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.


  • 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!

Greetings from China: 5 pleasant discoveries and 5 things that might take some getting used to

This is where I went hiking ... for the history, the exercise, the fellowship and the fresh air.

This is where I went hiking … for the history, the exercise, the fellowship and the fresh air.

The eagle has landed. I’ve been in Beijing for four days now — long enough to hike a remote section of the Great Wall, sample the best Peking Duck (Beijing Duck? Just plain roast duck?) of my life and explore every nook and cranny of one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world — but not quite long enough to get over jet lag.

Rather than write the traditional “first impressions” story, I’m going to share five of my pleasant discoveries in Beijing and an equal number of things that will take some time to get used to.

Pleasant discoveries

The campus is stunningly beautiful, an island of serenity in a bustling metropolis.

The campus is stunningly beautiful, an island of serenity in a bustling metropolis.

1. Tsinghua University is one of the most beautiful in the world. It’s made one of those top ten lists for beautiful campuses, and I can see why. From the magnificent gates to the marvelous and varied sculpture, from the breath-taking canals and lily ponds to the impressive architecture and ivy-covered walls, this is a fine environment for teaching and for learning.

2. The high quality of the faculty. They don’t call it the MIT of China for nothing. The professors here are among the best in the world. The journalism faculty is uniformly excellent. I hope to live up to their very high standards.

3. The high quality of the students. I could tell from the moment I began my new student orientation session last Friday morning. These students are the best and the brightest, not just from China but from around the world. They are smart and they are motivated.

4. I can get around town without too much problem. It is a problem that I don’t speak Chinese. (Yet.) But the Beijing subway — most of which was built for the 2008 Olympics — is modern, efficient, inexpensive and very easy to navigate. Crowded? That’s a given. There are more than 20 million people here in the capital.

5. I can communicate with the outside world. Yes, I heard all of the warnings about the Great Firewall of China. And all the blocked sites. The good news, at least at this point, is that I have been able to communicate with all of my old and new friends with only minor problems.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. It's even bigger in Beijing. Here I am with one of the campus' lions.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. It’s even bigger in Beijing. Here I am with one of the campus’ lions.

Things that might take some getting used to

1. A fifth-floor walk-up apartment. On the bright side, I’m getting a lot of aerobic exercise every day.

2. Cold showers for four days. Well, I finally have hot water. Actually, I’ve had it all along but haven’t known how to turn it on. You see, the instruction guide to my apartment is in Chinese and I’m linguistically challenged. It means I also couldn’t figure out how to use the satellite TV. Or the apartment internet. The take-away lesson: Keep taking those Mandarin lessons on the Mango app.

3. Can you believe the way people drive around here? Washington drivers are awful. Drivers in Rome are maniacs. Drivers in Naples view traffic signals as suggestions. Drivers in Beijing are all of that and more. U-turns in the middle of traffic. Left turns from the right lane. Turning right on red without stopping or even looking for pedestrians or bike riders.

And while you’re at it, watch out for the bikes coming at you every which way. And the pedestrians darting across highways and major thoroughfares in the middle of traffic.

4. The parking situation. People park any place they can find a space. Not a parking space. Any old space. They park on sidewalks. They park on pedestrian malls. They park where they want, when they want. Just get out of the way when the car is coming at you.

5. Peanut butter is hard to find. I love Chinese food. I could eat it almost every meal. But I am going through peanut butter withdrawal now. Yes, yes, I’ve been told that you can get peanut butter at Walmart and in European grocery stores in Beijing. But I haven’t gone on a scouting mission yet.