China was a massive eye opener for me as a traveler. I’d never traveled somewhere so similar to the western world visually, but so completely opposite morally. Here are a few things I learnt or witnessed during my time there to hopefully give you a bit of insight into this unique part of the world.
Almost no one speaks English
China was really difficult to get around without knowing any Mandarin, apart from in Hong Kong and Macau. All airports and train stations have English signs, but once outside of those doors you were on your own. We had to find restaurants with picture menus, taxi drivers were reluctant to take me and trying to match up Chinese symbols to find things didn’t always work.
TIP: Download the Google Translate app and download the Chinese language so that it works offline. It also has a function where you can take a photo of text – on a menu for example – and it translates it in real time, although it barely seemed to translate correctly (although who knows, the Chinese do eat some weird things).
Chinese people can be very pushy and don’t wait in lines
At first I considered it rude and ill-mannered, but I quickly learnt it’s just common practice. The cities are overcrowded and it seems if you don’t push you won’t get anywhere. It’s a massive cultural difference compared to the polite ‘wait your turn’ morals I was taught as a kid, but the ‘every man for himself’ morals must be taught here.
I got very aggressively shoved on a metro by two older ladies racing to get to an empty seat and they didn’t even bat an eye lid. Just another day in the life of a billion-person race.
It is overcrowded and polluted… everywhere!
Heading to the “countryside” on a bullet train during our first day on the mainland from Hong Kong I was shocked at each new city we passed, just one after the other with no real gaps of completely empty land in between. Local farms were more like big backyards that they had crammed some crops into and the sky just never seemed free of smog.
Once in Yangshuo, we were welcomed with bright neon lights (China love their neon signs) everywhere and a pumping tourist city of over 300,000. And that was a ‘small town’.
Security is tight
The Chinese don’t muck around when it comes to safety, and there are security check points everywhere. Every time you board a metro you get a full search including baggage, just like at the airport. Once when boarding a train from Luoyang to Beijing, we had the routine security check when going into the train station, another check when we got to our gate 50 metres away and then a full bag search 2 metres after that and many of us got perfume, deodorant or tweezers taken. Then another random search once on the train 10 minutes later. It was very over the top!
They eat anything with a pulse and don’t waste any part of it
Not a great place for the vegetarians or vegans. At markets in Chengdu we saw anything from full rabbit heads – inclusive of eyeballs and brains – to pigeons on a stick to deep fried spiders and scorpions. Chicken feet and liver are favoured snacks for the locals and even genitals were not spared in the butchering process with sheep penis and chickens testicles also considered a delicacy.
We saw a shop in Yangshuo with a Chinese version of Kernel Mustard and KFD next to it. I innocently thought it must stand for Kentucky Fried Duck, which our tour guide laughed at before exclaiming the D stood for dog. Horrified.
TIP FOR VEGETARIANS/VEGANS/PEOPLE WITH ALLERGIES: Translate your dietary requirements into Chinese and screenshot it to show at every restaurant. Something simple like “no peanuts, no meat” will work best.
Get used to having your picture taken
Do you like random people constantly staring at you and taking your photo? Then China is for you!
Seriously though, this took me a while to get used to. The locals have no shame in coming right up to you and very obviously taking your photo or getting a selfie. Being western and different looking, they were just intrigued and our guide said it was more of a fascination.
I do still find it creepy that thousands of random Chinese people now have photos of me on their phone though, tbh.
Children going to the toilet in the street
Oh the children of China, as cute as they were, seeing their potty time in the streets was not so cute. Most children didn’t wear nappies and instead wore pants with splits up the backside. When it was time to go, their parents would cradle them in their arms, legs to chest and hang them wherever they deemed fit, whether it be over the curb on the street, over a bin at the train station or even on the ground in the middle of the Forbidden City. Again, no shame.
I don’t think I could ever get used to the way both men and woman loudly and aggressively cleared their throats, bringing up balls of phlegm to just spit into the pavement. And walking around, seeing those spit balls everywhere. It was just gross.
Prepare for bias media
The media is controlled by the government so every news story shines China in such a good light. One night I watched an English news channel in Beijing and was just shaking my head at the ridiculous propaganda. Freedom of speech was also non existent, we even got warned not to talk badly about China when our guide believed there may be undercover police on our train. All social media is banned and government cyber surveillance is the norm.
They use squat toilets and BYO toilet paper
Because who doesn’t love peeing on their feet? Very rarely did we see a western toilet or when we did see one, it was labelled as a disabled toilet. They also usually don’t provide toilet paper so make sure to keep a roll or some tissues on you at all times.
Meals are shared
When dining in Chinese restaurants, the circle tables will always have a glass swivel part in the middle to easily access the multiple dishes ordered. Chinese like to order various dishes and share when eating in a group and I loved this idea, as I love trying a bit of everything. If you aren’t much of a sharer, just be aware of this as the dishes are quite big portions if ordering for just one.
So whilst there were many red flags for this country for me (literally, Chinese flags everywhere!), the country was spectacular in so many ways. Yangshou was breathtaking and sights like the Great Wall of China, the adorable pandas and the striking Shanghai skyline were worth the trip over. And once you look past the lack of manners and pushy behaviour as a cultural difference, the Chinese people were actually really warm and friendly.
There are many ways you can streamline your trip and make it easier on yourself. If your budget allows, I would highly recommend doing a tour. I went with G Adventures and the shoestring tours are great for backpackers on a budget! They have local Chinese guides which helped with anything and everything from simple communication to good recommendations.
Been to China yourself? Would love to hear your tips and stories.