What every tourist should know before visiting China

A panoramic view of the Forbidden City.
I plan to usher in the Year of the Horse by preparing the welcome wagon for visitors from abroad.
As a new resident of Beijing, I look forward to sharing the magic of my adopted hometown. But I warn you that you should be prepared for a few shocks, cultural and otherwise. No, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Houston. Or Washington.
Here is a brief primer for first-time visitors to China:
Culture and customs
  •  Check your cultural assumptions with your luggage. Life is different here. Don’t view life in China through the prism of your American or European experiences.
  • Beijing is crowded and massive. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of traffic, the human gridlock or the seeming chaos on the streets and in the subways. You’ll get used to it.
  • Don’t be afraid to jostle people. There is no sense of personal space here. Don’t take it personally if somebody elbows you or pushes you.
  • There is no “walk right, pass left” etiquette here. People walk, bike or drive every which way. Cars DO NOT stop for pedestrians. Bikes DO NOT yield to pedestrians. In fact, nobody yields to anybody.
  • Be decisive. Indecisive people get run over by bikes or cars or other pedestrians.
  • Don’t get upset when people spit on the street at any time in any place. Spit happens in China.
  • Do not expect Western-style toilets. Get used to holes in the ground. Don’t complain about it. Get used to it.
  • If there is not a price listed on an item in a market, you are expected to bargain. At tourist-oriented markets (such as the Silk Market), the original prices might be ten times what is reasonable. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Even if you are interested in buying something. Negotiate aggressively. If you don’t want to negotiate, go to a regular store.

Food and drink

Be careful of street food, despite its enticing aroma.

Be careful of street food, despite its enticing aroma.

  •  Don’t drink the water. Use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth.
  • Be smart when it comes to street food. Some of it is delicious, but some of it is cooked in oil that is, simply put, poisonous. Unless a Beijinger vouches for a vendor, think twice before trying it. I’m afraid I speak from experience (some bad “stinky tofu”).
  • Don’t be afraid to sample the rich variety of tasty regional cooking. Experiment beyond your comfort zone. Try things.
  • Don’t expect Chinese food to be the same as American Chinese food. It’s better. Most of all, it’s different.
  •  Your drinks may be warm or hot when served at restaurants. This includes water, milk and juices. Chinese meals maintain a balance. Cold drinks can throw a hot meal off-balance. If you want cold water (or beer) make sure to order it “bing.”

Getting around

  • Fewer people speak English than you might expect. It’s not like traveling in Europe. Younger people are more likely to understand English than older people. Some younger people may want to practice their English on you. Enjoy that – unless they’re trying to sell you something.
  • Stay calm. If things go wrong, it won’t do any good to raise your voice. If people don’t understand you, it won’t help you to get agitated.
  • Go to the most popular tourist attractions during the week. Earlier is better for places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the National Museum. They can get very crowded by midday, particularly on weekends or holidays.
  • Use the subway. Because of surface traffic gridlock, the subway usually is the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in Beijing. It is clean, efficient and cheap, in addition to being crowded. Relax and enjoy it.
  • If you are taking a taxi, make sure somebody writes down your destination in advance IN CHINESE. Do not assume that you will be able to communicate with a cab driver by trying to pronounce a location in Mandarin. You’re probably mispronouncing it, or worse, saying something embarrassing that you don’t mean to say.
  • Try to find a good street map in English (or at least in Pinyin).
  • Use Google Maps online to get an idea of where you’re going and a sense of how far it is from the nearest subway stop.
  • Make sure you have your passport with you when checking in to hotels or on plane or train journeys. Carry a photocopy of your passport ID page and your visa with you at all times.

Technology

  • Get ready for slow, unreliable Internet and spotty WiFi. Do not expect that you will have working Internet 24/7. Internet and WiFi can stop working at any time.
  • If you want to use Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or other blocked sites, you will need to have working VPN service before you arrive in China. (Email me if you need information on VPNs.) You also will need a VPN to access the New York Times, Bloomberg and some other news site.
  • Bring an electrical converter or a couple of converters designed for use in China. (Not Hong Kong.)
  • Bring a multiple-USB recharger for your electronic devices such as cameras and smartphones. You will need an electrical converter for this, along with one for your laptop.
  • It may be very expensive to use your U.S. smartphone for calls and data. Check in advance before you leave the U.S. You can always disable the data and use it via WiFi. That’s what I do, which allows me to use email, social media and the Internet for free. I also use my U.S. cell phone for text messages with friends and family in the U.S. (at a cost of 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received).

What to pack

  • Dress in layers. Be ready for wind gusts.
  • Bring disposable 3M anti-pollution masks. They aren’t very expensive and they can make your life more enjoyable on dangerously polluted days. Don’t be self-conscious about using masks. It’s for your own health.
  • Bring toilet paper, napkins, tissues and hand sanitizer. You often will not find these products in public places.
  • Make sure you have plenty of prescription medicine and vitamins. It will be hard to find, if you need it, and it may be expensive and questionable in quality.
  • Make sure you bring extra medication to combat stomach ailments and flu-liked symptoms such as Pepto Bismol, cold medicine, DayQuil and NyQuil.
  • Check in with your credit card companies and banks before you leave to let them know you will be making purchases in China.

Feel free to offer suggestions to make this guide more useful. I will update it with your ideas.

Enjoy China!


One Comment on “What every tourist should know before visiting China”

  1. […] Potomac editor of mine, turned Tsinghua University professor. The original post comes from his own, Rick Dunham Blog. It helped me gauge what to expect and what to pack for my journey to China. Now that I’ve […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s