25 Things to Know Before Traveling to China

Have you ever wanted to know what it’s like to visit Eastern China? Before I hopped on a plane and traveled over 7,000 miles to the glorious city of Shanghai, I found myself researching the city’s differences compared to my own home in Ohio. Needless to say, after stepping off the plane and exploring the food, people, and city life, I quickly realized that nothing could’ve prepared me for this adventure. While living in China for a month this past summer, I tried my best to live life as though I were a local. By mid-month, I was really starting to fit in and get used to the lifestyle. I traveled to cities outside of Shanghai such as Suzhou, Wuzhen, and Hangzhou; and I even took a high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing for a weekend getaway!

For anyone planning their own extended trip to China, I created this list to help you cope with the idea of living in a country other than your own, and to familiarize you with the exciting new land you're about to enter. 

Without further ado, here is my list of 25 things you should know before traveling to China:

  1. What’s personal space? - Just like on the subway’s and in the streets of New York, there is no such thing as personal space in China. The psychological space around you that you’ve deemed as your own will be redefined quickly.

  2. Water - It isn't safe to drink the tap water but you can brush your teeth and shower in it water. Also, if you are going to order a water at dinner, expect to get lightly flavored hot tea.

  3. Watermelon for dessert anyone? - At home, usually reach for ice cream or chocolate chip cookies for dessert but in China there is really only one option; watermelon! At most family style restaurants, it is very common for watermelon to be served as the post dinner treat. While yummy and very healthy, I found myself missing my usual sweets.

  4. Family style meals - You’ve heard the saying “sharing is caring”? Well in China, most meals are served family style on a rotating lazy susan where each dish is available to everyone at the table.

  5. “What's in this?” - Let’s be real, unless you have an authentic Chinese restaurant near your house, you’ve probably never heard of or tasted any of the traditional dishes made in China. So it’s typical for the average foreigner to be tempted to ask “what’s in this” when referring to a dish. My tip to you is to just taste it and see if you like it. Try not to worry about the ingredients, unless you are allergic to something of course.

  6. Bubble tea - Bubble tea is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s. Recipes contain a tea or coffee base mixed with fruit or milk, to which chewy edible black pearls (tapioca balls) and fruit jelly are often added. This sweet and delicious drink can be found on almost every block in China. Personally, it is one of my all-time favorite drinks!

  7. Red bean paste - Red bean paste or adzuki bean paste is super popular in East Asian cuisine. The paste can be prepared by boiling the beans then smoothing, mashing, or grinding them. In Chinese cuisine, the beans are usually mashed and sweetened. I really enjoyed red bean paste on top of my yogurt and in my rice porridge.

  8. Restaurant etiquette - Don’t split your check. In Chinese culture, it is polite for one person to pay for the entire table's meal. The lucky guy or gal will usually fight or secretly pay for the bill without the expectation of repayment. If repayment must happen, then do give your money to them in public because it makes it look as though they are broke. Don’t tip your waiter or waitress in China. Their salaries don’t rely on gratuity.

  9. Chopsticks, not forks - I wouldn’t expect a fork with your food dish because chopsticks are a main utensil in China, along with the Chinese soup spoon. I would consider practicing and learning proper chopstick etiquette before you visit and remember not to ever stick them straight up in your dish. It is a sign of disrespectful and dislike for the food.

  10. Cheese - Cheeses is not regularly incorporated into traditional Chinese cooking. The biggest reason is because many East Asians are lactose intolerant.

  11. Matcha - Derived from the Japanese matcha tea, Chinese matcha green tea is cheap and widely accessible throughout the country. Although Chinese matcha tea does not have all the health benefits of Japanese matcha tea , it is very popular and used in many things. One of my favorites is matcha tea flavored ice cream.

  12. Air Quality - Pollution has become a major issue in China and has posed a threat to public health. With that being said, it is common for natives to walk around with anti-pollution masks. You will almost definitely need a mask if you are visiting northern China in the months of January-July.

  13. Bicycle: A new twist on an old form of transportation - Bike-sharing startups in China are enjoying growth. All you have to do is download an app on your smartphone, which allows you to locate and unlock a nearby bike for as little as 1 yuan (15 cents) for thirty minutes of use. Not only is it cheap, but it’s fun!

  14. “Never judge a book by it's cover” - Not only is this true to books and people but also to the exterior look of buildings in China. Natives only really care about what is in the interior. So when you book that Airbnb and things start to feel sketchy as you approach the building, consider giving it a chance.

  15. Bathrooms - Squatty potties are pretty common in China. Some fancy places will have western ‘throne’ toilets but you can’t always count on it. Also, toilet paper and hand soap aren’t standard. so be sure to bring your own tissue and hand sanitizer.

  16. Timeless Memories - Chinese people love to take photos of everything to show their family and friends, just like Americans do. They especially like to take photos with foreigners! Don't be surprised if you are asked to be in a photo or happen to see someone taking a candid photo of you while you’re out and about.

  17. Rain or shine - Umbrellas are used for all weather in China. There are even specific types of umbrellas you can purchase for a rainy day or for a sunny day.

  18. Drinks baggies - Most on-the-go drinks served in China include a plastic drink bag. It's an effective way of keeping the condensation from getting all over your hands and it saves you from ever having to hold a cold or hot drink.

  19. There’s Walmart in China?! - Yes! Walmart is about as popular in China as it is in America. There are significant differences in the interior though. In China, I visited a two story Walmart where the bottom was similar to a shopping center and the top was the actual grocery store. While shopping throughout Walmart, you’ll also find some familiar things on the shelves but for significantly lower prices. For instance, I bought a bottle of shampoo and conditioner and paid 14 yuan (equivalent to two U.S. dollars). Lastly, at checkout, you must pay for your plastic grocery bags. It's a cheap fare, but I found this to be interesting.

  20. The Art of Bargaining - 太贵了!Translation: It’s too expensive! Bargaining for a lower price is common when shopping at independently owned businesses in China for goods such as clothes, gifts, art, and jade. Some shops may put out signs claiming “all prices are final” but this may not actually be true. Haggling can be uncomfortable but it’s worth a try. Just remember to always be firm but polite and know what you want to pay before you begin conversation.

  21. WeChat - Online sites such as Google, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked by the Chinese government. The only way to obtain full access to the web is by VPN or Sim Card.

  22. KTV - KTV is a place where Chinese people go to sing karaoke and have fun with friends. It has private rooms you can book with your friends or colleagues for a few hours of fun. KTV is usually an evening activity, but many places in the big cities are open 24 hours.

  23. Now you see it, now you don’t - While riding in a subway car, gazing out the window, an animated advertising scene is likely to flash by. It is not your imagination, it is subway in-tunnel advertising!

  24. Highway and expressway travel - While driving on the highway or expressway, you are likely to experience a ton of traffic and a lot of honking but surprisingly, you will also get the chance to check out the flowers that line the roads. No one really knows why flowers line the highways and expressways of China, but if I had to take a guess I’d say it’s for decorative purposes.

  25. Beep beep - Horn honking is very common and happens all the time China. Highways and expressways are often very crowded and streets are full of cars in the major cities so it is a simple, and friendly way to let everyone know you are there.