By Karla Helvie

China has been an intense draw for me this summer. Not only is news about China or coverage of the Olympics readily available, but in less than two weeks, I leave Michigan to live and study in Shanghai for four months.

One article I read recently details China’s struggle with a topic that’s also of concern in the U.S. As China has grown economically, moving from communism to capitalism, its migrating population has stretched family bonds, and the question of how to support retirees is looming large. Census figures estimate that China will have 400 million people over the age of 60 by 2020. Many of these retirees have only small social-security incomes and government health insurance that won’t cover large medical expenses. In an attempt to prepare for the aging population, the government has increased the social-security plan and enlarged the health insurance package, along with creating retirement savings accounts. In 2000, only 18.6 percent of the population was eligible for social security benefits, while today, benefits are available for 90 percent of the population. These changes are one reason the government is popular–according to polls, over 87 percent of Chinese people believe that the government should be responsible for retirement social security and health care. The overwhelming public response is that society, in the form of the state, should oversee and supply retirees with their income and benefits.

One of the most frequent reactions I get when I tell people I’m going to China is something along the lines of, “That is going to be so different!” This is undoubtedly true, and another recent article gave the reader several tips on Chinese etiquette and what to expect from daily interactions and events while in China. Below are five of the tips (taken from MSNBC) that seem to me to give the most insight into the Chinese character:

1. Cars
Never, ever assume pedestrians have the right of way. Cars will not necessarily stop for you. Cross with a group if possible at a designated crosswalk. A car won’t stop for a single person necessarily, but will stop for a group because the driver doesn’t want the car to be dented. The Chinese really love their cars.

2. Chopsticks
Don’t point at other people’s faces with them. Don’t stab your food with them like toothpicks. Don’t lick them. And by all means don’t stick them upright in your rice bowl—that’s how the Chinese honor the dead at graves.

3. Face
Never shout, even when someone has done something wrong. Losing your temper will only make the other person feel that he or she has lost face (i.e. dignity), and will often cause that person to refuse to take responsibility for a problem. Best to smile, stay friendly, and persistently ask the person to “help you” solve whatever problem has arisen.

4. Respect for elders
It’s fine to open doors and give up your seat to an older person of either gender. And don’t be offended if younger Chinese—male or female–offer you an arm going up stairs or other assistance if you are older. They don’t think you’re infirm. They’re just trying to be polite.

5. Smiling
Chinese people smile for more reasons than Americans. A smile can mean the person is embarrassed, curious, happy, friendly, or trying to be helpful. In the middle of an argument, smiling means that the speaker doesn’t want this to become personal. When all else fails, smile in China. It shows you have no ill intentions, and it can work wonders in getting better service.

Sources: “Aging May Strain Chinese Economy” Raleigh News & Observer, August 17; “10 Chinese Etiquette Tips,”, Aug. 8