China for the First Time Traveller: What You Should Know

I recently read a post about one American woman’s solo journey to China. A combination of personal financial problems and “bad timing” prevented her from getting the most out of this country. I realize now that China, for most people, seems like such an alien place, where, from reading other blog posts from first time travellers,  people are afraid. Afraid of the lack of language communication, afraid of the food, afraid of the general “foreign-ness.”

Because of my upbringing, I forget that many people don’t have a familiarity with Mainland China. The information they get about this country comes from the news, which of course, emphasizes the country’s shortcomings: communism, censorship, lack of “freedom,” poverty, and cheap labor.

Thus, I have been inspired to give a general primer on China. Maybe it’ll help others come to understand, at least at the surface, what China, and being “Chinese,” is.

China: The Country

I’m not here to give you a history lesson, but to understand China means that you should understand a little about China’s history. I’m not going to go into which emperor did what or how the “evil commies destroyed all that is Chinese.” There are just some facts about China as a country that many people don’t know or don’t understand.

1) China is big
China is the third largest country in the world. It is tied with the US in size. This means that everything is spread out at great distances. Traveling from Beijing to Shanghai is the equivalent of traveling from Los Angeles to Seattle. For someone who wants to travel all of China in one go, that would mean traveling all of America in one go. That means at least a month long trip, if you want to see all the major sights. If you’re planning a shorter time in China, then you have to choose a region of China to travel to. Traveling Beijing to Shanghai is the most popular option, and you can see the sights and even go to nearby cities of Tianjin (one hour from Beijing), Suzhou (40 minutes by train from Shanghai), Hangzhou (one hour from Shanghai), and Wuxi (one hour from Shanghai) in 8 days.

Since China is so big, expect long hours traveling between major cities. The distances get longer the farther west you go (just like in the United States). A bus ride from Dail, Yunnan to Lijiang, Yunnan takes seven hours, roughly the same time as traveling from Los Angeles to San Fransisco.

2) China is diverse
China, like the United States, is made up of lots of ethnic minorities. In fact, “China,” like “United States,” is only a political term. The country is made up of over 30 “official ethnic groups,” with hundreds of smaller ethnicities that get lumped into the larger groups.  About 90% of “Chinese people” are from the Han ethnic group. They are the equivalent of the “white/Caucasian” ethnic group in America. Thus, the “Chinese culture” that the world is exposed to is mainly Han culture, just like how the “American culture” the world is exposed to is mainly American white culture. And just like any other country with large populations of various ethnicities, conflicts do arise. Protests, riots, and fighting happen. The Chinese government deals with civil unrest according to its own rules, not anyone else’s.

The diversity also applies to language. The “Chinese language” is made up of hundreds of different dialects. The dialect used for official business and in schools is Mandarin. All Chinese citizens are required to speak Mandarin to some degree. Many also speak the local dialect. Thus, even in the Mandarin dialect there are regional differences because the people of one region of China may blend their local dialect with Mandarin.

3) China is proud
China, like all countries, is proud of its nation. The people are proud to be Chinese and proud of their country. They also value their own pride, or face. I hate to use this term, but Chinese people are very keen on “saving face.” This means that if they encounter a situation that may embarrass themselves or someone else, they would find some way to avoid it. It might come in the form of an awkward chuckle, a change in topic, or even a complete avoidance of the situation.

For example, I have a cousin who is born and raised in Shanghai. He learned English in school, and has a very good listening grasp of the language. But try to get him to speak English with a native English speaker and he completely clams up. I’ve tried to get him to talk to me in English, but all I get is an awkward chuckle, an “um,” and a half hearted attempt to say one word in English before reverting back to Mandarin. It’s an attempt to not embarrass himself, or “lose face.” Other people have said that they ask for help in English from someone, only to have the other person turn around and walk away. It’s not them trying to be rude, but their attempt not to embarrass themselves by admitting they can’t understand and help you, and also an indirect attempt to not embarrass you for asking for help and not getting any.

4) China is not America/Europe/Japan/etc.
This seems obvious but I realized after talking with people that first time travelers to China often find it so “culturally different” from any place they’ve been. Not to be mean, but of course it is. In the same way that the United States is not Germany, China is not the United States. Therefore, when travelling in China, you must understand that China’s concepts of cleanliness and manners are not the same as the “West.”

Public restrooms in China are generally disgusting. This comes from the fact that people in China consider keeping public restrooms clean for others a foreign concept. Squat toilets are prevalent because Chinese people believe it is more sanitary than Western toilets (your butt doesn’t touch anything and so you won’t get germs). Since they try so hard to not touch anything in a public restroom (not even the stall door), they don’t think they need to wash their hands. There’s also a thought that washing your hands with cold water will make you more vulnerable to diseases. Soap is also a foreign concept.

Chinese people are not dirty though. They keep their homes relatively clean for the most part. Then what is reason why public spaces are dirty though? They think that since they don’t live in the dirty public spaces, that they can dirty it up all they want. There’s also the fact that some of the dirt in these spaces date from centuries of human occupation in close quarters. New York City is one non-Chinese example of that; I’ve seen rats the size of a small cat in that city.

Pushing, shoving, and lining up are also relatively new concepts to Chinese people. Of course, the pushing and shoving vary depending on what part of China you go to. In Shanghai, people are busily hurrying from one place to another. That just asks for slower bystanders to get bumped into. Finding a seat on the subway almost never happens, so when 10 people see the same spot, you can expect a mad rush. Not lining up is a leftover habit of Mao’s era, when food was so scarce that people had to fight to get even a small bag of rice. While people in the larger cities do tend to line up and are more polite, many others are recent arrivals to these cities, and they don’t understand that pushing and shoving is frowned upon.

Some other things to consider. It’s customary to bring a small gift with you when you meet Chinese locals. If you’re staying in a homestay, be sure to bring something for your hosts. Giving the tour guide a small present or a tip assures them that they did a good job. I don’t mean to say that you should give out presents to anyone who is helpful, but if you know that you will be working with someone for an extended amount of time, it’s polite to give something to them to show appreciation.

Customer service is horrible in China (like it is in countries where tipping is not the norm). Service counter people, waiters, and waitress all are trying to make a living by having a high turnover rate. This means quick, impersonal service. The only exception to this have been cab drivers, who are quite friendly and talkative if you show interest in their thoughts. Of course this requires a level of Mandarin that most first time travellers don’t have.

Also, when taking a taxi, make sure it is actually a taxi cab and not a black market cab. The latter tends to overcharge and might even try to steal your possessions. I’ve also gotten tips from local Shanghainese about which cabs to take, as there are many different cab companies. Red and green taxis tend to try and con you and also have worse drivers. Blue, white, and yellow taxis are better. In Beijing, if you know the distance to your location, you can negotiate the price with the cabbie. Again, this requires a level of Mandarin.

5) Chinese food is diverse and meaty
Each region of China has its own cooking style. You won’t find General Tso’s Chicken or chop suey here (those are American creations). Meat is often incorporated into meals because eating meat means you are wealthy enough to afford it (another holdover from the Maoist era). Vegetarianism is reserved only for strict Buddhists and monks, so if you’re a vegetarian (吃素)  finding a place to eat might prove to be difficult unless you eat close to a temple. Unless you’re traveling to Xinjiang or another area with a large Muslim population, forget about keeping Kosher or Halal: China is the land of pork.

It’s polite to pour tea for the people in your dining party. It’s also polite to eat everything on your plate, but impolite to take the last piece of food on the communal plate. If you are eating with someone older or higher on the social ladder than you, it’s polite to let them get first pick of a dish. It is also customary to “fight” over the check, but for the first time visitor, just offering to pay would be enough to get some bonus points with your Chinese hosts/friends. While going Dutch has become more common for the younger generation, it’s still uncommon. You make up for getting a free meal by offering to pay for the next one, or giving them a small present in the future.

6) China is modernizing
Most people think of China as a place where everyone has a plot of farmland, owns a yak, and wears a rice hat. Or they think of a place that doesn’t have large megacities full of people. Many people think that going to see “real” China means getting out of the cities and into the countryside.

Newsflash: it’s not. Is going to Iowa more “American” than going to New York City? Are the Cotswolds more “British” than London? Are farmers more “authentic” than the city dweller?

Then why does going to the Chinese countryside give travellers a more “real” picture of China than going to a city like Shanghai?

China, like any other country, is made up of both the country and the city. And like any other country, the city is where people from all over the country come to make a living. They bring their cultures with them, mixing them with the local city culture and in so doing they contribute to the ever-changing culture of a nation. Chinese culture, like any other culture, is constantly moving, changing, and redefining itself. So what gives a traveller the right to say that one part of China is less “Chinese” than another part? Do they honestly expect Chinese culture to not change? Do they expect to see people living in old hutongs, to see pagodas everywhere they go? That would be the equivalent of a traveller to America thinking all of America is like colonial Williamsburg or the Wild West. Culture changes. The traveller needs to understand that.

This is only six points that I want to make. I hope that after reading this you have a clearer understanding of China. My best tip for the traveller to China is to keep an open mind. Travelling China is often a confusing and chaotic experience. But if you keep an open mind, and understand that this country has its own set of rules, then you might be able to get the most out of China.

If anyone has questions or comments, feel free to leave a message in the box below.

One thought on “China for the First Time Traveller: What You Should Know

  1. Good day!This was a really superb theme!
    I come from china, I was fortunate to find your topic in digg
    Also I obtain a lot in your theme really thanks very much i will come again

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