Going to China? 6 Things to Know Before You Go

Around 55 million of us each year visit China, making it the fourth most popular destination for tourism in the world. 

This is understandable considering the size of it, which includes countless natural and man-made wonders, developed over an incredible history that spans 5000 years.

Jiuzhaigou Valley in Sichuan

I want to bring to your attention some things you maybe haven’t thought about, so I’m not going to point out the obvious stuff that you've likely heard before.

You already know about the pollution...

you already know about the weird food...

AND you probably have some negative preconceptions about how the country is run...

Yet you want to come anyway.

Good!

...Because I think it really is an unforgettable place that all open minded individuals should visit at least once in their lifetime.

I’m a firm believer in the cliché of travel broadens the mind.

Having travelled around several cities here, and having lived in Southern China going on 6 months now, I by no means consider myself at one with China (far from it) but I like to think I’m good at making observations.

Without further ado, here are 6 things to think about, before you make the journey to the Eastern Kingdom.

#1

1. ENGLISH WILL NOT ALWAYS SAVE YOU

Despite the often referenced statistic that there are more English speakers in China than in the United States, you will likely find yourself in a number of situations where your mother language has little to no value.

Outside of the more international friendly cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and of course Hong Kong, it can be a struggle to find native Chinese that can speak more than a few words of English.

You'll often come across funny signs like this

This can be of particular trouble for things like buying train tickets at the station, asking for directions and ordering food at a restaurant (Just hope the menu has lots of pictures so you can drool and point to what you want)

It's fairly well known learning Chinese isn't as easy as say Spanish or French, and unless you put in some pretty hard work before you set off, I'd argue that casually learning a few phrases isn't going to help much.

If you're not keen on spending several dozen hours learning Mandarin, I'd highly recommend at the very least getting Google Translate installed and a dictionary app on your phone.

There are quite a few available but most of us Chinese learners use Pleco, which is free for the basic version and should be adequate for travelling. 

I'll share with you my simplified method for finding something in a shop or supermarket that I still sometimes use, even now.

HOW TO USE PLECO TO BUY THINGS IN CHINA

1. Open app, search for the word. You'll usually see a list of words in Chinese.

2. Find nearest unlucky soul. An employee of the shop is works best.

3. Show them your phone screen, pointing at the list of words​.

4. Optional but helpful: Say 'zài nǎr' or ‘zài nǎlǐ' while doing the above step.

5. If the person understands and begins to walk, follow them. If not then find a new person, repeat from step 2.

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Making friends with locals is also a good way to improve your travels and give you a feeling of comfort knowing if the language barrier becomes a real issue they can help you out.

I'd also recommend getting the Wechat app, literally everyone in China has this. Now your new friends don't even have to always be with you to provide a helping hand if needed. Give them a call and pass the phone over to that taxi driver who's patience is wearing thin.

God bless technology!

#2

2. YOU MAY FIND THE CHINESE RUDE (BUT THEY ARE REALLY NOT)

DISCLAIMER: I'm not giving all Chinese citizens and tourists a free pass on this, cultural differences aside, some really are rude (like those found in every other country)

On my first flight to China I was pretty shocked by the whole experience. The plane was 99% Chinese tourists returning to their home country so I was of course immersed pretty much as soon as I boarded.

Something I noticed very quickly was how impatient everyone seemed, especially when comparing to previous flights I have been on to European destinations and America.

The process of boarding and finding your seat seemed like an Olympic race. If someone was storing away their luggage in the overhead locker, the people behind would not wait but rather try to squeeze through an impossibly tight gap between a body and the seats, seemingly having no regard for personal space.

Getting off the plane was an even more chaotic affair...

The sounds of seatbelts unbuckling before the planes wheels have touched the tarmac, witnessing the super eager ones stand up and begin to pull out their luggage, despite being urgently told to return to their seats.

Every man and women for themselves does appear to be in play. Be prepared for this!

I also took a heavy suitcase to the head due to the rush (I’m sure it weighed more than the 7kg limit), the perpetrator made no apology or acknowledgement to me. I can’t make any excuses for this one occasion as to why this isn’t rude, but to be fair inconsiderate people can be found in any country.

While in China, when facing other situations the same attitude is apparent; don’t expect many orderly queues for things you would expect to queue for.

If you spend more than a week in China you’ll soon adapt to the Chinese way of doing things, most likely out of sheer frustration when you have your taxi stole from you for the 5th time in a row (this happened to me).

I'm actually a little worried about returning to the UK and adjusting my attitude back to polite mode.

This video of a Thai woman complaining about Chinese tourists at an airport is difficult to defend, but I believe they don't see themselves as being rude, as this is the way things are done in China. (It's hard to defend on this occasion because this is NOT in China)

If you’re prone to get angry easily or have a big problem with patience, then I hope this serves as a caution to you.

I would advise against becoming confrontational in China if you feel you have been wronged, or any other country for that matter, as you are an outsider and onlookers may be more likely to take the side of their fellow countrymen over you.

Being British and stereotypically over the top polite made this one of the hardest aspects of daily live in China to become accustomed to, but I remind myself the majority of these people don’t view their actions as rude, so it’s important to remember that there is no malice behind their behaviour.

You just have to look at how traffic and driving is handled in China to fully understand this. 

#3

3. BE PREPARED FOR THE LAWLESS ROADS OF CHINA

Lawless is a bit of an overstatement but it sometimes feels that way

Being on the road is where you can clearly see the core difference in mentality between China and the west. The driving style is a good insight into the mind-set behind the majority of Chinese citizens.

I don’t know what the specific road laws are in China, but a lack of police presence means anything goes as long as you don’t make contact.

I vividly remember my first car journey from the airport to my accommodation. Within seconds of setting off I was terrified, clinging onto anything I thought would help to embrace the impact when I ended up in a metallic wreck.

We aggressively weaved through traffic, horns beeping every few seconds, every other overtaking ‘manoeuvre’ felt like I could recall it later to friends as an “I almost died” story. Alas, after driving head-on into traffic for a small stretch of road to get to the apartment, I arrived in perfect physical health (albeit mentally exhausted).

This is what most of us will experience to varying degrees, depending on your exposure to transport in other countries. Ultimately, you need to keep in mind this system is what works for them and just because we aren’t used to it, it’s obvious that they are. In my research I found this great little article that compares driving in China to the US.

If you applied the UK rules of driving to China, it would undoubtedly create a 24 hour traffic jam where no one can get anywhere, due to the sheer number of vehicles on the roads. Just let go and enjoy the rush.

In the hotter parts of China you also have a huge population of scooters and motorbikes which adds to the chaotic feel. Crossing roads at stop-lights, being amongst dozens of scooters is a unique experience, though a little unnerving when you need to trust that those coming towards you decide to go around you rather than into you.

I've not experienced crossing a road like this (and don't plan to), but don't worry as there are plenty of crossings with traffic lights!

For those of you that are planning longer travels here, you will likely adjust. After a few weeks I could take taxis and have my eyes down on my phone for the whole journey, rather than watching the road ahead in anticipation.

That’s not to say don’t be careful however, while it’s safer than it looks, traffic accidents in China are a lot more common than in your home country, so I’d recommend always wearing a seatbelt if it’s available (durr) and taking lots of care when crossing roads.

#4

4. IT'S NOT AS BUSY AS YOU THINK IT WILL BE

This sounds a bit contradictory after reading the above right?

Before I came to China I had an exaggerated view and a slight worry that everywhere, at all times I would be struggling to breath, stuck in a sea of Chinese people. I think I can blame this on how our media portrays China and this is thankfully far from the reality.

Yes, public transport can be very crowded at peak times, and popular tourism areas are fairly busy, but outside of weekends and Chinese public holidays, I would compare these tourist destinations with the top tourist spots found in the US and Europe.

Venice to me was in fact a heck of a lot more crowded than the time I went to Shanghai in November.

It's rare to see this outside of peak times

If you are off the beaten track a little, exploring cities that 90% of your friends and colleagues have never heard of, chances are it will be more than bearable and your personal space will rarely be violated by hordes of Chinese locals.

Unless you are on a super tight budget, I’d recommend that for any journey of short to moderate distance that taking a taxi is the best option. It’s faster, more convenient, MUCH more comfortable and still cheap by Western standards.

While it’s not as crowded as you might expect, Chinese people tend to enjoy 热闹 (rènào), translated to mean lively/loud/hot (sort of a mix of these). The hustle and bustle is something many embrace, so often you may feel a place is more artificially busy and chaotic then it truly is.

My overall point here is that I suspect many people have the same belief I did before I came to China, so I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you arrive.

Oh and those public holidays I mentioned? Unless you are some kind of masochist, do NOT travel during them, especially not during Chinese New Year.

#5

5. CHINA MAY NOT BE AS DEVELOPED AS THE MEDIA SAYS

I think this one is interesting, many people have a view of China being a rapidly advancing land of tall skyscrapers, multiplying every day, with money and opportunities everywhere you look. We're always hearing about how fast the country is developing (until very recently)

There is a small amount of truth in this, but the reality for the majority of the country is not even close.

If you stray outside of Shanghai and Beijing to other cities, you’ll find it’s a stark contrast of rich and poor. You’ll find almost all city centres are fairly modern, but a short ride out of the metropolitan areas will take you to a different world.

There are still buildings and roads of course, but the quality of life declines the further out you get. Rubbish is poorly handled so in some areas it’s very dirty and provides an array of unpleasant aromas to enjoy. Rats and cockroaches are not uncommon (at least in my experience, being in Southern China with the heat).

That said there’s a certain charm and enjoyment to these areas of lower development and I’m not trying to discourage anyone from taking a look, in fact quite the opposite.

If you plan on going to see some of the beautiful natural scenery China has to offer, you will likely be in or get to see the countryside along the way.

On a long bus trip in Kunming I saw that amongst the mountainous landscape were many small villages inhabited by farmers.

Planted crops presumably belonging to them could be found all over the mountains stretching several miles. It was quite a sight

I’d encourage people to get out of the tier 1 cities and see the real China, despite the poverty the people are not threatening and I have never felt I was in danger. In fact the people are quite friendly and might even take a special interest in you.

This brings me onto the next thing you should know before you come to China.

#6

6. ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME? STARING AT WAIGUOREN

外国人 (wàiguó rén) means foreigner. You will learn this word even if you're not actively studying Chinese. People will call you this to your face and behind your back, don't take it personally. We are foreigners after all right?

You may have heard about the staring if you’ve been doing your homework about China before your trip, but I can’t overstate just how true and noticeable this is.

If you don’t look Asian you will be stared at by a lot of people, especially in places where tourists are less common. If you happen to be tall like me then expect even more stares.

The stares will vary, but the majority are simply a look of curiosity and possibly surprise, as we really stand out in a non-diverse society. 

Also expect to have your photo taken now and again, sometimes they’ll be very obvious about it, some will be super sneaky and do it while pretending to take a selfie. Ignore it or embrace it, I know some people really revel in the attention which I guess is good?

I’m not too effected by it now, but it still sometimes gets to me if a group of guys will simultaneously give me what feels like a death stare, or when someone eyeballs me for tooooo long (in situations where both of us are stationary and there’s nowhere to hide).

Of course, when it’s a pretty girl or group of them, I'm not going to complain. So y’know, swings and roundabouts.

Also if nightclubs are your thing, you can expect your exoticism to earn you free drinks and other privileges. However I doubt this is the case for the clubs in the big cities as foreigners are not a rare sight in the venues anymore, though I do not have first-hand experience with this.

I have not encountered any obvious racism for being a pasty white lanky man, but I have heard a few bad stories from those that are not white, though nothing involving violence. I suggest doing some research but I think China is pretty safe for everyone.

In fact I can confidently say that I feel a lot safer here at all times than I do in the UK, sad but true.

These observations just touch the surface, truthfully you just need to....

EXPERIENCE CHINA FOR YOURSELF

Oddly enough I consider all 6 of these points to be things I like about this wonderfully imperfect nation, despite how I may have come across. If the country was the same as my own, how boring would that be!

Keep an open mind, shrug off and laugh about awkward situations you come across and I'm sure you'll quickly develop a strong affection for China.

Plus, this is is all just one man's opinion, I don't doubt that your own experiences in China will differ to mine.

As a nice way to wrap things up, I'll end with some of the pro's and cons of visiting China

  • See countless examples of breathtaking natural beauty
  • Marvel at both 5000 years of history, and the man-made accomplishments of modern China
  • Eat real Chinese food, this will be a shock for all those that enjoy takeout
  • Explore a culture that is different in almost every way to your own
  • Step out of your comfort zone and grow as a person after handling difficult situations
  • Traffic accident rates are much higher than in western countries
  • Harder to get around if you cannot speak Mandarin
  • You may be scammed or overcharged without due dilligence
  • Hygiene levels in some areas will be lower than what you are accustomed to

Clearly the reasons to go far outweigh any possible negatives, so you've made the right choice in choosing China as your travel destination.

Hope you've enjoyed the read, I know it was a little long.

Disagree with me? Have a question? Drop a comment below!

5 thoughts on “Going to China? 6 Things to Know Before You Go

  1. Reply Lawrence Jul 13,2015 6:19 pm

    Hi Simon

    What an interesting article or write up on the Chinese people behaviour. Do you find out why they behave like that in the first place?

    I travel and tour many places in China every years and always amazed what the Chinese do and think.
    Because the Chinese people expose to the western culture, they tend to get rich easy ways and earn more money and for ladies looking for rich man to marry.

    One child policy causes a lot social problem and a lot of stress in Chinese society and Confusim teaching also still embrace by al the Chinese.
    One thing I knew is China still under CCP and have a long ways to educate the people to behave themselves in the public and in other countries.

    • Reply Simon Jul 13,2015 9:21 pm

      Thanks for your comments Lawrence.

      As I’m not too read up on the subject and as it’s not something I’m super interested in, I tend to avoid discussions about politics, especially ones about countries I still know so little about.

      As to why some Chinese may behave in a manner many would consider rude, I stumbled upon this reddit thread and the “best rated” answer offers a plausible explanation (though I don’t agree with everything he/she has written)

  2. Reply Bishnubabu Jul 14,2015 4:53 pm

    Dear Simon, you’ve nicely done this article. However, comparing to decade-long stay in UK I feel lot comfortable living here in China despite having language barriers. I don’t encounter same racial discrimination everywhere as in England.

    Chinese never said they are a developed nation as England or USA. It should not surprise you to see villages with poor lifestyle outside major cities. It will take a while to compare a remote village of China with its counterpart from West, I believe eventually it will be achieved. They are improving every aspect of nation. I just hope they will pay more attention towards being polite by teaching kids to throw rubbish in bins and doing the same by themselves, learning to be in queue and talking little bit quietly in public transportation on (or off) their mobile phones.

    But in my nearly three years of observation I’ve found Chinese people very friendly, honest and innocent. I was the victim of street scam myself on my first week, but from that single incident I’ll not judge for 1.4 billions people as bad. No nation on earth has 100% good mannered citizens. My understanding here is what it feels to us outsiders rude sometimes may not actually be rude at all. Have you seen that video where a host beats so badly and injures his own guest at the restaurant? Only for the right to pay the bill! It’s all about cultural differences.

    I guess your 6 things before going to China can be summed into 1, that is – get prepared to experience new things.

    Finally, I can not agree with you more-“if the country was the same as my own, how boring would that be!”

    • Reply Simon Jul 14,2015 7:55 pm

      Hi Bishnubabu,

      Really appreciate your comments, thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts!

      Yes sadly I can believe that about the UK.

      In the section about China’s development I was not trying to compare China to my own country, and I personally was not surprised to see poverty as my girlfriend at the time (Chinese) would tell me all about China before I went.

      My main point was really aimed at people that have a media-centric view of China as a rapidly developing country (my father for example), which while true, is certainly not true for the majority of the country and the people

      However I would have to disagree on your view that China is improving in every aspect, though that’s another discussion all together!

      Cheers,
      Simon

  3. Reply Bishnubabu Jul 15,2015 11:45 am

    Hello mate, it’s much better people having positive thoughts about China as your dad (which is lot nearer to the truth) than having completely stupid ideas as one of my UK boss who never been to China but strongly believed life in China is no different from life in North Korea, isn’t it?

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