve! or Päivää! are formal greetings for strangers; Hei! is a friendlier version for those you see more often, and Moi! is for those intimates you see regularly.


In India and the Islamic world the greeting of strangers depends very much on gender. In Turkey, if a man joins another man as he is sitting alone on a park bench, he is likely to say Merhaba ("Hi") or even the more old-fashioned, formal Selâm aleyküm ("Peace be with you"), to which it's polite to reply Aleyküm selâm ("And with you, too"). But he would never greet an unknown woman sitting alone.

Women, likewise, will generally speak only to other women, though these days they are unlikely to use the formal Selâm, instead saying something like Merhaba, Iyi günler ("Good day"), or the trendier Kolay gelsin ("May things go easily for you") or Hayirli is ler ("Have a good time at work").

"No harm here"

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the formal greeting Assalamu 'alaykum and its response became a way for residents to reassure themselves that strangers were not dangerous. It took on the meaning "No harm here." Getting a Wa alaykum assalam at a checkpoint meant that you would almost certainly be allowed through without a search.

Equal footing

In the West nowadays people rarely stand up when a newcomer enters the room, but in many parts of the world, from China to Argentina, it would be considered rude not to get to your feet in greeting. Waving from your chair, half-standing, or staring at your shoes just isn't enough.

The bonecruncher

A firm handshake is generally agreed to be a good thing in the West, especially in business circles. But in places as varied as Japan, Costa Rica, and Indonesia, a weak handshake is the norm and is no indication whatever of a lack of assertiveness. This doesn't mean that Westerners have to match limp squeeze for limp squeeze, but it may be wise to tone down the full-on bonecruncher.

Frequency of handshakes also varies. In the United States or United Kingdom one or two establishing handshakes in a group may be enough. In France or Spain newcomers to a meeting will shake hands all around. Nor is this just a business thing. Watch people on a French beach or at a Spanish party, and you'll see the same custom in action — as you will in French-influenced Tahiti and Spanish-speaking Colombia.


Many Asian cultures are not, traditionally, used to touching as a greeting and have imported the handshake only to fit in with the West. In the Middle East and India, for example, only Westernized Muslims and Hindus will shake hands with the opposite sex. Westerners of either sex shouldn't initiate cross-gender handshaking (a good rule of thumb is never to do so if your new acquaintances are wearing traditional dress).

Orthodox Jews, likewise, may be put out if a person of the opposite sex extends a hand. For a man, the problem is that the woman may be niddah (menstruating), not something he can tactfully inquire about; for a woman, if her head is covered, indicating she's married, she shouldn't shake hands (or embrace) at all.


Africans often go in for elaborate handshakes as a sign of friendship or solidarity. In west and central Africa men will shake hands, then, as they pull their palms away, grasp the other's middle finger between their thumb and forefinger and snap it. Farther south the "African handshake" is a three-part affair: the handshake begins normally and is followed by an upward clench before ending back as before (they'll show you how). To be offered this as a visiting white person — muzungu — is a big sign of acceptance (particularly in South Africa).

Northern Africans will often tap the left-hand sides of their chests with their right hands after a handshake, to show that they take your greeting to their hearts. In Chad sincerity is indicated by the left hand reaching out and supporting the right elbow from below as you shake, a charming action that's also found in South Korea.

In Senegal, merely extending a wrist or elbow is perfectly polite if you're already holding something, while women in Guatemala and Nicaragua are more likely to pat each other on the forearm than shake hands.

Frau first

In Germany always make sure you shake hands with the wife before you do so with the husband. In a large group — say at a restaurant — newcomers may rap their knuckles on the table in greeting rather than reach out and actually shake all the paws around the table.


When the French see each other for a second or third time in the same day, they greet each other with the delightful expression Rebonjour. But when they've shaken hands once, that's it for the day.

Eye to eye

In the West children are often taught to look adults in the eye when shaking hands. Direct eye contact is considered a sound accompaniment to a handshake, indicating sincerity. In Mediterranean, Arab, and Latin American countries the gaze may be so full-on it disconcerts. But don't be offended if, in other parts of the world, your new acquaintance doesn't return the favor. In both Japan and Vietnam eye contact is generally avoided, as it is in China, where too long a look is considered disrespectful.

In the Australian outback full-blooded Aboriginals will tend not to meet your eye at all until a firm and trusting relationship is established. In central and southern Africa eyes are often averted when speaking with elders or superiors; in west African Ghana children are taught not to look adults in the eye at first meeting: to do so would indicate defiance.


In the United States and the United Kingdom it's polite to smile when you first meet someone; however false or creepy the grimace, the attempt signifies that you're at least trying to be happy about the encounter. But grins of greeting are not universal. Especially when it comes to business, many cultures regard meeting someone new as a serious matter. So take your cue from your new acquaintance: if they smile, smile back; if not, keep it straight.

If Japanese or Indonesians grin or laugh, it may not mean that they find what you're saying funny — it's just as likely that they don't understand something or are embarrassed.


Full-on Arabic greetings can be highly elaborate. After the initial Assalamu 'alaykum exchange — accompanied by a gentle handshake — you may then pull back your hand and touch your heart. A traditional host may now place his left hand on your right shoulder and kiss you on both cheeks. Don't initiate this, but if it happens, you should reciprocate. If your host subsequently holds your hand, for however long, don't pull yours away. This is not a come-on (perish the thought, in a part of the world where homosexuality is still a capital offense) but a straightforward gesture of friendship. Subsequently, making any form of religious gesture is flattering. Saying Inshallah ("God willing") is respectful and will always go over well.

Be careful about what you admire, be it a watch, tie pin, or beautiful ornament: a more traditional host may feel obliged to give it to you and take offense if you refuse, after which — and here's the rub — you're expected to present him with a gift of equal value. So, if you feel the urge to compliment your new friend on his diamond-encrusted Rolex, do so obliquely.

Pecking order

Though Swedish or Australian egalitarians may scoff, in many cultures the order in which you greet people is still highly significant. In Venezuela, for example, you should always introduce yourself to the oldest person first, while in status-conscious Indonesia it's the most important you should honor. In China, the highest-ranking visitor will walk into the room ahead of his party and lead the greetings, and the Japanese are equally big on the right pecking order.

Such niceties have been largely swept away in the West, though in very grand and formal situations — meeting royalty, for example — the less important should still, technically, be introduced to the more. So: "Your Majesty, may I introduce Mr. Smith," not "Mr. Smith, this is the Queen."

Ojigi and namaste

The traditional Japanese greeting is, of course, the ojigi (bow). If a Japanese meets a fellow countryman, he will bend from the waist, eyes lowered, to the same level — or lower, if the person he's addressing is more important. Men keep their arms to their sides; women rest their hands on their thighs, fingers touching.

The days when gaijin (Western visitors) were expected to bow in return are long gone. In Japan today you will be greeted with a Western handshake. Stick with that. If you try and do anything else, you risk getting it wrong. If you should find yourself bowed to without a handshake (when exchanging cards, perhaps, or in a rural area), a polite nod back will suffice.

Indians also have a tradition of bowing, known as namaste, where in addition the palms of the hands are held together near the heart as one says Namaste (pronounced nam-a-stay). Foreigners may reciprocate in kind, but if it makes you feel silly, this is not a requirement. For Western women greeting men in India, however, a respectful namaste can be a useful way around the dilemma of whether or not to shake hands.

Thais have a similar gesture, which they call the wai — the higher you hold your hands, the more respect you're showing. The precise etiquette is complex, so for an outsider the wai is best avoided.

Les bises

Yes, men do kiss each other abroad — but never on first meeting. Even serious kissers such as the Russians are quite formal with strangers. The bear hugs and damp smooches come later, when you are established colleagues or friends.

The English are often a bit awkward with social kissing — men more so than women, although they go along with it because it's sophisticated and Continental. The sophisticated and Continental French, of course, have no such hang-ups: they routinely do les bises, a double air-kiss to the cheek, and would regard it as rather cool or detached not to kiss. Belgians and single Brazilian women kiss three times; in Latin America the third kiss is supposedly for good luck in finding a spouse.

In Egypt they kiss each other on the forehead, and in Benin friends of the same sex may greet each other with several kisses, ending with a light touch on the lips. In Italy it's not regarded as creepy for a man to bend to kiss a woman's hand, while in conservative circles in Germany and Austria a charming older man may mutter as he raises a lady's hand to his lips, Küß die Hand ("I kiss your hand"). In Vietnam or China, by contrast, even a peck on the cheek or forehead is verboten; in rural areas women who've been observed kissing a man have been driven to suicide by the shame.

The breath of life

The Maori of New Zealand ritually greet each other with the hongi, pressing their noses and foreheads together to share the same breath, which is known as the (breath of life). As a stranger, once you've shared breath, you cease to be thought of as one of the manuhiri (visitors), but become one of the tangata whenua (people of the land). A similar greeting still applies across the scattered islands of Polynesia, where the nose kiss is known as the honi; when entering a hut to offer this, remember always to keep your head lower than your host's, especially if he is the chief. Put your nose on his knee or shin, then wait for him to bring your face up to his. On the far side of the Pacific, in Hawaii, this nose kiss is still the honi, and the — often offensive — word for outsider, haole, means, literally, "without the breath of life."

Earth mother

In Maori folklore, the first woman was created by the god Tane child of Ranginui (the Sky) and Papatuanuku (the Earth), who molded her out of red earth. He then embraced her and breathed into her nostrils, at which point she sneezed and came to life. Her name was Hineahuone (woman formed from the earth) and she and Tane later had a daughter called Hinetitama the Dawn Maiden, who was to control the change from darkness to light.

A present from the gods

Visitors to the South Pacific may be charmed by the custom of a welcoming lei, or garland of scented flowers, being placed around their neck as they arrive on their island of choice. In these days of mass travel this is more likely to happen to people on upmarket tours than to every backpacker who passes through.

In Hindu culture, likewise, it's traditional after greeting someone to hang a garland around their neck. If this happens to you in India, there's no need to go on wearing your adornment indefinitely; once seated, remove it and put it to your right on the table. If offered a garland by a stranger at a temple as a prasad (present from the gods), be aware that the stranger will expect you — not the gods — to pay for it.


Excerpted from Going Dutch in Beijing by Mark McCrum. Copyright © 2007 Mark McCrum. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark McCrum has visited six of the seven continents (not Antarctica), and written several books. He has been mugged in Rio, picnicked on a glacier in Chilean Patagonia, and lunched with the King of the Zulus, a strict teetotaler, whose manners were impeccable. McCrum lives in London.

Mark McCrum has visited six of the seven continents (not Antarctica), and written several books. He has been mugged in Rio, picnicked on a glacier in Chilean Patagonia, and lunched with the King of the Zulus, a strict teetotaler, whose manners were impeccable. McCrum lives in London.

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