When I was planning for my gap year a few years ago I was determined to go somewhere as different from the UK as possible, so I picked China to go and teach. Whilst Beijing had McDonalds and Starbucks and Subway, I was definitely right that it was going to feel ‘foreign’!
In fact, I was so right that I ended up with a little bit of culture shock. So, with lots of people heading off to China soon on the teaching internships, I thought I’d put together a little list of hints on how to prepare when travelling to China:
1. Remember the loo roll
Now, I’m not suggesting that you pack a jumbo pack of Andrex in your suitcase, but whatever you do, make sure you remember to take loo roll with you whenever you go anywhere in China – generally toilets out and about (even in a lot of bars and restaurants) will not have loo roll. It may sound like a pretty mundane thing to worry about, but it makes a big difference! It’s also worth getting used to squat loos and (deep breaths please) not having doors, or sometimes even partitions, on cubicles. Don’t worry, after the initial shock you will get over it – just remember, you’re the only one who’s embarrassed!
2. Learn the hand signals for numbers
Haggling is a way of life in China – you will come to know and love it! To help with this massively, you’ll need to know your numbers – but rather than learning how to say them (if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to pronounce them right!), you can learn the hand signals instead, which is a much easier way!
3. Don’t eat in restaurants with pictures of food on the menu
I reckon this is a universal rule of thumb for travelling generally, but is especially true of China. Restaurants with menus made up of pictures of their food (especially if they’re in tourist trap areas) are generally designed for fleecing foreigners with dodgy dishes. If you’re teaching, ask a colleague if they’d like to go out to dinner and ask them to order some dishes they think you’d like, then ask them to write down the names of the dishes you enjoy in Chinese in a notebook. Do this with a few people and not only will you get to know some of the people you’re working with, you’ll also have the workings of a good menu reader going on, when you go to a restaurant point to what you fancy in your notebook and odds on the chef will be able to rustle it up for you. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous you can just point to a few random things on the menu – worked for me.
4. Don’t be alarmed if people stop you in the street and chat to you
I got very unnerved when I first arrived in Beijing, as lots of people used to stop me in the street and chat to me in English, the conversation was usually exactly the same and involved the person in question asking for my phone number afterwards. This confused me for a few weeks, as none of the people I gave my number to ever called, until it turned out that this was an exercise English teachers often set their students, a little mission to chat to English people and get their phone numbers as proof. As I was living in a university I was a common target. So, chat to people if they strike up a conversation, they’re not trying to pick you up (most of the time anyway!)
5. Learn how to write Chinese characters
There’s no need to become a master at calligraphy, but it’s worth learning how to copy Chinese characters; and it makes things much easier when you’re asking for directions, getting a cab or buying train tickets to show someone a piece of paper with where you’re trying to get to written on it. It also solves pronunciation problems (see point 3), and makes it much easier for the person in question to gesticulate where you should be going or draw a little map if you’ve got a pen.
6. Don’t worry about the staring
No, you haven’t got something in your teeth, don’t panic. While staring is considered rude in Britain and the US, people in China don’t have such hang-ups. So, as something of a novelty (especially if you’re staying in a rural area that doesn’t have many Western visitors), you will find yourself the subject of quite a bit of attention. Try not to let it bother you, it’s not meant maliciously, so just smile.
7. Never turn down an invitation
If one thing shocked me about China compared to the UK, it’s how open and friendly everyone is: you’ll find lots of people wanting to take you out for meals, show you their city and generally make you feel as welcome as possible. I suppose this goes for everywhere in the world, but never turn down an invitation. I had an awesome time with everyone I met in Beijing, going shopping, eating out, being shown round different places in the city, and even ending up as a guest at a wedding. I can imagine if I’d turned down any of these invitations I would have had much less fun over there.
Hope that helps – any questions drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to help! Also if anyone else is travelling to China and has any tips, feel free to post them below!