Travelers may be surprised to find that English isn’t widely spoken in China, despite the impression in the West that everyone in here is furiously studying it. That impression is true to some extent – English is a requirement in high school curriculums across the country – but most people learn just enough to pass the test and then rarely use it again. Tour guides, hotel staff, and others who work with tourists on a regular basis are likely exceptions.
Due to the country’s vast discrepancy in wealth between the east coast and the interior, there is also a large gap in education. For this reason, in the big metropolitan cities on the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and even some second- and third-tier cities like Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi’an and Suzhou, English will be a lot more prevalent than it is in Tibet or rural Henan. In these places less-developed places, even the English of hospitality and restaurant staff will be zero to none. Don’t let the language barrier intimidate you, however, just be prepared to find alternate ways of expressing yourself. Which brings us to:
Don’t be shy about gesturing. When ordering from a menu or buying things in a store, don’t hesitate to simply point at what you want; no one will be offended. Likewise, don’t be afraid to use your fingers to show how many you want. You might feel a little silly, but it is a language everyone can understand.
It can’t hurt to learn a little Chinese. Even if you only learn a few phrases and numbers, your effort will be recognized and appreciated. Your basic Mandarin may not always get your point across, but it will always earn a little goodwill from whomever you’re interacting with (see pg 1,324 for an overview of basic Mandarin).
Download some helpful language apps. If you have a smart-phone, there are a number of apps that you can use to ease the language barrier. Some apps simply provide Chinese phrases on your phone that you can point to when instructing a taxi driver, or to alert a waitress of your food allergies. Others have cool tools like the ability to trace a Chinese character on the screen with your finger and get an instant English translation.
You may notice a different attitude toward transportation as soon as the wheels of your plane touch the ground and Chinese passengers leap from their seats, grab their luggage, and make a mad dash for the exit. When it comes to getting from point A to point B in this country, sometimes it seems like the only rule is that there are no rules. Read up on the following common situations:
Traffic lights and pedestrian signals are pretty much ignored. Unlike in the West, where a green “walk” sign reliably means that it’s safe to cross the street, in China all bets are off. No matter the color of the light, there’s bound to be a stream of vehicles – buses, trucks, vans, cars, motorcycles, bikes, electric scooters, and three-wheeled carts coming at you from pretty much every direction. The traffic is often so heavy that cars get trapped in the middle of an intersection after the light turns red, and you certainly can’t count on cars ever giving you the right-of-way. The only way to know when it’s safe to cross is to wait, watch carefully, and follow the locals when they go; there’s safety in numbers.
Flagging down a taxi can be tough. Using the nation’s capital as an example, there are 66,000 taxis roaming the streets, which seems like a lot, especially compared to New York’s 15,000. But when many of Beijing’s 20 million-plus residents are looking for a cab at the same time – during rush hour and on the weekends, or during bad weather – taxis can become scarce. You may get angry and start to assume that drivers are refusing to pick you up because you’re a foreigner, but this really isn’t the case (most of the time). Keep your cool – catching a cab is frustrating for everyone, and you’ll never really know why a cab passes you by. Even if you’re lucky enough to get one, it’s possible that the driver will refuse to take you where you want to go, for any number of reasons: it’s too close, it’s too far, he’s unsure of his ability to communicate with foreigners, he’s going the other direction, he’s about to end his shift, etc. Given Chinese megalopolises’ stubborn traffic and the efficiency of the subway system, it’s really better not to rely on a taxi to get you where you want to go, especially if you’re in a rush.
Honking! Honking! Honking! For drivers in China, honking isn’t a way of getting other drivers’ attention so much as a reflex, a constant announcement of “Hey, look! I’m driving!” The constant beep of horns can be annoying, but you’ll learn to tune it out after a few days. The good news is that honking has settled down a bit in larger cities, but in the smaller places, you should be prepared to have those eardrums rattling!
Every subway has a security checkpoint. Don’t let it frighten you: if you’re expecting an authoritarian Chinese government interrogation, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It can be jarring or annoying to have to put your bag through an X-ray scanner every time you board the subway since it’s not common in much of the West, but the checkpoint is quite simple and the security employees are usually friendly and laid-back. In all honesty, it’s all for saving face – a way to make the millions of citizens riding the metro feel safe and to show that “the government loves you and really cares about your safety.”
Any expat or foreign tourist will tell you that the Western concept of “space bubble” has zero weight here. Forget your personal space in this country. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of growing up in a country with 1.4 billion people, or maybe it’s China’s emphasis on a communal society with multiple generations often living under one roof – whatever it is, it means that you won’t have nearly as much personal space as you’re probably used to. On a crowded subway car, you can be pressed up against a stranger in a way that you wouldn’t expect until after a third date. An elevator will be crammed with twice as many people as it should safely fit. People passing you on the street will brush up against you and not acknowledge it. Try to take it in stride.
Cutting in line – if there is a line at all – is common. You probably haven’t thought about someone cutting you in line since kindergarten, but be prepared to battle it again during your visit. An orderly formal line is something you probably won’t encounter here. Assert yourself and don’t be afraid to stand very close behind the people in front of you – what might seem like a respectable distance to you is an opening to someone else.
You’re going to get a lot of curious looks and stares. Foreigners have become a common sight in China’s most international cities, but most places here are still very homogenous, and anyone who looks different will be an object of curiosity.
Look out for spitballs. Expect to see people spitting on the ground, even indoors, in big cities and rural zones alike. Often it can transcend mere spitting, becoming an elaborate hacking and coughing routine that produces a phlegm wad the size of a golf ball (heavy air pollution and high smoking rates may be partly to blame). Not everyone does it, but don’t be shocked when you do see (and hear) it.
Casual littering is accepted. Despite garbage cans and anti-littering posters, you will see garbage on the streets. It can be surprising to see a grown man unwrap a Snickers bar and let the wrapper fall to the ground. There’s simply a different set of expectations here, perhaps because of the orange-clad sanitation workers with brooms and dustpans scouring each block for trash. Despite having a multitude of sanitation workers ready to pick up your litter, we don’t suggest adding to the problem.
Regular conversation volume is much louder. After a few hours in China, you may start to wonder why everyone is yelling. It’s not your imagination. Former NBA superstar and Chinese native Yao Ming even coached his fellow countrymen to try to speak more softly in order to be good hosts during the Olympics. It’s hard to say why shout-talking is so prevalent here; some people tend to speak up to demonstrate authority, make a point, or simply to show energy and friendliness.
Food & Eating
You’re likely to encounter foods – or parts of animals – being served here that would be totally alien in your culture; think turtle soup, chicken feet, pig hooves, fish heads, and stinky tofu. Western culture is actually unique in its refusal to eat many animal parts, so either say a polite “no thank you” or give it a shot! 1.4 billion people can’t be too wrong.
Every region (and every province for that matter) has their own specialties. Whether it be spicy Chongqing hot pot, Uighur lamb kebabs, Tibetan yak butter tea, or a Taiwanese oyster omelet, Chinese food in China isn’t like Chinese food at home. If you come to China expecting to feast on General Tso’s Chicken, crab Rangoon, egg rolls, and fortune cookies, you’re in for a letdown. None of these dishes are common here, they’re mostly Americanized versions of Chinese food created by immigrants from southern China. There’s a huge and delicious variety of real Chinese food waiting for you, though, so don’t be disappointed.
Chinese restaurants can be crowded, noisy, and smoky. Depending on where you eat during your trip, you may encounter restaurants that aren’t exactly what you’re used to in terms of ambience: customers are often crowded around small tables and seated on stools, a TV might be blaring in the corner, people smoke heavily and ash their cigarettes on the floor, shouting to get the waiter or waitress’s attention is perfectly normal. None of these things mean the restaurant won’t be delicious – in fact, it might be a good sign that you’ve found a popular local spot.
All my drinks are warm! The Chinese believe that drinking too many cold beverages is unhealthy and throws your body out of balance. You might be frustrated to find that (almost) everything you order, including soda, juice, water and beer, arrives at your table lukewarm, or in the case of water, steaming hot. Try to have a “when in Rome” attitude about this one and remember that you shouldn’t consume ice anyway since it’s likely made from tap water. Alternatively after you mention the drink you can say "Bing da' (meaning cold).
You call this breakfast?! Breakfast varies from province to province, but a typical morning meal consists of hot rice porridge, deep-fried dough, hot soymilk and fluffy baozi meat dumplings. Coffee is becoming more popular, but is not reflexively served with breakfast the way it is in other countries. It can be had at cafes and coffee chains such as Starbucks and Pacific Coffee, but it’s relatively expensive in Chinese terms, usually costing upwards of ¥25 (about US$4).
Eating dogs and cats is acceptable in China. Well, yes, you may find dog and cat on the menu in China, but it’s much more common in very rural areas (especially in the south), not in large metropolitan cities (though that’s not to say it can’t be found). Protests and public outcry have increased, however, and the general opinion has started to turn against this ancient custom, especially when it comes to cats. As a tourist in China’s larger cities, you’re very unlikely to end up in a restaurant that serves either one of these common household pets, but if you’re in Guangdong or Guangxi, or the countryside, be careful, for cat and more commonly dog can be on the menu.
Out & About
There are many other shocking cultural tidbits that you’ll encounter while out on the streets in China. Listed here are just a few of them.
Many girls are carrying umbrellas, but it’s a sunny day. Maintaining very white skin is desirable among Chinese women, so they take sun protection very seriously. You’ll see plenty of girls carrying frilly and cutely-decorated umbrellas to stay in the shade, and you might start to want one yourself if you’re visiting in the height of summer.
Smoking is very common, and seems to be allowed everywhere. Smoking rates have fallen off in most Western countries, but in China, over 50% of men are smokers. (The rate for women is much lower, as in most societies.) And not only are there more smokers, they seem to have free reign to smoke indoors or outdoors and in restaurants, offices, elevators, hospitals,... you name it. A “no smoking” sign on the wall is no indication that the air will be smoke-free – it’s really just for decoration.
Chinese people may take your photo, or even ask to take a photo with you. You might start to feel like a celebrity after all the attention you’re getting. In some cases, you may be asked to pose with a stranger. These people are usually motivated by harmless curiosity and may just want a picture of themselves with foreigners to impress their friends.
Salesmen and scammers can be very aggressive with tourists. Everyone from fake handbag sellers to rickshaw drivers sees a tourist as a potential money-making opportunity, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself being constantly approached or followed by them in touristy areas. If you’re not interested, just keep walking and don’t make eye contact. A few choice Chinese words like bú yaò (don’t want) can be helpful as well.
It seems like everyone’s face is buried in a smart-phone. Personal computer ownership rates are much lower in China than in most Western countries, but most people in urban areas own some type of internet-enabled phone. When you consider that non-computer owners have to do all their email, gaming, and chatting on their phones, it makes sense. On top of that, instant-messaging programs called QQ and WeChat are massively popular in China, and many people remain logged in all day to keep in touch with friends. One study even showed that white-collar office workers in China spend an average of 6.72 hours a day on their phones. That may seem like a shocking number, but many people spend as much as three hours a day commuting back and forth to work (and unlike many subway systems elsewhere in the world, cell phones get reception even when you’re underground) so you can see how the time begins to add up.
Bargaining is the rule when shopping at markets. There are good deals to be had in China, on everything from DVDs to dresses, but you may have to bargain for them. Haggling might be unfamiliar to you and make you feel rude or cheap, but rest assured it’s expected here.
Websites like Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, Blogspot and YouTube are blocked in China. If you were expecting to keep in touch with family and friends on your Facebook account or your blog, you’re out of luck. Many common websites are inaccessible in China thanks to what some call the “Great Firewall” put up by the Chinese government. The list of blocked sites is long and ever-changing. You can use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) in China to get around the restrictions during your travels, but for most people it’s more practical to just close the computer and go see more of the country.
Nobody wants to tell you “no.” You might not notice this right away or at all, but it’s an aspect of Chinese culture that you should keep your eye out for, partly because it’s fascinating, and partly because it could save you a lot of headaches. Chinese people are often reluctant to tell someone “no” or to deliver disappointing news because to do so would mean a loss of face. Keep reading for more on the concept of “face” in China.