Update 10/7/2016: I’ve lived in China for 8 months now. Click here for some of my best China travel advice!
Traveling to China will be less frustrating if you prepare yourself! Here are 10 things that will likely to cause culture shock for any foreigner.
10 Things To Know Before Visiting China
1. Road Rules
As soon as we stepped foot in Shanghai I could tell Chinese road rules are different than in America. American drivers are strict about staying between the lines while they’re driving. They never honk unless someone did something wrong. Everyone knows a red light means you stop no matter what.
In China it’s common to see a driver hang out between lanes. It’s also common to see motorists and pedestrians waiting in the center of an intersection. When I first got here I was shocked at what looked like absolute chaos. But I realized that the rule of thumb is to go when it feels safe, and be defensive. If you want someone to move out of your way, honk at them. If you see a motorist driving straight at you, don’t alter your path. The best thing you can do is not pause or hesitate. Walk with conviction!
2. Spitting Happens
You should expect to hear people hawking loogies in public a lot. Don’t worry – it’s usually outside or in a trash can. But what surprised me was that everyone does it from old men to young girls. While we were waiting for our luggage in the Shanghai airport I saw a 6 year old girl run over to a trash can and spit into it. It’s not a big deal, but be prepared for it.
3. Alleyways are Poppin’
When we first got here I was confused about where all the restaurants were hiding… and then I started walking around in alleyways. As an American, when I think of an “alleyway” I think of a garbage can-lined road that runs along the back of businesses. Not in China! There are alleyways around here that are completely lined with local businesses, and this is where I do a lot of my shopping.
4. Don’t Wear Shoes In People’s Homes
Our landlord came over to help us put a window back in its frame (long story), and after she saw Eric wearing shoes, she said something like “you know you have to clean the floors, right?” I’m pretty sure it’s a cultural thing in Asia to not wear shoes inside people’s homes. Even the guy who came to install the internet put those little plastic bootie things on over his shoes before he came in.
5. Chopstick Basics
First of all, you’re going to want to bring your own chopsticks if you’re a germophobe and plan to eat at casual restaurants. If you’re not a germophobe, it’s important to know where to find the chopsticks because they may not be handed to you. Chopsticks are usually either in a cup or in one of those straw dispenser things and will likely be near the cash register or the communal rice pot. The most important tip about chopsticks, is that you should never let your chopsticks rest in a way where they’re lodged down into the bowl, sticking out. You want to place them on the edge of your dish, parallel with the table. This is a cultural thing that has to do with leaving incense sticks for ancestors. Basically, it’s a symbol of a loved one who has passed, and no one wants to think about that while they’re eating.
6. Don’t Be Afraid Of Street Vendors
If you avoid eating from street vendors because you think chains are better, you will not be experiencing what China has to offer, especially when it comes to food. In America, street vendors are not held in very high esteem, but you should let go of that assumption before you explore China, because this is where you’ll find all the good stuff.
7. Toilet Expectations
Ladies, this is for you. Most of the public toilets you’re going to find will be what is essentially a hole in the ground. You’re going to want to practice your squats before you get to China. If you’re having trouble locating the flush handle, it’s probably one you operate with your foot. Also, you’ll want to bring a pack of tissues and hand santizer with you, because a lot of public bathrooms will be lacking toilet paper and soap. It’s really not that bad even though it sounds so different than American restrooms. If you’ve ever peed at a fast food restaurant on San Francisco’s Market street, just know it’s better than that.
This is something that everyone in America knows about, but few have experienced. Pollution levels vary day-to-day, and within the first 7 days that we were here, only 1 was bad. On the bad days, though, you’re really going to want a mask. If you don’t have one, you’ll smell the air and start to taste it in your throat after a while. Nanjing isn’t that bad, I hear Shanghai is OK, and Beijing is awful. Just be prepared for it so it doesn’t take you by surprise. If your body is sensitive to this kind of thing, I suggest buying a mask before you get to China and wearing it while outside in any major city.
9. Looks Are Deceiving
The outside of apartment buildings and homes in China, at least where I’m at in Nanjing, look really bad through American-born eyes. Really, really bad. The misconception I had was that people were living in poor conditions, until I saw the inside of an apartment. Our apartment is a great example! You enter through a hole in a concrete wall, step on a few pieces of concrete stacked on top of one another, and then you enter our clean, modern apartment with thick wooden doors, a stainless steel fridge, and a flat-screen TV. Don’t be fooled by the way a building looks on the outside.
10. Bones In Meat
In America, we love our boneless, skinless chicken breast. In China, they love their oily chicken skin and aren’t afraid to eat around some bones and spit them out onto the table. I’m mainly warning you so you don’t choke on a bone while eating out. Just be aware it’s really common for small pieces of meat to be chopped up with a cleaver, bone and all. Also be aware that this method tastes really, really good.
P.S. Don’t drink the tap water.
Don’t hesitate to comment below or shoot me an e-mail if you have any questions about visiting or living in China! Talk to you soon 🙂
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