Things you should know before visiting China from a semi-local (me). As someone who was born in the country, I now regularly visit as a tourist. Simply put, visiting China can be the most difficult or easy task, depending on your nationality, race, and prior experience in and around Asia. Nonetheless, there are a few tips for China that will help you better navigate the country!
In the past couple of years, the Chinese government has tightened its grasp on the sociopolitical sphere of the country. This firmer hold means a stricter firewall, a more thorough background check, and extra surveillance for those visiting China. I was quite taken aback by the increased amount of security that came with my recent trip to the Labrang Monastery in February. From a scan of all my fingerprints at the airport (I felt naked) to facial scans at the hotels, I wouldn’t be surprised if China has a storage full of cloned visitors, just sayin.
OTHER than the craziness, I still have a lot of love for the country. I often miss the days of wandering around cheap shops with friends, chowing down on delicious street eats after school, and soaking up the chaotic atmosphere without a care. I spent endless hours attempting to perfect my Chinese in Xi’an and countless days by the shoreline in Shenzhen. For those who’d like to visit the country, it isn’t hard to see why. China’s diverse scenery and rich culture equate to a unique getaway. Of course, having some tips for China on hand will definitely make your experience more enjoyable.
Without further ado, here are some things you should know before going to China.
- 1. A Brieeeeef Overview of its History
- 2. How to Bypass that Firewall
- 3. Navigating a Cashless Society
- 4. Always Have a Bag of Tissue Paper Handy!
- 5. All About Manners: Chopstick Etiquette
- 6. Reject Before you Accept!
- 7. Dinnertable Chats: Go Light on the Politics
- 8. Visiting China: All about Tipping
- 9. Bring Documentation Everywhere
- 10. Weather, People, Food, Transportation, Miscellaneous
- Looking for a tour group around China?
1. A Brieeeeef Overview of its History
China has over 5000 years of documented history. With nearly a dozen dynasties spanning a few millennia, it’s no surprise that some customs are deeply ingrained.
Before 221 BC, China was split between several warring states. It was the Qin Dynasty that established the first unified authoritarian empire (think terracotta warriors).
At its height, the “middle kingdom” was prosperous and far-reaching. In addition to the development of science, maths, and the arts, it had several tributaries that regularly paid tokens of submission. But such splendor didn’t last. China’s internal conflict and court corruption slowly ate itself up. The Opium Wars in the mid-19th century compromised the country’s sovereignty. The Revolution of 1911 overthrew the monarchy and established a republican regime.
After the tragedies of WWII and a devastating civil war mid-20th century, the People’s Republic of China came to power in 1949. To modernize China through collectivism and industrialization, Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward (GLF), which aimed to revolutionize China’s economic and social development. However, the GLF led to one of the most tragic administrative failures in modern history that resulted in millions of deaths. In the mid-70s, the Cultural Revolution further hindered the country’s progress.
It wasn’t until the 80s that China opened its doors to the world. My parents’ generation was some of the first to have a taste of a freer* economy characterized by modern China.
China’s Great Fire Wall is world-famous. It blocks everything bordering “Western influence” so to protect the supposedly communist and mostly CPC stronghold over the country. This is not to say that all citizens are brainwashed to the core, as a recent AI technology testing by Tengxun proved otherwise. However, the net giants like Google, Facebook, Youtube, etc are all inaccessible in China. I mean, the country has its own version for each platform! (Google: Baidu, Facebook: Ren Ren, Youtube: Youku)
Whether it is for work or pleasure, those attached to the world may want to invest in a good VPN for their trip to China.
A popular option is Nord VPN, a virtual private network that has a month-long free trial with upgrades for both phones and laptops. I was able to access all sites in Feb of 2019 without much trouble.
Something important to note here is that the Great Firewall is always adapting. Check the status and rating of your VPN prior to your trip, and download two if needed. As well, China’s increased cracked down on foreigners may mean a more difficult time for some. No matter how secure your VPN is, don’t doubt the ability of the communist party.
Forward your Gmails
Despite having a VPN, the Great Firewall can be extremely unpredictable. A working VPN may be suddenly terminated. So, a tip for China is to have your emails forwarded from Gmail (which is inaccessible in China) to another email provider.
One thing you should know before visiting China is that in the past two years, China has gone almost cashless. This is mostly the work of TengXun, which is one of the biggest companies in the country. Its subsidiary-Wechat has transformed itself from a communications app into a high-tech weapon that intends to fully avail of big data opportunities. Most people have countless accounts synced with their Wechat app, be it the bank, the metro, or otherwise. Think Whatsapp 3000, or a government-sanctioned Apple Card.
Concerns aside, it is common to see payments made and items exchanged without but a swipe of a phone. People stared at me in amusement when I pulled out cash or cards. Even the ice cream stalls on the side of the road and the vegetable vendors that pushed around a wooden cart had QR codes ready for scanning and payment!
Despite the impressive urban development and breathtaking infrastructure, one feature in China will stay forever unchanged. Squat toilets.
For those unfamiliar, squat toilets are a common sight in Asia. These porcelain white holes may not be the easiest to use. But it is only when you master the skill of taking a badump in a deep squat, that the most difficult task comes into play. The act of *drumroll*-taking your toilet paper out of your pocket.
Yesss, one of the most important things you should know when visiting China is that public toilets usually don’t come with toilet paper. Whether it be a homey restaurant or the downtown subway station, the Chinese are used to carrying little packets of tissues wherever they go. I’m sure most are aware of this. But a tip for an easier life is to hold onto your little packet before taking that squat. Your welcome.
The Chinese can be quite superstitious. With over 5000 years of documented history, it’s no surprise that more than a few folklores and tales have been passed down. Combined with customs and tradition, a number of practices are absolutely frowned upon. One thing you should know before visiting China is to never stick your chopsticks into your food. Be it a bowl of rich or a dish of vegetables, don’t have your chopsticks standing upright in your meal.
This one is actually not hard to explain. It is common for the Chinese to mourn their deceased family members with burning incense. By placing your chopsticks straight into a bowl, it will resemble that of the placement of incense for the deceased. Similarly, don’t cross your chopsticks as it is said to have ban omen as well. If you do want more food, simply place the chopsticks on the empty bowl after eating. Let others know when you are full since it is customary for the host to keep on offering you food if your plate is empty.
In my Facts about Chinese New Year post, I wrote on the act of rejecting red pockets before accepting them. To be honest, this act of initial refusal is a common Chinese practice no matter what the occasion is. It’s a strange way of saying thanks, unlike other cultures I’ve seen.
This is much like those fighting to pay the check at Chinese restaurants. While growing up, we are often taught that this is a sign of politeness.
Although Politics and religion aren’t frequent visitors at dinner, they are sometimes welcomed with a polite nod. This may not be the case in China. Unless you are quite close with those around the table, politics and religion are more like that drunk uncle, whose appearance has the potential of causing an unwanted scene.
This is not to say that people in China don’t talk politics. In fact, political events are often trendy topics amongst the old and young. However, the Chinese schools’ rigorous teachings and the PRC’s stronghold on its media means that it isn’t rare for people to have a standardize opinion on a subject at hand. Most beliefs have the core theme of China good, West bad.
For example, like many others, I was taught while growing up that Mao is a hero to China. it wasn’t until I came to Canada that I learned of the millions who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward and the history and higher education that was eradicated in the Cultural Revolution.
It was quite traumatizing. And again, unless you are close to those who want to have the conversation, these topics may not be best mentioned especially under the current political circumstances in China.
Articles on things to know before visiting China often stress that tipping will upset people. Although this is true to some degree, it isn’t always the case.
If you are at a shop or restaurant that only caters toward Chinese customers, don’t tip. They aren’t accustomed to receiving tips and some may see it as humiliating. Some places might even see tipping as illegal.
However, due to the increasing tourism, it is becoming common for those in chain hotels and restaurants that are accustomed to foreigners to receive tips. It’s also recommended to give tour guides tips.
All in all, there isn’t a need to tip like in the West. But if you are working with a business that often interacts with Western visitors, there’s no harm in tipping.
With China’s current sociopolitical situation, it’s best if you bring a copy of your document anywhere you go. Most tourist attractions might require you to buy tickets with a valid ID. This is also applicable for train tickets and hotel stays. However, even if you are only out for a quick bite, having an ID & a copy of your tourist visa will help in sticky situations.
During the winter, China is cold and humid in the south, considerably drier in the north. The temperature difference between the north and the south is large. Except for the Tibetan Plateau, China is quite hot with slight temperature difference between the north and south. Nanchang, Chongqing, Wuhan, and Nanjing are known as the four major stoves of China.
There are 56 ethnic minorities in China and every community has festivals that attract many tourists. Remember to follow the local customs. When entering a minority-inhabited area, you should respect their customs and regulations.
Due to the diversity of the population, China has eight major cuisines, which includes Lu, Sichuan, Cantonese, Chinese, Huaiyang, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Anhui. It is worth visiting each province just for the food.
Train tickets can be purchased on the 12306 website. Tickets can also be bought on the spot but do purchase them beforehand during the holiday season. Public holidays in China means LOADS of people and it’s not rare to see trains and planes overpriced and packed. Most major cities will have an extensive metro and bus system. The buses can be quite confusing, so I’d recommend travelers to go for the metro if possible!
The standard voltage in mainland China is 220V. Most places, including as shopping centers, hotels, restaurants are equipped with wireless networks. If it is password protected, simply ask an employee for the password. Avoid buying souvenirs at tourist shops as they are usually overpriced. Feel free to bargain since it is quite normal for owners to overcharge by..a lot!
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