While it is easy to stay in an expat or tourist bubble while traveling in China, the best thing to do to experience the true nature of a country is to get to know the locals. To make that happen, one must think and act as the locals do.
After you have hit the tourist hot spots, visited the temples and surmounted the Great Wall, here are a few ideas that will have you rubbing shoulders with the locals in no time.
Eat like a local
You can find many a fancy Chinese restaurant with English menus and a calm atmosphere, but to get the true experience, one must adventure beyond the main streets into the alleys and off-the-beaten-track areas in the city.
As a rule of thumb, the best places are those where you see people waiting outside to get in or a full house bustling with noise, tables overflowing with food and menus without many pictures. (This is where your translations apps will come in handy.)
Once inside, you can let your nose or eyes guide you to what you should order, and if you are feeling brave, ask your neighbor what you should order or allow the staff order for you.
To find some of these hidden local treasures, booking a hutong food tour would get you right in on the action and seated in restaurants you could never dream of finding on your own.
Tip: Even if it smells weird, give it a chance. It might become your new favorite treat. Read more on 10 Fact You May Not Know Aboout Eating in China ...and The Differences Between Tourist Restaurants and Local Restaurants.
Connect with locals
There are also many ways to connect directly with locals in whatever area you are in. Making friends with Chinese can be done in many ways. One way is becoming a member of WeChat groups with people who share similar interests such as outdoor activities, tea sampling or Chinese calligraphy classes: there really is a group for everything. You can also meet and like-minded locals at churches, mosques or even on camping or hiking day trips.
A great way to learn and have fun is to find some language exchange opportunities as well. This way you can pick up a little Chinese and make a friend at the same time.
- To break the language barrier, see our Chinese Lesson on Meeting People
- ...and 10 Essential Phrases for Tourists in China
The great thing about making Chinese friends is that most of the time they are happy to share one of the most important parts of their culture: eating! You are sure to try something very different and new. I suggest turning over the reigns and letting them order. Also, don't be surprised if they fight you for the bill at the end of the meal. That just means next time it is on you!
Travel like a local
While flying is usually considered one of the fastest ways to get from point A to point B, don't they say the journey is the best part of the adventure?
When heading your next destination, hit the rails and book a sleeper car or take a high-speed train where you are sure to get to know some locals. This is a great time to observe and see what kind of things they are eating and drinking and to try some yourself.
If you are on an overnight train or find yourself seated next to someone on a speedy trip, strike up a conversation. Many times people are as eager to find out about you as you are about them. This is a great way to soak in local travel culture as well, such as what are the common snacks and drinks on offer and what locals do to pass the time.
Learn more about The Differences Between Chinese and Western Railways.
Instead of hailing a cab, download a metro app or take one of the many city buses. Here you can see people of all ages, and they are just as curious as you are. By using China's various modes of mass-passenger transportation, you will not only save a ton of money on cabs but also have the chance to mingle and see how the locals get around every day.
Another good place to meet locals and find out about how they spend their time is to hit the local parks. You may see grannies square dancing or tai chi practice in the early morning, but what you are sure to see are the locals spending time relaxing or even playing games with family and friends. See more on China's Park Life - no better way to see all things Chinese.
Locals also play many traditional games such as mahjong and Chinese chess. Sign up for a class or stand around a group of people playing on the sidewalk to see if you can master the intricacies of these age-old games. Read more on Beijing Hutong Activities - 7 Wonderful Things To Do.
Make your way to a traditional village
During your stay in China, make time to get out of the city and visit a traditional village. You can find them scattered on the outskirts of town or at the foot of the Great Wall. Make a booking and experience true cultural immersion in a homestay or farmhouse.
Seeing the vast differences in the lives of people outside the city will give you a deeper understanding of China, and without all the distractions of the hustle and bustle, you will also be able to eat, sleep and live a day in the life of small-town villagers goes. For some excellent suggestions, see The Most Beautiful Ancient Villages in China.
Many homestays also give you a chance to participate in the cooking and preparation of the meal. In addition to a truly cultural experience, you can come home with an exciting new recipe to show off to your friends.
Visit less-traveled tourist destinations
One thing you will find after living in China for a while is that there are tons of activities and tourist spots you might not find on international tour sites. Some favorites are Longqing Gorge Scenic Area (龙庆峡), the summer home of the imperial families of the past.
Another great place to sight see with the locals for a day or even for an overnight camping trip is the Ming Tombs Reservoir. Even if you are lacking Chinese language ability, you will be able to find ways to interact with the locals, taking in the scenery together and going where (mostly) no foreigner has gone before.
See more on How to Explore China's Off-the-Beaten-Path Places.
Go to Chinese festivals and events
While many will warn of the large crowds during Chinese holidays, there are some amazing local events that will take your breath away if you do decide to venture into the packed venues of festivities around these times. During Chinese New Year, there are temple fairs where you can see traditional dances, play age-old Chinese games and even chow down on BBQ and sweet treats.
During the Dragon Boat Festival, you can witness Dragon Boat racing, and at the Harbin Ice Festival in the northeast, onlookers can feast their eyes on the intricate and immaculately designed ice and snow sculptures. By taking the time and having the patience to navigate these events, you will really get to take an in-depth look at the holidays celebrated in China and what makes them each so meaningful, all with locals by your side
There are many other festivals that happen throughout the year that are celebrated in almost every Chinese city, each with their own personal touch.
Learn more about Chinese Festivals and Events.
Experience a more authentic China
If you are interested in a more authentic experience with an opportunity to meet and learn from locals, our personalized tours will offer you a chance to rub shoulders with the locals.
Below are some popular Chinese tour ideas that include local interaction opportunities: