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If you have been to China before, you've experienced the intense culture shock that comes with it. I'd been to almost 20 countries before visiting China and even lived in a few but I was not prepared for how different it would be. We've made this guide to help first-time visitors and even returning tourists to understand the differences in culture as well as how to cope with the sudden change.
Let me give you a little recap of my experience in China: I was lucky enough to stay in Harbin for summer 2018 as a part of my master's research and Nick visited for my last two weeks in the country. I can hardly speak any Mandarin and had never been to China before. I lived in a quirky Airbnb with a Chinese medicine student and had the help of a student translator. Besides them, I couldn't speak to anyone. English is a popular subject amongst university students, otherwise, there was not a high proficiency where I was located. In the very northeast of the country, there are also not many tourists from outside of China. In a city of 10 million, that means, many people often have not seen anyone of European decent in real life before and when they do, they are usually Russians working as part of a tourist attraction. I loved my time in China and can't wait to go back! But there are some things I wish I had been prepared for.
I took ten weeks of Mandarin classes before I embarked on my research trip to China. I wanted to have a basic understanding as I would be there for 6 weeks and I know, from previous travels, that a little goes a long way when impressing locals with language. However, once I landed in China, I realized that the pronunciation of words is extremely important in Mandarin as it's a tonal language. For example, in English, accents don't prevent people from understanding each other. However, if I pronounced a Mandarin word in a different tone, the meaning was totally changed. Second-language giant Babbel, named Mandarin as one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.
In the end, besides pronouncing and understanding numbers, my 10 weeks of Mandarin classes were pretty much useless. What I'm trying to say is, learning Mandarin is hard and if you find learning languages difficult like me, you'll have to put serious effort into learning the correct tones in the language.
How to Prepare: If you don't have time for Mandarin classes, download a good translator that can be used offline like Pleco and buy a SIM when you get there (roaming charges get expensive fast!). Also don't worry too much, people are always eager to help. People I met would their use phones to translate words back to me. Another thing to note: everyone has smartphones in China! If your going to bargain for clothes like I did, I would use my phone calculator to show them what I wanted to pay and they would return the haggle with theirs. Also, get a VPN to speak to your loved ones at home; it will help with the culture shock. I'll explain VPN's below in the Internet Control section.
Sea Cucumbers on the Menu
It's no secret that food varies A LOT between cultures and that "western" Chinese food from your local restaurant is nothing like the real thing. China is a huge country and so cuisine varies significantly across the country. It's worth researching what kinds of food are popular in the area you'll be visiting.
If you are eating with others at a restaurant, you will likely be served an empty saucer, bowl and cup. Each dish will come on a large plate and is shared with everyone. One person, the host, usually orders all of the food. There are so many amazing foods in China and many people are very proud of their local delicacies, and you are expected to try what is given to you. If you don't want to eat it, accept the serving from your host and eat around it in your bowl. With food and tea, the faster you consume it, the faster it will be refilled by your host. When you are finished eating or drinking, leave a little left at the bottom to show you are done. There are also loads of food delivery services in China, you'll see the delivery drivers wiz by on mopeds! However, they are notoriously difficult to use for foreigners. We couldn't figure it out without someone fluent in Chinese present! If you are fluent in Mandarin or are travelling with someone who is, check out this article on popular food delivery apps in China. In addition, it is common in China for people to slurp, burp and smack their lips to show they are enjoying a meal.
How to Prepare: If you have allergies or you are a vegetarian, have a fluent Mandarin speaker record a message on your phone stating that you cannot eat food with this ingredient. Failing that, have it written done. Remember there are over 3000 written characters so it's better to be safe than sorry and have a verbal message.
Bonus: Chopsticks. There are no forks or knives with meals in China but waitresses would sometimes bring me a spoon because they thought I would struggle. I purchased a set of chopsticks for $2.00 and practiced for a month or so before I left. Nick did not and brought a travel cutlery set from the dollar store before arriving. My advice would be to bring one of these sets if you think you will have a hard time. Even with practice, I had a hard time eating a fried egg with chopsticks!
Staring, Paparazzi and Strangers
The Chinese are very curious and it isn't considered rude to watch others. If you have ever seen a Mahjong game, strangers will stop by and watch others play. If you are not of east asian decent and travelling outside of Beijing or Shanghai, expect lots of stares and photos being taken of you. This was one of the hardest things for me to deal with when I went to China. It does not help that I have blonde hair, blue eyes and at 5'10", I'm much taller than the average woman in China. People often came up to me and asked to take photos with me. Most people were extremely friendly about it and if I wasn't in a rush, I agreed. However, in one instance, a man grabbed me around the waist, took off my sunglasses and hat without permission, or even saying anything, to take a photo!
How to Prepare: Understand that most people are not being rude, they are just curious. And remember there are a**holes in every country, if you feel uncomfortable at any point, like when the guy who took my sunglasses off, get out of the situation and ask for help. In Mandarin, there is no specific word for no but bù xíng means "not okay" when someone is asking permission to do something. Say this when you don't want people to take photos of you.
Mega-cities and Pollution
As I said above, China is the biggest country in the world and obviously, it means their cities are huge! I was still not expecting the vastness of them. For example, where I staying in Harbin to the city center took over an hour by bus.
One of the other things I was not expecting in Harbin was the crumbling infrastructure of city property. The concrete of sidewalks and overpasses were crumbling, power lines were leaning precariously and the buses had wires running through them. I read afterwards that often once something is built in China, it doesn't lose it's rating. Meaning a five star hotel from 1980 is still advertised as one now, even if there hasn't been any maintenance since! In Beijing, however, we didn't see anything like this.
As for pollution, it is typically much worse in the winter and Beijing recently closed all of the factories within city limits. We didn't find pollution to be much a problem, besides car exhaust fumes, when we visited in the summer of 2018. However, in other areas in the country, it can be very bad and many locals wear pollution masks. This study done in Beijing found that pollution masks do work but not all are created equal.
China is an amazing country and incredibly diverse! I had a fantastic time there and cannot wait to go back! I believe learning about another culture before visiting always make the transition easier. If you know what to expect and how people will act, it shouldn't be a great shock when you land.
In the summer of 2018, Caitlin and I stayed in the city of Harbin in northeastern China (the capital city of Heilongjiang province). Harbin is a city in the process of modernizing, with some areas state of the art and heavily funded and other areas reminiscent of what the city might have looked like half a century ago. This coming together of the old China and new China makes Harbin a particularly interesting and culturally rich place to visit. The city is home to over 10 million people, a number which makes any European capital city seem insignificant and Harbin sprawls for miles in every direction.
Preparing for Harbin
In spite of Harbin being very far north, temperatures during our visit (May - June 2018) often reached 40 degrees, which meant the two pairs of jeans I packed were seldom worn whatsoever. If you decide to visit Harbin in the Summer, be sure to pack with this in mind! For a more complete guide on preparing to visit China, check out our guide. Also, bus travel is very popular in Harbin (and extremely cheap!). There is currently one subway line with more planned to open. We recommend saving all 1 yuan notes for bus travel in the city.
Something that will always stick with me about the downtown of Harbin, and to a degree the rest of the city, were the vast and sprawling underground markets. The most impressive of these subterranean malls could be found near the end of Zhongyang (near the river!) where hundreds of vendors selling just about anything can be found, and always at a much lower price than the above ground sellers. Most of the things I bought in China was underground! If you decide to purchase there, haggle! Although we struggled to pronounce numbers correctly, most of the haggling was done by punching numbers into a calculator followed by either a nod of approval or a counter offer.
Despite the word park in the name, Stalin park isn't a park in the traditional sense of grass, trees and so on. Stalin park is an area at the end of Zhongyang which hugs the Songhua river. It is home to a giant monument named 'Flood Control Success Monument' which no doubt sounds a little more impressive in its native mandarin. The monument is best enjoyed at night (see below) where powerful light beams are shone from it into the black sky. People congregate in this area at all times of the day, and it's a hot bed of relaxation and games. It's not uncommon to see people enjoying ping pong, dancing with loved ones in the street and devouring tasty late night snacks. The atmosphere in Stalin Park is so positive, day and night, and well worth the 1 yuan (12p?) bus ticket to get us there.
On multiple occasions we a spent long while watching locals searching for tasty muscles on the shore of the Songhua river.
Songhua River Bridge
As you can see in the picture above, the impressive Songhua River bridge straddles the river in impressive fashion. Built by the Russians in 1900 and only falling into disuse in the last 5 years, the bridge offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. You can use the bridge to access Sun Island, another major tourist hot spot in the city, however its certainly not our preferred method, as mentioned below.
Rather than the more tiresome option of walking across the Songhua River bridge or mundane bus journey, we decided to take a ride on the ferry across to Sun Island. The ferry set us back 10 yuan each for a return (£1.20) and was an enjoyable and relaxing way to cross the river. As we visited the city during something of a hot spell, the river was much lower than usual and we had to trudge across the sandy beach to reach the ferry itself.
Again the Russian influence rears its head in the city of Harbin, and much of Sun Island is in fact something of a theme park, with the theme being all things Russian. After a quick Google search, whoops I mean Baidu search, we decided the theme park didn't merit the entrance fee and instead we explored the rest of Sun Island which is mostly old colonial style buildings and parkland with a thick tree canopy which provides reprieve from the glaring sun. On a few occasions, we were mistaken for Russian 'attractions' and people asked for pictures with us, however most requests were polite and as such were fine. At times however people can be rude about picture taking, in these instances we reacted as anyone would and said no. Caitlin talks about this in her post on culture shock here.
Sun Island was a chance to get away from the urban metropolis that is the city of Harbin proper, and which not offering a great deal to do, was worth it for the ferry ride there and back. For those of you a little braver, there is a cable car which climbs high above the river as it crosses, however we didn't trust it and went for the seemingly safer waterborne option.
Snack Street (aka night-markets)
Nothing stands out more from our time in China than the street food. While there are many, many 'snack streets' scattered around the city, our favorite two can be found just off of Zhongyang and also near North-East Forestry University. Street food is an experience as fun as it is tasty, and often not knowing what something is can be beneficial. Eating at a snack street offers you a chance to enjoy food you will almost certainly never be able to again with each vendor selling something totally unique and handmade. Particular favorites were garlic oysters and lamb in a bun, don't be put off by the picture below, most of the food found on snack streets looks great and is always affordable.
Snack streets are also known as night-markets as they almost always only operate from 5pm-10pm, they are also usually located near universities (ours being no exception). As with anything in Harbin if you don't speak Mandarin, enjoying a snack street is easier with a local helping you! Even without however, pointing suffices! If you have food allergies, be extra cautious.
Jile Temple has to be one of the more iconic tourist destinations in the city of Harbin and with good reason. Jile Temple is actually a large group of many temples together and can be easily accessed from the cities state of the art new subway system. It really is hard to take a bad picture at the temples as you can see below as the buildings are incredibly photogenic. The lucky red can be found on much of the religious architecture and while the temples can be a little busy, the atmosphere is serene and relaxed, no doubt a result of the temples retaining their spiritual importance into the modern day. As the temples are still active, its important to note that you should refrain from taking pictures of the golden Buddha statues inside the temples (outside is fine though) and do not stand on the golden 'curbs' between areas, as this is seen as extremely disrespectful, a mistake Caitlin made only once.
As this was our first time visiting a religious building outside of Western 'Abrahamic' faiths, we were particularly awestruck at the beauty of the temples. Jile temple has to be on your to-do list when you visit Harbin.
Unit 731 Museum
Unit 731 is a museum dedicated to remembering the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army during the Second World War. The museum doesn't withhold any gruesome detail, and some exhibits can be difficult to read. Anyone with even a passing interest in history should make sure they take the long-ish bus journey to the museum. We managed to spend several hours exploring the various exhibits. Much of the war crimes committed by the Japanese Army in the region revolved around testing on local Chinese people in some of the most horrific ways imaginable. The vast majority of the museum has an English translation which was much appreciated on our part. I would urge all those who have time to visit Unit 731, especially as to this day the current Japanese government denies these atrocities even took place.
For those with a strong interest in the Japanese occupation period of Harbin, check out the appropriately named 'North East Anti-Japanese Museum' in the city, which is free to enter as long as you show your passport. Thanks to the nature of the muesum, the Anti-Japanese museum has a heavy security presence.
Harbin Opera House
A lesser known attraction to international visitors to Harbin would be the vast and gorgeous Opera House. Located not far from the much more well known attraction 'Harbin Tiger Park' which for many reasons we would urge you not to see, the Opera House can be found over an hour away by bus. We decided to get off of the bus before the Opera House itself so that we could walk through a beautiful wetland, where we saw an array of different birds and fish. While we didn't actually go into the Opera House as there wasn't a performance on, the building has an external staircase which you can climb to see amazing views of Harbin, which really showcase its size.
Dragon Tower (Long Ta) - 330m tall television tower which doubles as an observation tower. We decided not to do this because of the extortionate entrance fee, however for those less concerned with their budget and keen on seeing more of the city, this could be a good option. There is also a restaurant at the top of the tower, serving Russian cuisine.
Harbin Ice and Snow World - As Harbin is most well known for its Ice Festival, most people only visit in the dead cold of winter. However for those of you who, like us, visit at the opposite time of year, Harbin's Ice Museum will satisfy your frozen curiosities. Basically a much smaller and indoor version of the Ice Festival, you can find magnificent ice sculptures, palaces and performances.
Where to stay
Staying near Zhongyang street is ideal when visiting on holiday. It is close to many of the attractions and main bus terminals. If you are visiting Harbin for work or a specific purpose, we suggest finding accommodation near to where you'll be spending the most time. We keep saying it because it's true, this city is huge! Harbin currently has one subway line and the buses can take hours to get to your destination. Because Caitlin was staying in Harbin for so long (2 months) and working at a university, we opted for an Airbnb near the uni. It was cheap and easy, and we made a friend in our host.
We both loved our time in Harbin and believe it's worth visiting when you are in China. It has a very unique feel compared to the other areas we went to. It's relatively short history results in a lack of 'traditional' Chinese architecture (with the exception of Jile Temple) and instead is replaced with a mix of European and industrial. We'd love to go back for the winter to see the famous Ice and Snow World even if the -30 C weather seems a little unappealing (it's next to Siberia after all!).