For many people, China is a land of mystery. So many years behind the Bamboo Curtain gave it an air of the unknown, and even thirty years after the re-opening, it still holds a certain allure to intrepid travellers. Whether you're coming here as a visitor, or settling here as an expat, there are certain things you should know, many of which you won't learn in guidebooks.
Despite its strive towards modernism and its booming economy, much of China is still extremely poor, especially in rural areas. However, the cities (especially the first and second tier metropolises) are pockets of extreme, disproportionate wealth. People often believe China is rich everywhere, and are shocked to see beggars and areas of poverty. Others think China is poor everywhere, and are surprised by luxury brand boutiques and fancy cars. The thing to remember is that China is still a mix of both extremely rich, and cripplingly poor, so don't be blindsided by displays of both extremes.
1) The question of colour
Because of the government-enforced "closing" of the country during the Cultural Revolution, certain attitudes arose towards foreigners (or waiguoren – literally ‘outside country people') and this us-and-them outlook persists to this day. It's sad to say, but the darker your skin, the harder you'll have it. Even in the big cities, non-Caucasians attract stares and remarks (however, if you hear what you think might be a racial slur, don't get your hackles up straight away: the Mandarin word for "that one" sounds dangerously like the N-word, and is frequently used as a filler, the way we would use "erm" or "um".) Caucasians aren't exempt either, if you're blond and blue-eyed at a major tourist attraction you're going to get a lot of people wanting to take photos with you.
In many ways, China has yet to embrace political correctness. Darker-skinned expats might have a hard time getting teaching jobs, for the mind-boggling reason that many parents want their child to be taught by a white person. Even if you are a native English speaker with all the relevant qualifications, you could be overlooked for a teaching position in favour of someone who fits the bill where skin-tone is concerned. This absolutely sucks, but hopefully things will start to change as the more racially-aware generation grows up. In general, you'll see job ads which affront Western sensibilities regarding equality, often containing sexist, ageist, heightist and racist hiring criteria. Again, this will change – we hope.
2) The tea scam
The legendary "tea house" scam is often discussed, but people still fall for it, so it's worth mentioning here. The scam comes in many forms, but the most common will start with a couple of pretty local girls approaching you offering to take you to a tea ceremony, and will end with you being strong-armed into paying thousands of RMB (or thousands of dollars if you're particularly unlucky). Other versions include "art students" escorting you to their gallery, tour guides offering trips to see pandas, and general shady characters coming straight out and asking for money. There's a fine line between being friendly to people who approach you and coming across as a rude, suspicious laowai, but if you find it, you'll be safe from scams.
3) Traffic rules
Another well-documented but important point is traffic rules, or lack thereof. Don't be fooled into thinking that the preponderance of traffic cops means safe roads. Nor should you expect cars and bikes to stop for you, even if you have right of way. It's lawless. Be careful.
When it comes to bargaining in the markets and on the street, something that will save you a scolding is knowing only to haggle over something you actually want. On a trip to Beijing, I decided it would be amusing to wrangle for one of those wristwatches adorned with Mao's majestic visage. I managed to get the vendor down to 30 RMB for the watch, only to bow out at the crucial moment. He was not happy. I ended up running across Tiananmen Square with him in hot pursuit waving the Mao watch. Not an ideal situation…
For travellers who anticipate uploading all their riveting China snaps and posting their trenchant observations as status updates, think again. Facebook is blocked here, much to the annoyance of resident expats. Thanks to the Great Firewall, YouTube is also banned, along with an array of blogging websites, and Google.com. Rather amusingly, the geo-locator site Foursquare (in which users accrue points to "rule" certain locations) was recently banned, apparently because the government didn't like the idea of users becoming "mayor" of Tiananmen Square. Heavy censorship means that the media isn't objective the way it is back home, so don't expect to read rounded reports and profound analysis. If you're here for a long stint, you can get around the bans with a VPN, but short-term travellers will just have to grin and bear it.
6) Hotel restrictions
Another thing that's useful to know is that foreigners aren't allowed in hotels below a three-star rating. I learned this to my peril on a recent trip to Yiwu in Zhejiang Province. Night was falling, and I didn't have a room booked. I figured it would be easy enough, since Yiwu is a big-business city. However, all of the four- and five-star hotels were fully booked, and obviously the three-stars wouldn't give me the time of day. Luckily I found an all-night internet café that would let me play games (i.e. doze with my forehead on the keyboard) until dawn.
The best thing to do is approach China with an open mind, and a touch of healthy suspicion for anything that seems too good to be true. Chat to other travellers about their experiences along the way, and pass on your tips to newbies once you have the lay of the land.
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Keywords: tips travel China where to go in China visiting China things to know about China scams China foreigners rules travelling around China
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42 Comments Add your comment
Another slight anomaly in the article: yes, FB, youtube and almost all sites where members of the public can freely express their opinion are blocked, but google and gmail can be accessed here. I had heard they were blocked before arriving and was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise.
Feb 17, 2012 19:08 Report Abuse
Google and gmail may be available here but as I found out when we moved here nearly a year ago there are some odd things with them here. I have a gmail address and use Chrome however I found many times Chrome to be really slow in operation and gmail would sometimes lose emails or I would have to try accessing two or three times before I could get my mail. I went back to using Firefox which seemed to cure the browser speed and have since started using a VPN which has cured all the problems. I can only assume that somewhere within the Chinese system google is watched very carefully and "they" are doing their best to make it a not good user experience.
Feb 17, 2012 20:26 Report Abuse
Entirely true, Ray. If I'd had time when posting my original comment I would have added something to a similar effect.
Gmail can be a pain in the butt to load sometimes, and I've always wondered if sometimes google's results come up in a different order. I'm still glad its available though.
In any case, I'd thoughly recommend anyone staying for more than a few months to get a good VPN. Its worth every jiao.
Feb 17, 2012 21:17 Report Abuse
I have just returned from 6 months in China and the comment about hotels is certainly true. I have been caught out with not pre-booking a hotel, but got around it by having a local friend book me in under her I D card. I found the hotel every bit as good as higher rated hotels so have stayed there several times now when I visit this friend's city.
Another particular problem that I feel could have been included in this article, is that of internet scams, particularly relating to women either chasing a husband or looking for money.
The comment in the article about "if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn't" certainly applies here. If you want to play along with them, because it may be novel, or interesting, then ok, but be prepared to pull out when you feel threatened.
Feb 17, 2012 14:22 Report Abuse
oh, why does everything always have to be blamed on the Cultural Revolution. Chinese attitudes about people with dark skin didn't arise because of the Cultural Revolution, but have much deeper roots, and you can find the same attitudes in other Asian countries, which should settle the matter.
Feb 17, 2012 16:41 Report Abuse
Great article. One that first time visitors should read, although i stayed in some "No Star hotels". Having a Chinese wife of course avoids many of the problems referred to, but I concur with most of the article.
The amount of police and army [ exercising] isn't just to keep a benign, friendly, orderly presence, they are there to watch out for the slightess hint of unrest.
Dont mention the Square, talk to street artists in Shenzhen criticising the communist[?] government [ as i did], falang gong, Tiawan and especially not TIBET. Anyone heard about the Tibetan crackdown in Chengdu, no I thought not?
I love China and its people but be very careful if you are interested in politics. I always laugh when I see so much iconography surrounding Che Guevara[ my hero] Let me sum up by saying that if Che tried to visit China now he would never get a visa! You see he was a true communist, not like the present dictatorship masquerading under that name.
Feb 17, 2012 20:34 Report Abuse
Good stuff! After 2.5 years in China, I must agree with, well, pretty much everything.
It is possible to find hotels without certification and means that will accept you if you are a foreigner. But there is a significant portion that will not (because they don't register you with the local police). The main reason is because the Chinese government wants to track the location of all foreigners at all times. If you are here working and move to a new location, then you are required to register at the local bureau. Each province has certain restrictions and each local police bureau has its restrictions (flip a coin to determine if they follow guidelines). The safest thing to do if you are stuck in a situation where you are forced to find a less than 3-star Chinese hotel and you have no other option, is to go down to the nearest police station and tell them that you need a place to stay and where you want to stay. If it is too late to fill out the paperwork, they will call their boss (who will be sleeping) and then they will tell you to come back in the morning to fill out the paperwork of registering at their locale. It is good to get something in writing to take back to the hotel. Go back to the hotel that refused you and either tell them what the police said or present the document that they give you. I had this occur on many occasions, and as long as you know why they don't allow you to stay in such places, (they don't have the capacity to register you), then you will find creative ways to circumvent such disasterous situations such as being stuck in a small town at 2:00am in the morning. Of course, you should find a police station first, and knowing how to speak chinese is a real plus. Remedy: have a Chinese friend write an explanation of this case for you ahead of time if you think there might be a possibility you might be stuck somewhere and you don't know how to communicate. In worse case scenarios, they will find the daughter of someone, who has studied English in high school to help translate. Just speak slowly, as if talking to your own 3-year old child. And your frustration should be used wisely.
Traffic rules, haggling and censorship, I have to agree.
Tea Shops, mostly true, but if you are quoted thousands of yuan for any tea, then you should just walk away unless you know exactly what you are doing. The most I have paid for really nice Pu'er tea was 500 RMB. I was with a long-term Chinese friend who I trust with all my heart, and he knows about tea. The tea tasted like cow sh*t, but so do some of the highest priced cigars.
Note to first time travellers: I have found that the comments posted in response to an article, are actually more accurate than the article itself in many instances. Listen to the people that have been here for a while and calculate the median opinion. Somewhere in the middle is the truth. It might happen, or it might not happen to you. Take what you can and leave the rest.
Feb 18, 2012 07:48 Report Abuse
I wanted to clarify a point. The police bureau told me that as long as you register with the local police bureau, then you are allowed to stay anywhere in China (minus restricted areas). They don't care where you stay, the government doesn't care if you sleep in a ditch. They just want you to register at the police bureau. 3-star and above hotels do this automatically for you. But the "dumpy hotels" don't. As long as you go down to register at the bureau, fill out their form, then they will have no problem with you staying at any location. Of course, everything can be overrided with guanxi. And every province has its own regulations. So, again, TIC.
Feb 18, 2012 08:01 Report Abuse
I can't tell if you're joking or not. If not, you're "mentally challenged".
So, you're saying, Chinese never deceive you with a "facade of acceptance masking negative feelings"? And say what they mean and mean what they say, frankly, openly and honestly?
You must be talking about the China in Bizarro World.
Besides the fact that Chinese understand political correctness just fine when they perceive themselves as being slighted. I despise political correctness as much as the next guy. But Chinese "face" culture is way worse. Even the most harmless things often have a subtext.
Foreigner: Ni hao!
Chinese person: Wow, your Chinese is excellent! (For a big-nosed white monkey)
Chinese person; Wow, you can use chopsticks! ( I can't believe an ape can learn something so complex)
You look strong. (You're a fat white gorilla)
You're handsome ( For a big-nosed white chimp)
And so on...... If you think I'm wrong, try living here for 10 years, and when someone asks if you can speak Chinese, reply with "not a word". Report back to me later.
Feb 19, 2012 04:28 Report Abuse
Mind your grammar, Sir. I never said that I had experienced that "'failure'" I addressed. I was referring to the what this article had described. I myself have no experience in China as of yet. Your comments are thus actually directed toward the author of the piece, not to me. Again, mind your grammar.
Feb 19, 2012 11:06 Report Abuse
In addition, the political correctness to which I was referring is the kind almost idiosyncratic with the USA and the UK, whereby, for example, employers and renters are forbidden by law from discriminating against others for gender, race, colour, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.; whereby saying anything negative about any gender, race, colour, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., is ground for termination of employment or nationwide boycott. That is a level of political correctness to which I hope the PRC never stoops. I would not be unhappy to live in a place wherein such laws did not exist.
Feb 19, 2012 18:35 Report Abuse
Yes, at times Chinese people seem blissfully ignorant of OUR social conventions. But Harry is absolutely right. What they have instead of political correctness is much worse. And no, you will not be treated "as they perceive you". Not at all.
What they have instead of political correctness is "lying to your face" (which they have shorted to "face"). They perceive it as a necessary form of tact and social sophistication and are actually rather proud of it. Sadly, it isn't clever or sophisticated at all. It's quite tedious actually.
Feb 19, 2012 20:41 Report Abuse
Oh man, when you get to China you are in a world of pain, Wolff. The sheer mind boggling complexity and illogic of the ‘face’ system leave any western political correctness dead in the water when it comes to difficulty of communicating honestly.
If you don't like the fact that we're forbidden from being ageist, sexist, racist twats in workplaces and formal situations in western countries, then please, give a LOT of thought and research to the culture (as in, daily, not mytholologised) of China before coming here. It's truly not a haven for free and open speech!
Feb 20, 2012 00:52 Report Abuse
To be honest, I'm quite familiar with the "face" system, how to read it, and how to manipulate it. And, I've been reading all of the articles on here and other sites for about a year. I regularly watch and read state-controlled media, and daily surround myself with people from China. I aware of the positive and negative aspects of Chinese society, and still would prefer it to my own. The biases do not intimidate me. Bias is a part of being human; being politically correct is part of being Western.
A world of pain awaits me? Hardly. One man's pain is another's pleasure. Can't you accept that two humans can be so different in their desires?
Feb 20, 2012 06:44 Report Abuse
Shiiiat Wolff.... you think you're the first person that read and watched Chinese media and had Chinese friends and such and thought you knew what you were getting yourself into? Yeah, you and almost every other foreigner on this board. You know NOTHING.
I hate reality shows but if you could arrange with some media company to follow you around 24/7 so we can watch your happy, optimistic arrival and watch your hopes and dreams deteriorate with every episode as we all witness your descent into madness.......hell,I'd watch it. We can get Las Vegas to make a ticket where people could bet on which day/hour/minute you crack. And again, I'm no fan of PC but once you get here and find yourself on the other receiving end of unwarranted hatred and discrimination you'll at least have some understanding of how it got started. I recommend you continue to experience China from the comfort of your living room.
Feb 20, 2012 20:11 Report Abuse
This wasn't meant to be mean or condescending, although it probably reads as such.
For good or ill, Harry is bang on the money here. Most of the foreigners I know researched China as intensely as possible before coming here and thought we knew what we were getting into. This is good for a laugh, looking back!
That you read blogs and websites is fine, state controlled media is pretty much useless IMO, talking with (outside) Chinese is an excellent idea.
But don't think you're going to get here and be able to make face and influence networks work for you day one. Having a basic idea of the concepts of face won't do that for you. It doesn't work that way. It just doesn't.
Feb 20, 2012 21:25 Report Abuse
With regard to haggling, this is possible even in department stores. Recently, whilst in Lhasa, I was browsing at the Ebohr watch I had long had my sights on, and the eager sales assistants were happy to sell me it, to which I replied "Wo mei you er qian liu bai bashi" (I don't have 2680rmb) and to my surprise she pulls out a calculator, and reduces the price by no less than 500 rmb.
Of course, with official stores you can't be as aggressive as you have to be with street vendors and the like, but still, tell them that the price isn't quite within your range and they'll help you out.
Feb 19, 2012 19:15 Report Abuse
Yep, I've had the same thing happen. In my case, it wasn't even haggling as such, I got the reduction by accident!
I was looking at expensive gloves in a department store (well, relatively expensive for Chinese gloves) and said to the person I was shopping with 'hmmm, maybe I'll wait and come back after payday. The girl said, 'oh, okay then' and knocked a third off the price. A gentle suggestion that yes, you like it, but that you're still hesitant might work wonders.
Feb 19, 2012 23:01 Report Abuse
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