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!


What’s in and what’s out in 2014

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Moonrise over the ancient city wall, Xi’an.

Just a few things have changed in my life this year.

New job. New city. New country. New life.

Teaching journalism in China. It’s almost as much of a challenge as practicing journalism in America.

Here are some of the things that are “in” in my new life at Tsinghua University — and some of the old, familiar things I’ve left behind.

OUT: Texas on the Potomac
IN: Yankee on Tiananmen Square

OUT: Hikes on the National Mall
IN: Hikes on the Great Wall

OUT: Bike helmets
IN: Anti-pollution masks

OUT: Turn signals
IN: Chaos on the road

OUT: The second most congested commute in America
IN: The second most congested commute in the world

OUT: Considering something three days old as new
IN: Considering something three centuries old as new

OUT: Finnish saunas
IN: Chinese massages

OUT: American Chinese food
IN: Real Chinese food

OUT: DC Metro
IN: A subway system with trains every two minutes, polite employees and escalators that actually work

OUT: Dysfunctional democracy
IN: Democracy?

OUT: Taking your shoes off at airports
IN: VPNs to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress

OUT: Rush Limbaugh’s rants against Barack Obama
IN: Chinese media rants against Japanese Prime Minister Abe

OUT: The New York Times
IN: People’s Daily

OUT: The Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial
IN: The terracotta warriors of Xi’an

OUT: Delicious Chesapeake crab cakes
IN: Delicious Chinese dumplings

OUT: Lobster rolls from food trucks
IN: Stinky tofu from street vendors

OUT: Scrapple
IN: Chicken feet, fish lips and duck brains

OUT: The Washington Redskins
IN: Mao’s little red book

OUT: Obscenely expensive Internet service
IN: Unreliable Internet, spotty WiFi and the Great Firewall of China

OUT: Obamacare
IN: Truly socialized medicine

OUT: Soccer moms
IN: Ping pong dads

OUT: 24/7 deadlines
IN: Monthlong breaks between semesters (We call them “district work periods”)

OUT: Suits and ties
IN: Casual Friday every day

The dress code is a lot more casual -- even for a China Radio International appearance.

The dress code is a lot more casual — even for a China Radio International appearance.


How living in China has made me a better person

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Appearance #7 on CCTV. I’m a big fan of the “Dialogue” program.

My grandmother Naomi and I had a 4-decade-long debate over human nature. Having survived Stalin’s Russia, McCarthy’s America, the Depression and deprivation, she passionately insisted that people don’t change as they age, they only become more like they are (or were). I, on the other hand, a child of the Baby Boom who had evolved from the transistor radio to the smart phone, argued that people can grow or change, for better or for worse.

Our dialogue did not end until Grandmom Naomi’s death three years ago just a few years shy of 100.

I now want to claim victory — at least from personal experience — although I can still hear her arguing with me for being naive and idealistic.

My first semester at Tsinghua University in Beijing has given me plenty of time to contemplate life. After all, I am living alone for the first time in 30 years in a campus apartment, the only English speaker in my building. I chucked my job at the Houston Chronicle for a great leap into the unknown in a country I had never visited.

As I await my graduate students’ final multimedia journalism projects, I can reflect on how living in China has changed me. And it has. Mostly, I hope, for the better.

The biggest change in me is that I have become more accepting of the vagaries of life. In China, you are either patient or you go mad. Internet, WiFi, hot water, heat, electricity: none can be taken for granted at any moment. If you are brave enough to travel on surface roads, you have to expect unexpected delays. You have to let go of the things you can’t control. That’s a big change for me.

You also have to be decisive … or die. (As Joe Biden would say, “literally” die.) Bicyclists pedal every which way. Near misses with another bike … or a pedestrian … or a car … are everyday occurrences. If you don’t push your way out of the crowded subway car, you miss your stop. Don’t think. Act. All in all, I like that philosophy.

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I have learned so much from students in China. Here I am in Xi’an with Lu LAN and Jane Sasseen.

At the same time, I feel I have become a lot less materialistic. Americans like to collect things. I like to collect things. Everyone who knows me knows how many things I have collected. In China, I live in a spartan apartment with nothing on the walls, a pot, a pan and enough clothing for ten days. I feel oddly liberated. I realize that I don’t need “things” to make me happy. I need to do things that make me happy. And I have discovered that spending time with friends makes me a lot happier than spending time with “things.”

My professional makeover — new occupation in a new land — also has allowed me to evolve into a different kind of leader. As president of the National Press Club and Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, I led by example and governed by consensus. That wasn’t always the formula for success — or effective management — I learned. Too many times, people mistook collegiality for weakness.

Starting over in China, I realized the importance of being a strong, focused, disciplined leader. No more “player-coach.” I hope I have earned the right to be an authority figure both from my knowledge of my subject and my post at the university. Whatever I do in years to come, my time at Tsinghua will have shaped me as a leader.

I’ve also become much more of an environmentalist. Not in the sense of political activism. But in the sense of appreciating clean air, clean water and cooking oil that doesn’t make you sick. It’s a bit spooky to travel around your (new) hometown wearing an anti-particulate mask by 3M. It’s disconcerting to have a thin layer of toxic dust on your bicycle seat in the morning. This is what can happen to the world if we don’t do more to reduce carbon emissions and create green technology — now.

And that brings me to my final thought about the future. My journalism students have made me even more optimistic about the future. After all, they are preparing to enter a business with an uncertain future in a nation where the future of journalism is quite uncertain. But they are some of the smartest young people I’ve ever worked with, and they have a breadth of knowledge and a drive to do well (and do good) that makes me think that they can change the world.

I hope so.

They already have changed me.


My local Beijing Walmart isn’t like any you’ve ever visited in the USA

You are leaving the Beijing subway and nearing the entrance to Walmart. It's not like the suburban mall you have in mind.

You are leaving the Beijing subway and nearing the entrance to Walmart.

I had this vision in my mind of what the Beijing Walmart would look like.

Elderly person at the front door welcoming you to the store. Wide aisles. Bright lighting. A little bit of Middle America in the middle of China’s capital.

Definitely not on sale in U.S. Walmarts: Scarlett Caterpillar Fungus.

Definitely not on sale in U.S. Walmarts: Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus.

But no…

My local Haidan district Walmart, just one subway stop south of Tsinghua University’s Wudaokou subway station, is a strange sort of American-Chinese hybrid. The Egg Foo Young of Chinese retailing.

First of all, there is no greeter. There isn’t even a front door, just those semi-transparent plastic flaps that substitute for doors all over China.

The store itself doesn’t resemble any Walmart in the USA. It looks more like your local dollar store. On steroids. Three floors of crowded bargains, from washing machines and treadmills to live turtles (not to bring home as pets).

What’s completely different is the product selection. You can buy Crest and Colgate and Laughing Cow cheese, but not much else that you’d buy in the American big  box.

When’s the last time you saw the Walmart “Great Value” brand bag of Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus in the USA? Or Marinated Duck Gizzard? Or Prickly Ash Powder? Or Purple Sweet Potato snacks? Or Pineapple-flavored Beer? Or Apple Vinegar Drink?

The list goes on — check it out in my slide show.

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I ended up on a shopping spree that cost me more than $40 in yuan. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, think of it this way: That’s the cost of about 25 meals on campus. Or three months of cell phone service. I think I’ve stocked my apartment for a month with everything from loose Chinese tea and two kinds of tofu to, yes, purple sweet potato snacking pieces.

My most expensive purchase was a living room rug for the equivalent of $13. The second most costly purchases was imported almonds (for hiking, of course), at about $4.

My shopping journey took four hours, most of it pure entertainment. After all, how many of you can say that you carried a rug in a backpack while you rode a bicycle home from the subway while balancing two bags of groceries?


Ten ways appearing on TV in China is different than the United States

The logo of CCTV English's current affairs program

The logo of CCTV English’s current affairs program

I’ve just completed my debut on Chinese TV before what was probably the biggest audience in my 35-year journalism career.

I was a guest on the nightly news show called “Dialogue” on CCTV (China Central TV). It’s a half-hour program where policy experts sit down and debate — freely, in my case — important international issues. No yelling. No screaming.

That alone is a big change from my appearances on — and viewing of — American TV news.

Here are some other differences between being a guest on Chinese TV and American TV:

1. No limo to pick you up.

2. No make-up artist.

3. No green room.

4. All of the anchors know what they’re talking about.

5. All of the anchors speak perfect English.

6. In-depth discussion of international issues.

7. Thirty minutes. No commercial interruptions.

8. No interruptions at all — the host and other panelist let me finish each answer before responding themselves.

9. No limo to drive you home.

10. I rode my bike home from the East Gate of Peking University subway stop after finishing the show.


Adjusting to life in China: Little by little, I’m at home in Beijing

It's easy to adjust to the serenity and natural beauty of the Tsinghua University campus.

It’s easy to adjust to the serenity and natural beauty of the Tsinghua University campus.

Little by little, there are signs that I’m adjusting to life in China. I still speak terrible Chinese, but I’m making (slow) progress. Some other signs point to a shorter-than-expected period of adjustment in my new country. A few examples:

  • At my apartment, I’m eating more meals  with chopsticks than with forks, knives or spoons.
  • I take the subway and wander the streets of Beijing without fear of getting lost.
  • I venture off campus on my bicycle into the chaotic swirl of Chinese traffic.
  • I add money to my subway fare card without the help of my Teaching Assistant.

    I can take subway line #2 clockwise or counterclockwise and not get lost.

    I can take subway line #10 clockwise or counterclockwise and not get lost.

  • I price things in yuan and don’t convert to dollars anymore.
  • I leave my passport at home when I go out.
  • I don’t get upset when the Internet connection is really slooooooooooooooooooow. Like the Texas weather, just wait an hour and it’ll change.
  • I don’t get upset when a car is driving down the wrong side of the road and appears to be heading straight for my bike.
  • I’m posting on Weibo as often as on Twitter.
  • I’m beginning to understand the difference between the four Chinese speech tones.
  • I’m beginning to understand a few street signs. In Chinese.
  • I’m starting to get the hang of sign language. Or maybe charades.
  • I’m starting to think it’s normal to ride your bike after dark without any lights.
  • I’m starting to say “ni hao” to people rather than “hello.” (With Caroline Ward, it’s still “ni howdy!”)
  • I can introduce myself as “DOO-NUH REE-KUH” rather than “RICK DUNHAM.” (I’ll pass along my real Chinese name when my colleagues show me the spelling.)
  • I don’t check the Internet every day to see what’s happened to the Phillies … or Nats … or Eagles … or Redskins.
  • I come home every night and turn on CCTV in English to discover what good deeds President Xi has done today. And what’s new in Turkmenistan.
  • I thank my lucky stars that I took this job.

Beijing by the numbers: Random observations from my first week in China

Everything at Tiananmen seems to be undergoing restoration -- except for Chairman Mao

Everything at Tiananmen seems to be undergoing restoration — except for Chairman Mao

I’m not one of those often-wrong, never-in-doubt Americans who visits a city for a week and decides he knows everything about its history, culture and politics.

That having been said, I do have a few first impressions through the eyes of a China newbie. Here are some random observations of life in Beijing by the numbers:

7

Number of Beijingers wearing anti-pollution face masks

5

Number of Beijingers wearing bike helmets

0

Number of Beijingers who have used hand signals while riding bikes

2

rick caroline jane

Cornering the market on blondes in Beijing: with Caroline Ward (left) and Jane Sasseen (right)

Number of Beijingers holding a cell phone while biking in traffic

8

Number of blonde people sighted in Beijing

5

Number of blonde people sighted in Beijing who are not friends or students of mine

5

Number of European-origin people seen on the subway

0

Number of people speaking English on the subway

9

Number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants seen around town

0

Number of people who have asked me about the Cowboys, Redskins, Eagles, Texans, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi or Capitol Hill gridlock

1

Number of students who have asked me about the American government’s lies leading up to the invasion of Iraq

8

Number of universities in this section of northwest Beijing

3

Number of Texas on the Potomac alumni now living and working in Beijing

3

Number of people I’ve met who have worked or studied in Pennsylvania

1

Number of Texas Aggies I’ve run across. (Gig ’em, Caroline!)