“Excuse me,” there is No “Thank You” in China

I just landed back in Los Angeles, after 11 glorious days visiting my family in China.

“Your family is in China?”

Yes. My dad, a Ford Motor Company exec, has been in China for a year now, with two more years to go. When my parents offered my brother, husband and I the opportunity to visit them this year, we jumped at the chance. After all, it’s not often I get a hiatus from work — gotta take it when I can!

Our trip was filled with absolute highs of bucket list magnitude. I rode a toboggan slide down the Great Wall! My brother ate a scorpion! I was seen as a celebrity to the native tourists, posing for 20 minutes worth of pictures!

Hidden in those highs (which are captured in no less than 1200 photographs) were a few simple eye-opening lessons about the Chinese culture.

The simplest difference between the American culture and the Chinese was the absence of the phrase, “Thank you.”

I don’t mean that the Chinese people aren’t ever gracious or grateful. On the contrary, they are frequently very humble and selfless. They will thank you for going above and beyond what is expected.

However, therein lies the rub. When someone is doing their job, they don’t want to hear “thank you”. After all, it’s their job. It’s what they are expected to do.

So, when you’re at a restaurant in China and the waitress hands you a menu, you do not say thank you. When your food is delivered, you do not say thank you. When they bring your change, wrap a gift, carry your luggage, open a door…you do not say thank you.

To do so is almost considered insulting to the Chinese, as if you are calling to attention that they are finally doing their job. I cannot even begin to tell you the number of times I said, “thank you” out of habit, only to be met with a shake of the head “no” and them telling the Chinese-speaking person in their group that they should not be thanked.

Likewise, there is no use of the phrase “Excuse me” in China. When someone needs to get off the subway, they’ll gently push you out of the way or say something like, “I need to get off here.” If they accidentally bump into you, no words are exchanged.

Neither of these things are rude — the absence of “thank you” when someone is performing their assigned duties actually makes a bit of sense. The lack of “excuse me” is not necessarily something I understand from my American perspective, but I can certainly respect it. (And after knowing it, I can lower my blood pressure when I get pushed at the subway station.)

It occurred to me when I stepped back on American soil, and had to barrage every person I encountered with a “thank you” or an “excuse me,” that this Chinese cultural norm would definitely get lost in translation. Suddenly, the stereotypes of the Chinese being rude made sense to me. I completely disagree, but I know why some might see it that way.

It’s in these moments that I’m forever thankful for my journeys and lifelong paradigm shifts. I am always striving to be aware of all sides of the situation, consistently seeking the source of the approach by another. It’s what makes life beautiful, right?

Thank you, China, for being who you are…