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 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.