“He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.” — Chinese proverb
China is the world’s most populous country, with a fast growing population of 1.3 billion (officially). The country has 21 cities with a population over 5 million people (compared to 2 in the United States), while more than 150 cities have over 1 million people. This human density alone is enough to shock even the most experienced traveler, and there are many more surprises in store during your stay. My best advice to you is to leave your preconceptions at home, as modern China has developed rapidly over the past 20 years. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind to minimize your potential culture shock:
Yes, that stands for bring your own toilet paper.
The Chinese-style squat toilet is the greatest surprise to most foreigners, and even in large cities it is often unavoidable. Your hotel is likely to have Western-style toilet seats, and so will any Starbucks, but even American fast food chains usually have ground-level fixtures where you will have to balance carefully while doing your business. Before you leave your hotel, make sure you’ve got portable toilet paper with you or tissues. Lots of public (and some private) restrooms don’t provide it.
2. Be(a)ware of the smokers!
If you are not a heavy smoker yourself, this can have a huge impact on your visit to China. The first being the amount of people smoking in the streets. And then there are the smoke filled restaurants, shops, hotel lobbies, and even elevators. The good news are, that they are not smoking in the public transport like buses and subway and also not in supermarkets and shopping centers. Be prepared to smell cigarette smoke practically everywhere, and in some hotels even the non-smoking rooms reek of cigarettes.
3. Drink bottled water.
This is conventional wisdom, however not to be taken lightly. Many restaurants will offer you boiled tap water: it’s free of germs, but after a while that it can give you indigestion, and in some cases make you sick. Stick to bottled water, and make sure the seal on the cap isn’t broken.
4. Expect stairs, and stares!
You’ll climb flights of stairs to get in and out of your hotel and across any major street, but look at the bright side; you’ll stay in shape. If you have limited mobility, however, stick to Shanghai or Beijing. As a foreigner in China, you’ll attract lots of attention. Many people will say “hello” to you in the streets. Some of them are just gawking, but some are genuinely interested in talking with you. You’ll make friends if you stay any length of time. Despite all the challenges for a visitor, China can be a friendly, fascinating and remarkable place. Look for young people if you’re in need of help; they’re most likely to speak English.
5. Bring aspirin and deodorant.
Most of your basic toiletry needs will be served by a Chinese supermarket, but aspirin is hard to come by, and antiperspirant deodorant is as well. When you go to China, make sure you’ve stocked up on these Western essentials for the length of your stay. Tampons are another item that hasn’t made a hit in the country yet, so if you need them, see that you have your supply.
6. Spitting & Burbing
Many Chinese spit and burp vivaciously throughout the day. In their culture, it’s not gross, nor rude. Due to SARS and the awareness of disease spread, there are public campaigns to stop spitting, and while it has worked in larger cities, don’t be surprised if you hear a spirited cough with a wet thwak at the end where it hits the sidewalk (just remember to take your shoes off before you go into your hotel room). Burping is a sign of contentment. Your cabbie might belch and so might your waitress. Just pass it off and enjoy the difference in culture.
Gifts are exchanged frequently between the Chinese, and not just on special occasions. If you have dinner at someone’s house to meet a prospective business partner or for any other pre-arranged meeting, both parties commonly exchange gifts as small tokens of friendship and good will. Westerners are often surprised at the number of gifts the Chinese hosts give. The general rule of thumb is to bring many little (gender non-specific) gifts when you travel to China. You never know when you’ll meet someone who wants to present you with a special memento, so it’s always good to be prepared and arrive with your own as well.
No self-respecting guests immediately accept whatever may be offered to them in someone’s home. No matter how much they may be eager to accept the food, drink, or gift, proper Chinese etiquette prevents them from doing anything that makes them appear greedy or eager to receive it, so be sure to politely refuse a couple of times. Chinese people automatically refuse food or drinks several times — even if they really feel hungry or thirsty. Never take the first “No, thank you” literally. Even if they say it once or twice, offer it again. A good guest is supposed to refuse at least once, but a good host is also supposed to make the offer at least twice.
Most Westerners are stunned the first time they witness the many fairly chaotic, noisy scenes at the end of a Chinese restaurant meal. The time to pay the bill has come and everyone is simply doing what they’re expected to do — fight to be the one to pay it. The Chinese consider it good manners to strenuously attempt to wrest the bill out of the very hands of whoever happens to have it. This may go on, back and forth, for a good few minutes, until someone “wins” and pays the bill. The gesture of being eager and willing to pay is always appreciated.