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Things Travellers Don’t Know About China, but Should

May 11, 2017 By Susie Gordon , Comments (2)     Add your comment Newsletter

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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.

Things Travellers Don’t Know About China, but Should
Photo: Yoshimai

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.

4) Haggling
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…

5) Censorship
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 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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2 Comments ( Add your comment )


Very useful, thank you!

May 11, 2017 12:43

good post, very useful

May 17, 2017 01:38

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