Cultivating Culture: Travel Tips for Mainland China
“Cultivating Culture” is a new column that prepares you with local customs, observations, and essential tips for traveling to foreign countries.
Shaking hands or nodding are both acceptable ways of greeting. The word for “hello” in Chinese is “nǐ hǎo” (pronounced “nee-how) and “thank you” is “xiè xiè” (pronounced “shi-eh shi-eh”).
Customers are not expected to leave tips for taxi, restaurant, or spa services. In some cases, it’s even considered rude. However, it is okay to tip tour guides or bellhops.
Many websites and domains are blocked in China which may affect checking email or contacting home. This includes Google (and its apps), Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and some news sources. Check Blocked in China to test a URL before your trip.
Tap water is not safe to drink though usually potable once boiled. Don’t fret, there’s lots of purified, bottled water sold at local markets.
Get used to eating with chopsticks and a spoon. Never leave your chopsticks sitting upright in a bowl, it symbolizes death. Unlike Western culture, it is not impolite to slurp, chew loudly, or burp at the table. They are signs of appreciation for a good meal.
If you have special dietary constrictions like eating vegetarian or gluten-free, it’s best to Google and print out requests in Chinese beforehand (or ask your concierge to write it out at the hotel). Be as specific as possible. As a vegetarian, I made sure not only to hand my waiter a printout that indicating that, but also included the phrases “I do not eat meat. I do not eat seafood.”
The majority of public bathrooms are squat toilets (they’re not that bad once you learn how to use them). If squatting isn’t for you, look for handicap stalls – they are usually appointed with a seated one. Hotels and western franchises like McDonald’s or KFC are also usually equipped with western-style abodes. In some areas, toilet paper cannot be flushed and must be thrown in a waste bin. And always carry some tissue and hand sanitizer to be safe.
China has huge population which results in a much smaller sense of personal space than in Western countries. Don’t be personally offended when people crowd around you, cut in front of the line, or shove. It feels chaotic at first, but stand your ground and don’t be scared to be a little bit pushy yourself.
Mopeds and bicycles don’t often obey the same traffic rules as cars – beware of them before crossing the road. Many cars will run red lights and pedestrians do not have the right of way, the biggest vehicle on the road does.
Taxis are pretty affordable in the city and a good way to get around if there are several of you to split the fare. Most drivers don’t speak English. Before arriving in the country, make sure to have a print-out of your hotel’s information written in Chinese. After checking in, ask the concierge for some hotel business cards to use for future rides, he can also write out addresses of other points of interest for you. Only use licensed taxis. They can be identified by lights on the car roof, a company name written on the door, the use of a meter, and presence of a driver ID on the dashboard.
LEFT SOMETHING IN THE TAXI?
Most cities have horrendous traffic – particularly during rush hour. Build in extra time to get to your destination, especially if it’s for a time-sensitive situation like a flight or meeting. Take note: it’s difficult during these times to catch a cab and expect public transportation to be very crowded.
According to FlightStats: among the world’s 61 largest airports, the seven worst performers for on-time departures were all mainland Chinese airports. During my trip, all three of my domestic flights were either canceled or delayed. Don’t schedule important activities on the day of your arrival, give yourself a day’s cushion just in case.
If you miss a connecting flight, most airlines will provide transportation and hotel accommodations. You will need to go to the transfer desk to book a new reservation, which consists of a hand-written update on the old boarding pass. You won’t need a new pass at check-in, just show your passport. Also worth noting is that the staff at the gate are airport employees – not airline employees – so they won’t be able to assist you with flight changes.
Spitting (and More)
It is not a cultural taboo in China to spit – anywhere. People will hack up phlegm in the street, elevators, and even on carpeted floors. Passing gas and picking noses in public isn’t a big deal either nor are children relieving themselves in the street. Though it may horrify foreigners, these actions are all considered as natural, bodily functions.
Summertime in major cities like Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai can get humid and grimy. Go local and carry an umbrella for instant shade or carry a fan from a souvenir store to cool off. The fans also make excellent bug swatters for hiking. When it gets real steamy, it’s common to see Chinese men pull their shirts up over their bellies to stay ventilated.
Have you visited mainland China? Share your advice with other travelers below.
Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 25 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of discovering the world. She recently relocated to Seoul, South Korea, where she hopes to explore some of Asia for the next few years. In addition to being the founding editor of En Route Traveler, Lara also works as a freelance graphic designer. In her spare time, she contributes as a Local Expert to AFAR, is an ambassador for FIG Clothing, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, instructs Zumba, practices yoga, dabbles in photography and, of course, travels as much as possible.