There seems to be a lot of outdated advice on the web, mostly about not putting chopsticks in rice, so here are a few tips you may not see in the guide book.
Before You Leave
- If you enjoy your food, practice with chopsticks long before you arrive. You probably already know how to use them, but food here is often a lot larger and heavier than at home, so hands can get tired quickly. It’s got to the point where I can eat a full-size corn-on-the-cob with just chopsticks.
- Bring both anti-diarrhea tablets and anti-constipation tablets along with some anti-acid tablets. Everything else is available here.
- Most hotels have wifi. Many have internet terminals, but they’re often antiquated – IE6 is still prevalent, so avoid doing anything secure.
- If you want to use online banking or Facebook and Twitter, invest in a cheap, portable VPN.
- Get travel insurance – healthcare is expensive in China if you don’t want to be stuck in a cheap Chinese hospital where no one speaks English.
- China uses 220v two pin plugs, and sockets accept both the round and flat varieties. Hotels often have limited sockets, so bring a travel plug adapter
then pick up a cheap multiplier in a supermarket – some accept US & UK plugs.
- Don’t try to see too much in a short time – distances in China are huge so you’ll spend all your time in airports or on trains.
- Make yourself aware of some common scams in China, particularly those relating to taxis, before you get taken for a ride on the way to your hotel.
- Print out your hotel name and address in Chinese, for the taxi driver.
When you arrive
- Despite its size, China only spans one time zone: GMT +7/8 depending on daylight saving time. Check your timezone here.
- Carry toilet paper or a packet of tissues everywhere. If you see a clean toilet, use it.
- You are supposed to carry your passport at all times, but don’t bother. I just keep a photo on my phone and have never been asked to see it in 5 years. You only need the real passport when checking into hotels.
- Try to avoid photographing government and military buildings. These are usually unmarked, but will have a heavier police presence in the area, both uniformed and undercover.
- Foreigners get stared at and commented upon. If you have dark skin, don’t get offended if people repeatedly say “ni-ga”. It’s actually na-ge, meaning “that one”, and is a filler word equivalent to saying “um” or “er”. If they say Hagwei/Hayquay feel free to get offended.
- Learn some simple Chinese phrases.
- Ask the hotel for a business card, so you can give a driver the accurate address in Chinese. The hotel may also supply subway maps in English.
- Taxis drive in a scary fashion, but are safer than they look. Pedicabs are just as dangerous as they look.
- Be particularly careful at zebra crossings – cars are allowed to turn right at red lights, and other cars frequently ‘forget’ to stop. Silent electric bikes often travel the wrong way on the road and pavement. Cross the road with crowds as padding.
- Prepare to be pushed and shoved in queues.
- People are friendly and may want to chat, but don’t follow them anywhere – read up on the teahouse scam and the art student scam.
- Don’t travel in early October. It’s the national holiday week, so the entire country is on the move. Similarly check the Spring Festival dates, as it’s best to avoid travel during Chun Yun.
Food and Eating
- Try everything, but don’t feel you have to eat the unusual foods. The Chinese won’t be offended and expect foreigners to have weak stomachs.
- Table manners are very different. Some guides will still tell you that burping, slurping and spitting are encouraged, but the modern urban generation now frown on it as ‘acting like a farmer’.
- Same for not leaving your chopsticks upright in rice. Nobody cares that it looks like the offerings at a funeral, it’s just uncouth in the same way you wouldn’t leave your fork stuck upright in mashed potato. Unless you do.
Money, Tips and Shopping
- Assuming you arrive in a major city, there are ATMs everywhere and credit cards are widely accepted. Far less so in the countryside. At ATMs, check on the machine for a Visa/MC logo. These machines will accept overseas cards and have an English option. Bank of China also accepts Maestro. Amex is rarer.
- After entering your Pin, select Overseas, then Savings (it’s the only option that seems to work with overseas cards). If the Pin requires six digits and you only have four, add ’00’ to the beginning.
- When paying by card you’ll be asked for a PIN number, then still required to sign the receipt.
- Check the bill. It’s not considered rude, as mistakes are rife.
- There’s no need to tip taxis or restaurants.
- Your phone from home is unlikely to work, but local SIM cards are very cheap. China Unicom is the only provider with 3G pay-as-you-go (PAYG).
- Haggle in markets. Don’t haggle in shops.
- Don’t come expecting bargains – a 50-100% luxury tax is in place for high-end imported brands, even if they were made in China!
If you’re coming to Beijing to work, then forums like Expat Blog are invaluable for meeting other expats, finding jobs and housing. Try getting a place to live as close as possible to work, as commuting in Beijing is particularly slow.
I’ll update this occasionally, so please add any extra tips or corrections you may have in the comments below.
10 minutes and you know about China
A well made video, but turn the volume down as it’s noisy at first. (Youku mirror):