Note: not to say that this kind of thing *never* happens in Korea or Japan or Taiwan - but it's rare. In the PRC, it's common...
By far, most of the people you’ll encounter in China are very pleasant. In a country with so many people and such crowded cities, good manners are important. Your status as a foreigner isn’t all that important most of the time; the stories about being treated like someone from outer space are belong mostly in the past century.
The Three Scenarios
However, there are a few situations you will go through where you’ll be pegged as a “rich Westerner” immediately, and you should be prepared to handle them:
1. Aggressive Hawkers
Whenever there are large numbers of Western tourists, such as on the Great Wall or along the approach streets to Tiananmen Square, there will be people walking around with armloads of t-shirts or metal briefcases loaded with knockoff watches.
They know just enough English to catch your attention, and lock you into a sales pitch. They are persistent - on the bicycle tours of the Beijing hutongs, they’ll even run alongside your jitney trying to offer you calligraphy brush sets. They’ll pursue your tour group for blocks.
And they’re usually wickedly overpriced compared to the same merchandise at the gift shop your group tour inevitably be routed through. (Which is also overpriced compared to the mall. You might actually be able to get it cheaper back home.) The watches will stop working once you’re back on the tour bus, by the way.
You do have to admire the energy and determination of these people - after all, that little old lady hauled all that stuff UP THE GREAT WALL every day to try to sell it to you. But if you don’t want a backscratcher or counterfeit shirt, you don’t have to buy it.
This is not as much of an issue in the main tourism areas in Beijing because of the heightened security environment, nor really much in the outlying cities, but certainly in the big delta metro areas - Guangzhou / Hong Kong and Shanghai - where millions of inland citizens have migrated to find work. And just like Western cities, not everyone gets a job, or has bad luck, medical issues, makes poor choices, or just has no family support left. The social safety net is stretched thin - and you will see people sleeping on the street if you pay attention.
For instance, on the family-travel-focused Shamian Island in Guangzhou, the police keep tight watch over who walks around, but once you’ve crossed the bridge into Chingping, there will be people in poverty, and some of them can be insistent for handouts. They won’t know English, so their questioning will sound strange and troubling to you.
3. A certain kind of shopkeeper
It has been said that there are two levels of retail customer service in China: the standoffish/bored/too busy with paperwork (or text-messaging) clerk hiding behind the counter, and the store owner who wants to know everything about you - and show you every item in the building.
Sure, you’ve already expressed some interest by walking through the door, and there may be one or two items that catch your eye. But you know you need to shop around a bit to compare prices and designs. The owner knows you’re only in town for a few days, so she has to try her best to move inventory right now. She’s unflaggingly polite and cheerful, knows a fair amount of English, and, gosh, it sure is nice to actually talk with a local.
But you know you could end up spending your entire wallet here on things you may not actually want to haul back home.
Your reaction makes the difference
Not that these scenarios are necessarily all that different from some cases in your home country, but it gets complicated in China:
The concept of “face” in Asian societies says that someone you’re never going to see again, who isn’t even of your tribe, just isn’t as important. Behavior which would be considered very rude among Chinese people can sometimes be tolerated when directed at foreigners - because they have “no face.”
And you have a responsibility as a representative of your country - and as a parent - to quite literally not cause an international incident.
So, for the first two scenarios, what are your choices?
Don’t engage, keep moving. Feign ignorance, boredom, or suddenly remember you and the rest of the group are very late for something. This is the same kind of tactic other locals use. Remember, any hesitation will be taken as an opening, and an opening will be seized. Talk with your group before venturing into touristy areas - devise a nonverbal signal to let the others know you need help, or that the group as a whole should get moving.
Sometimes it’s OK to play like a “dumb American” who doesn’t understand Chinese. (Even if you are a Canadian.) Hey, it’s your money that’s being over-estimated, not your intelligence. Use the universal shrug-and-palms-up gesture and say “I don’t understand” -- or start speaking another language... like German, Swedish, Maori, or Klingon. French and Russian are not good “bluff” languages as there are plenty of tourists in China from those countries.
Quickly establish “face” - if you can’t get past the situation quickly enough. This will take you about two seconds, but you must practice before your trip.
First, your expression should read “proper / businesslike” - NOT friendly or smiling; not angry; not apologetic.
Second, your voice needs to be louder than a conversational tone, because you want other people to hear you. But you must not shout or show any emotion.
Third, the words to say: “wǒ bù yǒu” (wah-BOO-yeow) “I don’t want it”
If you’re feeling especially gracious, “wǒ bù yǒu, xièxiè”... or “duìbùqǐ, bù yǒu.” (dway-boo-CHEE, BOO-yeow)
Fourth, if needed, raise a hand to signal “stop.”
When you do this right, you’ll be “creating face”...
-by using proper Mandarin, which won’t be expected, but will be taken a a sign of respect
-by keeping calm yet being direct, which shows you mean business
-by using the “teacher voice,” putting a tiny piece of shame on the person bothering you
This seems to work pretty well, but if everyone starts using this technique, it will lose its effectiveness. Only establish “face” if you cannot move away directly.
In the case of the overly-friendly shopkeeper who speaks English - assuming you don’t want to have a long conversation:
- If there is anything you actually are going to buy, ask her to take it to the counter for you. That’ll earn you a few moments to decide if you are done shopping there.
- You could be honest: “Thank you, we are just looking around for now. I’ll be sure to ask you if we have any questions.”
- Or you could do something unexpected and answer in Mandarin, with a smile: “Zhǐshì kàn kàn, xièxiè” (zhEE-SHer khan khan, shay shay) (Just looking, thank you.) That will send the signal that you know what the retailer-shopper game is, that you are being respectful and complimentary, and that you really are “just looking.” She’ll probably tell you your Chinese is good and head back to the counter or find other customers to assist.
Recognizing the situations may be easy, but thinking ahead about what you’ll do when you encounter them is what will help you get through quickly and with some grace.