10 Things to Know Before Traveling to China for the First Time

Are you preparing for a trip to China? Is it your first time visiting this massive nation? Traveling to China as a foreigner, especially as a “western” traveler, can involve a lot of culture shock which is why it is important to go into your trip prepared for the cultural differences you will experience.

I have been to China four different times and during each visit, it is one of the places that I feel most different or out of place. I experience a lot of differences but I also find myself learning so much during each visit. That is why I find China to be a place that is endlessly fascinating, and I am sure I will continue to travel there and learn more, but for now, I am here to share my must-know tips for traveling to China.

Here are 10 things Western travelers need to know before traveling to China for the first time!

1. Pollution

Air quality and pollution are serious concerns throughout China, but especially in the urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai. There is an air quality rating system that is reported each day, similar to a weather report, to diagnose the predicted particulate matter in the air. For most foreign travelers, we are not used to being in a place with poor air quality and you might want to consider wearing a face mask during your travels. Make sure to get one with a filter rather than just a barrier. They are customary throughout China and you can find them at most pharmacies or shops in the cities. Coughing and sore throats are common side effects of the pollution, but travelers with more serious respiratory issues, such as asthma or lung disease, need to exercise caution while traveling, exercising or hiking in China.

2. Privacy & Internet Access

During my Semester at Sea pre-departure orientation before China, we were told over and over again to have “no expectation to privacy.” And that is true. China is a communist country with different views on internet, data or personal privacy which foreign travelers are not likely used to. You may find that certain sites are inaccessible, or look totally different than you’re expecting. Communications may be monitored and your ISP or phone provider may not be approved for business in China, so make sure to check before you leave if you expect to use cell service. If you are really starved for internet, you can use a VPN to access your favorite sites by routing your IP address through another country.

3. English Language Accessibility

English is pretty widely available in the major cities, especially at more touristic locations and restaurants. You will typically be able to find an English menu and many signs are in both English and Mandarin. However outside of the major cities, English is much less available. I have found myself in cities with virtually no English availability so being aware of the potential challenges is key to setting yourself up for success during your travels. I recommend having Google Translate downloaded to assist in language barriers.

4. Traffic

This is true of a lot of countries in Asia, but traffic in China will look much more chaotic than you are used to, although I think it has improved significantly in recent years. Major cities experience intense traffic jams lasting hours, and local drivers are limited to driving on certain days to try and lessen the burden of cars on the road. You should always budget extra transit time when planning travel in China.

5. What to Expect at Street Markets

China is famous for its “black markets” where you can buy knock-off items from your favorite brands, although to number of these continues to decrease. Tourist markets are also common at all the major sites, like the Great Wall of China or Terracotta Warriors. Vendors are often pretty aggressive about getting you into their stall, so you can expect people to grab your arm or catcall out to you. I would not recommend touching or looking too closely at something unless you really want it because the vendors will chase you down or relentlessly bother you to buy it, even after you say that you are not interested.

6. Bargaining at Street Markets

Bargaining is a VERY common practice at informal shops in China and you should never accept the sticker price when shopping at a market. At malls or established businesses, bargaining is not common but is occasionally accepted at smaller shops. Be prepared to offer half or less as your opening bargain and then negotiate from there. It is sort of like a theatre performance between you and the vendor with exaggerated hand gestures and sighs. This can go on for a few minutes before you reach your desired price and it never hurts to pretend to walk away. Since many of the vendors speak limited English, you will typically communicate your desired prices on a sheet of paper or with a calculator.

7. Squat Toilets & BYO Toilet Paper

Squat toilets are much more common in China than seated toilets, which is a unique challenge for female travelers who may not have used them before. There will be a small porcelain basin in the floor which you squat over to do your business. Until you are used to using them, I would recommend wearing stretchy pants or skirts for more easy mobility.

In a country of 1.5 billion people, toilet paper is a scarce resource in public bathrooms. Hotels and upscale restaurants are likely to offer toilet paper, but museums, historic sites or markets certainly will not. It is a good rule to always have a small roll of toilet paper or tissues with you in the event that a bathroom doesn’t have it. Also, it is not customary to throw toilet paper in the toilets in China and a waste bin in the stall will almost always be provided. If you throw it in the toilet, it may clog so exhibit caution.

8. Manners & Public Behavior

I have had very positive experiences with Chinese people, but they aren’t exactly known for their polite manners. They are not rude necessarily, but I wouldn’t describe them as a super refined either. Queues are not widely respected, spitting and peeing on the street is more common and people talk very loudly (and sometimes aggressively) in public. Restaurants are typically pretty rowdy and Chinese people find loud eating and slurping to be a good gesture to show how delicious the food is. I personally find these casual behaviors to be endearing and interesting, but for some travelers, they find it unpleasant. You can expect to have a few odd, eyebrow-raising encounters during your time in China.

9. Chinese Food

For most American travelers, we have a very specific image of what Chinese food is like. We think about egg rolls, fried rice and Kung Pao chicken. But when you actually travel in China, you’ll find that Chinese food in the US is almost NOTHING like Chinese food in China. In fact, I have barely ever seen those types of dishes in China and if I did, they certainly weren’t like the ones I had at home. Personally, I much prefer actual Chinese food because the flavors are richer and the ingredients are more diverse. A lot of Chinese food is fried with thick soy based sauces, and a majority of meals are served family style with a lazy Susan in the middle of the table to pass dishes. It is customary to get a few vegetable issues, a soup, a few meat dishes and “dessert” which is typically a fruit plate.

10. Photography

In my experience, Chinese people love taking pictures with foreigners! I’ve had a lot of random requests to pose for photos with Chinese travelers while I am traveling in China. They can be really shameless about it, sometimes just pointing the camera right at you without saying anything. Personally, I find it charming because Chinese people also aren’t shy about letting you take photos of them. In fact, I find that Chinese people are super camera-friendly and are happy to pose for you. I think it is a great opportunity to connect with locals despite a language barrier and I never have a problem with it!

Did I miss any tips for traveling in China? Comment below with your suggestions!

Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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