I got my one year multi-entry visa to China recently and have been casually going up to China a lot more now. Mostly long weekend trips within Guangdong and I thought it’ll be good to make a list of things to know before going to China.
Every time I go to China the country seems to change and there’s just new quirks that most people around the world will not understand unless explained. And then there are old ones that need some explaining, for anyone unfamiliar with a culture that was closed off for 70 years prior to the 80’s.
If you’re going to China soon then you might want to save this to Pinterest so you can come back to this on a later date.
So here are my top 15 things to know before going to China.
Squatting toilets are a thing
Toilet habits and behaviours vary around the world and in Asia, squatting toilets are more common than the western sit down loo.
You won’t find squat toilets in hotel rooms or any other private washrooms, but squatting toilets are the norm for public restrooms around China.
It’s preferred by many because you don’t need any skin to surface contact to do your business. Which is also the reason why I prefer using a squatting toilet in public as well.
But I understand the whole affair can be a bit intimidating for a person with no experience with one. Don’t worry, most places will have one or two cubicles that have a sit down toilet to cater for anyone who struggles to do the “Asian squat”.
Btw, the Asian squat isn’t a genetic thing. Your ligaments behind your ankles are just stiff and need some stretching.
Pro tip: If you can’t do the Asian squat, then you might want to avoid using a squatting toilet because it’s going to be horribly uncomfortable and hard to balance…
You need Wechat
You need to download this app before you get to China if you want to use the internet effectively on your phone. This one app will be the only one you need to do 99% of your mobile phone activities.
Wechat is this mega app that has many functions within it. Imagine the whole Google play or Appstore in one app.
You can pretty much do anything you want and need with it.
The downside is, it’s all in Chinese and you’ll need to know some basic Chinese to navigate your way through this amazing app.
Seriously. It’s out-of-this-world-amazing.
Order a taxi, call food delivery, talk to your friends, pay for something or send money to a person and SO MUCH MORE from ONE APP!
But, you don’t have to have the app to do all the above. It’s just less cool and fast.
They don’t use cash
The average person in China doesn’t use cash. They all use smart mobile payment with alipay or wechat. As a foreigner that is only visiting, you might find it difficult to get wechat or alipay.
So the most you can do is prepare yourself for the possibility of:
- not being able to use cash or credit.
- the store not having change to give you
Both of the above have happened to me in the past. A lot of stores are increasingly only accepting alipay and wechat as payment methods. You might think it’s ridiculous, but it’s very normal in China because that’s how common mobile payment is.
Some stores just don’t see the need for cash. Or everything associated with cash.
A till, a person behind the till etc. etc.
Another thing you might come across is the cashier not having enough cash to give you the right change. This happened to me at a gas station in China and the guy simply didn’t have any cash in his till. I don’t think he was expecting anyone to use cash…
He gave me candy instead, because there just wasn’t any way for him to give me the money.
(I’m excited to say I have wechat payment on my phone now and it’s so awesome!)
Lining up isn’t a thing unless you’re in the big cities and even then…it’s a maybe
Hong Kong people are famous for lining up for the sake of lining up. Something the British must have left behind. In China though, lines…don’t seem to exist.
Cutting lines are a common affair and people don’t seem to bat an eye at doing it.
Things are improving in the big cities, but just be prepared to confront a person or two. Otherwise more people will cut you if you stay silent.
A common occurrence is, a seemingly normal line soon becomes a chaotic crowd once a middle aged person gestures their entire entourage of 20 to go in front of them.
People will talk to you and make small talk
As a foreigner, you’ll receive two responses from people. They will either be more than happy to help and make small talk with you.
They will completely ignore you and physically walk away.
If people feel like they can communicate with you, then you will find them making small talk with you at every given opportunity.
China still has this small town vibe to it, where people talk to each other and act like they know each other.
Even when they don’t.
Even in the bigger cities. I think it’s because although these cities are impressive to look at, the people living in them where only living in small towns and villages two decades ago.
Don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you and talks to you. Or, another customer asks for your opinion or give their opinion to you when you’re just browsing minding your own business.
Chinese people don’t like the sun
The west’s standard of beauty of sun kissed skin is not going to apply here.
I think this is an overall Asian thing, but I think Chinese people go the extra level when it comes to avoiding the sun. Chinese people are obsessed with having fair skin.
There’s a social stigma towards the colour of your skin and your social class. People with fair skin are ones that stay indoors, thus indicating they are more well off. While people with tanned skin must be outside all the time and thus doing hard labour.
Very generalised assumptions, but this stigma dates back all the way to ancient China.
Now, it’s just a general standard of beauty where people simply think you look better if you have fair skin regardless of social class.
You’ll find women with umbrellas everywhere, and street vendor ladies wearing arm covers with their short sleeve shirts. You’ll even see women wear gloves while driving to avoid the sun on their hands!
Public parks are incredibly entertaining
China has many public spaces and the parks are one of the best. I think most of you reading this will have seen the old grannies dancing in unison or the elderly tai chi groups online.
Those are entertaining as well, but that’s not all these parks are home to.
Find groups of all kind of activities come together and practice. It’s a true sight to behold when you see it yourself. Find a group singing Chinese opera in one corner and then another dancing salsa!
See a group of yo-yo masters and then find another group of spin top ninjas!
It’s really fun to just walk, watch and maybe even join in!
Believe it or not, the shuffle dance in the above video was really popular among the middle age aunties and uncles.
Staring seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour
Have you ever been told it’s rude to stare?
That doesn’t seem to apply in China, or in Hong Kong actually. Chinese people don’t associate starting as an invasion of personal space. There’s no negative connotation to it.
You’ll find people stare unapologetically at you if they find you interesting. It’s a big cultural shock if you’ve never experienced it, but just know they’re not being rude.
They’re just genuinely curious and interested.
…begin the small talk.
China is super safe
A lot of people seem to ask this question, which I find surprising but I can understand why people would ask if they’ve never been to the country.
China is incredibly safe compared the whole of America, Europe and Africa.
There is absolutely no need to worry about your personal safety while travelling, especially in the cities and towns. The biggest reason is because police personnel is everywhere.
Crime in public areas is simply not common and is actually rather shocking to locals when it does happen. The amount of CCTVs and policemen on the streets make it impossible to get away with anything illegal. That leaves you, the traveller free to explore knowing you’re safe.
I would say, I feel the safest in China than everywhere else I’ve been to. The most I risk is being scammed rather than find myself in a dangerous situation.
English is not readily available
The English proficiency in China has risen drastically over the years with many young people capable of holding a conversation.
However, a part from the government signs, all other signage is most likely only in Chinese. You’ll find people keen to help easily, but be prepared to ask for help a lot because of the language barrier.
Half naked men in summer is a common sight
It’s not uncommon to see this in China.
Men yanking their tops up and folding it up to bare their bellies.
I have no explanation for it other than it’s hot.
Loud eating isn’t impolite. It’s normal behaviour. (kinda)
Eating loudly is another cultural difference that is stark. Slurping, smacking and just chewing while you eat is all normal behaviour.
The younger generation is increasingly not doing this, but it’s still very common and it’s traditionally seen as a sign of enjoying your food, being friendly and open.
The food isn’t as exotic as you think it is, unless you’re down south…
While we’re talking about eating, let’s talk about food. A lot of people see China as a country full of weird food, which is true to an extent. There’s a lot of food items that are eaten just for texture, or health benefits. Things you just won’t find at your supermarket.
But if you travel across China, you’ll actually find it’s not that exotic.
The most varied and exotic dishes are mostly found down south and concentrates in Guangdong. In fact, most Chinese people in other parts of the country have a stereotype towards Cantonese people eating anything.
They think it’s just as weird as the rest of the world.
If you want to eat weird stuff, go to Guangdong.
People seem to have a siestas everywhere and anywhere
I only noticed this recently, but taking a nap near the road on a patch of grass is a common scene you can find. You find these drivers park their car on the side, and lay down their bamboo mats to have a carefree nap.
Mind you, these aren’t large patches of grass. These are the small narrow grassy areas on the side of roads you find with smallish trees and foliage.
I saw one, and then the another, and then another, and another, until I figured it must be a thing in China to just park your car on the side and have a nap.
Sleep on the ground to the side. Sleep on a park bench. Just sleep.
It’s really strange to see it if you’re from a culture where sleeping in public in such a casual fashion is not common.
Crotchless pants on young children
I don’t know where to begin with this one. It’s a reason why it’s the last one on the list.
Young children around the age of two and below can be commonly seen wearing crotchless pants. Admittedly, it’s not very common in tier 1 cities, but it definitely doesn’t bat an eye for Chinese people to see a child wearing it.
These young children are given a social pass to do their business, almost anywhere they need to. Diapers for many Chinese people are seen to delay potty training and so parents and grandparents encourage the baby to be off them as soon as possible. They think it forces the child to be aware of when they need to go faster.
So, if you have a kid that isn’t fully potty trained and you’re not using a diaper, then a crotchless pair of pants start to make sense.
I think I covered the things to know before going to China. Some might be welcomed and some are obviously going to make you raise an eyebrow or two, but that’s the fun of travelling. You see what is considered normal to other people and you get the opportunity to evaluate your own ideas of normality.
It’s why travelling is the easiest way to develop yourself as a person.
Other resources you should check out:
- Find out how to get a Chinese Visa easily and cheaply
- My guide to getting cheap flight tickets with these easy to use tricks for the casual infrequent travellers
- Learn how to pack the perfect minimalist carry on bag
- Avoid these 15 common rookie travel mistakes
- Find out how I manage to travel so often