One of the reasons many Westerners come to Asia, is their inherent curiosity in seeing Chinese people living and working in their native environment. Thankfully, this curiosity is also reciprocated with Chinese people being quite enthusiastic and friendly towards foreigners in general. The interest from locals is easily recognized by the stares you may get for being “foreign.” The farther away from big cities you go, the more attention you tend to get for being foreign.
Unless you happen to run into an outgoing type, the extent of your contact with most locals might be limited to stares. Knowing that there will be a communication gap is enough to keep most people from approaching you, so if you are interested in starting a conversation, being able to blurt out a few words in Chinese is very useful to break the ice and initiate contact.
Those of you who can speak some Chinese, may at times be disheartened to hear people reply to you in English, even when you address them in Chinese. While your initial reaction might be to construe this as a sign that your Chinese isn’t good enough, realize that just as you are using every opportunity you can find to practice what Chinese you know, they are using the same opportunity to practice their English. In general though, unless the situation is quite casual, it is best to stick to the language that allows the conversation to flow the smoothest.
If you do happen to enter a tough crowd, it is helpful to cite some common ground or a common acquaintance to elevate you from “stranger” status. Handshakes are accepted forms of greeting. You may also notice a slight bow of the head when greeting others. Where possible, try and carry business cards with you. When handing out a business card, use both hands to grasp the corners of the card and hand it so that the face can be read as it is being received. Depending on the nature of your business, it may be wise to have a bilingual version of your business card with the Chinese version on one side and the English version on the other.
During the initial small talk, apart from the obligatory “where do you come from?” you are likely to get questions regarding your experiences and impressions of China. This is because most locals within China tend to know very little about the world outside their borders (a phenomenon common in most countries), so their questioning tends to look for common ground with you, which is usually based within China. Because of this, their interest in you tends to be more as a result of your being “foreign” than because of your specific nationality.
During this interaction, it isn’t uncommon to be asked questions that you might deem to be quite personal, such as your age, marital status or even salary! If you choose not to answer these questions, be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t embarrass the person doing the asking. You can use the question topics brought up as a guideline for what questions you are allowed to ask in return. In general, the only major topic that should be avoided is politics, as that tends to be a sensitive issue for many. If you receive praise of any form, it is best to display outright modesty. This same phenomenon can be observed in their response, when you pay a compliment.
The safest way to manage these initial interactions is to spend a lot of time observing what others do, and how others respond. Notice their body language and try to mimic them when appropriate. While as a foreigner, you can be forgiven in most cases for not following traditional Chinese protocol, what efforts you do make to follow local customs can take you a long way towards developing proper contacts and relationships.