10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to China

As I’m quickly realizing myself, moving or even just traveling to a new place is no small undertaking. For those of you traveling to the beautiful country of China, I’ve compiled a list of things I wish I knew before hopping on the plane. These are things I’ve learned while living in Southern China, so depending on which part of the country you go to my advice may or may not be helpful. Without any further ado, lets jump into the 10 things I wish I knew before going to China!

1. As I mentioned in my post, My First Month in China, bathrooms in China are very different from those in the U.S. Chinese toilets are called squatters, and as the name implies, you squat over them to do your business. That being said, the type of toilet you encounter can vary depending on what part of China you are travelling to, in Southern China expect to see squatters wherever you go (although sometimes you may be surprised with a Western toilet), but I’ve been told that in Northern China, Western toilets are much more common. Regardless of which kind of toilet you find yourself using, remember to throw your toilet paper away rather than flushing it, as most plumbing systems are not built to deal with TP.
Additionally, if you find yourself needing to use a public restroom make sure you bring your own toilet paper, hand sanitizer and/or soap, because these items will rarely ever be provided.

2. Like many other countries, foreigners are not encouraged to drink water straight from the tap, although China is unique in that the locals don’t drink the tap water either. The public water in China is widely believed to be unsafe, so natives will heat their water before drinking it for purification purposes, as well as preference. This means that at almost all restaurants you go to, the water you’re served will be hot. You can however typically find cold bottled water at most grocery or convenience stores, if you just can’t quite get into the whole hot water thing.

3. If you are anything but full Chinese, people will take pictures of you. Almost the entire population of China is made up of Chinese people, and in areas that tourists don’t usually frequent it is very rare to see a person of another race or ethnicity walking around. People often sneak pictures of my roommates and I as we’re walking around town, and we get asked to take photos with people at least once a day. The Chinese people are typically very nice, and are very excited to meet Americans and practice whatever English they know, so try your best to be open and friendly regardless of any existing language barriers.

4. Most popular social media websites are blocked in China, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, etc. due to the strict internet laws the government enforces. You can pass this firewall however by downloading a VPN (Virtual Private Network) app while still in the states, or wherever you’re coming from. A VPN can somehow connect your devices to private networks using public networks (don’t ask me how it works, I have no clue), and although the connection can sometimes be unreliable, it’s definitely better than nothing.

A few things to remember with VPN’s: there are many available on the app store, and some work better than others. I personally use Express VPN, and it works well for my needs and allows me to connect up to three devices at once for one set price. Secondly there’s the cost factor, as VPN service is not free. I pay on a month to month basis with Express VPN, and it turns out to be about $17 a month, but they do offer various plans depending on the duration of your stay, so make sure you do some research on which service will best fit your budget. Lastly, and perhaps most important, YOU MUST DOWNLOAD YOUR VPN BEFORE YOU COME TO CHINA. If you wait until you arrive, setting up your VPN will be very difficult, if not impossible as the VPN websites are blocked here.

5. Authentic Chinese food is very different from its American counterpart. You know what I’m talking about: Panda Express, that noodle house with the cheesy name down the street, yeah, it’s all a big, soy sauce saturated lie. Here in Southern China at least, orange chicken isn’t really a thing, and although you can find chow Mein, it’s not the most common dish. You’ll find yourself eating more rice than you’ve ever imagined, and eating a lot of bony chunks of meat, as the Chinese like to use the entire animal (and I do mean the ENTIRE animal. I’ve eaten enough pig skin and feet for two lifetimes, and I’ve only been here a month). Prawns, fish, clams, shredded potato, peppers and fresh fruit are also commonly on the menu.
American food can be very hard to find, but not impossible. KFC and McDonald’s are fairly common American restaurants here, followed by pizza hut, which might be the only pizza you’ll be able to find (I’m having withdrawals, please send Domino’s), considering many Chinese people are lactose intolerant, so items containing dairy are often left off the menu. I’ve also heard rumors of Subway’s and Taco Bell’s making appearances in various provinces, but I’ve never seen these with my own two eyes (even though I would pay a pretty penny for a crunch wrap and a baja blast right now).

6. When it comes to getting around in China, things can get a little dangerous. Firstly, pedestrians do not have the right of way ever, so even if the crosswalk light is telling you it’s safe to cross, cars will still come barreling your way. Most will slow down or stop, but it never hurts to walk quickly. Mopeds and motorbikes are very popular here, and they are also considered pedestrians, so make sure to watch your back on the sidewalks. As for the rules of the road, to my American eyes, there don’t really appear to be any. Cars will swerve in and out of lanes, and sometimes even straddle two lanes for extended periods of time. There are no road police to pull drivers over, and although the cars the Chinese drive are equipped with lane change indicators, they prefer to use their car horns to indicate when they’re coming up behind you or about to cut you off.

7. China is full of pungent smells, so be prepared. Depending on where you’re at, the air could smell of sewage or cooking food, but regardless of what it smells like it will smell strongly. The smell will also cling to your skin, hair, ad suitcases, so don’t be too offended if friends and relatives don’t want to give you a welcome home hug when you arrive at the airport.

8. Chinese laundry machines are very different from those in the U.S., they are simply buckets hooked up to a cold-water line, with a spinning wheel at the bottom. You dump your clothes in, turn on the water, pour in some soap and set the timer for 15 minutes, in which time the washer will spin, tangle, and stretch your clothes into oblivion, but hey, at least they smell a little better. Then you put your clothes into something called a spinner, which is actually pretty cool. It’s just a bucket that spins at high speeds for a short period of time to get all of the excess water out of your clothes. Once you have your damp clothes, you can hang them out to dry on your balcony as most people do, or if you’re lucky, you can put them into a heated wardrobe. The heated wardrobe is just that, a canvas wardrobe with hot air blowing up from a hole in the bottom. Using this method saves a little drying time, and ensures that your clothes will smell better (as they don’t have as much time to absorb the outside odors), and be less wrinkly. In short, leave your favorite wardrobe pieces at home.

9. Be prepared to see some baby butts. Children in China are allowed to run wild, naked and free until a certain age, so don’t be too alarmed if you see little kids going to the bathroom in the streets, just make an extra effort to avoid whatever they may leave behind.

10. It is inappropriate to sit on the ground in China. By this I mean any sidewalks, streets, or stairs that might look appealing when other seating isn’t available. The ground in China is considered to be very dirty, so even when a sidewalk or porch may appear neat and tidy, it is socially unacceptable to sit there. Chinese people will often squat rather than sit on the ground, and I prefer to stand because all of that squatting is just too much work.

So, there’s my list I hope you are able to find something useful in it. Remember that although these are things that would’ve been totally useful for me to know for my experience in China, your experience could be totally different, there’s no way to know until you get there.

Safe travels everyone!

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