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Everybody knows that China is physically far away, but what most people don't know is how many aspects of Chinese life are different, and how many things will surprise you once you get here.
Here is a brief introduction to some of these aspects, in the hopes that a little bit of mental preparation can go a long way towards helping you feel more confident before your departure to China, on top of your other preparation of course, especially if you are planning to go beyond the huge and newly developed cities.
Poverty is the main difference you'll notice very quickly. Not everyone in China is rich and if you are traveling here for the first time it can be shocking, especially if this is the first developing country you've been to.
If you are traveling with children, make sure that they are aware of the differences in incomes, and how this can be seen throughout the country. For example, there are a lot of beggars in the tourist areas, and they can be pushy as they are desperate. There are also many older cars, older buses, and the streets are not as clean. More on Developing China.
At the core of every society is communication — but the majority of Chinese people do not speak enough English for you to be able to get your point across, whether it be in a restaurant, at a tourist site or a taxi driver. The most English is spoken in Shanghai, and the least in the countryside (and by the least, we mean basically none. You'll be surprised to know that some of China's furthest points are inhabited by groups of ethnic minorities who don't even speak Mandarin Chinese).
On top of this, one thing that takes most getting used to is the volume and tone of conversation: keep in mind that most people speak louder in Chinese and may sound angry even though they are not. Therefore if you hear a 'fight' behind you, they may just be talking about how good the weather is. However, as in any country, a smile and hand symbols go a long long way to communicate without language.
Pretty straight forward, but still a big deal: the food in China is different. It is different to the food at home, and it is also very different to the food in Chinese restaurants at home. In fact, the best restaurants in the country do not have English menus, and use ingredients that are completely unfamiliar and unidentifiable (think sea cucumbers, for example, a common delicacy).
If you have special dietary requirements, make sure you explain these to your tour guide, or ensure that you have a little dictionary or language guide that you can take with you to show the waiters. Food is also one of the best aspects of your trip, so if you have special cuisines you want to try (the big Chinese cuisines, or the ethnic minorities' cuisines), specify this when you book your tour! If eating out without a guide, try new things but be clever about it; avoid uncooked foods at street stalls or fruit that you cannot peel.
One of the first things you'll realize as you get off the plane and make your way into the city from the airport is traffic and China's sheer population density. Everyone knows that the population of China is huge, but nobody realizes quite how huge until you make your way into the city. Read our article about manic traffic for more insight into Chinese traffic. Although it may seem extremely dangerous at first, due to the huge amounts of cars the cars do not go quickly, and drivers react very quickly to sudden changes as they are used to them.
On top of the traffic, air pollution and the smog can also be an assault on the senses. While reports in the Western media may sometimes make it seem like the air in China is constantly bad, there are bad days and good days. Northern China tends to be hit by pollution more, especially during the long winter months, and on bad days you may want to wear a face mask to protect yourself.
We will provide dust masks if the air is particularly bad, and we are also open to changing your itinerary in severe cases. See more details on our China weather pages.
There are also a lot of people, so it is good to prepare for this, especially if you are traveling with children, as they may get overwhelmed. If you have pale skin, blonde hair or blue eyes, or if you are especially tall, also be prepared for a lot of staring. This is never meant in a bad way — it is pure curiosity, and generally if you smile or wave they will have looked away before you know it.
In the bigger cities this is less of a problem, but if you go into the countryside do not be surprised if people come towards you, or make it very clear that they are talking about you, your skin, or your hair. A lot of people will also want to take pictures with you.
People will be especially curious about Western kids. If your kids have blue eyes or blonde hair, expect them to receive a lot of attention, and prepare your children by explaining the situation to them. Again, none of this is meant in a bad way, but keep an eye on your children if you think this attention might make them uncomfortable.
This may be one of the biggest issues for those traveling, and it very important to prepare and set aside any expectations you have. What generally helps is to remember that you only have to get used to it temporarily, and that once you go back home you will be using the comfortable clean toilets you are used to once again.
Toilets around the country are generally dirty — although incomes have risen, China is still quite a poor nation. They are squat toilets (mostly), and it will take a while getting used to that. There is also no toilet paper in them, and they can smell. When using public toilets, you are lucky to have a door. It is very important to carry around toilet paper wherever you go, as well as wet wipes or hand sanitizer to wash your hands. However, on a more positive note, public toilets are rife, so you will never have to worry about finding one nearby.
In some more rural provinces, it isn't uncommon to see children peeing and sometimes even pooping on the streets. Youngsters have split pants for the purpose! Don't be surprised if you come across this, especially if you're traveling outside the large cities. This is just a difference in culture and tradition.
Spitting is also an issue, as many Chinese older men have the habit of coughing up phlegm, often attributed to the air pollution and heavy smoking habits, as well as a traditional Chinese belief that 'out' is better than 'in' in terms of phlegm. Whatever the cause, the first time you hear it you may be mortified, but again, just remember to stay calm and accept the differences in China and at home. There is no point scowling or getting angry, as this is only a waste of energy, and it is important to remember that although our habits are different they cannot be taken as a base line for 'correct' habits. This goes a long way towards making your trip in China smooth.
Burping is also common and unrestrained, and considered a sign of appreciation at meal times.
Smoking is very common in China, and while Beijing has just had a smoking ban imposed, many people smoke indoors throughout the country, even in Beijing. Although the situation has changed, people will smoke in restaurants and bars frequently, and even in lifts and toilets, putting their cigarettes out on the floor. If you feel uncomfortable with the smoke in any situation, just tell your tour guide. The same goes for many of the trains, where people will smoke in the spaces between carriages.
Different behaviors are most notable on the subway, and even after living here for a long time, rush hour can still cause one's blood to boil. In the Chinese culture, people are not taught to queue in the same way as in the West, and patience is also not a virtue on public transport.
On top of that, personal space has a different, or no, meaning in China. This means that taking the subway at rush hour is a challenge even for a saint, as people will try to get on before you get off, even if there is no space as you are standing in the middle of the door.
People will squeeze in until there is physically no space anymore. If you think you may not be comfortable with this it is advisable to travel outside of rush hour times, especially if you are passing the big transfer stations in bigger cities where there are just too many people. Again, it is worth trying to understand that there is a population issue in China, and that this is just the way that people have adapted to deal with the issues at hand. But it does mean that you may spend your subway ride getting close with strangers.
Has the thought of this challenge got you excited? Click here to find out how to plan your first trip to China, and read more about things you should know for your first trip to China.