12 Tips for Avoiding Culture Shock in China

April 22, 2013 by

Asia, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Culture shock is one thing that can really spoil many visitors’ experience of China. Looking beyond the giant malls complete with Louis Vuitton franchises, the cutesy rebuilt red lacquer teahouses, and the super-modern bullet trains, this is a nation of 1.6 billion people, the vast majority of whom still live traditional lives.

On that first sashay through an ultra-modern, enormous international airport that most likely put the one you flew from in the shade, these distances and differences can be hard to appreciate. But for most it doesn’t take long before the sheer alien-ness of Chinese culture begins to seep through the gaps.

Perhaps a defining moment of Chinese culture shock for me was emerging from a Subway sandwich shop (yes, they have those!), lunch in hand, wandering past a bunch of suited and booted young professionals, and encountering a barefoot fisherman dangling a turtle in a fishing net, presumably destined for the same fate as my foot-long sub.

The shock of the new, though, can be a pleasure as well as a pain, and culture shock is one of the reasons most of us travel: to experience the new. These twelve principles should help the novice navigate the maelstrom of this country’s craziness and avoid culture shock in China.

1. The concept of personal space is different in China

Crowded China

Crowds in China. Photo credit: Mike via Flickr.

If you come from a country where queuing is habitual and bodily contact with strangers uncommon, the surging hordes to be found in China’s huge cities – many cities that most Westerners have never heard of boast larger populations than London or New York – can prove intimidating.

Pushing and barging is routine, be it getting onto public transport or into an attraction, but – importantly – no one takes it personally. The Chinese will routinely switch their respect for the aged off when barging past them onto buses, and back on again when offering their seat with all due courtesy to the precise same greybeards they just ramraided through.

During rush hours you can expect to be intimate with strangers on the sidewalk and virtually enfolded in the bodies of those with whom you share public transport – as in most cities, it’s wise to keep a hand on any bags at this time.

Interestingly, there is a strong etiquette around elevators. While everyone pushes and shoves – let’s face it, it wouldn’t be China without that – it is essential to wait until your elevator is headed in the right direction (be that up or down) before boarding, or receive a wave of disapproving stares.

2. Tourist destinations breed tourist scams

Rickshaws in China

Avoid rickshaw taxis in China. Photo credit: Jirka Matousek via Flickr.

An exhaustive list of common tourist scams in China would be an article in itself. Probably the most famous are the tea scam, where a new friend invites you to drink tea, often, but not always, with some of their friends too. At the end of the evening a bill arrives, totaling at least hundreds, and possibly even thousands, of Chinese renmimbi – and, strangely enough, it’s all on you.

Also popular is the art scam, whereby some friendly art students invite you to look at their art, a simple trip that turns into an ultra-high-pressure sales environment. Charity scams, as in cities around the world, are common – monks requesting donations, in particular, are often fraudsters.

Other scams? Goods, such as toys, sold on the street are typically offcuts from a factory, which means that there is normally something critically wrong with every single one apart from the demonstration model. Fake notes can be either given in change, exchanged for notes given, or offered with a request for change – if a street vendor agrees to a negotiated price too fast, the fake note scam may be in play.

“Travel agencies” can be set up for a matter of weeks to harvest the cashflow from train and plane tickets, then closed as the complaints from stranded passengers begin to flow in. So only book tickets through official outlets, reputable agents or your hotel.

Other obvious scams? Don’t buy – and certainly don’t attempt to sell – jewels, don’t engage in games of chance with strangers, and avoid pedicab rides and rickshaws, which typically charge foreigners more than agreed at the end of the journey.

3. Mandarin is a direct language

Chinese does without many of the small “pleases”, “thank yous”, “woulds”, “coulds” and “mays” that English works with – it’s a language of sharp, dynamic building blocks that can assemble quite jaggedly in translation.

Someone saying “Go here now!” or “Buy now!” is not necessarily being rude. Most likely they are literally translating each Chinese building block into English.

Personal observations and questions are not uncommon in Chinese culture, be that an observation on one’s weight, one’s single status or enquiries about where you are going today. As a general rule, the interlocutor does not intend insult. They are just being friendly.

4. Traffic rules are different in China

Traffic in China

Traffic in China. Photo credit: Mike Lowell via Flickr.

Battery-powered scooters are a great way for the locals to get around China’s cities, and you’ll find them everywhere – even creeping up behind you, silent but deadly, on the sidewalk. The approach is typically inaudible and they can travel surprisingly fast, so it’s good to keep an eye open.

When crossing a road at a marked crossing, be aware that vehicles are often cleared green to turn across that crossing at the same time that pedestrians cross on their own green light. While most Chinese drivers will demonstrate some give and take, a pedestrian intersection is not the merry stroll it is in the West.

5. Chinese bathrooms can be vile

Public bathrooms, even in post-Olympics Beijing, let alone a rural area, can be actively distressing to the unprepared. Arguably the worst are the communal trenches, one for men and one for women, over which the locals squat sociably, engaged in conversation with each other or on their cells, although even in a luxury mall it is not unusual to find nasty surprises awaiting you in the squat.

Starbucks is prominent in China, and many Starbucks will have their own clean bathrooms, complete with Western-friendly thrones: Western-style hotels will also typically have a usable potty in the lobby area, while at a push, larger local restaurants will typically boast a clean squat.

6. The air quality in China will probably not kill you

Hazy sunset in China

Hazy sunset in China. Photo credit: Andrew Hitchcock via Flickr.

While the rich, soupy smog of a bad Beijing winter day can percolate down into the subway so densely that, but for the absence of heat, the place appears to be on fire, it’s worth noticing that the typical Beijinger lives longer than the typical New Yorker.

China’s poor air quality is famous, and for folk with allergies or a history of eye infections or lung problems, it is well worth bringing medications to China. Some of the locals also wear surgical masks, particularly in winter, though their efficacy has not been proven.

In general, it’s worth remembering that even an unsafe exposure is unlikely to shorten your life by much and trying to embrace the auroral glow that embraces the sun as it sinks below the smoggy horizon.

7. The Chinese love hot drinks

Teas in China

Various kinds of Chinese teas. Photo credit: Oli Lee via Flickr.

Want cold water in winter? You’ll need to specify it. Thanks to the principles of Chinese medicine – and good cold weather practice – the Chinese favor hot drinks in cold temperatures, which means hot water is the default outside summer, and a request for hot coffee may raise eyebrows in warm temperatures.

Most restaurants will offer a bewildering range of Chinese teas – the green teas favored in the south are harder to find in the north – so it’s worth finding out the Chinese name for the one you like.

8. Staring is acceptable

There are still parts of rural China where being a laowai (foreigner) is de facto unusual. Even in the bigger cities people of Afro-Caribbean heritage and redheads can expect to be stared at, while cute blonde children can expect to be reeled in for endless photos with smiling locals.

But in China, as in much of Asia, staring at people is not rude. It’s just a way of expressing curiosity. That means that you, in turn, can stare back as much as you would like.

9. Chinese food in China is different from Chinese food in the West

Food in China

Food in China. Photo credit: sanfamedia.com via Flickr.

One of the great joys of any visit to China is experiencing China’s vast range of regional cuisines. But Chinese food is not necessarily the bland, accessible fare we enjoy in the West.

Expect surprises, from the ubiquitous delicacy that is chicken claw through to the range of insects sold on tourist thoroughfares to alarming-sounding dishes like “Rotten-Smelling Fish” or “Hejian Style Belt Leather Donkey Meat”.

Unless you have good Chinese phrasebook or a guide, it is well worth heading to a place that has a picture menu – or, of course, a street side cooking joint where you can pick your favorite ingredients by pointing and watch them transform in the wok. Alternatively, find a common dish you like – jiaozi (dumplings) or Gong Pao (Kung Po) chicken are easy options – and order that when in doubt.

Learn more in the Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Food

10. Taking the train in China is a bit like catching a plane

Trains in China span the gamut from bullet trains which can whizz you in business-class style comfort from Beijing to Shenzhen at a steady 200mph – and they used to be faster – to aging Communist-era rattletraps with dormitory-style sleepers.

Either way, you will need to buy tickets in advance, either from the station or from an agent in the city center, and arrive at the train station at least half an hour before your train goes. Why? You’ll need to clear security (put your bags through the scanner), find your “gate” (a waiting room), show your tickets, and be cleared for passage when the gates open to the platform.

Like planes, the trains in China usually run on time, which can be disconcerting.

11. Chinese medicine is the norm, not the exception

Chinese medicine

Chinese medicine. Photo credit: Victoria Reay via Flickr.

Ah, how wildly exotic bunches of dried mushrooms and herbs seem at home. In China, they’re the medical norm, and at a hospital you’ll be offered the choice of Chinese medicine, Western medicine or, in a uniquely new China blend, the best of both.

Looking for a cold medicine that’s not based on, for example, earthworms? Head for a Western brand pharmacy, like Watson’s.

12. China takes time

Li River

Give China time, and you might be surprised by how much you love it. Photo credit: Bernt Rostad via Flickr.

China can feel strange, vast, intimidating, with an unnerving blend of Western capitalism and the alien exotica of the Far East. Give China time, and you will learn to love her. Race around this vast nation in a week of frantic flights? You may never come back. And if you don’t, then – we promise — you are missing out.

Ease the culture shock with a group tour of China. Book an 11 day tour of China or an 8 day private tour of Eastern China.

 - Theodora Sutcliffe

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2 Responses to “12 Tips for Avoiding Culture Shock in China”

  1. April Says:

    Great blog post, thanks! Parts of your post made me laugh! Especially the part where people staring is not rude. I kinda like that! It is human nature, after all. I have been in China in hot weather, and it is true- when you’re outside it’s not simple finding a cold drink! Unless you go into a restaurant… Good to freeze water and take it along with you.

  2. Juliann | Browsing the Atlas Says:

    I have now been to Beijing twice and can relate to everything you write. It’s a very different culture than mine (American), but I tried to immerse myself in it as much as I could and soak it all up. I’ll look forward to going back a third time.

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