Cultural Differences Come Home to Roost

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One of the first things I noticed when I moved to China was that people in Beijing were very particular about not wearing outside shoes inside their homes. It’s customary to take your shoes off at the door and either leave them outside or just inside the door and change into “house slippers”. Many people take it even further than that – one foreign friend recounted to me how horrified her friend had been when the foreigner had come to visit and sat down on her bed in her “outside clothes”. There’s a real feeling that it’s dirty outside and many people come home and change into their “home” clothes straight away.

Of course, this does not apply all over China – a huge country with vast differences in culture and beliefs between different provinces and city vs countryside life, as well as the natural differences from one family to another. But it’s things like this that can trip you up a little when you go to visit local friends for the first time, and even more so if you move in together with a Chinese guy.

One regular belief I’ve heard time and again in Beijing is that you should not wash your underwear in the washing machine. I believe the reasoning is that the washing machine is never really clean, and so it’s not washing your underwear well enough. I can see that this may have made sense a long time ago when washing machines and the accompanying washing powder were first developed. But really, who has the time or energy to handwash their underwear? If that’s your jam – go right ahead – but if it’s your partner “forbidding” you from doing so and he’s not willing to wash them himself – it might just be time to chuck him and his undies in the rubbish.

This is the real challenge when moving in with someone – as well as combining your lifestyles and belongings, you’re having to negotiate different beliefs and behaviours that you may never have realised when you lived apart. Trying to negotiate that when you’re living in your partner’s country and they’re essentially telling you you’re wrong or strange or dirty can be a belittling experience – but it shouldn’t be. It’s time to figure out which behaviours, beliefs and practices you can both negotiate on because there are no right or wrong ways to do things. It’s a classic “pick your battles” kind of situation and should be done with respect.

Sometimes, we give up too much in our quest to please our partner – and lose ourselves in the process. Sometimes as we claw our way back to the way we want things we might find the battle is too great. Or we may find that some ways of doing things become natural and change us for the better. My family in Australia often find it strange when I take my shoes off at their front door when I come to visit – it’s become so normal to me that I feel awkward wearing outside shoes inside.

Is there anything that surprised you when you moved in with your partner? 

Susie Hart


  1. You are making assumptions that these things you mention are not common in other counties – they are.
    Regarding removing your shoes when you enter a house – this is common in many countries (certainly in Europe and Canada) and not such a cultural difference. In my home country you would remove your shoes automatically – it is the norm.

    It would rarely occur that you are sitting on someone else;s bed unless it was your partners.
    I would not enter a friends bedroom, nor would they enter mine unless invited.
    The bedroom is, certainly in Europe. a private place that ordinary guests would not enter unless invited for a reason. If i was invited into a bedroom of a friend (not a partner) i would wait to be invited to sit somewhere or ask where i could sit. If they invite me to sit somewhere it would mean they don’t have a problem with what i am wearing.
    again, you are making out that these are ‘cultural differences’ when these are things that actually occur in other countries, and i have certainly experienced in my travels and involve common sense and courtesy.
    When in China i have a big problem preventing Chinese guests from wandering into private rooms/space like bed-rooms uninvited, as this is not the norm for Europeans. I equally had to keep telling Chinese guests not to go into my office, as that was my work place.
    This comes down to basic courtesy when in someone elses home – you limit your presence to the living room, bathroom and kitchen, unless invited to go into other rooms.

    re washing clothes.
    it has been my experience that washing machines in China don’t have warm water settings.
    Therefore chucking everything in together would be gross and seperating out makes sense.
    Yes, you seperate out delicates like silk etc, and don;’t wash with cotton or other materials, and guess what – there are wasking machines that allow of half loads.
    if your other half is too lazy to peform simple house-hold tasks, or refuses to acknowlede your cultural norms, this is not compromise. your other half telling you that your norms are strange or dirty is equally belittling. a parterner who refuses to negotiate is not worth the hassle unless you want to be a door-mat.

    1. I’m describing things that are cultural differences for me – obviously each person’s culture, life experience and norms will differ. This is precisely why cultural differences can be so challenging, because what may be “normal” for me could be entirely unusual, weird or even unacceptable for others.

      Similarly for “common sense” and “courtesy” the norms can be very different from one country, one city, one family or one person to another.

      1. For me, common sense and courtesy involves looking to see what the host does (for shoes and coats), if it is my first visit, or ask what the host where he/she would like shoes/coats put. It would also involve not entering rooms that were not the living room (or where you are led into), the bathroom or the kitchen unless invited to do so. Not examining or opening the host’s personal items such their bag (even when left beside a seat), opening drawers or opening closed doors (unless being told that is a specific room such as the boathroom, that i require). I have found that even Chinese friends would open my hand-bag to and try entering bedrooms even when the door was closed. Sadly i caught the local girl-friend of a colleague opening drawers in my bed-room one time and ‘just being curious’ was not an acceptable excuse: she would have had to enter a room that was not even next to the bathroom, open a door, walk around the bed and open drawers. And this was not an isolated incident when it came to my interaction wtih Chinese people. Many times I would catch work collgeagues examining the contents of my bags (hand-bag and work-bag) when they thought i was not in the room. It is all about respecting boundaries, at work and within the home. I have shared accomodation with many people from my student days. often the first conversation was around acceptable boundaries and responsibilities. For me this is basic common sense for people to understand how to share a space and respect other people.

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