While most visitors to China last year were from Asia, more than five million people also flocked from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and France.
So, yes, western amenities are becoming more common in China, but there are still a few surprises that can catch travelers unawares.
Here are a few tips I’d wish I’d known before visiting this fascinating and at times, frustrating, country.
1. Cash is King
While some larger hotel chains accept standard credit cards, for the most part, you’ll need cash, specifically yuan, colloquially known as “kuai”.
Getting cash can be a challenge, as many Chinese banks do not accept foreign cards.
Exchanging money, too, is a complicated drawn-out process that usually involves bank employees fumbling about for 20 minutes checking passports, signing papers and getting the special foreign currency machine from the back.
So carry more cash with you or try larger bank chains, such as HSBC, to withdraw from your foreign account.
2. What in the Weird?!
Absurd things happen, and often.
Sometimes I feel as if I’ve landed on another planet because, culturally speaking, some things are just. plain. bizarre.
3. Crowds and Popped Space Bubbles
In a country of 1.2 billion people, and millions more visitors, it’s a fact: there will be large crowds wherever you go. Visit famous monuments and attractions early, pre-book and most importantly, try to stay zen.
Likewise, personal space here is in limited supply.
Don’t be surprised to feel the breath of a fellow shopper down your neck at the supermarket queue, or even get a little shove, but remember to always stand your ground.
4. Don’t Tip in China, for the most part
Locals don’t tip and neither should you.
In China, tipping can be considered rude as it implies the employee is not valued by the business owner.
Having said that, there are also instances where it is merited, such as tour guides or restaurants catering to Western tourists.
Here is a good guide from WhotoTip.com.
5. Speak up!
Customer service here is distinctly different, so don’t expect waiters to be on smiley standby for your every whim. In short, shout out if you want something.
6. Chinese eat everything
Shark fin, dogs, turtles, cats, insects, and snakes. Yes, it’s true, these animals make it onto the dinner table in China.
The Chinese taste for the exotic is thought to stem from a history of poverty, political change, a status symbol and a belief that many animals hold medicinal healing qualities.
Whether or not you order a dish of an exotic animal is entirely up to you, but do know that you may be fueling an illegal trade and animal extinction by putting your money where your mouth is.
7. It’s fine to burp, slurp, spit and stare
Many visitors to China can feel confronted, even disgusted, by seeing what the West often deems as ‘bad habits,’ but here it’s just part of daily life.
Burping and slurping shows you’re really enjoying the meal.
Spitting is very common to see in public as the Chinese believe it is important to cleanse the body immediately, adopting the ‘better out, than in’ mentality.
Staring is actually a compliment. The starer is taking a real interest in you, a genuine curiosity.
8. Drinking water in China
Nah, I wouldn’t..
Generally speaking, tap water in China isn’t drinkable. Bottled water is cheap and available everywhere.
8. Eating street food in China
Chinese street food is delicious and plentiful!
When it comes to meat vendors, again, nah, probably better not to risk it.
Try to buy street food early in the day or ask the vendor to make a new stick of ‘said product’ fresh for you. Also follow the queues, if people are lining up for it, it’s probably a safer bet.
9. Bring your own bathroom
Most Chinese toilets do not provide toilet paper or soap. Most will be squat toilets. So always carry a packet of tissues, hand sanitizer (and an essential oils bottle if you’re particularly smell sensitive).
10. Catching trains in China
China has a great high-speed network of bullet trains to take you across the country, which costs next to nothing.
Often the railway stations are big, chaotic and crowded, so allow yourself ample time to get to the station in time for your train.
Sometimes you may find people sitting in your seat and will need to firmly, but politely, tell them to move their tuckus.
11. Getting Around
If you think about it, China’s ‘bicycle kingdom’ only ended in the last few decades and so, the people on the roads are the first generations of Chinese drivers.
To politely put it, this means driving in China is an absolute shit storm.
My advice? DON’T DRIVE here, rather take a taxi and hold on for dear life.
Taxis in China are inexpensive and plentiful. Most drivers don’t speak English, so always have a hotel card handy or destination address in Chinese.
As a pedestrian, note that cars have the unofficial right of way, so watch your toes.
The bus and metro systems are reliable and easy to navigate but like in most cities, you don’t want to be caught up in the peak hour rush.
12. Bargaining – Tài Gui le!
As a general rule, bargain and bargain hard! Most stores will start at prices well above what you should offer.
Start off with about half and then go from there.
If all else fails just say “Tài guì le!” (thai gwey leh) “That’s too expensive!” and walk off. You’ll usually get your price doing this.
Here’s some good tips on how to haggle from BunchofBackpackers.com
13. Taking photos in China
The Chinese love to take photographs, it’s practically a national sport. So don’t be surprised if a local tries to snap a sneaky photo of you or even comes up to ask for a picture.
14. Don’t accept a compliment or gifts right away
In China, it’s easy for a foreigner to develop a big head as you field compliments and gifts from left, right and centre. But remember, it’s polite to refuse them at least once, as it shows humility.
15. English is becoming more common
English is now taught in most schools but many Chinese people are too shy to use it.
So be careful what you say!
Others, though, will go out of their way to practice with you and try to connect via Wechat.
And one more…Don’t Worry
In terms of crime, I have never more safe in a country than in China.
Not once have I heard of a tourist being attacked or even pick-pocketed.
Sure, China’s government, low air quality and crazy roads may deter some tourists but it would be be a shame to miss out on visiting this dynamic and fascinating country.