Monday, March 11, 2013

Going to China: A Primer

I visited China on a two-week student trip way the heck back in 2005 and then lived in China from 2009 to 2012.  Having been both a visitor and a resident, I thought it would be easy and fun for me to put together a little primer to help you prepare for going to China.

First, a word about expectations.  Rather than thinking too much about what you think it will be like, just learn what you can about the country and then toss your expectations out the window.  They are probably at least partly wrong, and they will keep you from understanding the country as it is rather than as you expected it to be.  For example, if you come to Beijing expecting outright poverty, you may be primed to only see, photograph, and report on the homeless rather than noticing both the homeless and the Apple Store.

Preparing for a Visit

1)  Read at least an article or two on China in general; more if you have time.

2)  Make your itinerary.  China is still a fairly difficult place to travel independently without speaking the language.  Either join a tour group, rely on contacts in China, or make good use of forums on travel sites like  If you can, avoid tours that include only Westernized Chinese food and make you stop at zillions of overpriced souvenir galleries.

3)  Let your credit card and debit card companies know the dates you'll be abroad so they don't block your card when you use it in China.

4)  Learn these phrases:
  • ni hao (pronounced "nee how") = hello
  • xie xie (pronounced "shyeh shyeh") = thank you
  • zai jian (pronounced "dzai jee-en," first word rhymes with "eye") = goodbye
  • duo shao qian? (pronounced "dwo show chee-en") = How much does it cost?
  • bu yao (pronounced "boo yow") = "I don't want."
  • numbers one through ten
5)  Pack.  Less is more.  See the packing list at the end of this post for details.

6)  Stay up as much as possible the night before leaving.  This is an excellent time for packing and cleaning your home.  When you get on the plane, switch your watch to China time and sleep as much as possible.  When you arrive in China, do not sleep until at least 9:00 p.m.

7)  Enjoy your visit!

8)  Tips for a successful visit:
  • Lower your standards for cleanliness and efficiency, especially if you venture out past the Westernized hotels and tour buses.  If you don't like to "hurry up and wait," or if you'd rather not use a restroom with pee on the floor, or if hard beds bother you, it's OK.  But since you can't change these things, don't waste your time being annoyed by them or complaining about them.
  • Don't be afraid to try stuff.
  • Enjoy the cuisine -- they've been perfecting it for 5000 years!
  • Ask lots of questions, especially of locals.
  • Don't be obnoxious.
  • Bargain.  Try not to get ripped off, but don't let it bother you too much when you do.  Many times you can get a good idea of a seller's true rock-bottom price by walking away on a low offer and seeing if they call you back.  Even if you don't speak the language, you can bargain by writing down numbers or using the seller's calculator to display the price you're offering.
  • Enjoy normal, daily life things like going to a grocery store, walking through a city park, or attending a registered church service.

Several times in China I have watched American tourists pushing their hosts on some sensitive issue.  Once I was with an American who was questioning a Chinese translator about why there have been so many Chinese orphan girls.  She was trying to get the girl to say that they don't want the girls and so they are abandoned and end up in orphanages.  The translator looked really uncomfortable and kept trying to change the subject, but the American wouldn't let it go.  She wanted to be told she was right.

Another time, while I was in Beijing, some guys on a tour were asking the guide about some events that occurred there in 1989.  He acknowledged that they happened but, in spite of being a Beijing local, would say nothing more about it.  He kept saying, "I don't really know much about that" in response to any political question, but the tourists kept asking.

Here's my advice: If you have questions about anything sensitive in China, especially about politics, do your own reading and research.  Chinese people will be extremely reluctant to tell you anything that puts China in a bad light, and you will just create an awkward and uncomfortable situation if you press them about it.  It's possible you already know more about the topic than the Chinese person you're asking anyway.  So don't come to China trying to make some big point at the expense of a personal relationship with a Chinese guide or friend.

Alison's China Packing List

  • Passport
  • Money (+ Debit card for emergencies.  China is a cash-and-carry society.  You won’t use a credit card here except at larger tourist sites.  You can find ATMs at airports and in cities, but I usually just deal in cash when I travel.  Exchange rate as of summer 2012 was 6.3 RMB to the dollar)
  • Itinerary with hotel contact info, flight times and numbers, phone numbers of local contacts.

  • Mid-sized duffel or rolling suitcase (Alison's recommended maximum is 15kg; try for less.  International flights' weight limit is 50 pounds and domestic flights' weight limit is 20kg.)
  • Small backpack to take on day trips and hikes
  • If you plan to buy loads of souvenirs, pack an empty bag to take back to America.  Keep in mind you will probably have to pay to take an extra bag on the plane home.

  • Check the weather carefully.  Most places in China are hot and humid in the summer.  Bring sufficiently warm clothes and long underwear if traveling in the winter, since the northeast can get brutally cold and the south has no central heat.
  • I usually hand-wash my laundry when traveling in China to save money.  If you plan to do so, bring clothes that don't need a lot of care to look good.

  • Sturdy tennis shoes or hiking boots
  • A couple pairs of sandals/flip-flops

  • Hair, face, and tooth products
  • Contacts or other eye-care if needed
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
    • Take note:  Tampons, deodorant, and floss are very hard to find in China

  • Any prescriptions you are on
  • Ibuprofin or pain killer
  • Immodium (but don't use it indiscriminately; only if on a long bus trip or something)
  • A couple band-aids
    • Optional, only if you usually need them: Motion-sickness pills, Epi-pen, cold medications, etc.
    • You probably don't need to go overboard with vaccinations when coming to China, but you can make that call.
  • Student ID card (can often get discounts)
  • Copy of your passport and visa, to keep in a different place than your passport
  • Camera and charger; camera cord or card reader if you plan to upload photos while in Asia (Beware Internet café viruses)
  • Water bottle
  • Sunglasses
  • Earplugs
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Small gifts (recommended: a few bags of American chocolate or candy, postcards from your hometown) to give if you plan to spend time with locals

  • Cell phone and charger (only if your cell phone is SIM-card compatible and you plan to buy a SIM card and use it – one person in the group could do this). 
  • Plane entertainment (a book about China, perhaps?)
  • Bible, journal
  • Deck of cards
  • Neck pillow
  • Small towel? (depends on your hostels)
  • Money belt or passport holder (When I travel, I usually keep all my important documents and money in a small, shoulder-strap purse that I never lose.)
  • Chinese phrasebook
  • HK or China guidebook

Notes:  I don't think it's worth it to buy or bring an electricity converter for such a short time, so I just check the plugs on my appliances to see if they are dual voltage.  Most electronics (like phone chargers, computer chargers, and camera chargers) are good for 100-250V, so you can use them in both China and America.  You may want to get a little adapter to help your plugs fit into Asian plugs.

I also think using your American cell phone and paying international rates while in China is a little crazy, just because it's so expensive.  Make sure you carefully check the rates before doing any texting, data use, or calling on your American cell phone in China.  If you plan to be in China a month or more, just get a Chinese cell phone and use that. 

By far the majority of the people I know who have visited China have shopped too much, packed too much, and brought too much.  Don't buy a bunch of special stuff, and take comfort in the fact that the only true essentials are money, a passport, and a plan.  Anything else you forget you can probably just buy in China or live without.

Have a wonderful trip to China! 


  1. Thanks Alison,

    Read as I was preparing for a trip to China in May. I always enjoyed your blog. Glad to see you are back at it.

    1. Thanks. I wrote the post a long time ago and saw that I never published it, so I figured I might as well.

  2. A long time ago? Really! Before reading that, I guessed that you wrote it for Karen! :-)

  3. I only just now found this. Completely by accident. Quite helpful, given that I'm leaving for China in 5 1/2 days. Thanks! :)

  4. Hi Alison!
    First of all, congratulations for your blog, it´s wonderfull.
    I win a Scholarship for study at Qufu University next Semester.
    And I have a doubt.
    I have health problems with very hot weather, and I need to know in your experiency, where the weather is most hot, in Qufu or in Rizhao?
    The weather is very hot?What are de the wrost months? (I will stay from February to July, 2014)
    Thanks for all