Top ten things to know about traveling in China

I was recently back in China for 3 weeks, about 1.5 years after living there for nearly two years – it really is an interesting place, full of contradictions and very much a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.

In my mind it’s basically a huge “parallel universe” of 1.3 billion where there are many superficial indications of western culture and practices having been or being adopted, but scratch the surface and it’s all being done in a very Chinese way.

Shanghai's Pudong area at sunset

Shanghai’s Pudong area at sunset

Despite the many times I have visited the country over the last 9 years, the experience actually living there and the numerous books I have read on the country and it’s turbulent history, it is very clear to me that the more I learn about China, the less I actually know…

So before the memories fade from the last 3 weeks, I thought I would record for posterity the top ten things to know about traveling in China from my perspective.

The top ten things to know about traveling in China

  1. Generosity – never confuse the gruff, often downright rude, way of many Chinese with their underlying generosity and some of the greatest hospitality I have personally experienced has been in China, often from people who are extremely poor!
  2. Queues are for foreigners – standing in line, as most westerners automatically do, appears to be taken as a sign of inherent stupidity by many Chinese… why wait in that line when you can simply slip in at the front?
  3. You are what you eat – the stuff that westerners grind up, boil and then feed to pets & animals are some of the choicest things to eat in China… Faced with attending numerous customer dinners/banquets during my times in China I have learned you have two main choices – ask what it is and risk embarrassment (pass me another slice of horse penis please…) or drink a lot and just “bring it on”. There is actually a third option whereby you can pretend you are a vegetarian, something that will completely bemuse the vast majority of Chinese!
  4. A little Mandarin goes a long way – Mandarin is the standard language in China, but it is not universal and there are hundreds of local dialects. English speaking people are quite rare away from the city centers and usually non-existent most other places, so a little basic Mandarin could just save your day…
  5. Traffic Options – traffic rules do not seem to apply anywhere in China, so I think options is the right description. For example last minute swerves across multiple lanes of traffic to avoid a missed turn-off, or reversing back down an on-ramp (hazard warning lights thoughtfully activated) seem perfectly normal and rationale behavior for China’s new generation of drivers.
  6. You will pay more – foreigners are seen as completely fair-game to most Chinese and the logic seems to be that you must be rich to be there, so you can clearly afford to pay a little more and of course it’s nothing personal!
  7. Fashionistas – in the downtown areas of major cities you will see many western brand stores and well-dressed Chinese, but they are grossly outnumbered by other Chinese who seem to consider rolling up both their trousers and shirts to reveal  socks & shoes and nicely rounded rice-bellies as a very “summer thing” to do. In Shanghai for example, arguably China’s most fashion-conscious city, it is quite normal to walk around in your pajamas…
  8. The money gene – I am convinced that Chinese have an extra gene that westerners do not possess and on it is a $ sign. Basically they love to make money, know how to do it very well and generally do whatever it takes to succeed.
  9. Millisecond baggage – a millisecond is the time delay between the plane stopping and all the Chinese on it  simultaneously trying to get their bags down from the overhead lockers and jostle for position in the aisle. Similarly, there seems to be a burning desire to remove their bags from the luggage carousel and the fact that you have been waiting patiently does not seem to matter as you are shoved out of the way when their bag does arrive…
  10. Pedestrian crossings – widely available in the cities, but under no circumstances assume that there is a remote chance of road users stopping to let you cross!

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