In China, greetings vary in different settings and based on how well you know the other person. One universal, and probably safest way to greet people is just to say “hello” in both formal and informal contexts, if you are not sure what other proper words you can choose.
Besides, we also have our Chinese-style ways of greeting others. In formal settings when meeting someone new, usually a handshake while saying “hello” or “good morning, afternoon or evening” is good enough. While in informal context with someone you already know, the manner of greeting can be very specific to the Chinese, which cannot be truly reproduced by literal translation into English. To offer some exotic insight, the following are some scenarios showing how we greet in such context.
- Greetings can be related to eating. If we meet someone at breakfast, lunch or dinner time, we can greet the person by saying: “Have you had breakfast/lunch/dinner?” or “Have you had your meal?” However, people don’t really intend to know whether you’ve had your meal, it’s just a way of saying “hello”. At this point, I think it can tell how much attention the Chinese have given to food!
- Greetings can link with where the person is going if people come across one another outside. In most cases, the greeting depends on our own deduction or guess. For example, if passing by a classmate walking towards school, we could greet him or her by saying: “You are going to the class?” Or, seeing a neighbour going back home, we can say: “You are going home?” Sometimes, when a guess can’t be made, we can say: “You are going out?”, or simply ask “Where are you going?” A simple “yes” answer is enough. If it is a “no”, you could tell the specific destination or simply say: “I’m going somewhere else.”
Greetings can also connect to what the person is doing or have been doing recently, similar rule with the above. The Chinese style of greeting may be sort of an invasion of privacy in western culture, but this reflects how Chinese people are deeply connected with one another in social settings and relationships. Asking these questions in greeting is just a way to show people’s care and willingness to be close, so the answers don’t really matter because the questions are not serious at all. The English translation sees odd to me, but in Chinese it goes in a natural way.
Finally, a quick reminder to clear a confusing issue: Chinese people don’t bow when greeting others and saying goodbye. This is unique to the Japanese people.